It is difficult to watch Telugu films and find satisfying representations of women. Women in Telugu films are Barbie dolls, present only to be romanced by the hero and be kidnapped by the villain (who is usually their own father, setting up a semi-Oedipal complex for the hero). Women are there to be controlled by men, hit on, looked at, flirted with, and then, when they turn out to express themselves, or chase their desires, they are demonized, and need to be “fixed” by the hero (he usually does this by behaving in an extremely misogynistic way, and then teaching the woman a lesson about how Indian women are “supposed” to be). Women are trophies to be won by the hero by the end of the film; very few directors (and mostly female directors) try to the woman’s world. Nandini Reddy weaves a flawless romantic comedy with Ala Modalaindi, and Sripriya, while adapting Drishyam for a Telugu audience, consciously tries to do the same.
There is a scene in the Telugu remake of Malayalam film (both titled Drishyam), in which a police officer brutally beats up a man Rambabu, his wife Jyoti, and his teenage daughter Anju as their preteen daughter Anu watches in horror. Also in the room are the IG (Inspector General) Geeta and her husband Prabhakar: Prabhakar is horrified, and is unable to watch. Geeta, however, is angry, and waiting for a confession on the whereabouts of her son, who has been missing now for almost a month. The family, according to her, has to be guilty, as their alibi is too detailed and perfect for them to be innocent. This scene, the climax of the film, is indeed a drishyam: a sight to be seen.
Though melodramatic like a typical Indian film, Drishyam is a clever combination of comedy and social issues, emotional pain and family ties, while still weaving a thrilling and suspense filled story about the extent a man will go to protect his family from harm. And though the one active participant in the film is Rambabu, the film focuses on women. Anju, a victim of revenge porn, is a vivacious young girl, interested in social issues, debating with her father and mother and balancing the modern world with the traditional world of her parents. She constantly has to placate her mother that going out with boys, taking pictures on cell phones, and being involved in social causes is not harmful for a girl. Uneducated and simple, Jyoti is a dedicated mother and wife who knows nothing beyond her house, their farms, and her family. Geeta is a powerful and ruthless woman; heartbroken about her missing son, she will go to any length to find him, even if that means harming potentially innocent people. Geeta is the opposite of Jyoti: modern, career oriented, allowing her family to come second. Because of this, her son is neglected and spoiled.
One of the strengths of Drishyam is that it refuses to blame Geeta for being a modern, liberal woman: the narrative punishes both parents for failing to teach their son to respect women. Geeta’s aggressiveness is a result of her desire to protect her son, which justified as much as Jyoti (a simple woman with no education) begging their blackmailer to let her daughter go, and as much as Anju killing her blackmailer.
Films with female-villians tend to demonize the modern woman. In fact, Nadiya’s Telugu filmography consists of many such roles. In Mirchi, she is the “modern” woman who left her husband because she didn’t want the same kind of life as him. She moves to the city, where she runs a successful business as an event planner and raises her son single handedly. In the end of the film, she dies after a violent massacre, begging her husband for forgiveness for leaving him. In Attarintiki Daredi, Sunanda elopes with her lover against her father’s wishes (his objections were concerning his social standing), and together, they make a new life for themselves. They are happy and successful, until her nephew (Pawan Kalyan) comes looking for her, as it is her father’s dying wish to see her again. Again here, it is she that must ask her father for forgiveness, even though he threatened to kill her husband so many years ago.
Films like Drishyam undo the harm that mainstream masala entertainers do to women’s causes. The central concern of this film is a situation that many young women find themselves in nowadays not just in India, but all over the world: revenge porn. The film depicts a woman doing what she can when no one else can protect her, and while we never get to see her fight for herself again, the audience is privy to the traumatizing fear and horror that the women face, and the danger that lurks everywhere for women. Despite it’s flaws, this is Drishyam’s victory: forcing an audience (that is primarily male) to acknowledge the plight of young women everywhere. It is a drishyam that must be accepted and prevented rather than another instrument with which to blame young women.