Go Girl: Tollywood heroines get a professional identity finally, but is that change enough?

Stand-up comedian, social entrepreneur, chef, and kabaddi coach are some of the roles that Telugu female protagonists have played onscreen in 2021. Is it the beginning of a new trend?

Published: 02nd January 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st January 2022 08:16 PM   |  A+A-

Nithya Menen

Nithya Menen is a journalist in Skylab. (Photo | Special Arrangement)

Express News Service

The Telugu film heroine finally has a Curriculum Vitae in her professional dossier.

Take the recent movies of 2021. Most Eligible Bachelor has Pooja Hegde playing Vibha, a stand-up comedian. In Tuck Jagadeesh, Ritu Verma plays a village revenue officer called Gummadi Varalakshmi. Verma also essays the role of a chef in Ninnila Ninnila.

Tamannaah Bhatia is the Telangana women kabaddi team's coach in Jwala Reddy. Sai Pallavi is a Zumba instructor in Sekhar Kammula's Love Story. A professional identity, finally. A refreshing change from the time they were just romantic interests with nothing but a name to themselves. This is a departure from barely a dozen movies out of the 250 movies that Tollywood churns out every year. 

"A change in perspective influenced partly by real world employment dynamics, and in part propelled by the actors themselves in putting their foot down and demanding for 'meatier roles'. Now, this has resulted in a new interesting situation altogether -- a role created for female leads only to serve the purposes of the male lead. Case in point, Most Eligible Bachelor. When we see Vibha do stand-up comedy, it seems her 'profession' exists purely to attract the male lead's attention. Worse even, she ends up changing her whole stance over the course of the film. Contextually, she might belong to any other profession for that matter and the story would remain the same. This sort of pseudo representation is harmful as it creates an unhealthy impression that no matter what you do, you still need a proverbial hero in your life to be successful," comments Hyderabad-based Siddharth Naidu, writer and founder of VoxSpace, a portal that features 'stories which matter'.

Sai Pallavi as Zumba instructor in Love Story

The same can be said of many other roles that start as promising, but then sway to the whims of the narrative. It almost seems that the writers, just to coax the female actors into signing the film, create such 'nothing' roles.

"When we look at roles like Gowri (Nithya Menen in Skylab), we see the stark contrast in creating a female character who is absolutely essential to the story. She doesn't happen to be in the story, she makes the story happen. That’s the difference. The Bechdel Test, a scale of female representation, among other things states that female roles need to exist and interact independently on their own accord and despite the hero's so-called journey. It is a good thing we are creating roles of working women, even professionals at that. But that's not enough. If we need to make our films socially relevant, we also need to give these roles their own distinct agencies," Naidu adds. 

Spurthi Kolipaka, the Campaign Strategist for WomComMatters, who was instrumental in getting the Women’s Commission of Telangana operational and known for her feminist stance, believes that some movies do a disservice by portraying the women in roles that the filmmaker is not invested in. "The Most Eligible Bachelor starts and ends with a wife joke. These films are responsible for inspiring casual sexism. We have no clue why we never got to see Shruti Hassan be a practicing lawyer in Vakeel Saab, even once. Although, we did see the character's pregnant self."

That female roles have a strong impact on the audience and the masses was evident in the 90s when Telugu superstar Vijayashanthi (nicknamed Lady Amitabh by her fans) played the role of a supercop (IPS officer Kiran Bedi) in Kartavyam.

"It wasn't just a coincidence that the number of girls who started taking Police Inspector/Constable exams that following year trebled," recalls Prakash Reddy Jeera of JOBS Study Circle, a coaching centre, in Ameerpet, Hyderabad. Six of his girl students were inspired by the portrayal and decided to sit for the exam. He remembers training 26 girls that year, thrice of what he did in the previous years.  

Giving a south Indian perspective to the issue, cinephile and independent film journalist Ashameera Aiyappan says,  "Malayalam cinema has embraced showing an everyday woman at a more intricate level in movies such as The Great Indian Kitchen. Telugu and Tamil are commercial markets that celebrate the hero and his heroism. Unless there is a market around women-centric cinema, female characters will continue to remain insignificant."

Will 2022 bring home the Telugu heroine's CV? The box office holds the answers.

Stand-up comedian, social entrepreneur, chef, and kabaddi coach are some of the roles that Telugu female protagonists have played onscreen in 2021. Is it the beginning of a new trend to reinstate the Telugu heroine or a flash in the pan?


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