This post is written in collaboration with Tollywood is My Bollywood’s Jjake, whose sister post you can find here. After reading her post, I’m not sure I will ever be able to see an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers without getting upset that the leads are not Prabhas, Mahesh, Arjun and the other boys… Make sure to check it out!
I haven’t written a 2 Degrees of Separation post in a long time, but I’ll have you know that this particular one is what prompted the series to begin with.
The Tollywood (and to a certain extent Kollywood) action hero has always intrigued and attracted me, and I always thought it’s not just because the actors are hot. Though, let’s face it, that is a pretty big part of it. For me what differentiates the Tollywood hero from say, the Hollywood action hero is his Romantic disposition. And I don’t mean romantic as an adjective, but as the movement that sits at the base of modern literature, dominating the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, pretty much all across Europe.
As I was researching for this post I stumbled upon a very interesting old book called The Hero in French Romantic Literature. This book goes into quite a bit of depth defining the characteristics of the Romantic hero but the first thing that occurred to me while reading it was that, much like in Indian movies, there is a clear divide between the mass Romantic hero and the class Romantic hero. To my great disappointment the book focuses on the class one, whereas I find the mass hero to be the one closer to our Tollywood badasses, but luckily for me it’s mostly the appearance that differs, at the core, they’re both one and the same.
Before I go on, I should specify that I use the term class Romantic hero to refer to characters made famous by such authors as Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, F-A de Chateaubriand, Lord Byron, in other words, the stuff that you would study in a University Lit course. Whereas the mass hero is the creation of less critically acclaimed authors such as Alexandre Dumas Pere, Michel Zevaco, Ponson du Terrail, and a million other smaller writers who would publish each chapter of their heroic tales in the daily newspaper. The latter is the breed that interests us.
I am picturing the moment when the prototype of the Tollywood dishoom hero was created and wondering what were the building blocks that helped shape him. So let’s see, how do we build the perfect Romantic hero?
THE SKELETON: INDIVIDUALISM
Any Romantic hero is defined at his core by individualism and self-awareness, or in lighter terms: the Romantic hero is exceptional, and he damn well knows it. His uniqueness takes many forms, whether he is the misunderstood genius, or the frustrated poet, or the visionary who will rebel against society. Or, more often in mass literature, he is a good for nothing wanderer, possessing superhuman strength (and definitely some great sword wielding skills), quite a bit of wit, and an unhealthy amount of pride, all paired up with the obligatory scorn towards authority (be it political rulers or the church). But he is always different, a cut above the rest: we know that he is the hero from the first moment he appears in the story. Note however that just because he is the hero, he doesn’t always have to be good, in fact more often than not, he’s quite imperfect in his uniqueness.
In Tollywood, most of the above characteristics of the mass Romantic hero are kept as such, but just to make sure we get exactly how special he is, he invariably gets an intro song that talks about how badass he is. Here's a sample from the movie Athidi:
And here’s another awesome one, even if it doesn’t have subtitles. I’m sure it’s not very hard to figure out from the visuals that the lyrics go somewhere along the lines of “I’m so badass, so badass, there’s no one more badass than me… la la la”
THE FLESH: A DEVILISHLY CHARMING LOSER
The Romantic hero is handsome and kind hearted (even though he will usually try to play it tough), which results in him being always ready to help a damsel in distress, even when that derails his own plans. He is more often than not an orphan, and while we’d love to call him a self-made man, the truth is he hardly ever has money in his pouch and when he does, it goes just as easily as it came, usually to some inn keeper or another as nothing makes our heroes happier than a good meal washed down with a few bottles of wine. Ah… these Frenchies and their joie de vivre…
Of course, that must sound very familiar, since the Tollywood hero falls short in none of the above categories. Except he replaces the bottles of wine with some glasses of hot chai, and the inns with the street, because more often than not we have no idea where the hero lives. Jjake goes into more detail about these parallels by assigning the best known French heroes a South Indian equivalent!
Another very important physical aspect the two kinds of heroes have in common is of course: the moustache! What would a Frenchman in the 18th century and a South Indian man in any century be without their moustache? Nothing I say, nothing! And just because Mahesh Babu gets away without one we will not be fooled, we know hero = moustache. Mahesh is just trying to trick us. We’re sure he grows one at night to stay as badass as he is!
No matter his physical appearance, it all boils down to the Tolly hero being cool as a cucumber and raw as a steak (uh-oh, did I just compare him to a piece of meat, Freudian slip, sorry about that), all while unsuccessfully trying to hide his soft side. (Unless of course he’s doing the opposite and stalking the heroine, but even then he plays it cool enough for the heroine to not figure out until the end that he’s really a softie and, of course, a great catch.)
THE AURA: A MAN OF FATE
Fate was an interesting concept in the 18th– 19th century, at a crossroads between the self-made man of the 20th century and the religion governed one of the Middle Ages. But many Romantic heroes are conditioned by fate in one way or another, whether it’s because they have a higher destiny to fulfill or because fate has robbed them of their birth right.
Similarly the Tolly hero seems to be driven by forces above his will, whether it’s the need to avenge his family, or his past catching up with him. And unlike the Romantic class hero, but much like the Romantic mass hero, a tortured soul he’s not. He just takes it as it comes. He has no spleen, no anguish and usually knows how to look after himself. He may give up on some of life’s pleasures (such as pretty girls throwing themselves at him) for the sake of his mission, but he’s hardly ever bitter about it. Most of the times he’ll laugh it off and… we will too, because we know he’s still getting the girl in the end.
Sometimes, rather than being at the mercy of fate, the hero reverses the equation and becomes a changer of fates. This usually happens in films that focus more on the social message and perhaps less on the lead actor’s cuteness (Chakram and Chatrapathi with Prabhas; Dhool and Kanthaswamy with Vikram; Stalin, and from what I’ve gathered from descriptions, quite a few other Chiranjeevi movies). I’d have more examples if I were also interested more in the social message and less in the lead actor’s looks, but since I have yet to reach that high state of selflessness, I don’t.
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
Thinking about everything else that surrounds the hero and his story, I am picturing the conversation between Alexandre Dumas’ Ghost and the First Telugu Dishoom Storywriter going along these lines:
ADG: Monsieur, my stories are too French at heart to be adapted. How can you presume to do so?
FTDS: Rreyy, I dare you to find one element that we cannot translate into a South Indian movie.
ADG: I have evil dukes, jealous queens and mistresses, and cardinals who are up to no good.
FTDS: And we have evil goondas, underworld lords, jealous aunties, and all kinds of corrupt Ministers and Chief Ministers just waiting to chew some hero meat.
ADG: Hm… I also have family rivalries and backstabbing.
FTDS: That’s ok, we have factionists!
ADG: And what about the damsel in distress whose greatest asset is not her wit but her beauty and her virginity.
FTDS: Ah, for that we have Kajal!
ADG: I also have lyrical speeches and heart tugging emotional love scenes.
FTDS: Heh… Our script writers are not very good with that, but we’ll make do with plenty of songs, dances and sensual poses instead.
The Ghost of Alexandre Dumas has no choice but to slap his forehead and return to the darkness whence he came.
Of course, it’s more than likely that whoever came up with the Tollywood dishoom prototype had never read about Pardaillan, Bussy, Rocambole, La Mole and Edmond Dantes, but I don’t care, because that is how I like to think the Tollywood hero was invented! Jjake of course begs to differ, and you know… after giving it some thought, I could be persuaded to see things her way…
While I ponder that some more, I leave you with my absolute favourite hero to come out of Alexandre Dumas' pen: Bussy d'Amboise from La Dame de Monsoreau.