The tide is changing in the Telugu film industry. The tried and tested ‘commercial formula’ no longer guarantees success, innovation is in, producers aren’t hesitating to back content-driven cinema and superstars are willing to push the envelope and try out characters which no mainstream actor would even dream of, in the early 2000s. In 2016 alone, the success of films like Kshanam, Oopiri and A..Aa has clearly indicated a change in the mindset of both filmmakers and the audience. Actors Nani, Sharwanand and Adivi Sesh have enjoyed both critical and box-office success in an industry which was once monopolised by stars from the ‘big families’.
However, the biggest beneficiaries of this changing approach in Tollywood are the actresses. Over the last decade, Telugu cinema has been notorious for reducing women to glamorous dolls. In most commercial films, and there were plenty of those, the role of an actress was only to dance in a few songs and appear in a few romantic sequences here and there. On-screen, actresses have often been portrayed as vulnerable and were ‘rescued’ by powerful heroes. Our on-screen ladies would also be foolish enough to fall in love with the hero, even if he uses despicable means of stalking (Puri Jagannath’s Heart Attack).
But times have changed now and actresses finally have a reason to cheer. Tollywood ladies have much more to do than just dancing in glamorous costumes and getting their navel pinched. Actresses are now playing a wide range of roles in the industry – from police officers to psychiatrists to fiercely independent characters.
Adah Sharma, for an instance, turned a corner in 2016 and turned heads with her acting performances. She started off the year with Garam, in which she played a Muslim girl with barely any dialogues. While the film didn’t do as well as she would’ve liked, Adah was satisfied with the way her performance was received. “It was a tough role for me. I was wearing a burkha throughout the film, so I did not have much to speak. That way, I had to emote only through the eyes. It was an interesting role and I loved every minute of it,” she said.
However, Adah then went on to deliver the most memorable performance of her career in Ravikanth Perepu’s Kshanam. The actress portrays the anguish of a mother in search of a child to perfection and won accolades for her performance.
“The role demanded a realistic performance from me and the biggest challenge for me was not to make it too dramatic. In a way, Kshanam has broken a lot of stereotypes surrounding Tollywood. Now at this stage of my career, I have the liberty to try different roles and genres. Even if I make mistakes, I’m not scared because the audience has accepted me. Now I can afford to take risks,” Adah said, optimistically.
Welcoming the change in mindset in Tollywood, actresses are now rejecting roles which don’t offer them a challenge. Tamannaah, who has been branded as ‘milky beauty’ by her fans, has much more to offer than her physical attributes alone.
“I don’t want to do films where I’m doing just 10 scenes. I’m looking for something more substantial. I’m doing different yet time-consuming films and I feel they are a lot more rewarding than doing 10 films in an year with no substantial role,” she said, firmly. Tamannaah will next be seen in a dual role (including a deglam avatar) in Abhinetri, a trilingual film.
Another actress who has completely shifted away from meaningless roles in mainstream commercial cinema, is Samantha.
The actress single-handedly ran the show in Trivikram’s A..Aa, which has turned out to be this summer’s biggest blockbuster, beating the likes of Mahesh Babu’s Brahmotsavam and Pawan Kalyan’s Sardaar Gabbar Singh.
Samantha has been most vocal on women getting substantial roles in movies. In 2014 during promotions for Alludu Seenu, Samantha, almost helplessly, rued the situation for women in Tollywood, and stated that women must have more importance in this male-dominated industry. Two years on, Samantha is one of south India’s leading ladies, having acted opposite all the major stars. While she’s clear on the roles she would be doing in the future, Samantha said she’s not exactly averse to doing mass entertainers.
“I had done Theri with Vishal, which was a mass film but my role still had importance. I will not do mass films which have no character. Other than that, I will do any film in south India which has scope for women in it – mass or not,” she expressed.
Apart from better roles, women have also taken strides towards ensuring equal pay. While there’s still a long way to go, the progress in recent times is remarkable.
“Slowly, we are bridging the gap. Women are getting paid better and we are getting better roles as well. For instance, in A..Aa, I was not just an eye-candy – I shouldered equal responsibility as the actor,” Samantha added.
It’s not just established actresses who are enjoying roles of substance, even rising stars are striving for innovation. Actress Catherine Tresa played the role of an MLA in Sarrainodu, Malayalam girl Niveda Thomas stole the show in latest Nani-starrer Gentleman and Lavanya Tripathi will next be seen in the role of a psychiatrist. Directors are willing to push the envelope and shift out of the commercial formula – and the women ain’t complaining!