Telugu Cinema and the Image: Exploring the Potency of an Icon

V Vinay Kumar ( teaches reading and writing courses at The Language Centre in the School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University.
1 March 2022

In cinema, using an image that is not part of the story invites the audience’s minds to move and make connections that the film-maker is hinting at. This is an attempt at exploring the potency of an image and to elicit that using an iconic image to layer a story can open it up for multiple nuanced readings. Telugu films over the last three decades have added to the caste discourse very fleetingly and often halfheartedly. In a few exceptional situations, Telugu films have said something caste-conscious and it often tends to be outdated or tokenistic. When an image is placed or used correctly, the power or potency of the image can move people and their passions in ways only cinema is capable of. So juxtaposing Rudraveena (1988) which uses Gandhi’s image powerfully, with Palasa 1987 (2020) and Narappa (2021) that use Ambedkar, brings out a more complex layer to the storytelling.


Statues, busts, and paintings of Dalit and Adivasi leaders and icons in public space and spaces of power like police stations, courts, parliaments, and universities have been empowering for the Dalit and Adivasi communities. These statues did not show up naturally, they did not get put up because of public will or goodwill. They have emerged out of resistance, persistence, and a strong assertion of the need for representation. Yet these statues and busts have often been desecrated, disfigured, damaged and destroyed. The violence inflicted on these statues, busts, paintings is an effort to destroy the image to both desecrate the memory and suppress the public occupation of the Dalit and Adivasi. The Saharanpur Clashes offer an insight into the potency that rests in the political articulation of Dalit icons. The space and time that Mayawati occupied in the media and public articulation for her installing statues is an example of the potency of Dalit icons and images.


When a film tells the tales of the marginalised, it is an opportunity to “construct narratives” that offer a “new take” on the old to move towards new articulation (Hooks 1989). In films, the Dalit and the Adivasi have been exoticised and/or othered for the gaze of the savarna viewer/audience. Any other representation is outrageous and too far from the public image and understanding of a Dalit or Adivasi. An anti-caste narrative in films would have been the opportunity to retell stories of oppression or the oppressed that are critical or to take it beyond the prevalent anti-caste discourse. Savarna film-makers have rarely taken the opportunity to say anything powerful about the anti-caste discourse; they have been busy developing the savarna /Brahmin saviour troupe and framework. Often, they elude the caste or even an anti-caste discourse and instead rely largely on the potency of the Dalit icon.


The word “icon” has its origins in the Greek word “eikon” meaning image. A Dalit icon would be the face of the Dalit or the anti-caste movement or an image of an ideal Dalit. Based on geographical location, linguistic identity, cultural context and caste location, this icon could be Bhakti poets, Ambedkar, Birsa Munda, Gandhi, Savitribai Phule, Jyotirao Phule, Periyar, or even Savarkar. And using the photo or statue of Ambedkar or Gandhi in a police station or the courtroom triggers a set of emotions that years of social conditioning has offered people. This image carries the weight of all the social conditioning. On 19 February 2022, Bengaluru saw an alleged one and a half lakh people protesting on the streets for the suspension of a Karnataka district judge for objecting to placing the photo of Ambedkar at a flag hoisting. This protest is an example of the potency of the Dalit icon. Now the images of this protest carry the potency of the alleged one and a half lakh people who were at the protest.


Telugu films have over the last three decades used the caste discourse fleetingly. They havefocused on their Kamma or Kappu caste pride. They have actively perpetuated the caste pride of an oppressor caste without any sense of irony or reflection. Artists have managed to survive art practice without having to in any way self-reflect.  In a few exceptional situations, Telugu films have said something caste conscious. This consciousness is often recognised as tokenism and appreciated for starting a conversation or engaging with it. Limiting that as a tokenism has reduced further exploring the effects of it and extrapolating the other effects. This tokenism has never pushed any ideology, forced the audience to self-reflect, or pushed critics to look at their own biases. It has been busy delving into self-congratulating and hero-worshipping. They have in no way helped the cause except induce pity or sympathy towards (almost always savarna) actors playing Dalit characters.


K Balachander and Rudraveena


The Telugu cult classic film Rudraveena (1988) by K Balachander is a “social-message” film with a Brahmin man liberating classical music from the clutches of traditionalism. This popular Telugu film also has a caste liberation angle, with the Brahmin man falling in love and marrying a “Harijan” girl. The film also dwells around the Brahmin man taking upon himself to liberate the Dalits of their miseries by getting rid of alcohol. Music is a prominent plot device and every member of the household is a musician, except for the daughter-in-law and the hero’s mother who are told to have no musical talent or skills, and never given a chance to present the same either. The film has a simplistic approach—untouchability is bad, alcohol is bad, and traditionalists are good people who just need to be shown where they are wrong. It also very interestingly blames alcohol consumption for all the problems of the Dalits in the village. It goes as far as offering a “Ram Rajya” in the village that is happy, liberated and well-functioning without alcohol.


This film very poignantly ignores any role the caste system had in the oppression of the “Harijan” and leaves the crown to alcoholism. Thereby also blames Dalits for their situation and the Brahmin hero steps up and leads them out of the darkness. This is all context to establish that this film is not anti-caste discourse. This film is very deeply Gandhian. The language, the discourse and the ideology revolve around a man who is liberating the savage other and getting them on the righteous path. The film is also an excellent example of the use of a Gandhi statue and his portraits to invoke the senses of justice and equality.



Both screen grabs above are from scenes juxtapositioned very interestingly with the politics it was offering. The first screen grab is from a conversation between the daughter-in-law and the hero’s brother who has a speech impairment. The Brahmin household was in turbulence because the hero was late for a concert. He was late because he was helping put out a village on fire. More of a ghetto, a village might have been more admirable but they do not catch fires, only Dalit ghettos catch fire. This infuriates the father and leads to an altercation where the hero offers a justification, one of justice, human goodness and kindness.


The second screen grab is from a scene after the father finds out the hero’s courting a Harijan girl. He makes a comment about untouchability, she touches him and says, “I am touchable, see.” This leads to a bigger altercation and pushes the father and son further apart. The governor had to step in to reunite them. But in this scene, the couple is engaging in another conversation about the courtship. In both instances, the filmmakers employ the very likeable, motherly daughter-in-law to elucidate the events and normalise them. In both situations, the Gandhian ideology is invoked but never vocalised. Instead, the big black metal Gandhi stands tall to remind us of values playing out and offers a context. The power of the image is invoked and makes the politics of the film obvious.


Palasa 1978


In the film Palasa 1978 (2020), the potency of an iconic image strikes at the end of the film before the credits. The protagonist Mohan Rao surrenders himself at the Palasa police station for murdering upper-caste feudal lords of his village. Mohan Rao says that he did not kill those people for revenge or to avenge someone’s death; he killed them for his people. He walks into a cell, and there is a framed portrait of Ambedkar hanging on the wall next to the cell door



In Palasa 1978, inspector Sebastian is an educated, politically sound idealist and a believer of the law; his opposite is Mohan Rao, a violent thug, hot-headed, illiterate and passionate. They are opposites who aren’t supposed to see eye to eye, but they are united in their marginalisation and experiences of oppression. Sebastian convinces Mohan Rao to give up his violent ways and go underground and promises to get justice through the system; if he fails, he promised to take Mohan Rao’s path. Twenty years later, an old and teary-eyed Sebastian says he has given up and that justice might not be attainable. Mohan Rao responds by saying that there is a future with a just world where equality has been achieved, but they might not be alive for it. And our people will make it alive into that world only if I do what is required today.


Palasa 1978 does not glorify violence. It sees the story of a people beyond the violence, showing the vision of education and justice. Palasa 1978 does not merely narrate the resistance of Dalits but sings of it. It makes even those most unwilling to hear, listen to the song of resistance. (Maitreya 2020)


This juxtaposition of the Dalit man behind bars next to Ambedkar’s portrait is an attempt to stir the viewer. Ambedkar is the face of emancipation; he is the liberator of Dalits and the one who perpetuates the annihilation of caste. Putting a Dalit behind bars next to his smiling face is forcing the viewers to face a reality. The distance films offer viewers from reality is removed by invoking Ambedkar, and the juxtaposition is supposed to force the audience to ground it with reality.

Cinema has always successfully managed to captivate the audience and skillfully ensured they received all the propaganda allocated. When the medium took the audience for granted and efforts like this occasionally got people thinking it was powerful. These images play a larger role in storytelling by implanting themselves in the audience’s minds. This is also what item songs, sex, sexual acts, sexual violence and violence is used for on-screen. The minds of the audience would associate the graphic content and force them to make references or obvious deductions with the film. The intentions are very obvious often, and extrapolation can be easily made.


The use of an image to channel the potency of the icon onto the screen is a powerful artistic device. Repeated use of the same font style for opening credits across films and unique entry music are devices used similarly and have the same effect.




Then there are films like Narappa (2021), a remake of the Tamil anti-caste film Asuran (2019). The promise of the culture of dubbing films from Tamil to Telugu can be seen in actor Surya’s successful bilingual career. And this was promising to those remaking films from Tamil to Telugu, and vice versa. Venkatesh, who plays the protagonist in Narappa, has been in 14 films that were remade from other languages. He has benefited from the culture. Films usually retain the story as is from the source and not so often change it to make it more cultural.


The opening lines of the narrator simplified that the poor had no caste or religion and the rich always held onto humanity and goodwill. This is a very conscious effort to erase and ignore caste. The original film is based on the novel Vekkai by Poomani and incidents like the Dalit massacres Karamchedu (1985) and Kilvenmani (1968) (Teja 2021). The artistic choice of ignoring these identities is casteist.


The film could have been contexted easily in the Telugu states by including the feudal lord agitations. There have been numerous contexts of caste-based violence, murders, massacres and other acts of violence that were reported. A great potential to research and make it a solid anti-caste film like Asuran was lost when they made Narappa. The film has received a lot of criticism for its erasure of caste politics and offered a simplistic struggle between the rich and poor.


In Narappa, the protagonist’s wife Sunderamma asserts her rights over the use of an agricultural well, and an argument erupts between her and the men. In July 1985, Munnangi Suvartamma asserted her right over the use of a public tank and that triggered the fury of the Kamma landlords. They massacred six Dalit men and raped three Dalit women that night. In 1998, Daggubati Chenchu Ramaiah, a Kamma landlord, was killed by the People's War Group (PWG) for his alleged role in the massacre. Ironically, over three and a half decades later, Suresh Productions, which is owned by one of the Daggubati families in the Telugu film industry (Teja 2021).



The politics or the lack of it has slipped onto the screen by the film-makers and actors. In the film, there are two instances where you see a portrait of Ambedkar prominently hanging on the wall. The first screen grab is set in a collector’s office where a lawyer is asking the collector to negotiate the issue of Dalits who have lost their lands to the landlords. The second screengrab is from a police station, and an older Narappa has arrived with his wife and brother-in-law asking to help them find justice for their son who was murdered. In both instances, Ambedkar’s image is supposed to raise a caste consciousness that was actively erased in the film.


These instances in Narappa are very different from the way Ambedkar’s portrait was used in Palasa 1987 or Gandhi’s statue was used in Rudraveena. The film in many places tries to subvert caste consciousness and underplays it and simultaneously invoking it at junctures to play on the emotions of the scene. The film-makers are in this juncture baiting the audience with the ploy of caste consciousness. This ploy employed by the film-maker is similar to the marketing technique queerbaiting that only hints at a queer angle but does not engage with any display of queerness or the politics of being queer. It wholly relies on the performativity of plausible queer. Similarly, Narappa treads on this show or performance of caste, without any actual engagement or subversion of caste. There is no liberation or annihilation of caste that’s offered.


The film uses the portraits of Ambedkar but does not invoke the potency of the image. The image here is used uncritically; it doesn’t claim or invite further examination. It has been placed for the caste conscious gaze of the viewer. It hopes to compensate for the lack of spine and downplaying caste across a charged film about caste. This poor use of a powerful icon is sacrilege. It is equivalent to the destruction or disfiguring of a statue.


The desecration, destruction and disfiguring of monuments and statues have been human behaviour can be traced back to many centuries. In the 4th and 5th centuries, heads of pagan gods were publically dismembered, smashed or burned to show pagans their gods had no power. This wasn’t an everyday behaviour but a reaction to incitement from radical groups occasionally (Connor 2019). Similarly, this act of violence and destruction of images of Dalit and Adivasi leaders is an effort to take away the assertion and power they occupy and provide. The poor use and misuse of Dalit icons and their images in films is a conscious misuse and an act to take away the power they wield.


When film-makers poorly or inappropriately represent caste, the anti-caste movement or the Dalit experience in their work, and staple a photo or stick a statue of a Dalit icon (of their preference) to lazily hint at caste, they are desecrating the image. The potency of the image or the icon gets diluted in society. The film Rudraveena tapped in and furthered the potency of Gandhi as a Dalit icon, while Narappa, diluted the potency of Ambedkar as an icon, simplified the anti-caste movement, and reduced the Dalit experience to a class experience, and Palasa 1978 magnifies the potency of the image with its interesting use of the Dalit icon.

V Vinay Kumar ( teaches reading and writing courses at The Language Centre in the School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University.
1 March 2022