Pushpa, the pathological male
Just like the leaders the majority votes for, we have to learn to live with the heroes that entertain the masses. The sceptics can do little other than crib about the appeal of the film
Last week I had written about Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog as an incisive rumination on masculinity and all that often remains unresolved in men. The urge to control others could well be a repercussion of the repressions deep within their own selves. Closer home,Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj is another tranquil yet turbulent exploration of how the expectations of patriarchy can ruin men themselves, resulting in tragic consequences for the sensitive souls.
I was reminded of the two films while watching Sukumar’s Telugu blockbuster Pushpa: The Rise, which treads on a similar ground, but with not an iota of nuance or subtlety. It ends up being a eulogy for the hyper-masculinity that is at the root of the troubles for its protagonist. Not just that, in turn, it makes him ricochet the very problematic machismo at its most violent and virulent.
I must be one of the last people to catch up on the wonders of the Pushpa universe that has been variously celebrated for leaving 83—and the entire Bollywood—behind and emerging as the biggest all India hit in 2021. There’s the mythologizing beyond the crores—how people are copying the dance steps and mannerisms of the titular character played by Allu Arjun—the left shoulder hunched slightly up, the hand brushed under the chin, sitting carelessly on the chair with one leg atop the other.
It’s good that when it comes to Indian cinema, we are finally and truly acknowledging the diversity and are united in our appreciation of it. We are moving away from the centrality of the monolith called Bollywood. And Pushpa has the brashness to underline it, through the protagonist who sports his identity with pride in one of the earliest moments in the film. “Pucca Telugu” (Hardcore Telugu) is how he describes himself when a cop asks him if he is from Tamil Nadu.
However, unlike the inventive Malayalam films or the powerful exploration of the subaltern spirit in Tamil cinema, Pushpa doesn’t seem to be charting any fresh new course. In fact, it treads on the most worked out, traditional formulae of filmmaking.
There was a time in the 1980s when the righteous anger and gravitas of the Angry Young Man had started deteriorating, making way for crass lumpenisation of the hero in film after film. For me, when that crude vigilante of the 80s marries the latent misanthrope and misogynist of the Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh kinds, a Pushpa is born.
“It is a continuing part of the incel (involuntary celibate) backlash that found its peak eloquence in Kabir Singh. With time it’ll only get more sophisticated. What Pushpa superbly portrays is that a masculinity in crisis will inadvertently fall back on the most comforting and familiar version of it. What’s toxic for some is chicken soup for other souls,” a friend texts.
Yes, I can do little other than crib about the appeal of the film, the thrill that it offers to most, other than a handful of us politically correct sourpusses. Afterall, just like the leaders the majority votes for, we have to learn to live with the heroes that entertain the masses and rake in the moolah. Money makes the world, and filmdom in particular, go round.
However, what I am entitled to is the right to question. I can question the seal of approval bestowed on Pushpa right at the start of the film, before the man has even made the proverbial “entry”. He is gold, he is rare like the red sandalwood whose smuggling syndicate he is a part of, the voiceover tells us. That’s the final word. Accept it and move along on his adventures as he pummels or skewers several human bodies to death or submission. But will be forgiven all his trespasses. “Losers always talk about principles,” he smirks at one point, legitimizing the moral vacuum, of his own and in general, in a most perfunctory way.
To be fair one can locate his angst. It emanates from a time-worn trope—the humiliation of being an illegitimate child, of not being able to sport the surname he is rightfully entitled to, the unfairness of not having the stamp of approval or brand value of the family, as he argues in a dramatic scene towards the end. It’s a patriarchal construct—elusive but much desired paternal love and familial rights. But the unfairness of it is never as seething in its actualization on screen as, for example, in Yash Chopra’s Trishul. Vijay deploys his mind to fight back and get what he deserves, Pushpauses his fists.
There’s also the constant reference to being called a “coolie” (labourer). However, the class issues stymying Pushpa remain thinly grounded, unlike the smouldering rage of the marginalised and disenfranchised personified by Dhanush in Karnan, a film that bristles with justified anger. Karnan revolts for his people, for a societal upheaval. For Pushpa every fight comes across as a case of revenge and retribution for personal offence that he has incurred. There is nothing larger at stake here.
Yes, resisting authority, challenging the mill owners and taking on the cops is attractive. The cheekiness and confrontational attitude would resonate with all who have faced oppression of various kinds. In a way Pushpa is all about being able to live vicariously, a vent for the pressure cooker like existence of the emasculated. But, in the process of demolishing power structures, Pushpa creates newer ones centred around him with bestie Kesava pandering needlessly to him. He is a man in love with himself. No wonder there are the self-image issues, petulant ones at that, like being referred to as flower instead of fire.
Even the love for the woman Srivalli (Rashmika Mandanna) is all about himself. If she smiles or agrees to kiss him, then she likes him. Or else he will move on. When it comes to the woman, the relationship feels humiliating than affirming. “She is mine,” he gestures to the man out to exploit her, as though she were his personal property, something marked and owned by him. She weeps and cowers and simpers and digs her face in his hairy chest. I wonder if majority of Indian women crave this ideal of protective manly man, the saviour. What’s galling is that whether it’s a hero who wants to possess her or a villain who wants to exploit, there’s barely much of a choice for her. It all boils down to male entitlement and Pushpa is a multi-crore celebration of it.