Monday, September 6, 2010

2 Degrees of Separation: The French Romantic Hero in Tollywood

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?

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 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.)

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.

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.


jjake said...

Let me be the first to comment! Great post! I had so much fun thinking about this. Really a great idea Dolce~oro!

Margaret said...

Wonderful! Very literary. One little quibble. Could you slow down the slide show a little, so I could feast my eyes on the Indian archetypes?

Dolce and Namak said...

Jjake, this was indeed an inordinate amount of fun (and a surprising amount of work!! :))! Many thanks for taking me up on it! :)

Thank you, rameshram and Margaret! And Margaret, you are shameless, but as the French would say "a vos ordres, madame!" :) Can't make it too slow because it would take away from the feeling I was trying to create there (something along the lines of being assaulted by all of them at the same time LOL Wait... That didn't come out right... :-/)

cmleigh said...

I love your post as well. I had a few chuckles reading all about our mass heroes. Thanks.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hehe, thank you for the visit cmleigh and glad to have provided the chuckles! :D

Anonymous said...

I sort of get the feeling that you are not taking your very insightful analysis too seriously.

In response to one of your points, yes they do teach victor hugo and guy de maupassaunt in high school curriculums in south india (sometimes in tamil and telugu) and indian filmmakers and audiences do have access to BBC TV serials of most classic authors.The connection may not be as far fetched as you assume, mostly because colonial( nepoleonic) france used to be a big player in tipu sultan south india- evidence of which you can still see in pondicherry and in nice/ champagne in all those cute french speaking expat indians.

To paraphrase amitabh from bunty/bubbli, " yeh world hai na world?..."

Dolce and Namak said...

Heya Rameshram,

I do try to not take myself too seriously, if I did, I'd come across as an even bigger snob than I already am ;)
I do all the research like I mean it, but I try to keep it fun and breezy when I write the post. Are you scolding me for it? ;)

Interesting that they study French lit in highschool, we didn't until university, which is funny because you'd think in a country where French is the second foreign language taught in schools, you'd learn more about their literature. But that aside, I see your point about access to these works, I wasn't implying they don't have access to them (we do live in the global village after all) just that I can't imagine people (especially guys) in India reading all the French mass novels I was referring to, let alone see them as inspiration. Plus, even if people study what I call the "class literature" (Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire), that doesn't bring them any closer to the "mass literature". But of course nothing I say is definitive, I could be totally wrong in my assumptions. :)

The other thing is, back when I was reading this stuff, all the boys were going ewwww, and then heading to Jules Verne at best (or at worst to Prince of Persia or a game of football ;)). Wondering if the way I wrote it came across as patronizing, that was not my intention, just saying that what is common for a girl my age from Europe cannot possibly be as common for a boy in India who will grow up to be a script writer/ film director. Everyone has access to this stuff, there's no denying that, it's whether or not they actually choose to read it (I guess the movies are indeed more popular than the books, so that would be a better potential source, but that's just another interpretation of the hero, usually through the prism of modern humour and sensibilities, which takes away from the original IMHO).

What I think is closer to reality is that there is a certain archetype for this kind of hero that can be followed through the centuries as he picks up the different hues from each historical age and from each place. This particular one seems to have found his best representation during Romaticism which is why he was so popular then (and still is now). But that doesn't stop him from existing in modern avatars, and one of the most faithful ones IMO is indeed Tollywood. But that would have been a boring conclusion to end the post with, hai na? :D

Anonymous said...

Oh no no, not patronizig at all. I guess I should have said they have access to french lit in english/ the local language..not in french.

when we were growing up, we used to have(forced to) read "non detail" books in school which were all "count of monte cristo" "three musketeers"..etc. we liked these better than the thomas hardys(mournful) and charles dickenses(boooring) that we had to read, so I guess french romanticism has a very differrent association in indian adolescent schoolboy mythology than it does with your common american schoolboy.

the point is, the familiarity with french classics sort of allowed us to define our heroes as something more than the noir-ish raymond chandler/ James hadley chase types of action hero populating western popular mythology these days.

I personally think(knowing some of these charecters pretty well) that the experimentation with the "kind" of hero you create in a southie film is deliberate experimentation on the myth of the "hero" (a southie hero does not have to go on a journey and grow up and see the world to have exciting adventures. Adventure and romance seek him out when he is cutting a chai at the local tea shop with his homies.) people like Bala and jagalarmudi are writing their heroes witha fair bit of cultural sophistication, even if the audience is often comprised of truants from a high school liberal arts education.

Dolce and Namak said...

Oooh... this is interesting information you just pointed out, Rameshram! You lucky bums got to do this for school? I would have given my left arm to "study" Dumas and Zevaco instead of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and whatever that superdepressing Dickens novel was (Bleak House? Oliver Twist? Whichever, they're all depressing when you're at that age! :P).

You know, I'll be honest, I never gave enough credit to the similarities to take them as intentional, I just thought it was the same prototype resurfacing in different cultures, but you're making me rethink this... If these stereotypes are more ingrained in the social psyche than I thought, then that makes the Southie hero even cooler (now that he has an almost official European background :P). More power to Dumas!

By the way, I love this:
"a southie hero does not have to go on a journey and grow up and see the world to have exciting adventures. Adventure and romance seek him out when he is cutting a chai at the local tea shop with his homies"
:D That just put a huge smile on my face! So true!
And that's another thing that the French Romantic mass hero has over the class hero who is full of angst and ideals and always in search of the better world which he never finds. That's what I like about the mass hero: he doesn't need that much, he's just happy with what he has (unless he's Mahesh in one of his super-brooding roles ;)), and when he's not happy, he solves all the world's problems with another badass fight. :D

I think we also see in these movies what we want to see, which is why I like them: there are many cultural parallels that can be made (which is sort of what I'm trying to show with this whole 2 Degrees of Separation series) if one is willing to take their brain along, but at the same time, they're written in such a way that it's digestible for everyone even if the brain is on vacation that day.

But seriously thank you for the cultural insight, I never would have known this and this conversation is really making my day! :)

jjake said...

Wow Nice conversation you're having over here. So Dumas was read in High School in India? Very Cool! We too were stuck with Dickenson and the even more depressing Steinbeck. Fortunetly for me my Dad loved Dumas when he was a kid and passed them on to my sisters and I when we were quite young. I think I read the 3 Musketeers just for fun when I was about 12. Anyway I don't have anything to add to your discussion except that I enjoyed reading it. :-)

Anonymous said...

oh youre welcome! keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...


yes, dumas, robert louis stevenson,kipling.some lambs tales from shakesphere, and the obligatory hardy eliot and dickens.

Ghanan said...

I have no insightful reference to feed to this wonderful discussion, I just wanna say :
Dolce, you absolutly rock !!
This post is a total delight.

As I told you on BW?, I was already a fan, and this one didn't fail to make me a hardcore one. (the fact that I'm french has nothing to do with it. Or maybe a little. But nevermind. It rocks, no matter what. )

What an absolute delight !

Dolce and Namak said...

Ghanan, you always manage to make me smile :) Thank you for the enthusiasm and now I really hope to not disappoint you (having a hardcore fan comes with some heavy responsibility, eh?) :D

Glad you liked this post, there's so much more that should have gone in there, and since you've probably read all these novels too, next time I'm in France we can debate about why it is that all the Romantic heroes have a sword that they would give their life for but not a single one of the Tolly boys owns a machete :P Or some other similar life and death matter, surely we can come up with other existential questions like that :)

Don't forget to check out Jjake's post as well! and speaking of which:
Jjake, I take it you were just as surprised as me to find out what the Indian boys learn in school :D We were so born on the wrong continents!... Chi!! :)

Anonymous said...

"why it is that all the Romantic heroes have a sword that they would give their life for but not a single one of the Tolly boys owns a machete"

ooh i know the answer to that one! only bad guys without mums to go home to own a machete. besides a <open hand closing to arthritic clicks and snaps followed by a lot of bish-es can take out an army of machetes.

besides, a true south indian hero can always BORROW a machete from a bad guy (without a mum) after beating him up..

these areinvariant conventions like AK Ramanujan's rules for classical tamil poetry.

Dolce and Namak said...

Ok, seriously Ramesh (haha, I stalked your blog, so I can stop calling you rameshram now ;)) you will be responsible if I die of a cough attack soon. I laughed so hard when I read that last one (couldn't stop laughing at the fact that the bad guy ABSOLUTELY has to be without a mum!) that my poor flu-infested lungs just couldn't take it anymore. Dude, if the rules for classical Tamil poetry are as funny as this, I need to read them! :D

But it does make me wonder, if the hero (going home to his mum) never had a machete, where did he learn to be so good with it?

jjake said...

That's easy: Tolly Heroes come by ass-kicking, machete wielding, bad-assness, naturally. And they have super powers and most likely god on their side. I do want to point out that Tarak in Simhadri does have an axe. However,someone else kept it and tossed it to him whenever he needed it so he never did carry it about.

Anonymous said...

anger. deffly anger cleansed and taught him the way of the sword( bushido). (nods earnestly)

remind me to write a blogpost about the south indian hero and jean paul sartre's ideas about cleansing anger.

besides i think you missed why a south indian hero needs a mum. Its so that the south indian heroine has someone to go to, you know, in case the tough guy starts rough...

Dolce and Namak said...

ROFL You guys are making my night!

Jjake, you make a good point: why carry your weapon when someone else can carry it for you! :D (In fact I vaguely remember most Romantic heroes having some valet or servant of sorts to carry their shit around).

Ramesh, I would LOVE to see that blogpost!!! :) And I never wondered why the Southie hero needs a mom, it's clearly so that the bad guys can blackmail him when they find both his mom AND the heroine conveniently huddled together and not really making an effort to run and hide. Not to mention that the bad guy, even if he had a mom, would probably off her himself, so blackmail doesn't quite work both ways.

Anonymous said...

yeah where better to bond (and unite in your hatred for the villain/ love for the son/beau ) than tied up in a villains lair! also, even a tollywood villain wouldnt DARE molest a heroine in front of his mum serves her purpose..

Dolce and Namak said...

Hah! Unless the villain's mother is even more badass than the villain and does the job herself (a la Desamuduru and possibly Yamadonga, though I can't remember who was slapping that poor girl the most in YD, I think it was a free-for-all...)

Anonymous said...

there are two types of slaps, lets be clear one is when the hero,whose like this big hormonal dog,does to attract girl's attention. the appropriate response to this is a dream sequence with skimpily clad extras.

the other is this evil patriarchal slap that the villain/ henchperson gives, which should be roundly condemned by all right thinking people.

Dolce and Namak said...

LMAO! I'm choking to death here!

I almost agree with that last sentence there (and I will definitely use "evil patriarchal slap" in reviews from now on! :)), unless we're talking about Hansika being at the end of that slap in which case, even though I think of myself as a right thinking person, I will probably enojoy it deep down inside. :P

And because I'm watching Chiranjeevi's "Hitler" right now, I have to add there is one more type of slap: when the hero slaps the girl who finds it an appropriate time to reach over and kiss him after whining for a bit. WTF!!!... Words fail me...

Random thought: I should do a post one day about when a dream sequence is an appropriate response... and when it's not. :)

Nicki said...

Love the collaboration with jjake!

You two gave it a lot of thought and I can not compare.

Everytime I saw Dumas name, I thought about Dumbass...sorry :D Just had to say that.

You know I <3 you cause I don't take anything too seriously too :D

Great job, like always!

Anonymous said...

a rules of post slap dream sequences must necessarily include video clip illustrations.

Dolce and Namak said...

Ramesh, but of course! :) I will make sure to find visual evidence!

Nicki, hey girl, what's up? Thank you for the praise, and shame on you for reading Dumbass instead of Dumas. :) Chi chi chi chi chi! :D But that's ok, I won't stay mad too long because I know you love our Southie heroes just as much as Dumas would if he were alive today ;)

Anonymous said...

ok haha! the blogpost can't come soon enough :)

Swati Sapna said...

this is so insanely innovative that i can only doff my imaginary hat at you :D and LOVE this whole exchange between all you southie aficionados! lol!!!
slaps and kisses - all an integral part of the southie hero's wooing technique ;)

Dolce and Namak said...

Swati, you actually read all our banter!?! Hats off to YOU, lady!! :) And I see you've already discovered Jjake's blog, awesome, I was just going to recommend it to you! I think you'll fit right in with all of us around here! :)

jjake said...

If you ever do the inapropriate dream sequence or slap post you should watch more of Tarak's movies. He does a lot of heroine slapping. Naaga has the best inapropriate dream seqeunce. He just sees his Father being burned alive as he gets carted off to jail. Perfect time for a love song! I did a review on my Blog.

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