Ms. Representation: Are the parts worth more than the whole?
Did you know our brains see men as whole and women as parts? A 2012 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that our brains process the images of men and women differently. There are two ways - global processing and local processing. Global processing is when your brain identifies objects as a whole.
For example, faces. While we know and remember faces in their entirety, we don't always recognise noses or ears separately without the rest. Local processing focuses more on individual parts of an object. The study says that people (regardless of gender) process female images 'locally' (to identify body parts even when they are isolated) while male images were processed globally - a sign of objectification. In a nutshell, men are people, and women are parts.
This is how Sukumar-Allu Arjun's recent release Pushpa: The Rise sees its women. Every woman in Pushpa is reduced to their bodies. Pushpa Raj's mother is only spoken of as the mistress of an affluent man. Datchayani's (Anasuya Bharadwaj) saree is in constant danger of slipping off. And it does. when she is poised to kill someone. It's obvious, isn't it? How is it possible to slit someone's throat with the saree getting in the way?
But the prime victim would be Sri Valli (Rashmika Mandanna), who is an object of interest to both the hero Pushpa Raj (Allu Arjun) and one of the villains, Jolly Reddy, who blackmails her to sleep with him by holding her father hostage.
Pushpa Raj too offers her money to kiss him; gets 'offended' when she refuses his physical advances. He decides to marry her only to get the kiss he 'paid for'. The sad part is, Sri Valli herself doesn't believe she has more value than her sexual capacity.
Remember Thenmozhi offering her body to Pugazhenthi in Mudhalvan? Sri Valli does something similar here. She goes to Pushpa and asks him to sleep with her just once before she goes to get harassed by Jolly Reddy. Now, there's a sentence I never thought I would write.
Mind you, this is not about Sri Valli's sexual agency or her choice. This is about legitimising and normalising Pushpa and his actions. While Jolly Reddy is rightly villainised, Pushpa's problematic behaviour is passed off as cute, or even worse, funny.
Pushpa uses Sri Valli's consent to iron out all the problematic kinks in their 'romance'. Unsurprisingly, the film offers no logic or reason for Sri Valli's fascination towards Pushpa Raj, apart from him being the hero. Just like her complexion and the film’s writing, her emotional decisions are also confusingly inconsistent.
One of the biggest draws for Pushpa pre-release was Samantha’s dance number Oo Antaava. (Oo Solriya in Tamil.) Dance numbers specialise in the commodification of the female body. They only have one job to do, to titillate the male audience.
There's no pretence of being integral to the story. Oo Solriya dropped when item songs were trite and thankfully in the past. The song went viral because of its unvarnished lyrics that criticise the ever-objectifying male gaze, and the sass in Andrea Jeremiah's singing. But if you look at the song, you will see that it is no different from any other dance number - complete with spotlights for Samantha's washboard abs. Ironically, the visuals perform exactly what it supposedly critiques.
At the core, Pushpa is essentially a film about identity and follows a boy on his journey to create his own 'brand'. But the film makes it clear that only men can, bequeath and create identities. For a woman though, her only identity, can be her body.