[Content Note: this post contains discussion of rape]
In my experience, Indian cinema tends to be really hero-centric. Although this is starting to change in Bollywood, it still holds true in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, where the overwhelming majority of mainstream films are built around and designed to showcase the hero’s persona. Occasionally, however, heroine-centric films do appear. Two of these that I’ve seen are Mysamma IPS (2007) and Arundhati (2009), and what these two films have in common suggests an implicit message about what is (or should be) considered most important to women.
Mysamma IPS is a decidedly B-movie starring the popular ‘item girl’ Mumaith Khan. In the movie, Mumaith plays Mysamma, a police officer in Hyderabad who turns into a pleather-clad vigilante to dispense with those who have committed sexual assaults and rapes but have evaded conventional justice. She also has a long-term plan to destroy a corrupt politician, played by Sayaji Shinde, who was once married to Mysamma’s beloved older sister, but prostituted her for his own political gain, then attempted to sexually assault the young Mysamma, and caused the sister’s gruesome death. Mysamma is brutally beaten and tortured by the politician’s henchmen, and buried alive. Following a rousing temple song that links Mysamma the police officer with the goddess Maisamma, Mysamma punches her way out of her grave and defeats the politician and his henchmen in a fight scene with so much fake blood and bad special effects that it descends – or maybe ascends – into Monty Python territory.
The other heroine-centric film I’ve seen is Arundhati, starring Anushka Shetty. This movie is more mainstream than Mysamma IPS, and is in fact one of the highest grossing Telugu films of all time. In it, Anushka plays Arundhati, who discovers on the eve of her wedding that she is the reincarnation of her great-grandmother Arundhati (also called Jejamma), daughter of the Raja of Gadwal. Jejamma’s brother-in-law Pasupathi, played by Sonu Sood, raped and killed her dance instructor, and as a result her sister committed suicide, so Jejamma ordered him beaten and dragged out of the kingdom by a horse. However, Pasupathi does not die but is found by a group of aghoras from whom he learns dark magic, and he returns on the eve of Jejamma’s wedding to get his revenge by raping and killing her. Jejamma manages to trap Pasupathi and has him entombed alive and restrained by protective spells. Jejamma then goes looking for a way to finally defeat Pasupathi and learns that she must be reborn before she can achieve this, so she submits to a grusome death. In the present, Pasupathi has managed to escape his tomb and is attempting to get his revenge on Arundhati/Jejamma by – you guessed it – raping and killing her. Arundhati discovers that a dagger was made out of her great-grandmother’s bones and, soaking it in her own blood to activate its powers, she uses it to finally kill Pasupathi.
What strikes me about these two movies, in addition to the fact that they both have heroines motivated in part by the death of a beloved older sister, is that in both of them the villain is a rapist. Telugu movie villains are frequently shown mistreating women, but it tends to be presented as just another aspect of their badness. However, in Mysamma IPS and Arundhati rape is the ‘Big Bad’. Mysamma IPS could have just as easily been a movie about a vigilante fighting against corrupt politicians. Arundhati could have just as easily been a movie about a princess fighting against an evil prince who wants to usurp her throne. But they weren’t. Personally, I find it interesting to think about the message that is implied by these movies as a result, about what is seen as important to men (social justice, political power) versus what is seen as important to women (sexual gatekeeping).
In these movies rape is presented as the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman – there is no surviving it, there is no recovery from it. In fact, Pasupathi taunts Arundhati with this very thing, saying to her, “A woman considers chastity more than her life, right?” (Eerily similar to something Raj tells Simran in the first half of DDLJ, but let’s not go there today). It’s not that I’m not happy to see heroine-centric Telugu movies, especially movies where the heroine’s role is action-oriented, because I am. I’ll just be happier when the movies are about, as I mentioned, a female police officer who turns vigilante to take down corrupt politicians, or a princess who battles against an evil male relative who is trying to usurp her throne – because those movies will reflect that issues such as social justice or political power are just as important to women as they are to men, and that a woman’s area of concern goes beyond mere sexual gatekeeping.