There are two developments that lend an air of topicality to Deities and Devotees . One is the biopic made on one of its key subjects, N.T. Rama Rao (NTR). The other is the renewed vigour of life scholar M. Madhava Prasad’s conception of ‘cine-politics’ has received with the entry of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth into the fold.
The book seeks to provide a concept of spectatorship that sees a cinephile-viewer of Telugu mythological as a citizen-devotee, one whose identities as a fan, an informed viewer, a citizen, and a devotee overlap.
Placing a mythological movie, which is a ‘founding genre’ of Indian cinema, within the ambit of the ‘Hindu mythological’, the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema says such films have always been used for “explicitly ideological ends”. This applies to Telugu mythologicals as well, where the ‘citizen devotee’ figure became a ‘citizen-voter’ in the case of NTR.
However, the transformation of his Telugu viewers from fans to voters was not totally uninformed, Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda’s book says.
Pride in identity
NTR’s figure as a god was a fusion of Telugu pride and assertiveness of a regional identity, a factor that resonated with people of Andhra Pradesh. And unlike M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), NTR was able to not just do negative roles, but also critique the social order through such roles. His roles in Dana Veera Soora Karna , where he played Karna, Krishna as well as Suyodhana, had him questioning the exclusion of ‘lower-caste’ Karna from the archery contest.
However, the critique ultimately reinforced the status quo — Karna was still defeated in battle later. The aim here was not to take on the caste system but to present NTR as a torch-bearer of a certain form of ‘Telugu-ness’.
In the realm of mythologicals, NTR’s contemporary in Tamil cinema was not MGR but Sivaji Ganesan, whose roles in Thiruvilayadal and Thiruvarutchelvar are considered iconic. He even played both the divine and the layperson in Saraswati Sabadam . Could the Parasakthi actor’s failure in politics then be explained merely in terms of his parting of ways with the DMK and his joining hands with the Congress, a party that was considered emblematic of the ‘centralising old guard’? This is a question that could make for interesting scholarly analysis.
Compared to Rachel Dwyer’s Filming the Gods, Bhrugubanda’s treatise feels somewhat incomplete as it does not explore much how the faiths of non-Hindus have figured in Telugu cinema.
Considering that Urdu was in use in the Deccan much before it gained popularity in the North, the use of ‘Islamicate culture’ in Telugu cinema deserved a chapter of its own, rather than just mentions at a few places.
Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion and Politics in South India
Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda
Oxford University Press