Recently, I’ve been thinking about what makes up culture. As an Indian-American who speaks Telugu, so much of the way my family would connect to India/Indian culture was through movies. Telugu movies growing up were our Saturday night reprieve from our unfamiliar and foreign culture we now found ourselves within. These movies gave us a sense of comfort, and moreover, a sense of belonging. I wasn’t raised nearly as vigorously on Telugu movies as some of my peers but nonetheless was invested in the next Mahesh Babu movie, or whatever my mom proclaimed that the papers say was the next big hit.
Recently, I’ve gone back to watch some of these movies, and I was shocked. In so many of the movies I watched growing up, there were overt scenes of rape and sexual assault– and the negative fallout on the side of the victim because of such behavior. So much of Telugu movies placed their plotlines on abusive situations and even normalized abusive behavior from the heroes themselves. The female leads, if they were given real air time, were simply there as love interests, and never given much autonomy. I was shocked that these were my idols, and I still somehow grew up to be nothing like them. Perhaps that ought to be attributed to my parents, though.
When I was in the seventh grade, I submitted fully to becoming “White-Washed.” I stopped participating in Indian activities, I stopped bringing Indian food to school, and I stopped watching Indian movies pretty much altogether. It wasn’t cool back then to be Indian, so I simply tried to stop being Indian. Of course, when I graduated high school and came to college, I realized that was a consequence of white supremacy and culture colonization, and started settling back into my roots.
But one habit still remained: I do not like Telugu movies. At all.
Even as they’ve gotten “more progressive,” I fail to see true progressivism there. I don’t think they’re good or accurate representations of what ought to be “our culture” nor can I watch them without cringing at their violence against women. I do not understand how a person can claim to be a feminist and still support such movies and behaviors of the characters. Even in the most recent and “progressive” movies, there are blatant homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormative, patriarchal themes. This is not what I want to call my culture, at all. Moreover, I fear that this opinion might make me “white-washed”– as in, I took this opinion from the West and applied it to the East.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that isn’t the case. I was always uncomfortable with gender-based violence (as a person should be), and I am certainly not okay with seeing it on screen as a plot device or a joke. And I do not want to fall into a colonizer’s trap and adhere only to “western” culture, because that’s not who I am either.
I am Telugu, and I am proud of my heritage– but I am not proud of what my people put on a screen and call entertainment. I am not proud of having watched such movies growing up, and normalizing that behavior on the screen while explicitly calling it out in real life.
Life imitates art, or art imitates life. Whichever way it goes, I believe that there is much more work to be done where Telugu movies are concerned. But until then, I will not be watching or supporting movies or producers who think sexual assault is a joke or a plot device. Calling such opinions “white-washed” only serves to shame those who speak out against these “values” portrayed by Telugu movies. Nothing can get better if we don’t take the steps to point out what they’re doing wrong, first.
I’m sure this article will ruffle some feathers, but I’m okay with that. You’re entitled to your entertainment. I just don’t think watching rape scenes for plots or jokes is entertainment. I think my people can do better, and I’m looking forward to the day I can sit down with my mother and watch a Telugu movie start to finish without having to lecture her on why gender-based violence isn’t funny or entertaining.