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In this presentation S.V. Srinivas proposes to take discourses and practices nurtured by Telugu cinema seriously, but not literally, to make tentative claims on contemporary politics.

Although film stars are increasingly unsuccessful in politics in southern India, films made in this region have had much to say about the masses and their leaders. On the Telugu screen, the leader (nayakudu) and masses (janam) evolved parallelly, complementing each other.

In the 1940s and 1950s, drawing on a variety of sources including imported films, Telugu cinema created a generation of male stars by collapsing the two meanings of the word nayakudu (narrative protagonist, and leader). More recent vehicles of a host of Telugu stars—like those of their Tamil counterparts—invite comparisons between the character as nayakudu on screen and the star as nayakudu off screen.

The masses frequently make appearances during songs, fights and even climaxes in film after film. Both on and off screen, the masses that Telugu cinema assembles render fuzzy the distinctions between devotees, supplicants, and political subjects. At the intersection between cinema, caste associations and political parties are fan practices mimicking religious rituals.

In films and public spaces alike, we routinely encounter visual and verbal invocations of pre-democratic conceptions of sovereignty, centred on princely figures and dynastic succession. We therefore have a Mass Maharaja (Ravi Teja) battling the Royal Rebel (Prabhas) at the box office while the Yuva Samrat (Nagarjuna) and Prince (Mahesh Babu) busy themselves with their Sankranthi festival releases.Focusing on two moments—1980s and 2010s—S.V. Srinivas examines a few familiar tropes and formulaic elements of Telugu cinema to suggest that the most banal of films might be useful resources for understanding mass politics.

About the speaker

S.V. Srinivas is a Professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.