Chiranjeevi made his debut in 1978 with Pranam Khareedu, in the role of a man who worked for an exploitative feudal landlord. The film ends with Chiranjeevi stabbing the landlord, as the entire village revolts against him. Over the years, Chiranjeevi, one of the biggest stars of Telugu cinema, went on to play the underdog in many films. In the past couple of decades, however, in line with changes in dominant themes in mainstream Telugu cinema, he has mostly played more powerful characters, including that of the ‘benevolent’ feudal lord Indrasena Reddy in Indra (2002), one of his biggest hits, and more recently in his last film to release, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019).
In his upcoming film Acharya, Chiranjeevi is set to play a left-wing revolutionary. Director Koratala Siva has described the film as “A Comrade's quest for Dharma.” Venu Udugula’s Virata Parvam is another upcoming Telugu film based on radical left politics, with Priyamani and Sai Pallavi playing Naxalites and Rana Daggubati in the role of a policeman, according to reports.
Telugu cinema has a significant history of films portraying the politics of the Left, including the Naxalite movement in the state. This loosely defined bracket — sometimes called Erra cinema or Red cinema — includes a few well-known or acclaimed films like Goutam Ghose’s Maa Bhoomi (1979), Dhavala Satyam’s Yuvatharam Kadilindi (1980), R Narayana Murthy’s Erra Sainyam (1994) and Dasari Narayana Rao’s Osey Ramulamma (1997). Yet, many such films, while certainly carrying political and cultural significance, have not exactly been part of mainstream Telugu cinema.
The year 2019 saw the release of two major Telugu films set in the backdrop of Left politics on college campuses: George Reddy and Dear Comrade. With Acharya and Virata Parvam underway this year, we look at how the communist movement and the politics of the Left have been depicted in mainstream Telugu films in recent years.
The Red Star
Bharat Kamma’s Dear Comrade tells the story of Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) and Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna), which begins in Kakinada in the backdrop of student protests against fee hikes. Bobby is inspired by his grandfather, ‘Comrade Suryam’. There are a few posters and portraits of communist leaders, and many old books in the students’ union building. But we are not sure if Bobby ever reads any of them.
To Bobby, being a comrade means ‘fighting’ for what you care about. He is a hot-headed student, and the campus politics simply becomes a vehicle to display Vijay Deverakonda’s Arjun Reddy aesthetic — lashing out over bad guys or breakups, smoking while bleeding, taking vacations for soul-searching etc. His involvement in student politics doesn’t do much besides reminding us of the film which marked Vijay’s arrival as a star.
The only red flag Lilly sees is Bobby’s violent behaviour, and she leaves him because of this. On his grandfather’s advice, Bobby goes to Ladakh to deal with the break-up, and all the solitude and introspection apparently teach him to be a 'real comrade'.
Bobby returns to find Lilly depressed, having given up her promising cricketing career because of a traumatic incident. His aggression returns when he finds out that Lilly was sexually harassed, and he's hellbent on getting justice for her.
Lilly does object to his saviour complex, and the film does give her character a lot of importance and agency in general. She eventually stands up to her harasser on her own, and seems to find it cathartic. Until then, Bobby is rather callous in pushing Lilly to speak up. He even calls her a ‘loser’ for hesitating. He does the same with a classmate at the beginning of the film, chiding her after she is driven to attempt suicide because of a stalker. After supposedly transforming into a ‘true’ comrade, thanks to the mountains, you would think Bobby would have a better understanding of how power operates, and would know better than to yell at a woman to ‘be brave’.
His insensitive coercion underlines the male saviour’s failure to perceive Lilly’s trauma. Lilly even puts her harasser, father and Bobby in the same box for not respecting her agency, and says “You (men) are all the same”. Star-driven films are often packed with such dissonances, especially when the ‘hero’ fights on behalf of the oppressed while belonging to the oppressor community. Dear Comrade incidentally also takes a jibe (accidentally?) at the criticism of Left parties in the state for being filled with members of dominant, land-owning castes. When Lilly asks her uncle what ‘comrade’ means, he replies: Kamma plus Reddy equals Comrade.
Altogether, the film doesn’t gain much from Bobby or his family’s Marxist or Leninist leanings. Grandpa might as well have been a follower of Stalin from the 2006 Chiranjeevi film and advised his grandson to run a pyramid scheme of kind acts. Bobby and Lilly would have still had the same ending, with her courage attributed to the hero’s credit for her courage.
Trivikram’s Jalsa (2008) is another star-driven film where the hero toys with communist politics. Sanjay Sahoo (Pawan Kalyan), a postgraduate from Osmania University, belongs to a poor, marginalised family from a village in Karimnagar. As a child, he loses his brother for lack of healthcare. As an adult, he loses both his parents after his father, a farmer, dies by suicide. In his pain, he lashes out at the henchmen of a local landlord over a minor incident. Following a generic rant against capitalists and excessive wealth, he learns that his anger is a result of years of oppression, and joins the Naxalite movement.
He quickly moves up the ranks in his troop, but feels conflicted with some of his fellow troop members’ beliefs. For instance, when a comrade says that collateral damage is an acceptable part of the movement, Sanjay asks, “If innocent people die in a war fought on behalf of innocent people, what’s the use?”
He surrenders in the aftermath of a deadly police firing, and inexplicably returns to a life of urban comforts. He eventually settles scores with the village landlord, but his anger at systemic inequality seems to have fizzled out, and revolution is long forgotten. In Dear Comrade too, Bobby seems to limit his fight to achieve justice for his partner Lilly alone. Her friend Rubina — who tried to complain against Lilly’s harasser and was physically assaulted by him as a consequence — is pushed to the sidelines.
In both these films, the male lead’s stardom overshadows any clear explanation of their politics.
As a biopic, George Reddy inevitably worships its hero. While there is an emphasis on George’s politics and views, they remain blurred under the infatuated gaze through which his story is told by director Jeevan Reddy.
Maya — a lovesick fellow student — claims to understand George’s actions through Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh’s texts (recommended by George). But the film features more Hindu mythological references (quoted by one of the bad guys’ henchman) than any well-grounded references to Marxist thought.
We see George leading protests against caste discrimination on campus, and engaging in a few heroic fights. Soon, the protests are extended to include national issues like agrarian crisis. But the film doesn't show us how the movement grew so big, and how George managed to organise so many students across campuses.
In one noteworthy exchange with a Naxalite leader, George Reddy in the film talks about drawing inspiration from the Srikakulam peasant uprising and seems open to joining the Naxalite movement in the future.
In Virata Parvam, Priyamani plays the role of Comrade Bharathakka. Describing her role, Rana Daggubati wrote, “She believed that even a huge crisis could lead to a great peace.”
Foreshadowed by Krishna Vamsi’s Sindhooram (1997), more recent films like Virodhi (2011) and Dalam (2013) told stories that were empathetic towards Naxalites and their reasons for joining the movement. But these characters are almost always doomed.
In Neelakanta’s Virodhi, the protagonist is a principled journalist named Jayadev (Srikanth). A Naxalite troop plans to abduct a corrupt Member of Parliament Jangaiah, who is illegally mining the tribal lands in his constituency. They accidentally kill him, and abduct Jayadev instead. The troop leader, Gogi, plans to use Jayadev as a bargaining chip to escape the police while returning to their basecamp.
Jayadev gives off strong centrist vibes, and believes in doing whatever’s best for the country. Held captive by the Gogi dalam (troop), he walks with them through the Nallamala forest, forming friendships with the members while also poking holes in their movement.
Jayadev convinces Lakshman, a sensitive college dropout, that he will never get used to killing; that he doesn’t have to agree with his leader Gogi who has way fewer qualms about taking lives. Jayadev also persuades Maina, a Dalit girl who was raped and had her family torched by her upper caste boyfriend’s family, that she can find love again with Lakshman, and lead a normal life outside of the movement. Gogi reminds Maina of their fight to “create a casteless, classless society,” but fails to convince her and Lakshman to stay back.
Gogi, a political science graduate, has spent nearly 10 years in the movement, and broken out of his former troop to start his own. Other troop leaders feel Gogi is ‘polluting’ the movement, that he only has ambition devoid of ideology. Out of conceit, Gogi refuses to set Jayadev free, and ends up endangering his comrades’ lives.
The rest of the troop slowly comes to see that what they saw as a serious commitment to the movement was actually Gogi’s ruthless craving for power. Hari, the last standing honest member of the troop, rejects Jayadev’s suggestion to surrender and walks off into the forest. Jayadev returns home as the Leftist poet Sri Sri’s words ring in the background, suggesting that he is not sure of his binary worldview anymore, where he saw insurgency as a misguided path.
Dalam, also directed by Jeevan Reddy, tells the story of a group of Naxalites who quit their troop and surrender. The group is led by Shatru, who can’t see the point of all the sacrifice anymore. With his close aide Abhi, and a few others, he surrenders, only to be sent to police custody for a month. Cops torture Abhi until Shatru agrees to turn his group into hitmen, cooperating with the police while working in proxy for an MLA.
Dalam does not brood too seriously over the surrendered Naxalites’ motives for joining the movement, or for leaving. Instead, it shows the vulnerability that haunts Shatru’s troop before, during and after their involvement in the movement. Ladda, a new encounter-crazy cop arrives in town, and Shatru’s dalam is left without support from the MLA or the police department.
Through the film, the silly characters of the dalam grow on us, so that their murders hurt. The bloodthirsty cop’s actions are shown as a sadistic, gratuitous power trip. SP Ladda, however, is just the poster boy of police brutality in the film.
Earlier in the film, Shatru says that if a gun had a brain, it would be like Abhi. After losing everyone he loves, Abhi joins the Naxalite movement again, and goes on to avenge all the brutal murders by Ladda.
Sindhooram andVirodhi only show the downfall of the movement’s leaders who deviate from a communist ideology towards vigilantism or despotism. In Dalam however, the movement gives Abhi his only realistic shot at justice.
While Dalam takes a clear stand on police brutality, in Virodhi, Neelakanta presents an intellectual debate between a journalist and political science graduates turned Naxalites, with the cops simply ‘doing their job’ in the backdrop. With reports suggesting that Virata Parvam will show a romance between a Naxalite (Sai Pallavi) and a cop (Rana Daggubati), it will be interesting to see how Venu Udugula presents sociopolitical realities with his literary sensibilities.
As for the Megastar, whether he plays a worker or a landlord, a farmer or teacher, don or army officer, the politics and principles of the film are usually molded in his star persona. Whether Acharya will do the same, or balance the star’s blaze with its politics (like Rajinikanth's Kaala for instance), remains to be seen.