From Representing Gods to Representing the Telugu People
From Representing Gods to Representing the Telugu People
N.T. Rama Rao, Mythologicals, and Populism
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the film and political career of N.T. Rama Rao to discuss the ways in which the mythological film was central to the emergence of the male star into the position of a populist leader, one who appears capable of representing the interests of the Telugu people. Through the mythological and the socio-fantasy genres, NTR emerges both as the embodiment of Telugu heritage as well as the pre-eminent modern citizen–subject. In this chapter, I draw upon Ernesto Laclau’s idea of populist reason as well as recent anthropological work on affect to think through the relation between politics and affect and also to point to the fact that there are spill-overs between the fields of politics, popular entertainment, and religion which need our critical attention.
By privileging rationality, both the aggregative and deliberative perspectives [of democracy] leave aside a central element which is the crucial role played by passions and affects in securing allegiance to democratic values….The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility-maximizing agents or rational subjects. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make agency possible. What is precluded in these rationalistic approaches is the very question of what are the conditions of existence of a democratic subject.
—Mouffe (2000: 95)
Politics came to be practised increasingly in the vernacular—in two senses. Literally much of political discourse was carried on in the vernacular, in contrast to the first decades when English was the mandatory language of high politics. But more significantly, after the 1970s, the political imagination of major social groups came to be shaped by a kind of conceptual vernacular as well, used by politicians who did not have the conventional education through the medium of (p.44) English and whose political thinking was not determined by their knowledge of European historical precedents.
—Kaviraj (2010: 226)
The career of the popular Telugu film star Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (1923–96), who in the latter part of his career turned into a successful politician, presents us with an interesting instance with which to (re)think the relationship between religion, politics, and cinema. In his long and successful film career that began in 1949, NTR, as he is popularly known, distinguished himself particularly as a mythological actor par excellence through his portrayal of varied mythic characters—both divine godly characters like Rama and Krishna, and violent, demonic ones like Ravana and Duryodhana. In 1982, towards the end of his career, NTR set up a political party called the Telugu Desam (Telugu Nation), and within a short period of nine months won the state elections to become the first non-Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. This meteoric rise of NTR in the world of politics was initially viewed as a puzzling phenomenon by social and political theorists of all hues. Most explanations, both journalistic and academic, pointed to the popularity of his mythological roles and argued that it was the ‘religiosity’ and ‘credulity’ of the common people that led them to ascribe divinity to him, and therefore, support his party. The mythological determinism of this approach is premised on two mistaken assumptions—one, a simplistic notion of the mythological genre as presenting images of gods to be revered, and two, belief in the naiveté of the audience which cannot distinguish the actor from the roles of the gods and heroes he plays.1
Arguing against such reductive claims, writings by M. Madhava Prasad (2004) and S.V. Srinivas (2006) sought to demonstrate the significance of the larger context of South Indian cinema and politics within which NTR emerges as a star who can legitimately claim to (p.45) represent the Telugu nation.2 Both drew attention to NTR’s roles in social melodramas in an effort to shift focus away from the mythological films. Both theorists provided new frameworks for examining the cinema–politics link, and as will become evident, I am indebted to their rich insights in formulating my own arguments. At the same time, in these initial analyses, the question regarding the Telugu mythological remained inadequately addressed in both their works. Therefore, in my own earlier inquiry into this subject, I argued that we need to produce an account of the ways in which NTR was shaped by the mythological as well as the ways in which he tried to shape it, first as an actor, and later as a director (Bhrugubanda 2011). I also argued that we need to examine the particular ways in which NTR sought to literally embody Telugu–Hindu history, tradition, and myth, both through his physical appearance on screen and his voice. This might enable us to see ways in which popular cinema reworks what we understand by ‘religion’ and ‘tradition/heritage’ to produce and authorize particular kinds of subjectivities which can emerge as political and representative.
As Mouffe, cited earlier, urges, we need to rethink our earlier conceptions of who is the proper subject of democracy. People emerge as political subjects not simply as autonomous, secular, and rational agents, but in and through particular historical and sociocultural contexts. The particular configurations that emerge between the fields that we heuristically separate as religious, social, political, and cultural cannot be predicted in advance, nor can they be pre-judged by a normative model of modernity that decrees a strict separation between them. The dynamics of the mass-mediated publics created by cinema and religion in the functioning of democracy needs to be explored. Therefore, an open-ended inquiry might help us understand the significant place that popular cinema and popular religion should occupy in any genealogical account of secular modernity and democracy in India.
A contingent, even if complex, articulation between religion, cinema, and politics has emerged in the history of South India, more particularly Andhra Pradesh. South Indian film stars and their involvement in politics is a unique phenomenon that needs to be understood on its own terms. Two film stars, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) from Tamil Nadu and NTR from Andhra Pradesh, have gone on to become chief ministers of their respective states, while Raj Kumar in Karnataka, although never involved in electoral politics, remained an authority figure in the state as a true representative of Kannada identity.3 This phenomenon, Prasad argued, is not simply about the infusion of star charisma into electoral politics which might be found in many places in the world; rather, it is a manifestation of a more complex link between cinema and politics that is historically specific to the South Indian case. He names it ‘cine-politics’ (Prasad 2004).
Prasad proceeds to provide a detailed and complex account of the early history of South Indian cinema, where he charts the coming of sound, and the growth of regional language cinemas. Crucial to his account is the rise of the male star from the 1950s onwards. Until the late 1940s, female stars occupied a dominant (p.47) position, both in the film narratives and in the industry. Prasad puts forward the interesting argument that during colonial rule, ‘the overarching power of the colonizer rendered difficult the ideological conception of a coherent patriarchal authority internal to the society’ (Prasad 2004: 108). With the formation of the Indian Republic in 1950, however, a reconstitution of authority became necessary. As a result, Prasad concludes:
The long-drawn process of a restructuring of the dominant narrative form which installs a new patriarchal order as the moral–legal framework within which narratives unfold is the background against which we must plot the rise to importance of male stars, whose image henceforth includes not only glamour and beauty but also the authority of a patriarchal figure. Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the paternal relation that these heroes often have with the heroines. At the height of their career as star-representatives of the linguistic community, these stars cannot indulge in romance without maintaining as a supplementary feature of their subjectivity, a paternal function which extends to all characters in the film, including the heroine. (Prasad 2004: 108)
These are extremely significant remarks, and I think they can be fruitfully extended to think about the mythological genre as well. I shall be taking up these for discussion presently. At the moment, let me turn to the theory Prasad offers to understand the cinema–politics link. He refers to Marx’s analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire, where Marx argues that the rise of Louis Bonaparte to power becomes possible due to the collapse of the two orders of representation into one—the political representation (vertreten) behaves like aesthetic representation (darstellung), and the French peasants come to accept him as their leader. Prasad explains this phenomenon in the following terms:
Sometimes political representation is not effected through acts of election or delegation, but through substitution, i.e. through the unexpected arrival of a figure who seems to be already endowed with the legitimacy to represent us. In such instances, the figure of representation as substitution has the added dimension of darstellen or aesthetic representation. The two orders of representation, in other words, collapse into one. (Prasad 2004: 109) (p.48)
Therefore, in the case of each of the three stars Prasad identifies—MGR, NTR, and Raj Kumar—their representative status on the cinema screen collapses into a representative status in the political arena, whereby they are ‘recognized’ as true and legitimate leaders of their respective linguistic communities/states. However, what is the specific role played by mythological films in this process, more so in the case of NTR?
It is indeed true, as Prasad states, that numerically speaking, NTR’s socials far outnumber his mythologicals. However, there is a definite negotiation of the questions of authority and legitimacy even in the mythologicals. Puranic characters like Rama and Krishna, and the conversations around ethics in the epics, remained a matter of lively debate, discussion, and contestation in the Telugu social and cultural sphere well into the 1970s and beyond too—they were not remote figures whose memories had faded in the secularized public sphere. Therefore, the mythologicals gave NTR readily recognizable traditional icons, such as Krishna, Duryodhana, Karna, Ravana, and so on, to invoke once he staked claim to political representation. Moreover, Prasad himself agrees that unlike other South Indian stars, MGR and Raj Kumar, who did not act in mythologicals, NTR was particularly associated with mythologicals, even outside the state. Therefore, we can ignore these films and the role they played in conferring legitimacy upon NTR as a representative of the Telugu people only at the risk of reinforcing the simplistic association of the mythological with pure religiosity, and further, religiosity as occupying a distinct sphere from politics. Indeed, Ernesto Laclau’s theorization of populist reason describes well the way in which NTR’s political project was able to tap into the affective and embodied relation to cinema and audio technologies like the radio and the cassette recorder that people had developed.
In a more recent book-length work, Prasad (2014) has substantially elaborated and extended his arguments. Here Prasad concedes that mythologicals did play an important role in NTR’s career; however, he argues that it was the star value that was generated in other genres like the social and the folklore that lent the NTR mythologicals novelty. Nevertheless, though he himself (p.49) does not undertake an examination of the mythologicals, he raises a pertinent question:
Were all these genres then being affected in parallel by the general trend towards strong personae? We should consider the possibility that, far from any one genre generating star power because of its thematic content, it was the rise of the stars, through a process that was initiated by audiences as well as studios, that contributed to the reconfiguration of narratives, a recombination of elements, a recentering of plots around spectacular hero figures. (Prasad 2014: 77)
I wish to demonstrate in the following sections that the mythological genre in Telugu too underwent significant changes that allowed for the consolidation of NTR’s star persona. I will be analysing closely three significant and popular mythological films of NTR—K.V. Reddy’s Mayabazaar (1957), NTR’s Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam (1966), and NTR’s Dana Veera Soora Karna (1977)—and a successful socio-fantasy, Tatineni Rama Rao’s Yamagola (1977). In the first of these films, we see the birth of the star, NTR as the god Krishna. In the second film, a further deification of the character is achieved through an iconic and frontal presentation of the star-god. In the third film, which is the last successful Telugu mythological, this iconicity is challenged and dismantled to some extent, and a different perspective is put in place. However, through cinematic devices of doubling and tripling which allow NTR to play three roles in the same film, those of Krishna, Duryodhana (now renamed as Suyodhana), and Karna, the opposing perspectives converge on the figure of the star. In the last film, Yamagola, the death of the mythological and the decline of the power of the gods is announced through the arrival of the secular citizen–star, who declares full autonomy and sovereignty. However, this birth of the secular citizen–star becomes possible not through a transition from a traditional mode of authority to a secular mode, but through a process of sublation, to use Hegel’s idea. It is only through the simultaneous absorbing-and-surpassing of the mythological hero that this new kind of star is born. However, the mythological hero remains active even within this formation, for mobilization at apposite moments.
This much-loved classic of Telugu cinema is based on a completely fabricated romance between two minor characters in the Mahabharata—Sasirekha, the daughter of Balarama, and Abhimanyu, Arjuna and Subhadra’s son. The romance and the related episodes that the film presents cannot be traced to any existing textual tradition, either in Telugu or any other Indian language.4 The title itself is an anachronistic combining of Sanskrit and Persian—maya roughly translatable as ‘illusion’ (or ‘fiction’ as Spivak (2001) translates it), and bazaar, the Persian term for market. The film is irreverent to questions of both tradition and historicity. The action in Mayabazaar happens mostly in Dwaraka, the home of Krishna and Balarama, the Yadava rulers who are related to the Kauravas and Pandavas of Hastinapuram. Interestingly enough, the Pandavas do not make an appearance at all in this film. In a stark contrast to earlier mythologicals, the writer of the film, Pingali Nagendra Rao introduced an easy colloquial speaking style that helped domesticate all the epic characters.5 Though there were padyalu and songs in the film, the dialogue remained more or less close to the contemporary social film. The costumes and set design by Gokhale too, like most Telugu mythologicals, were more imaginatively faithful rather than historically realist.6 As Anuradha Kapur (1995) argues in relation to Parsi theatre, the ways in which Mayabazaar’s narrative domesticates gods and heroes works against their iconic deification. (p.51)
Mayabazaar is primarily a romantic melodrama with comedy and visual spectacle as its mainstays. The film takes great delight in the cinematic transformation of people and objects. In slow dissolves, Ghatothkacha, the son of Bheema and a magician, transforms into Sasirekha, the daughter of Balarama, and back again several times; Krishna, the handsome god–prince turns into a puny old man; a demon turns into a brick wall to obstruct advancing enemies; objects appear and disappear at will. The special effects in the film enable the kinetic movement of inanimate objects, and present to the viewers, a veritable circus of objects. In the scene of the magic bazaar, clothes, footwear, utensils, and all kinds of other things appear, move, and arrange themselves into neat rows. In another scene, demanding wedding guests are taunted with a carpet that folds up on its own, and cots that spin around and beat up their occupants (Figure 1.1).
Also, in the most memorable of the film’s scenes, laddus and other eatables fly into the open mouth of a gigantic Ghatothkacha, who has made himself big in order to better enjoy the enormous amounts of delicious food prepared for a wedding’s guests. In the (p.52) midst of all these, the director, K.V. Reddy introduces touches of realism to heighten the magic even more—as one food item remains stuck to the plate even after everything else has flown into Ghatothkacha’s mouth, he scoops it up with his hand and eats it before throwing the plate away. In another scene, Ghatothkacha flies in and lands on a boulder which shudders under this impact, and a small piece of rock breaks and falls to the ground. All these scenes are ostensibly meant to display the magic of Ghatothkacha and his assistants, but more importantly, they are meant to astonish and delight the audiences by underscoring the magic of cinema itself, and the technical mastery that Telugu cinema technicians had achieved. This the film accomplished in ample measure.
Krishna: Human or Divine?
In Mayabazaar, the role of Krishna, although acknowledged to be guiding everyone’s actions, is by no means central. Neither is his divine status fully established. Only brief moments of iconic presentation of Krishna interrupt the narrative, where each character is etched with psychological traits and motives that justify and propel narrative movement. In one of the film’s initial scenes, Krishna is declared to be the prime reason behind Yudhishtara, the eldest Pandava’s, successful completion of the Rajasuya yajna, which made him the king among kings. However, here no mention is made of his divinity.
Well-known actor Raavi Kondala Rao narrates a revealing story behind NTR’s first attempt to play the role of Krishna (2004: 21–2). When NTR donned the make-up of the god Krishna for the film Mayabazaar, he wasn’t confident about his own ability to play the part. However, on the first day of the shooting, as NTR dressed as Krishna walked down to the set, several crew members remarked how much he looked like the god Krishna! The first few shots when he played the role were met with so much appreciation and applause that his confidence grew by leaps and bounds. And of course, he went on to become the most popular screen Krishna of all times. The inside story, however, as Rao tells it, is interesting. Understanding NTR’s diffidence and anxiety, the director, K.V. Reddy had instructed several cast and crew members to enact (p.53) great appreciation and admiration for NTR in the Krishna costume and make-up. This admiring recognition by others helped NTR recognize himself as Krishna. This story, whether true or not, makes it apparent that it was not just the actor’s appearance and ability that mattered, but also recognition and appreciation by others. Furthermore, this story is entirely secular. Stories that circulated in later times talk about the piety involved in playing such roles, and the bodily and dietary discipline that NTR was supposed to have adopted while playing mythological roles. At this moment, however, he was only beginning to see himself as a mythological actor. This episode is significant for the analysis I am pursuing here—it conveys to us the necessity of the people’s recognition and projection of a figure as leader for the populist leader to emerge as an efficacious entity (Figure 1.2).
In the film Mayabazaar, however, the narrative dwells on the ambiguity of Krishna as both human and divine. In a remarkable (p.54) scene, an adult Krishna watches a performance of his own childhood legends. A child playing the role of young Krishna, and other dancers enact the legends of the child Krishna. Towards the end of the performance, Krishna hears the piteous cries of Draupadi, who at that very moment is being disrobed and humiliated in the Kaurava court in Hastinapuram many miles away. She is calling out to him for help. In one corner of the frame, we (the viewers) see and hear what he can see and hear with his divine powers. He seems to enter into a trance, and involuntarily raises his hand into the abhaya mudra (raising the left hand, palm facing outwards in an act of assuring protection), and disrupts the act of vastraapaharanam (literally ‘stealing of clothes’). He magically supplies endless yards of cloth to ensure that Draupadi does not stand naked in front of the assembly. The others present in Dwaraka around Krishna (who being mere mortals cannot hear or see what he as Krishna can), shake him out of his trance. In response to their puzzled queries, he reports the Kauravas’ treacherous victory over the Pandavas, and the humiliation that Draupadi was subjected to. This scene presents his power to hear and see something taking place far away as an involuntary and reflexive action. He seems to be possessed by this power—he has to be shaken out of the trance. The all-knowing, calm and unruffled smile that NTR/Krishna was to wear in all his later films is not yet fully present.
In his unpublished work on the mythological genre, Madhava Prasad comments on the use of the cinematic frame in this particular scene to simultaneously show action taking place in two locations. He says:
This is a remarkable instance of the use of cinematic possibilities to give spatial and temporal concreteness to a familiar incident. It imposes upon mythological events the order of historical time, re-interpreting divine intervention in the idiom of simultaneity. The trance-like position in which Krishna is shown also contributes to the sense of a split between his human and divine qualities, the latter seen as ‘taking over’ his persona.7 (p.55)
Thus, in this scene in Mayabazaar, Krishna is still half-human and half-god. Contrast this with the film’s closing scene where the entire extended family is reunited following the ‘real’ wedding of Sasirekha and Abhimanyu. Here, we see Ghatothkacha giving credit to Krishna for having authored and successfully executed the entire plot. The film ends with a song that is sung in praise of Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu. As we see a smiling Krishna (NTR) slowly transform into the god Vishnu, the song, in true puranic style tells us that the audience acquires religious merit by listening to the tales of Vishnu. We notice that he has now moved away from the family tableau to a single frame, where he offers himself for worship as it were. The entire family, now transformed to a group of devotees, looks to the right of the frame towards Krishna/NTR. The process of Krishna’s deification is complete with this frontal, iconic presentation. Krishna’s divinity gets established in the film through not so much the miracles he himself performs, but through the ones he authorizes, and his ability to orchestrate people’s actions by being in more places than one at the same time.
Historians have pointed out that neither the Krishna of the ‘original’ epic Mahabharata composed by Vyasa nor the Rama of the Ramayana written by Valmiki is a divine creature (Karve 1991; Narayana Rao 2000). It is only in later centuries that devotional cults developed around these figures, and new myths of divinity were built around them. Further, during the nineteenth century, the work of Orientalist and nationalist scholars resulted in a textualization of India’s ancient traditions (Mani 1998; Van der Veer 2001: 106–33). New and authentic editions of all major ancient texts were produced, and many regional and folk versions of epics and Puranas were discredited as later interpolations. Historians sought to sift through the texts to gather the nuggets of true history from beneath the accretion of myth and fantasy. Several scholars have demonstrated the ways in which attitudes towards mythology, and understandings of the past and history, have been reshaped by secular modernity and the demands of the liberal nation state.8 (p.56)
Partha Chatterjee has argued that the formation of the nation state required a different relation to one’s past. The modern subject had to learn to distinguish myth from fact and true history.9 Kaviraj’s work demonstrates how modern nationalism also brought with it new modes of reading and engaging with traditional religious texts. Focusing on the early nationalist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s work, Krsnacarita, he argues that Bankim’s Krishna was
the first Krsna sought to be created by a genuine historical argument, that is not poetic, which self-consciously follows a method quite unlike the unrigorous procedure of narration of the Puranas.… Unlike texts in the Hindu tradition, Bankim’s construction does not alter the earlier line of texts subtly, surreptitiously, by altering the totality of the image, gradually shifting its centre of narrative gravity. Traditionally this was accomplished by adding new episodes to an old story, but in such a way that after a point the additions altered its truth. Bankim’s work takes its historicity very seriously, differentiates sharply between itself and other texts, and brings into play the idea that one of these many images of Krishna must be true and the others false. (Kaviraj 1995: 73)
In fact, as other scholars have pointed out, a textual Vedantic Hinduism which was truly rational and scientific was projected by reformist organizations such as the Arya Samaj. Puranic Hinduism, considered ‘a system of false beliefs and idolatry’ and ‘myth and poetry’, was the Other of the new Vedic Hinduism, and had to be exorcised from within the new modern national Self (Prakash 2003).
However, neither did the development towards rational modern history nor did the efforts at creating a rational and scientific Vedic Hinduism proceed in a linear, teleological fashion. Both failed to achieve a hegemonic status in Indian society. They did not succeed in completely obscuring earlier modes of thinking, reading, and embodied modes of engaging with mythic material. Moreover, such secular nationalist projects did not anticipate the (p.57) ways in which new technological media could work towards both preserving, and sometimes reshaping or subverting, earlier traditions. Therefore, secular and modern historical approaches to myths continue to compete with traditional puranic and embodied modes. Furthermore, the struggle and confrontation between such different modes constitutes the field of modern Hinduism. Cinema too partakes fully in the politics of these reinterpretations and reinventions of puranic characters, by giving a new form and language to such endeavours. Hindi cinema with its aspiration to be a national cinema had to create a national secular space within its narrative frame in however tentative or fragile a fashion; not burdened with such expectations, different regional cinemas could persist with the mythological and devotional genres. These sustained and consolidated a regional linguistic nationalism through their narratives and modes of address.
At the same time, we ought to remember that even within different language traditions, the temporalities of different cultural forms and genres have varied vastly. So, for instance, developments in the Telugu literary field consisting of different players and logics, and governed by different material and economic conditions, might be very different from the field of theatre and film. Moreover, despite significant overlaps, the reading public was not the same as the theatre and film-going publics. In fact, there was considerable anxiety about the subaltern nature of the film-viewing public. Therefore, although not mutually exclusive or completely impervious to each other’s influence, film genres and literary genres in Telugu followed very different trajectories.
The Aesthetics of Frontality and Darsan
In his early landmark work on Hindi cinema, Madhava Prasad identified the general structure of spectation in Indian cinema to be darsanic (Prasad 1998: 74–9). In the realist tradition of cinema, the non-presence of the spectator is a fiction to be maintained in order to allow for a voyeuristic view of unfolding events. Therefore, characters behave as if they don’t know they are being watched. However, Indian cinema imagines a spectator (p.58) who approaches the cinema for a darsan, a practice of perception that is associated most commonly with devotees in a temple. The devotees go to the temple to get a glimpse, darsan, of the god and to be, in turn, seen by the god. ‘The practice signifies a mediated bringing to (god’s) presence of the subject, who by being seen by the divine image, comes to be included in the order instituted and supported by that divinity. The mediation of this relation by the priest is not incidental but is integral to that structure’ (Prasad 1998: 75). In relation to cinema, this implies that unlike the voyeuristic relation to the image on screen
in the darsanic relation the object gives itself to be seen and in so doing confers a privilege upon the spectator. The object of the darsanic gaze is a superior, a divine figure or a king who presents himself as a spectacle of dazzling splendour to his subjects, the praja or the people. Unlike the hero of a democratic narrative who is by common understanding ‘any individual subject’, the hero of the feudal family romance is not chosen randomly by the camera but belongs to the class of the chosen in the extra-filmic hierarchic community. (Prasad 1998: 75–6)
Therefore, Hindi cinema, especially in the 1950s to the 1970s, is dominated by this structure of spectation. Prasad argues that even in later years, it has not been easy to subordinate the darsanic spectacle to an individualized point of view in Hindi cinema. The individualized point of view and the aesthetics of realism that undergird it are quite different from the aesthetics of frontality that characterize Indian performative traditions in general, and cinema in particular. In the latter mode, ‘a message/meaning that derives from a transcendent source is transmitted to the spectator by the performance, whereas in the realist instance, no such transcendent source of meaning/message can be posited. Instead the text is figured as raw material for the production of meaning, the latter task being the spectator’s by right’ (Prasad 1998: 21). Realism thus presumes a generalized citizen figure as the reader/spectator of its narrative text, through whose interpretive labour the text unfolds and gives its meaning. However, in the Indian context, citizenship is not a right that everybody enjoys; it is viewed rather as a privilege of the few. Only some (p.59) can be citizens while the rest are subjects.10 In the mythological genre, we see that this contradiction between citizens and subjects is resolved through the production of the male star, who acquires the legitimacy to represent the people through his roles in these films.
In the Telugu cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, there are two seemingly divergent trends—the first is the heightened deification and iconization of the god figure, as we will see in the film I discuss next. When NTR played the role of the god Tirupati Venkateswara in Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam (1960), and that of Rama in Lava Kusa (1963), not only was the image of the god/star offered for a darsanic view on screen, but the conditions for darsan were sought to be recreated off-screen too. This was done, for instance, in the physical space of the theatre through the installation of that particular deity’s idols in the premises for worship by spectator–devotees, and the garlanding of huge cut-outs of the star as god, and so on. I discuss this interpellation of the spectator as devotee in greater detail in Chapter 4 in this book. The second trend was that of an interrogation of the ‘divine’ undertaken by films like Dana Veera Soora Karna (1977), and the satirical view of the puranic mounted by the socio-fantasy genre, exemplified best by Yamagola (1977). However, the divergence is perhaps only apparent because there is a point of convergence of these seemingly divergent trends, and that is the film star NTR and his voice. He is the pre-eminent citizen who can speak on behalf of the people. However, how was this transformation achieved?
(p.60) Krishna Darsan: The Deification of Krishna in Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam (1966)
From Mayabazaar in 1957 to Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam in 1966, NTR had travelled a long distance. He had established himself as a star with many successful films in all genres, and as the unparalleled Krishna of the Telugu screen. On a more general level, we should note the consolidation of the centrality of the male protagonist in the narratives in South Indian cinema, and the concomitant rise of the male star to a position of dominance in the film industry.
The film starts with the slow fade-in of an iconic and frontal frame of NTR as Krishna—first in silhouette and soon, fully illuminated. Interrupting this iconic moment is a brief dialogue between Krishna and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, who pleads with the former to be the protector of her sons, saying that he is all powerful and an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna brushes off this ascription of divinity but only mildly. He promises her that he would protect the Pandavas from the machinations of the scheming Kauravas. The next shot of the film shows Krishna walk through a door in an elaborate archway. He once again stands in the centre of the screen in the abhaya posture—the posture assuring protection—as the Pandavas stand to the right of the frame in a row bowing to him in postures of devotion and submission. The image is stilled, and the credits appear on this frontal frame of Krishna blessing the Pandavas.11 The main title of the film appears, and this is followed by the screenplay and director’s credit to NTR. NTR not only plays the role of Krishna, but is the author of the film itself. Indeed, throughout the film, Krishna is mostly seen frontally, standing in (p.61) the centre of the frame with ornate archways in the background. These archways (sets created in studios) do not lend depth to the frame; rather, they lend to the image a two-dimensional effect of a calendar frame (Figure 1.3).
It is after this film that NTR is widely believed to have achieved calendar status. Biographers of NTR and film historians (Venkata Narayan 1983; Venkata Rao 2000) have pointed out that NTR looked so ‘believable’ and ‘real’ as Krishna in this film, that ordinary people are supposed to have framed his pictures for worship in their homes. The aesthetic relay of icons and motifs from calendar art to film, and back to calendar art, comes full circle. In the film, repeated iconic framings of NTR as Krishna punctuate the flow of narrative events to emphasize the divinity of Krishna. In these iconic moments, the star as god stands smiling and still; the action has been stalled. Contained within the frame or in reverse shots are different characters transfixed as they gaze worshipfully at Krishna/NTR. Their bodily postures and facial (p.62) expressions portray a deeply felt devotion. By inserting devotees within the filmic space, the film invites a worshipful gaze or rather actual worship from the film viewer. The viewer too is addressed as a devotee of the god. Whether or not this address always finds its addressee, and if indeed, the viewer ever fully occupies this position of the devotee, remain ambiguous. For the moment, however, I focus on the cinematic text and the way it constructs the figures of the god/star and the devotee.
The greater part of the film’s first half is devoted to the story of Rukmini’s love for Krishna and their marriage through elopement. Rukmini has fallen in love with Krishna having heard of his physical beauty and his virtuous nature from the Sage Narada. However, her brother wants her to marry Sisupala, the king of Chedi, and fixes the date for the wedding against her wishes. Rukmini sends a message to Krishna asking him to come and take her away. Krishna arrives in his chariot on the day of the wedding and Rukmini elopes with him. Krishna’s arrival provides the occasion for another iconic moment—Krishna on a chariot waiting for Rukmini; framed once again against an archway, standing still on the chariot, one hand holding the reins, one leg bent and resting on the chariot’s seat, faint smile on the face as he gazes out at Rukmini. However, it is a gaze that seems not to have any specific resting point—it is a gaze that does not itself look, but invites looking. It is so precisely because it is a moment offered for worshipful gazing not just by Rukmini, but by the spectators too.
This iconic frontal presentation literally reaches a climax in the final scene of the film. The eldest of the Pandava brothers, Yudhishtara, also known as Dharma Raja, is the ruler of Indraprastha, and has just performed the prestigious Rajasuya sacrifice. This sacrifice, which involves many rituals accompanied by gifts and feasts to Brahmins and the assembled kings, will allow him to declare his suzerainty as the unchallenged king among kings. However, the yajna comes to a successful close only after one king from the gathered assembly of kings is identified as deserving of the highest honour. The Pandavas, who refer to Krishna throughout the film as their apathbandhu, their saviour in distress, fully believe in his divinity, and name him as deserving the highest honour. Bheeshma, the old and valiant patriarch of the Kuru (p.63) family, and Dronacharya, the guru of the Pandavas and Kauravas, too support this move whole-heartedly. However, Sishupala the ruler of the kingdom of Chedi, already smarting under the humiliation of having his to-be bride Rukmini elope with Krishna, cannot now bear to see his enemy thus honoured. He opposes this honour, and insults Krishna as a cunning and devious ruler, a low-caste Yadava king not deserving of any respect, and so on. Having patiently endured a hundred insults, Krishna can no longer withhold his rage when the hundredth and one insult is hurled at him. He summons his divine weapon, the sudarsana chakra and beheads Sisupala. The assembled kings flee in terror. Krishna assumes a gigantic form towering over the now puny Pandavas, Bheeshma, and Drona. This is his viswarupam, literally, cosmic form, which encompasses the earth and the entire cosmos! Ravikanth Nagaich’s famous trick photography allows Krishna as Vishnu to multiply himself endlessly, and to display his omniscient presence! The film ends with this final darsan of the god to the Pandavas, but more importantly to the film’s viewers.
NTR and His Doubles
In the Telugu stage tradition, there was a curious practice whereby a principal character/role would be played by more than one actor. In the days when all-night mythological plays were the norm, one actor would play a role in the first one or two acts, and another or even a third actor would take his place in later acts. This was done most often for the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata-based plays. So the actors were referred to as the okato Krishnudu (first Krishna), rendo Krishnudu (second Krishna), and so on.12 In NTR’s case, not only did cinema require that (p.64) the same actor play the role throughout the film, but cinematic technology enabled the same actor to play double, triple, or more roles. Therefore, in complete contrast to the stage tradition, NTR not only reprised his role of Krishna many times in different films, but also played several other roles in those same films where he played the role of Krishna.
In Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam, alongside the deification and iconic presentation of Krishna/NTR, another perspective is opened up with NTR’s portrayal of the role of the antagonist, Duryodhana, as well. Of course, this new angle was to find full elaboration only in a later film. Duryodhana is here renamed Suyodhana, but nevertheless appears as a power-hungry, unscrupulous, and haughty prince who wants to take over the Kuru dynasty throne. Although the narrative focus on Duryodhana is quite brief in this film, this character is developed in the later film Dana Veera Soora Karna (1977), written and directed by NTR himself.13 In this film, NTR not only played the roles of Krishna and Duryodhana once again, but essayed the role of Karna as well. Although the film was technically shoddy, NTR’s triple role and the dialogues of the film made it a tremendous success (Figures 1.4 and 1.5).
In the film versions popular amongst Telugu audiences, be it Mayabazaar (1957), or later films like Nartanasala (1963), Sri Krishnaarjuna Yuddhamu (1963), and Pandava Vanavasam (1965), among many others, the Pandava princes were the rightful heroes of the epic Mahabharata, and therefore enjoyed the support and affection of Krishna, the Yadava prince who was believed to be the incarnation of the god Vishnu. The Kaurava princes, Duryodhana (p.65) and Dussasana along with their uncle, Shakuni and their friend and vassal king, Karna formed the evil foursome of the epic story (the dushta chathustayam, as Ghatothkacha in Mayabazaar declares). However, drawing upon the influential anti-Brahmanical rhetoric of writers like Tripuraneni Ramaswami Chaudari, and inserting contemporary questions of caste, the film Dana Veera Soora Karna presents a very different perspective. Kondaveeti Venkata Kavi, (p.66) a well-known writer and member of the Abhyudaya Rachaitala Sangham (Progressive Writers’ Organization), wrote the script of the film. Duryodhana and Karna are now re-presented as righteous characters, aware of the subtleties of dharma (ethics).
In the film, Karna is portrayed as a tragic hero who is abandoned by his unwed mother Kunti soon after birth, and as one who suffers caste discrimination all his life. He is also the victim of several curses as a result of which he has to suffer a humiliating defeat and death on the battlefield, despite being a powerful warrior. Duryodhana too is presented in a new light. He is now ‘Suyodhana’, and emerges as a champion of castelessness. In a competition held to test the battle skills of princes, Karna is refused admission because of his low birth in a Suta (charioteer) family. He is the only one who can match the valiant Pandava prince, Arjuna’s archery skills, and is therefore the only obstacle to a Pandava victory over the Kauravas. Therefore, in a dramatic and, no doubt, clever tactical move, Duryodhana proclaims his withering contempt for caste rules, and elevates Karna to the position of royalty by bestowing upon him the kingship of one of his dominions. Kingship renders Karna’s low caste irrelevant, and he is deemed to be eligible to take part in the competition. The film depicts Suyodhana’s only hubris to be his pride, and his willingness to be misled by his crafty uncle, Shakuni. Through such reworking of characters like Duryodhana and Karna as mighty warriors and learned and ethical men, albeit with some fatal flaws, the film inserted into the Mahabharata mythology, contemporary questions of caste. Later when the film’s rhetoric was mobilized for political campaigning by NTR in 1982, it was used to signal the rise of the Kamma caste (to which NTR belonged) and the backward castes (who formed a significant base for his political party) against the social and political dominance of the so-called upper castes, Brahmins and Reddis. The Congress party dominated by Brahmins and Reddis had been in power in Andhra Pradesh since its formation in 1956.
Duryodhana’s lengthy monologues in the film present a virulent attack on the caste system, and question the privileges enjoyed by upper-caste Kshatriya princes. Krishna’s ethics too come under critical scrutiny as Duryodhana launches a powerful rhetoric against (p.67) the despicable way in which the lower-caste character Karna, and the tribal character Ekalavya, are treated by the Pandavas. However, as S.V. Srinivas rightly argues in his recent book, the film’s anti-caste rhetoric is inconsistent, even suspect, given the fact that it is drawn from Tripuraneni’s deeply problematic critique of caste, which valorized Kammas, Reddis, and Velamas as Kshatriyas, and deemed them superior to non-Brahmin Sudra castes such as Golla, Kummari, and so on. Srinivas points out that
Duryodhana, in spite of his moving speech on casteism early in the film, refers to Krishna as a cowherd (pasuvula kaapari) later in the film. Anti-caste rhetoric within it is also centred on a highly conservative sexual morality of colonial vintage; this is foregrounded in Duryodhana’s Paanchali panchabhatruka14 monologue, as also Karna’s comment against polyandry when he says the sister-in-law is like a mother. (Srinivas 2013: 287–8)
Nevertheless, the dialogue track of the film was a huge success in itself, and was circulated independently as gramophone records and audio cassettes. I shall be discussing the aural dimension of the film in a later section. The most interesting aspect of the film is, however, not the counternarratives and reinterpretations of characters that it presents for, as we shall see later, it tries to balance its indictment of the unethical acts of the Pandavas and Krishna with attempts to ascribe blame to Shakuni and Duryodhana too. In cinematic terms, the most interesting aspect is the fact that NTR played three roles in this film. The possibility of doubling and tripling that cinematic technology enables requires some further reflection and discussion.
In the scene in Mayabazaar which I discussed earlier in this chapter, the use of a split screen to show simultaneously two scenes of action is an indicator of the mythological genre’s exploitation of the possibilities offered by cinematic technology. In Dana Veera Soora Karna, the split screen is employed, but towards establishing NTR as a star. In one of the romantic songs of the film, NTR playing (p.68) three different roles is shown through intercuts to be romancing three different women in different locations. Towards the end, all three couples are shown together through splitting the screen into three vertical parts. Unlike the Mayabazaar scene, this technique does not serve any narrative function of indicating simultaneity of action, rather it only serves to underscore NTR’s virtuosity in being able to play three different roles in the same film.
In fact, the film’s focus on NTR as a star who can play with equal felicity the role of Krishna as well as the roles of his opponents, Duryodhana and Karna, contains the force of its anti-caste rhetoric. The second part of the film features many well-known padyalu taken from the famous stage play Pandava Udyoga Vijayalu,15 written by the duo Tirupati Venkata Kavulu. The use of these well-known verses seeks to mitigate or rather blunt the force of the anti-Pandava and anti-Krishna rhetoric that Duryodhana launches in the first part of the film. The familiar padyalu reassure the spectator that Krishna might appear devious, but is so only in the service of dharma. The film seeks to both deify the character of Krishna, as well as to elevate the characters of Karna and Duryodhana. In this process, what it achieves is the foregrounding of the film star, NTR, as an exceptional subject who can both affirm and critique the Hindu tradition at the same time.
Embodying History and Tradition: NTR’s Populist Reason
Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political.
NTR’s desire to portray varied roles in the same film reached a new record when he played five roles in a later mythological film Srimad Virata Parvam (1979). However, the proliferation of (p.69) NTR’s doubles did not quite end there. While discussing NTR’s films of the late 1970s and 1980s, that is, the period just before he plunged into politics, S.V. Srinivas draws attention to the 1982 social film called Justice Choudhary, in which NTR plays the role of a judge. In a song that dramatizes a difficult situation he is faced with, the film draws parallels between his predicament and that of mythological characters by inserting brief sequences from three different mythological films featuring NTR himself. ‘The issue here is not the projection of NTR in god-like terms. What the film is trying to do is not to put in place a credulous spectator who believes that NTR is a god. Instead, it posits a spectator whose civilizational past is thoroughly mediated by the cinema. It is a cinema with NTR at its centre’ (Srinivas 2013: 257).16 The sublation of the mythological hero to produce the authoritative secular citizen, and its reactivation at different moments in the NTR oeuvre is evident in this instance. It also provides us with an important clue to the process by which NTR was able to literally embody Telugu history and tradition, and thereby, elaborate a politics of the vernacular, as Kaviraj (2010) has so insightfully described post-1970s politics in India to be.
To pursue a related line of inquiry, we can also now see what was novel about the critique of the ethics of Rama or Krishna presented by NTR’s films. Although by no means radically new or scandalous, they performed an important function. The multiplication of NTR into many roles allows for uncomfortable (p.70) questions to be raised, but at the same time absorbs the subversiveness of that critique. The attack on the gods cannot be by anyone—only a star who always already embodies the mythical tradition can claim the legitimate authority to launch a satirical attack on the gods. In other words, he is an exceptional citizen. Is it any surprise then that the first two socio-fantasies which ruthlessly satirized the puranic gods and the conventions of puranic cinema featured NTR as the rational and secular human protagonist?17
In a work titled On Populist Reason, Ernesto Laclau (2005) makes several interesting points that are useful to think through the NTR phenomenon. According to Laclau, the formation of the ‘people’ is central to any political process. However, this category of the people is not an empirical or sociological reality. It comes into existence through the articulation of a socio-political demand. However, the heterogeneity of demands requires that a horizontal equivalence be established between them. This process is achieved through what Laclau calls an ‘empty signifier’. The empty signifier is, however, not mere emptiness—it is a hegemonic force which presents ‘its own particularity as the empty universality that transcends it. So, it is not the case that there is a particularity which simply occupies an empty place, but a particularity which, because it has succeeded, through a hegemonic struggle, in becoming the empty signifier of the community, has a legitimate claim to occupy that space’ (Laclau 2005: 170). In the case of NTR and the Telugu Desam Party, the Telugu identity performed the role of the empty signifier. This contingent and historical mobilization of the Telugu identity helped to articulate a series of equivalential demands like the dissatisfaction with upper-caste Congress politics dominated by the party at the Centre; the political and economic aspirations of the kamma caste; demands for equality being made by the women’s movement and other middle-level and backward castes; all of these were forged together by a Telugu regional and cultural identity which could be posed against the North-Indian, Delhi-based Centre.
Speaking of the centrality of the mass leader in populist politics, Laclau observes that a political representative does not simply (p.71) transmit the will of the people he represents. Rather his function is ‘to give credibility to that will in a milieu different from the one in which it was originally constituted. That will is always the will of a sectorial group, and the representative has to show that it is compatible with the interests of the community as a whole’ (Laclau 2005: 158). Moreover, he goes as far as arguing that neither the ‘people’ nor ‘popular will’ exist in any concrete fashion before the act of representation. He states that the construction of the ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.
In the case of NTR, his screen image was able to provide the ingredients for legitimizing his representative claims, and the forging of the Telugu identity. It was not as if a Telugu identity did not exist before—it did, and had indeed provided the basis for the political struggle that led to the creation of the first linguistic state in the Indian union in 1953; however, in the 1980s, NTR revived it in a different form as a struggle for self-respect. Also, who was better suited to enunciate this demand for respect than one who already embodied Telugu identity—NTR himself!
Affect and Populism: What Is the Link?
Laclau remarks that affect plays a central, even if unacknowledged, role in the constitution of popular identities and thereby in populist politics.
As we have seen, equivalential logic is decisive in the formation of popular identities, and in these substitutive/equivalential operations the imbrication of signification and affect is most fully visible. This is the dimension that, as we recall, early theoreticians of mass society saw as most problematic, and involving a major threat to social rationality. Also, in contemporary rationalist reconstructions of social sciences, from structuralism to rational choice, this is also the pole that is systematically demoted at the expense of the combinatorial/symbolic one, which allows for a ‘grammatical’ or ‘logical’ calculation. (Laclau 2005: 228)
Although Laclau does not himself provide an adequate theoretical account of what he means by affect, we can turn to a body of rich and sophisticated work in recent anthropology which has (p.72) elaborated upon and given density to not only the idea of affect but also related ideas such as embodiment, habitus, and the visceral register in the creation of subjectivities (Asad 2003; Hirschkind 2006; Mazzarella 2009). As Hirschkind remarked:
It is increasingly difficult to sustain an image of political life that does not include recognition of the role of embodied sensibilities and pre-reflexive habits in shaping our commitments and reasons. Political judgements are not the product of rational argumentation alone but also of the way we come to care deeply about certain issues, feel passionately attached to certain positions, as well as the traditions of practice through which such attachments and commitments have been sedimented into our emotional–volitional equipment. (Hirschkind 2006: 30)
As I have noted in my introduction to this book, cinema and other audio technologies like the gramophone, radio, and cassette players created new kinds of listening and viewing subjects. A new enthusiasm for the possibilities created by these new media was combined with earlier embodied modes of listening and viewing associated with folk and traditional performative practices. Hence, NTR’s body and voice provided the affective aspect of this new populist demand through his literal embodiment of Telugu myth and history, as well as its modern present. As a popular film star, he could claim to be the Telugu nation’s first citizen and legitimate representative of the Telugu people. Let me now elaborate on the important question of the ‘voice’, which I have only alluded to in passing thus far.
The Voice of the Secular Citizen–Subject in Yamagola (1977)
By what incomprehensible thoughtlessness can we, in considering what after all is called the talking picture, ‘forget’ the voice?
Yamagola was the first successful film in the subgenre called the socio-fantasy that emerged as the mythological declined.18 As (p.73) M.L. Narasimham has pointed out, Yamagola borrows part of its plot from Devanthakudu (1960) which was the first socio-fantasy in Telugu. Devanthakudu itself drew its central idea from the 1958 socio-fantasy Bengali film, Jamalaye Jibanto Manush (An Alive Man in the Abode of Yama) which was based on Dinabhandhu Mitra’s late nineteenth century play with the same name. NTR plays the role of Satyam, who is an idealistic young man who actively fights against injustice and corruption in the village, and is even elected as gram sarpanch, the village leader. When he is killed by the villains, he reaches narakam (the equivalent of hell in Hindu mythology), over which Yama, the god of death, reigns. As the film unfolds, NTR launches a rational and satirical tirade against outdated gods and their outdated practices. He even organizes a labour strike among the workers in hell. The gods are shown to be literally anachronisms when, due to various twists and turns in the plot, they come to earth and find themselves utterly ill-equipped to deal with the modern world—they don’t understand the idea of money, and are terrified of the traffic. Indeed, much of the humour in this socio-fantasy is derived from portraying gods as bumpkins whose ‘first contact’ with the modern world leaves them overwhelmed and disoriented. They realize that they need the help of the protagonist, Satyam if they are to resolve the crisis they are caught in (Figure 1.6).
In Yamagola, the heroism of the human hero consists mainly in his ability to out-talk the god of death, Yama, whom he meets (p.74) after death in hell. Employing the tropes of comedy and satire, the film foregrounds the protagonist’s rhetorical skills as he sometimes gently rebukes Yama for his outdated classical mythological speech style, and at other times strongly criticizes his outmoded legal system. As Yama chokes and coughs with exertion following a long monologue full of high-sounding alliterative Sanskritized Telugu, NTR offers him Vicks lozenges, and persuades him to henceforth adopt a speaking style that is in simple and lucid Telugu. He himself uses a logical and rational speech style that is nevertheless forceful and relentless in its interrogation of the gods and their ethics. A seeming master of many speech styles, the protagonist Satyam, played by the star, NTR (whose star persona no doubt provides the necessary persuasive force and conviction), chooses as modern Indian citizen (bharatadesa pourudu) to speak the language of modern law and the constitution, not the speech of mythos, but the speech of logos—the speech of reasoned propositions.19 Along with ridiculing the ornate speech style of Yama, he also parodies the popular speech of the Leftists, as he instigates the (p.75) workers in hell to organize a labour strike. He compares Yama’s dictatorial rule over hell to the national Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. However, is this really a movement from mythos to logos or is there a different logic at work?
In an essay published in 1996, Bruce Lincoln contests the popular narrative about the beginnings of Western civilization as a movement from mythos to logos, that is, of the way in which ‘fables gave way to logic, anthropomorphism to abstraction, poetry to dialectic, and religion to philosophy’ (Lincoln 1996: 2). Going back to early Greek usages of the terms mythos and logos, Lincoln uncovers a different history of use, and a different logic associated with these terms. Lincoln concludes that we ought to remember that neither mythos nor logos had the fixed meaning that we assume they had. ‘Rather these words and others were the sites of important semantic struggles fought between rival regimes of truth’ (Lincoln 1996: 11).
Like the narrative about mythos and logos, some conventional narratives of Indian cinema see the movement away from song and verse and melodramatic dialogue to more prosaic and everyday speech forms, as the move towards greater realism. Is this really so? Or should we instead ask, what has altered with the decline of the mythological? It is as if the mythological genre is able to modernize itself only by realizing the true modern function of myth, that is, as a vehicle of political allegory. Another important factor in this process is to recognize the need for a heroic male protagonist who is able to historicize tradition, maintain a critical relationship to it, and assert his own sovereignty as autonomous political and ethical agent as well as true representative of the Hindu tradition. The decline of the mythological is thus mediated by the arrival of the fully sovereign Hindu male star who can (p.76) speak back to the gods, and speak for and on behalf of humans. NTR who had earlier successfully represented gods, kings, and heroes on screen, can now successfully represent people. Only he can be the true voice of the sovereign citizen. However, how is his voice materialized in cinema?
The Voice of the Male Star: Dubbing and Playback Singing in Telugu Cinema
As film theorist Mary Ann Doane points out, film technicians give primary importance to the dialogue. ‘Sound effects and music are subservient to dialogue and it is above all, the intelligibility of the dialogue which is at stake, together with its nuances of tone’ (Doane 1980: 52). This is because the primary task of sound in a talkie is to provide us access to the psychological interiority of a fully present individual. ‘Sound and image, married together propose a drama of the individual, of psychological realism. “Knowledge” of the interior life of the individual can be grounded more readily on the fullness and spontaneity of his or her speech doubled by the rhetorical strategies of music and sound effects (as well as mise-en-scene)’ (Doane 1980: 55). She asserts further that editing practices in sound seek to preserve the status of speech as an individual property right.
The French film theorist Michel Chion has identified this tendency in film as ‘vococentrism’—a tendency to privilege the human voice above all other sounds. The ear picks out the voice from among all the sounds in a scene, which include ambient sounds and background music. Also, as Doane points out, film-makers actually work towards consolidating this ‘vococentrism’. However, Chion thinks that the film medium is fundamentally dualistic in nature. ‘The sound film, for its part, is dualistic. Its dualism is hidden or disavowed to varying extents; sometimes cinema’s split is even on display. The physical nature of film necessarily makes an incision or cut between the body and the voice. Then the cinema does its best to restitch the two together at the seam’ (Chion 1999: 125).
The film camera captures the images of actors acting, while the sound recorder records the voices. In the final film, both image (p.77) and sound are arranged in a synchronous manner to create the illusion that the voice emanates from the moving lips on screen. Background music and other sound effects are also added, but it is the synchronization of sound and the speaking body which produces the ‘married print’ that is ready for exhibition to an audience. Michel Chion’s work demonstrates that this work of restitching that cinema attempts, is not always successful, even in Western cinema, where the ‘nailing down’ of sound to body is pursued with meticulousness and care.
In the case of Indian cinema, the matching of voice and body is rendered even more problematic because there is usually a difference in the speaking and singing voices of actors. In the early decades of sound films, there were singing stars who sang and spoke in their own voices. However, with the arrival of playback singing in the 1940s, there was a split between the singing and speaking voices. While actors dubbed their own voices for the speaking portions of the film, when they sang, they sang with voices other than their own. In other words, while each actor dubbed the speaking portions for himself or herself, the playback singer sang the songs for them. In the mythological films, this was compounded by the singing of not only songs, but also the singing of verse. Not always did the same singer sing both songs and verses (padyalu) for a single actor, sometimes not even the same singer sang all the songs for a particular actor in a film. Therefore, it was possible for the same actor to have different singing voices in the course of a film. Film-makers did try to match the singing voice to the actor’s body by attempting to find a singer’s voice that was closest in tone to that of the actor. Although this was not always possible, by repeatedly making the same singer sing for a particular actor, a close identification was achieved between the singer’s voice and actor’s body.20 However, since actors far outnumbered singers, usually the same set of singers sang for (p.78) many, many actors. Also since songs occupied a special place in the film narrative, many liberties that realism did not approve of were allowed here. Moreover, as the audio track of the songs was consumed independently through gramophone records, the radio, and later audio cassettes, and more lately, CDs, the matching of the singing voice and body has not been seen as a particular problem.
In Telugu too, more or less, the same situation prevailed. The singer, Ghantasala dominated the singing scene from the 1950s to the late 1960s. He sang for all the top male protagonists—NTR, A. Nageswara Rao (ANR), Kantha Rao, and others. There were other minor singers who sang special genres like comic or tragic songs or the songs for minor characters in the film.
However, the speaking voice and dialogue portions of the films presented problems which are more in common with Western films. Most actors in Hindi and Telugu cinemas dubbed for themselves. This ensured that the speaking voice of the actor and his body were closely identified, and constituted a unified, coherent, and continuous subjectivity. If, as Madhava Prasad has argued, the decades of the 1950s and 1960s were crucial for the establishment of a new patriarchal order which was accomplished by the increasing centrality of the male protagonist in the filmic narrative and the accompanying rise of the male star, then the voice played an extremely important role in this process. There were two aspects to this process. Not only did South Indian male stars, as representatives of their respective language communities, not act in other language films than their own but they also couldn’t allow other voices to dub for them. Female actors, character actors, and sometimes comic actors, moved freely between languages in the 1950s and even in the 1960s, but this became increasingly difficult for the male star–actor. So, actors like Savitri, a female superstar of the 1950s and 1960s, and S.V. Ranga Rao, a character actor, both were able to have successful careers in both Telugu and Tamil cinemas. However, star–actors like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan from Tamil, and NTR and ANR from Telugu could seldom cross over into other language cinemas. This is a tradition which continued into later decades.
From the 1980s onwards, it became common practice for dubbing voices to be freely used for female actors.21 Around the same time that female stars began to have different dubbing voices, that is, voice doubles, a curious phenomenon is noticeable with regard to the male stars. By the 1970s, NTR and ANR had established themselves as the two dominant male stars of the Telugu film industry. Ghantasala, the singer who had sung for both of them through the 1950s and the 1960s, was now dead; S.P. Balasubramaniam, who was his successor, began to sing for both stars. However, what is interesting was not this change in the singing voice of these actors from that of Ghantasala to Balasubramaniam. The difference lay elsewhere. Singers like Ghantasala, and even the early Balasubramaniam, gave a lot of importance to a good rendition of the song—so the focus was on the correct enunciation of words (p.80) (uccharana); the knowledge of the right pitch, scale, and rhythm (sruti and tala gnanam); and the correct reproduction of the emotion (bhavam) of the song, but they never attempted to reproduce the tone of the actor for whom they were singing. However, Balasubramaniam, in addition to being an efficient singer, was also a good mimic. Therefore, he soon began to mimic the speaking style of each of these actors while singing for them. This ‘mimicry’ style of playback singing was definitely a new phenomenon, and this meant that just by hearing a song, one could easily recognize it as an NTR or ANR song. This style of playback singing can be heard in Dana Veera Soora Karna and Yamagola, both films that I have discussed here. Among the three roles that NTR played in Dana Veera Soora Karna, Balasubramaniam sang the songs and padyalu for the role of Duryodhana, and his singing style in the film exemplifies what I described as mimicry playback. It appears as if the rise of the male star to a position of dominance required that the disjuncture between his speaking and singing voice too be erased or concealed as far as was possible. The separate identity that the singer’s voice retained in the earlier style of playback, was now sought to be merged with that of the actor’s voice, so that the male star could emerge as a fully self-sufficient and ‘synchronous man’ as Chion puts it.
Speaking Back to the Centre: Elaborating a Politics of the Vernacular
The tremendous popularity of gramophone records and audio cassettes featuring the soundtracks of NTR films like Lava Kusa, Dana Veera Soora Karna, and Yamagola prefigured the role that the audio cassette was to play in the short but intensive election campaign that NTR would run in 1983–4. These tapes which were recordings of NTR’s political speeches drew a great deal from his film career. As Elder and Schmitthenner have noted, the election campaign speech tapes combined monologues from films with NTR’s political speeches in ways which made it difficult to separate the two (1985: 381). The speeches clearly reiterated NTR’s prowess as a forceful speaker, whose training as an actor would allow him to subtly vary tone and pitch, now to seduce his (p.81) listeners with vistas of what an altered political landscape would look like, now to project righteous rage against the domination of the Telugu people by the centrally-commanded Congress regime, now to assert that his main goal was to restore the pride of the Telugu people (Telugujati atmagauravam); and now to persuade them into placing faith in his schemes for the poor like 2 rupees a kilogram of rice, and so on.
NTR’s ability to speak forcefully and challenge the ruling power, all in flawless and chaste Telugu, became a measure of his efficacy in itself. It would be a critical error to underestimate the importance of proper speech and rhetoric for a politician and a leader. Hence a figure on screen is recognized as a leader when he is able to give forceful voice and body to particular aspirations and desires. And further embodied in that voice, were memories of the forceful monologues and dialogues from his earlier films, where as both king and commoner he had opposed the oppression of the poor and the tyranny of the rich and powerful. He had voiced the ideals of kingship as the prince in Rajamakutam, and the ideals of the god–king, Sri Rama in Lava Kusa. The quality of his voice and his impeccable diction had captivated Telugu ears as only a few other actors were able to do.22 Of course, later on his voice style was to congeal into an exaggerated and hyperbolic verbal histrionics that characterized his films after the late 1970s. This is what stage comics and mimicry artists reproduce today.
Srinivas describes NTR’s campaign as ‘mythological speech’:
[H]is campaign was marked by his distinctive Telugu—of a kind that no one actually spoke off-screen and that he alone made famous on-screen. The language he deployed was rhetorical, alliterative, and spoken with pauses and modulations of voice that were glaringly theatrical. He had evidently discovered the utility of mythological speech as a political resource retrospectively, (p.82) a good five years after Karna’s [Dana Veera Soora Karna] release.… This performative idiom which marked his campaign was strongly associated with acting style in mythologicals, a style shunned by the realist 1950s social. In short, the star-turned politician carried over to the election campaign a mode of excessive performativity deriving from theatre and mediated by the cinema. (2013: 295)
As several political commentators have noted, the high-handed practice of the Congress high command in New Delhi to change chief ministers of the state at will and within short periods of time was resented a great deal by the local leaders of the state. This resentment received a powerful articulation in NTR’s rhetoric. In speech after speech, he asserted that the will of the people of the state had no value for the Congress party, which was enslaved by the centre. Regional aspirations had no hope of fulfilment in this scenario—therefore a change of leadership was imperative, and this could be provided only by a new party that was home grown and rooted in the local Telugu culture and society—the Telugu Desam (the Telugu nation). This sub-national demand was of course a long time in the making and had indeed led to the formation of the separate state of Andhra Pradesh on the basis of language. NTR’s political task was clear. He had to first prove that the separate state was merely a formal granting of autonomy. His claim was that this vernacular autonomy now had to be rendered substantial.23
Telugu Identity in the Current Context
I will end this chapter with two examples from films made in the 2000s, but which invoke the mythologicals and reemphasize the ways in which Telugu speech becomes the vehicle for the (p.83) male protagonist to turn into a true hero and leader. However, the political context is now an altered one. The 1990s witnessed on the one hand, the rise of right-wing Hindutva politics and the effort to create a pan-Indian Hindu political subjectivity, and on the other hand, the numerous new subaltern political subjectivities such as the Dalit, OBC, minority, and Telangana identity which challenge the homogeneity of the Telugu identity.
In the film Khadgam,24 a Hindu past is claimed through the invocation of the cinematic genealogy of the heroic speech tradition taken especially from the mythological and historical genres. Ravi Teja, a popular male star of the 2000s, plays the role of a Hindu youth who is an enthusiastic Hindu nationalist (note that unlike NTR, he is not a Telugu nationalist). He is also an aspiring actor. Stuck in the position of a junior artiste, he is resentful of actors who make it big simply by virtue of being star sons. In one significant scene, where a historical anti-colonial film is being shot, the lead actor is unable to deliver the long and difficult monologue that he is required to. An irritated and impatient Ravi Teja steps in and outperforms the actor by delivering without pause or error the long monologue, and thereby displays his virtuosity as an actor and true Hindu nationalist!25 (p.84)
The second example I discuss is the claim to inheritance made by NTR’s grandson, not through the invocation of Hindu nationalism, but a Telugu cinematic nationalism. NTR Jr, NTR’s grandson, who entered films and became a star in the 2000s, repeatedly performs his inheritance by delivering long monologues. He earned a name for himself through his ability for clear enunciation of the Telugu language just like his grandfather. Yamadonga (Rajamouli 2007) attempts to showcase and exploit this inheritance, with a narrative that is a pastiche of elements borrowed from several popular Telugu mythologicals of the past, while drawing its main plotline from NTR’s socio-fantasy, Yamagola, discussed earlier. The film is an attempt at ventriloquism. The voice and image of the late star are reproduced digitally and he dances, sings, and talks with the young actor. Technology enables the juxtaposition of all the earlier cinematic avatars of NTR into a single frame (Figure 1.7).
In the ongoing battles over representation—both aesthetic and political—there are many claimants to the old Telugu hegemony. However, this hegemony is under threat with challenges from new political subjectivities based on subaltern genders, castes, and communities. However, the shrillest claimants to the old crumbling hegemony remain those who lay claim to the inheritance of the screen image and voice. Therefore, the sons and grandsons of NTR repeatedly perform and proclaim their relationship to the (p.85) former leader, as if that in itself is sufficient proof of their ability to be stars on the screen and leaders in the political arena. In NTR Jr, whose features bear some resemblance to the late star, and whose considerable rhetorical skills have kindled the hope that the NTR legacy will remain an active one, the NTR clan and the Telugu Desam Party have now reposed their faith. Meanwhile, Chiranjeevi who succeeded as megastar in the film field after the decline of NTR but proved a miserable failure in the political field, is desperately trying to regain his popularity in film and public life. He is backed by his acting clan consisting of actor-brother, actor-son, actor-nephew, and producer-brother-in-law.26 In this battle of cine-political families, the screen has indeed become the virtual political field where each successive hit or flop is treated as rising or declining political share value. However, this of course only seeks to unsuccessfully mask the unravelling of earlier hegemonic formations and the end of cine-politics.
With the movement for a separate Telangana, and its successful culmination in the 2014 bifurcation of the former Andhra Pradesh into the states of Telangana and a new Andhra Pradesh, the significations of the term ‘Telugu’ have changed considerably. No longer do terms like Telugu jaati and Telugujaati aatmagowravam, which NTR invoked so successfully, hold the charge they once did. Robbed of its raison d’être, the Telugu Desam as a party too is currently flailing around seeking to invent a new identity and a new basis for mobilization. To return to the story of cinema proper, in the next chapter I examine devotional films featuring exemplary saint figures.
(2) An article written by Joseph Elder and Peter Schmitthenner (1985) titled ‘Film Fantasy and Populist Politics’ is an interesting initial exploration of the ways in which NTR’s film image was mobilized to support his political career. Despite many insightful observations, both ‘fantasy’ and ‘populism’ remain undertheorized in the article.
(3) Jayalalitha who served six terms as chief minister of Tamil Nadu is also an example of a successful actor–politician in Southern India. However, her case differs from NTR, MGR, and Raj Kumar in many respects. For one, her film career began only in the 1960s by which time both MGR and NTR were established stars in Tamil and Telugu, respectively. Also, her entry into politics in the 1980s was under the mentorship of MGR and later following his death, she claimed power arguing that she was his true heir. Furthermore, the male stars NTR, MGR, and Raj Kumar came to be identified as representatives of their respective language communities in a way that no female stars of that period were. Most female stars of the 1950s and even later decades like Bhanumathi, Savitri, Anjali Devi, Sowcar Janaki, B. Saroja Devi, and Jayalalithaa herself had successful careers in both Tamil and Telugu and sometimes Kannada too, whereas the male stars remained restricted to their language cinemas.
(4) Acharya Galla Chalapathi says that K.V. Reddy’s mythological films Mayabazaar and Sri Krishnaarjuna Yuddhamu are both derived from popular oral literature in Telugu, and not from textual traditions. See Chalapathi (2012). The same can be said of many mythological and devotional films in Telugu.
(5) In his unpublished chapter on mythological films, Madhava Prasad has made a similar point about the language in the film. I am grateful to Prasad for sharing this manuscript with me.
(6) The archway to Ghatothkacha’s mountain ashram is borrowed from the historical archways of Sarnath discovered in the late-nineteenth century.
(7) Prasad, M. Madhava. Unpublished paper on the mythological genre in Indian cinema.
(8) Over the last two decades, an impressive amount of scholarship has emerged around the ways in which colonialism and nationalism have invented the ‘Hindu’ tradition in the nineteenth century. See Dalmia and Stietencron (1995), Mani (1998), and Sarkar (2001).
(10) Susie Tharu’s interesting work on the Gujarati writer Saroj Pathak has also been extremely useful in thinking through the relation between realism and the citizen figure. She argues that in India, the tension between the two gives rise to an indigenous realism that produces the figure of an avant garde citizen–executive who mediates between the state and the to-be-governed subjects. She identifies ‘a tension and an oscillation in the “officiating” genres of the period [1950s and 1960s] between a frontality through which a message from the modernizing Symbolic is directly conveyed, and realist narration, between executive and liberal citizenship’. See Tharu (2000: 225).
(11) In his essay on NTR, Srinivas describes a similar mode of introducing NTR, the star, in the 1969 social film appropriately titled Kathanayakudu (‘The Protagonist’) (Srinivas 2006). The credits of the film appear on a freeze frame of NTR recognizing him to be a legitimate protagonist. This demonstrates that it was the star’s popularity which decided how a character was introduced on screen, rather than generic conventions of the mythological or the social.
(12) Well-known screen writer D.V. Narasaraju recounts in his memoirs how a particular stage actor refused to remove his moustache despite the fact that the role of Krishna required a clean-shaven face. Therefore, while the first Krishna would be without a moustache, the second Krishna would be mustachioed. Narasaraju says that the audience didn’t seem to mind, they simply called him meesala krishnudu (the Krishna with the moustache). See Narasaraju (2006).
(13) The grand costume and jewellery worn by Duryodhana/Suyodhana, with a black train with figures of snakes embroidered on it, and the giant sculpted sitting lion which serves as his chair in his ornate chamber were all first designed by art director, T.V.S. Sarma in Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam. All of this was repeated in the 1977 film, Dana Veera Soora Karna. Much of the cast reprised their roles in the latter film, and many scenes, especially those involving Duryodhana’s visit to the grand palace of wonders, Mayasabha, commissioned by the Pandavas, are reproduced almost frame by frame. However, as we will see later, there are significant differences between the two films too.
(14) Draupadi, who is also known as Paanchaali, being the daughter of the king of Paanchaala, is panchabhatruka, a woman with five husbands, being the wife of all five Pandava brothers. In this monologue, Duryodhana underlines this fact to insult and humiliate Draupadi.
(15) Pandava Udyogavijayamulu is the stage play that was developed and made extremely popular by theatre companies like Gubbi Veeranna Company by combining two different plays that the duo Tirupati Venkateswara Kavulu had authored—Pandavodyogamu and Pandava Vijayam. These were published in Sri Tirupati Venkateswara Krutulu (Kavula 1934). For more details see the essay, ‘Pandava Udyogavijayamulu’ in Srikanta Sarma (1995: 33–41).
(16) There is an apocryphal story about the row of statues NTR instituted in the capital city Hyderabad, when he came to power as chief minister in 1983. He commissioned a set of 24 bronze statues of all the ‘great’ people in Andhra history. These statues were placed along the Hussain Sagar lake front, popularly called Tank Bund, and soon became a tourist attraction in the city. The list of greats included predictable figures like medieval historical personages; nineteenth-century social reformer, Veeresalingam; twentieth-century poets and writers like Sri Sri, Gurram Joshua, and Maqdoom Mohiuddin; and less predictable ones like stage perfomer, Ballari Raghava, and the colonial administrator, Sir Arthur Cotton. However, the uncanny effect of the statues is that if one looks closely at all the statues, so the story goes, one can find NTR’s features reflected faintly in most of them!
(18) The term ‘socio-fantasy’ is used by the film industry itself. In Telugu, it is usually only transcribed not translated. The films in this genre narrativize encounters between modern Hindu men and gods and other divine creatures from Hindu mythology. They usually feature a contest between the gods (usually Vedic gods like Yama, Kubera, and Indra, who are lower down in the hierarchy of modern reformed Hinduism) and humans. The human jati (race) always claims a higher moral ground than the gods who are invariably flawed and compromised in one way or the other. The human hero who is a modern ethical citizen–subject always triumphs over his outdated opponents from heaven or hell. Manavatvam (Humanity) always wins over Daivatvam (Divinity). It is as if there is a cross-cultural critique that is mounted on the gods—modern secularized humans are the ones who set the standards, and always find the gods to be falling short of these ethical standards.
(19) D.V. Narasaraju, the writer of Yamagola had earlier planned for NTR to play the mythological role of Yama, and for NTR’s son, Balakrishna who had just then entered films to play the role of Satyam, the young protagonist. Narasaraju thought that the father–son verbal duels would make for an interesting film. However, having listened to the script, NTR decided that the role of Satyam needed someone who carried more weight as an actor, someone whose speeches would be forceful and persuasive. In other words, it ought to be someone who already embodies the mythic style—therefore who better than himself? So, he declared that he would play the role of Satyam, and let his senior colleague Satyanarayana, play the role of Yama. See Narasaraju (2004: 61–6).
(20) Hence, the Hindi actor Raj Kapoor always had only singer Mukesh sing for him. However, in the case of Dev Anand, another star–actor of the time, two successful singers, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar, used to sing in equal measure.
(21) So, even popular heroines of the 1980s and 1990s like Radhika, Radha, Vijayashanti, and Soundarya had their voices dubbed. However, no male actor who aspired to play lead roles and achieve star status could ever think of having someone dub for him. Whatever the quality of the actor’s voice—thin and high-pitched or hollow and unclear—he dubbed for himself. If he had poor diction or was not able to enunciate clearly, he worked on it, and sooner or later was able to do the job, however inadequately. The practice of female actors having their voices dubbed by dubbing artistes reached a new high in the 1990s, when the trend of ‘importing’ glamorous actresses from Mumbai became prominent. Many of these actresses did not know the Telugu language, and no demand was made upon them by the film-makers to actually learn the language because the assumption was that their voices could be dubbed. As a result, in contemporary Telugu cinema, there are only two or three voices that are heard for a number of ‘heroines’. This complete split between body and voice seems possible only in the case of the female actors. This could be interpreted in two ways—one, that only a certain kind of voice is deemed fit to be the voice of the female protagonist; whereas new and glamorous faces are admissible, the voice ought to remain the same; or two, we might say that the female character is not seen to be a coherent and individual subject in the first place, and therefore does not require the matching of voice and body that a male character needs.
(22) S.V. Ranga Rao was perhaps the only other actor of this time whose distinctive voice and imposing physique made him an ideal mythological actor. Ranga Rao won the best actor award at the 1964 Afro-Asian Film Festival held in Jakarta for his role as Keechaka in the film Nartanasala (1963). NTR played the role of Bheema, the second among the Pandava brothers, and accomplished warrior and wrestler.
(23) Perhaps not unsurprisingly, once NTR came to power, he lasted only for a little time, and was severely criticized for his unsustainable populism and his totalitarian style of functioning. See Kohli (1988). However, as Laclau remarks, totalitarianism and fascism are ever-present dangers of democratic politics as much as they are of populism. ‘Totalitarianism, however, although it is opposed to democracy has emerged within the terrain of the democratic revolution’ (Laclau 2005: 165).
(24) The film is quite shrill in its advocacy of a view of Indian society shaped by the Hindutva discourse. There is a good Muslim patriot and a bad Muslim terrorist. The two are brothers and the good one kills his own brother once he realizes that the latter is a terrorist. This logic which demands that the Muslim citizen prove his patriotism by sacrificing/disowning his own kin is an obvious point that needs no further elaboration. In the 2002 Nandi Awards sponsored by the Andhra Pradesh state government, the film Khadgam won the Sarojini Naidu Award for best feature film on National Integration and Communal Harmony. Krishna Vamsi, the director won the Nandi Award for best director. Actor Prakash Raj won the Nandi award for best supporting actor for his role in the film, and Ravi Teja won special jury award for his portrayal in the same film. See http://www.thehindu.com/2004/02/15/stories/2004021509250300.htm; accessed on 12 July 2018.
(25) Is it more than a coincidence that the Hindu nationalist figures in the Hindi films, Hey Ram and Rang De Basanti are both skilled rhetoricians?