ENTERTAINMENT

Tapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranaut Incidents Show What Happens When Women Speak Up Against Powerful Men

Keep calm, not.

18/07/2017 6:43 PM IST | Updated 19/07/2017 8:44 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
CHANDIGARH, INDIA - MAY 26: Actress Tapsee Pannu arrived at Chandigarh airport on May 26, 2017 in Chandigarh, India. (Photo by Karun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Have Indian commercial films ever displayed an unhealthy obsession with a woman's midriff or her navel? Yes. Actually, make that a 'YES'. A shot that has the camera literally crawling over an actress' navel, like it is an important plot point that must be magnified lest the viewers missed it, is staple in every other film. With the advent of 'item songs', cameras zooming in and out of various parts of a woman's body became a ritual of sorts. Some of us have often wondered that if filmmakers paid as much attention to scripts as they do to capturing the fifty shades of the female navel, we'd probably have better films in the country.

So when Tapsee Pannu publicly pointed out how ridiculous this practice is, some of us dropped everything -- from coffee to Tinder dates -- to give her a virtual hug. And from there, things just went downhill -- for Pannu and anyone who cannot see what good a disembodied female abdomen on 70mm does except feed the male gaze.

Saying how all her roles in films in southern India required her to do nothing else other than look a certain way, Pannu had made a sarcastic observation on what women actors like her were expected to focus on.

"If I knew about this in my research before I'd gone to the South I would've worked on my navel. I clearly didn't. The first day, they started with a song itself. And they are shooting a song which is [about] the obsession over midriff," Pannu said, in response to one panelist's question on south Indian films' obsession with the navel.

via GIPHY

"I saw Sridevi's and others' videos. Everyone had flowers and fruits thrown at them. My turn came and I don't know, maybe I was not prepared as I told you, they threw a coconut at me. I don't know what is so sensuous about a coconut hitting my midriff," she added.

Saying how all her roles in films in southern India required her to do nothing else other than look a certain way, Pannu had made a sarcastic observation on what women actors like her were expected to focus on.

The film she was referring to is Jhummandi Naadam, a 2010 Telugu film directed by K Raghavendra Rao. For the uninitiated, Rao is considered the wizard of commercial success in the Telugu film industry. He is credited with having made over 100 films across the 50 years he has spent in the industry. Some sources say that at least 90 of those films were commercial successes. Rao was also the man behind a dozen campy Hindi films across late 80s, 90s and early 2000. Some of them -- like Himmatwala (1983), starring Jeetendra and Sridevi -- were runaway hits. Rao, who has retired from film-making now, was pretty much the man who film industries had to turn to if they wanted to set the cash registers ringing -- or go berserk.

Now, if that man decided that a coconut must be thrown at a woman's midriff -- and the faceless midriff be caught in action with the coconut for cinematic success -- just who has to the right to question that? Not many people who are a part of the industry he ruled and especially not a woman he launched in a film.

According to reports, that's what legions on Rao fans told Pannu in the comments section of the video and elsewhere on social media. And then, she hurried to tender an apology. "I didn't intend to hurt anyone. I wanted to make fun of myself and how my debut film happened to me. It took me a little while to understand that what I said was wrong. So I really want to apologise, if I hurt anyone's sentiment. But trust me, I didn't intend to and just wanted to make fun of myself," she said in a video she posted on social media, following the uproar.

Chances are, you'll spot a dinosaur more readily than finding factual inconsistency in Pannu's comments.

Now, go over Pannu's comments and try finding the bit she should have apologised for. Chances are, you'll spot a dinosaur more readily than finding factual inconsistency in Pannu's comments. The actor was merely stating facts. Yet, she was called a 'backstabber', 'hypocrite' and Bollywood upstart, for calling out Rao.

Film buff and reviewer Manju Latha Kalanidhi, who works with The New Indian Express, confirms that everything that Pannu said was true. While some chose to call Raghavendra Rao's tropes for what they were -- that is, sleazy -- others preferred to garb it as his 'style'. "His signature scenes include ... mandatorily, a bare midriff, a decorated navel, fruits and flowers being hurled at it ... in slow motion," says Kalanidhi.

"In a movie called Pandurangadu, which stars Tabu, actor Balakrishna throws an orange at her midriff/chest. And then grapes at her navel. Again in Pellisandadi ... a parrot throws a guava on Ravali," Kalanidhi adds, directing me to Google "Raghavendra Rao fruit songs." Surprise, surprise, the said category is one that is searched widely on YouTube if the auto-fills are anything to go by.

YouTube screenshot.

Here's a song from Allari Mogudu, where actor Ramya Krishna makes an orgasmic face as Mohan Babu, her male co-star, hurls an orange at her midriff (!).

To be fair, Pannu's comment that films in south India required her to look pretty and nothing else, while Bollywood presented her with challenging roles that tested her acting holds good only in the context of her personal experience. The Hindi film industry, as opposed to what Pannu made it out to be, has been following exactly the same formula of success -- by treating heroines as pretty props -- for ages. The number of movies in the Hindi film industry that require women to not behave like actual human beings with brains far outnumber the ones that treat actresses with the same respect as actors. Exactly what Pannu's allegation against Rao seems to be.

The Hindi film industry, as opposed to what Pannu made it out to be, has been following exactly the same formula of success -- by treating heroines as pretty props -- for ages.

There's also the question of agency. Pannu, most likely, had chosen to do those films and one can argue that if they reviled her, she could have chosen to not do them. However, that doesn't take away her right to look back and be critical of what she had been party to. And it doesn't at all alter the reality that women are relentlessly objectified in Indian film industries.

But it is clear that there's a price to be paid for having an opinion in the film industry, especially if you're a woman. Pannu's 'clarification' -- which she posted on Facebook -- has her say sorry several times over. She wonders if she has hurt anyone's 'feelings', in which case, she says repeatedly, it was unintentional.

So why is Pannu apologetic about stating facts? Kalanidhi points out that the hero-worship that male stars enjoy in south Indian film industries can be intimidating, especially when you are not a highly-billed male actor yourself. In fact, some of Rao's fans would expect that Pannu treat the fact that she starred in one of his films and got hit by a fruit on the navel as an accomplishment. Now that sentence may make no logical sense to some of us, but fandom is not known to have much regard for logic. Just see what happened to Sona Mohapatra or Twinkle Khanna because they called out or joked about Salman Khan in Bollywood.

An expert on Telugu cinema, who categorically asked to be not named, said that he feared Pannu's career in Telugu films, and perhaps in south Indian popular films, could well be over if she had not apologised.

An expert on Telugu cinema, who categorically asked to be not named, said that he feared Pannu's career in Telugu films, and perhaps in south Indian popular films, could well be over if she had not apologised. "No one will touch her. No actor, director, producer will want her in a project. What she said was absolutely right. Raghavendra Rao's movies are, in fact, popular, for these aspects. But nobody dares speak against the likes of Rao here. Things could go really downhill for her in the industry," he said.

Incidentally, Rao's son-in-law is Shobu Yarlagadda, the man who produced the Baahubali movies and, according to sources, is the biggest producer in the Telugu film industry right now.

Though there have been no reports of repercussions from the film industry yet -- neither Rao nor any important film personality has come out in criticism of Pannu -- the pattern of how such industries work is enough to suggest that Pannu could be in trouble, sources say. One can only hope that these assumptions are proven wrong.

Just look at Bollywood for reference. Kangana Ranaut, several weeks back, had in jest, suggested Karan Johar indulges in nepotism. It started a war of words in the media and social media. Among other things, Johar accused Ranaut of using the 'woman card', and then, wrote an editorial defending 'nepotism'. One would have expected it to have stopped there. But no, Johar, along with two other products of film families -- Saif Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan -- mocked Ranaut on stage at the IIFA awards.

Ranaut is facing a serious allegation of demanding writing credits for Simran, when, her opponents say, she deserves none. In her defence, she told HuffPost India that it is difficult to be a woman in the film industry, especially one who demands her due and calls out malpractices. While it is not fair to take sides on this particular case, Ranaut's statements ring true in regard with the Johar episode. Even after facing a barrage of insinuations and comments from Johar and others, Ranaut didn't back off, but held her own, never apologising for what she had said.

For hundreds of Indian women trying to negotiate patriarchal spaces every day, Ranaut's confidence comes across as a flicker of hope. In the same spirit, one must appreciate Pannu's candour and hope that women like her have the strength to call out traditions of sexism that have gone unchallenged till now.

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