Pushpa: The Rise: Circulation of Marginal Hypermasculinity

(deepthikrishnacsd@gmail.com; deepthi.krishna054@gmail.com) Project Fellow, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.
2 September 2022

Telugu cinema's presence in India has become ubiquitous with dubbing and remaking of Telugu films in all regional language film industries. It has been established that, in India, youth use film and its stars as aspirations of ideal practice and performance of masculinity and femininity. The recent Telugu film Pushpa: The Rise featuring one of the Tollywood superstars, Allu Arjun, has been the most popular film since the end of the last year. With the rising popularity of the film's male lead, this paper examines the particularities of Tollywood masculinity in the figure of Pushpa. The paper attempts to unravel the marginal masculinities of Pushpa to fight marginalisation. Moreover, the paper also tries to understand whether his struggles establish an alternative to hegemonic masculinity. The paper also charts the representation of femininity in relation to masculinity.

Telugu film industry is the largest film industry in 2021, with its revenue at Rs 1,070 crore (Hemachandran 2022) despite the pandemic that saw widespread lockdowns and slow audience attendance at the theatres. While Bollywood's revenue for 2021 is Rs 760 crore, the Tamil film industry is closely trailing behind with Rs 700 crore revenue. The country’s cinephiles and popular culture audiences are noticing the rising south film industry in the country where Bollywood was considered the only biggest film industry with its wider reach to the pan-Indian audience. The influence of Telugu cinemas in the north has steadily increased as Hindi channels played Hindi-dubbed Telugu films; the dubbing rights are priced somewhere between Rs 30–50 crore now  (Bhopatkar 2021). North Indian television audience is familiar with the Telugu cinema stars like Junior NTR, Allu Arjun, Mahesh Babu and Ram Charan Teja, among others. Bahubali had cemented that reach when its second part made a whopping Rs 1,700 crore worldwide. At the end of 2021, just 14 days after its release, Pushpa: The Rise, directed by Sukumar and starring Allu Arjun, surpassed all box office collections of all top box office films from various film industries in India. Apart from commercial success, the influence on the cultural zeitgeist is unmissable and requires academic scrutiny. Instagram reels and YouTube shorts (short 30 seconds to 1-minute videos which replaced the Tik Tok social media app) are now dominated by people from different parts of the country and outside, ranging from everyday people to cricketers emulating Arjun, dances, and scenes from the film.
In their ethnographic research on masculinities, many scholars discuss the influence of popular culture on the youth, which prescribes ideal masculinity and femininity (Osella and Osella 2006; Lakshman 2004). For male youth, the film stars act as an "instructional manual'  (Thompson and Bennett 2017) where youth perform the identities spontaneously, which varies in each instance (Osella and Osella 2006). Big-budget and, to some extent, medium- to small-budget Telugu films invest heavily in the male stars and display a trope of masculinity with minor variations in each film. Telugu films, technically and commercially, have made considerable strides but leave much to be desired regarding how masculinities and femininities are woven into the narrative. The analysis of masculinity in this film is significant as the permeability of Indian cinema in every aspect of our lives is uniquely Indian, which applies to everchanging identities (Osella and Osella 2006).

Thaggede Le (I Will Never Back/Slow down)
Arjun plays the eponymous hero of the film. His punch dialogue, delivered with his hand stroking his beard across the underside of his chin, is Pushpa… Pushpa Raj! Thaggede Le! which determines his character arc. Punch dialogues in films fulfil the function of describing the character's dominant personality; hence, the film Pushpa: The Rise shows the rise of the hero who never backs down or slows down. Pushpa is a two-part film series like Bahubali and KGF. Like the films Bahubali and KGF, this film also shows the hero's epic rise from humble backgrounds and against all odds. Pushpa is a daily wage labourer who starts from earning Rs 100 a day to becoming the godfather, as it were, of red sanders smuggling from Eastern Ghats of Chittoor district.
In the film, his body comes into sharp focus in the performance of masculinity. Him being a daily wage labourer and the bastard of an influential, well-respected upper-caste person in the village provides new dimensions to his masculinity. The mother’s caste is never specified, but his step-brother calls him a sankara jaathi (hybrid caste)—a derogatory term for persons born of a union between different castes, especially to parents belonging to an upper caste and a lower caste. This tacit indication of his caste status also brings his embodied masculinity to the foreground. Whether toiling in the forests felling trees, fighting off police and goons, and getting beaten up in the police station and his bosses, his body becomes the site of contestation of masculinities and its powers. The hard labouring body and the labour-intensive, caste-based occupation brings in the notion of purity and contamination associated with their bodies and their mere presence. The trauma of bastardisation is seen on his body, in his lopsided shoulder that forms during his early childhood after his father's death and the ostracisation he faced when he was forced to remove his surname from the school records by his step-brothers. His name Pushpa is considered a feminine name. The class, caste, societal status as a bastard and deformity form the repertoire of marginal masculinities. These marginalised masculinities are not manly enough for the hegemonic dominant masculinity invoked by hetero Hindu upper-caste masculinity.
The film succeeds in showing the marginalities and their deprivation in myriad forms. Borrowing from the conceptualisation of disabled masculinities by James Staples (2011), the performance of any marginal masculinities comes to the fore at intersections, which means that men perform masculinities in encounters with others (from different backgrounds), significantly more for men (in-group and out-group) rather than women. Pushpa fights these marginalities by rebelling against the dominant caste, class hierarchies, and oppressive state apparatus. The film shows how the laws and its enactors are anti-poor and constantly criminalise the poor, while the wealthy lawbreakers are protected by the same law enforcers and have the means to evade the law. The first instance of micro rebellion is when Pushpa is working as a daily wage labourer in a mill, and sits on a chair in a comfortable cross-legged position, having tea after a hard day's work. As the mill owner walks in, Pushpa is admonished by the mill manager about his body language in the presence of the mill owner, which is an assertion in a space that does not belong to him (see Figure 1). He responds, “This is my leg, and this is also my leg. I put my leg on my other leg. Did I put it on the owner or what? Does he want me to work or give him respect?”

Figure 1: Pushpa Sitting Cross-legged.
Source: Mythri Movie Makers.

His refusal to treat his employers and law enforcers as his overlords and his strong-headedness to keep fighting for his work makes him conspicuous in dangerous ways right from the start. After illegally felling the red sanders trees, other workers try to flee when the police arrive. He devises a way to save their loot from the police. He works above the state’s imposed moral binaries in the form of laws and penal codes. The state laws are punitive towards poverty and lower classes. In a song, he sings, kaale kadupu soodadhuro..neethi nyayam (a starving stomach does not see … ethics and justice). The delegitimisation of his class and caste status after his father’s death is shown as the driving force of his motto, “thaggede le,” to reclaim that lost status. For heteronormative dominant (Hindu upper-caste) masculinity to thrive, other masculinities should be in service or accommodative of it. The appropriation of their masculinities by lower classes and castes is seen as a threat to the power hierarchy and dealt with as such. Gender Role Conflict  (GRC) [1] discusses the adverse effects of restrictive or rigid gender roles on individual choices, freedom, and potential as one of its main components. Of the three gender role experiences of GRC (devaluations, restrictions, and violations), the most crucial one is violations that lead one to harm others or oneself and men were found to actively engage in the above phenomena directed towards others (O’Neil et al 2017). In many instances of Pushpa’s rebellion and performing hegemonic masculinity, he is called coolie-na-kodaka (literal translation “son of a labourer,” another derogatory word used as a casteist slur) and reminded of his lack of surname. Many instances of caste violence against the lower castes in India occur due to asserting their rights, claiming their spaces (physical and intangible) and masquerading masculinity restricted to the upper castes.
Pushpa finds himself on the top using a similar masculine language, oppressive and violent. Martyn Rogers (2008) study on college-going Dalit men found that they perform hypermasculinity [2] as a reaction to the insecurities and marginalisation they face. The possibility of the first homosocial relationship of Pushpa with Keshava is defeated when he is restricted to the role of man Friday and a sidekick. Instead of using the marginal masculinities that he is afforded to break down the stereotypical representation of hypermasculinity and create empowering and inclusive masculinity, the film offers the same old tropes of hypermasculinity for the audience. These dominant masculinities are flawed, and there is always a wrest for power when, in the end, Pushpa faces off with police officer Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat, who is equally hypermasculine. Though the performative masculinities of both men are similar, Pushpa’s dominant masculinity is benevolent, whereas Bhanwar Singh is the symbol of toxic masculinity. Any exploration of masculinity stems from the study of femininity, and the primary representation of femininity is Pushpa’s mother and love interest.

Motherhood and Sex Symbols
In Sukumar’s previous film, Rangasthalam (2018), the main lead, Chitti babu (played by another prominent star Ramcharan Tej), like Pushpa, is from the lower class, is prone to violence and does not have a deformity but is disabled (hard of hearing). The women are shown with more agency and intelligence than the men. For Pushpa, both the femininities of the mother and the lover (Srivalli) are necessary to perform his masculinity. However, both the femininities are in service of his. Both the femininities are at the opposite end of the spectrum but fulfil the same purpose to elevate Pushpa. One is sacrificial, and the other is sexual, but both are depicted as passive. The mother and the lover in the film can have agency, but they depend on Pushpa.
When Srivalli is threatened by Jalli Reddy (one of the brothers who manage the red sanders smuggling in their area of forests) to exchange sexual favours for his father’s life, she goes to Pushpa to offer herself to him. She professes her love to him while she tidies up his house and folds his clothes; in her sexual agency lies servitude to the overpowering masculinity of Pushpa. Their love story starts transactional when Puspha's sidekick Keshava offers money to her and her friends to look and smile at Pushpa. When Srivalli tells him this, he tells Keshava that he is not like Jalli Reddy in extracting sexual favours from unwilling women. Nevertheless, this awareness is hollow as Pushpa asks Keshava to offer her Rs 5,000 for a kiss. Pushpa and Jalli Reddy's proposition to Srivalli for sexual favours is the same. Pushpa lets her go when she cries and refuses to kiss him, but Jalli Reddy, a villain, will not let her go. It is left to women to choose the person with less problematic masculinity and not men who need to be accountable.
The ideal motherhood in Indian popular cinema across the regional cinemas and Bollywood stands in contrast to the hero’s masculinity. The ideal motherhood is generally that of the hero’s mother, who is self-abnegating, patient, sacrificial, struggling, demure and loving. The insults and daily struggle as an unwed mother and the slanders of being a mistress of a wealthy upper-caste man are subsumed under insult to the manhood of Pushpa. The slights against Parvathamma (mother of Pushpa) are his to bear, for the hegemonic masculinity rooted in caste makes women boundary markers of honour. In the case of Srivalli and his mother, the inability to protect the "honour" of a woman belonging to a group or a man is seen as a slight to the "honour" of the men of the group or the man (Rogers 2008). His mother apologises to Pushpa for choosing "love" over family honour. The marginalised masculinities are also intersubjective that come into focus at social institutions such as marriage (Staples 2011). As a reaction to the humiliation he faces at Srivalli’s house over his marriage proposal, he pushes to replace Mangalam Srinu as the Syndicate head and sells directly to the client.

Gita Ranjan (2006) notes that the "scopic regimes"[3]  determine the limits of rearrangement of masculinities in cinema with the variables of creativity and "cinephilia."[4]  However, another dimension is to be undertaken within the limits of rearrangement of masculinities in scopic regimes, which might be unique to Tollywood. The Telugu film industry is dominated by upper castes with land and political capital and now, control of cultural capital. The film-makers coming from those backgrounds sometimes offer alternative masculinities to reinforce the same hypermasculinity. It has been discussed how films are important among youth to masquerade certain masculinities. In general, cinema offers young and low-class men a space to seek homosociality and perform "competitive and exaggerated masculinities" (Osella and Osella 2006). The film Pushpa with a protagonist from a marginal socio-economic group, offers more relatability and identification for the same men. In the efforts to legitimise his status in the restrictive, devaluing, and violative masculinities of surveilling and pervasive patriarchy, Pushpa is not aware of other alternatives but to imbibe and aspire to the same performance of hypermasculinity. Hegemonic masculinity that seeks to maintain the status quo of male domination is harmful to men. It constantly rearranges the requirements of that masculinity with time and as and when the situation changes. This hypermasculinity is circulated via popular culture among youth from which they enact and validate their desires and identities. We must await the second film to see the resolution of that hypermasculinity of Pushpa, whether it is invalidated or legitimised, and also whether Sukumar gives more agency to the women (Srivalli and Parvathamma) in the second part.

(deepthikrishnacsd@gmail.com; deepthi.krishna054@gmail.com) Project Fellow, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.
2 September 2022