From Shiva to upcoming film on George Reddy, tracing origin of films on student politics in Telugu cinema

Jeevan Reddy’s film on George Reddy makes one wonder if it can capture the imagination of the audience who have shied away from such films for a while now.

Hemanth Kumar November 17, 2019 09:07:45 IST
From Shiva to upcoming film on George Reddy, tracing origin of films on student politics in Telugu cinema

After more than a decade since Telugu cinema dealt with student politics in Naga Chaitanya-starrer Josh, Jeevan Reddy’s upcoming film, George Reddy, a film based on the life of slain Osmania University (OU) student leader, has once again turned the spotlight on the topic.

In the past four decades, there have been a select few films, like Shiva, Yuvataram Kadilindi, Alajadi, Naga, and Josh among others, which have tried to deal with student politics from various points of view. However, the narratives have almost always been lopsided. The underlying theme in most of these films is campus politics has been criminalised by anti-social elements and corrupt politicians, and that it is important for students to focus on their academics.

From Shiva to upcoming film on George Reddy tracing origin of films on student politics in Telugu cinema

A still from George Reddy biopic

Quite rarely have mainstream Telugu films looked at student uprising from a positive angle to bring about change in society. It has a lot to do with the contentious relationship between the state and student unions between ‘60s and ‘90s.

The political awakening of a generation

George Reddy was one among the several student leaders in the ‘60s, whose lives were influenced by the revolutionary changes happening across the world, right from Cuba to Vietnam. The Naxalbari movement in West Bengal had spread across to other parts of the country, and the rise of socialist and communist leaders had a massive influence on student politics in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Throughout the ‘70s, there were numerous instances where student unions across the state were actively involved in the peasant uprising in rural areas, protesting against the injustice being down to the poor and downtrodden in the society, and raising their voice in support of workers unions. Quite a few student leaders, who were initially part of Radical Students Union, went on to join the Naxal movement in Andhra Pradesh, which remained active until the late ‘90s.

One of the popular programmes initiated by various student unions during this phase was the ‘Go To Villages’ campaign, where students were encouraged to visit rural areas, and actively engage with farmers and poor people to educate them about their rights, and inspire them to fight back. The movement attracted thousands of students, and some of them played a key role in supporting peasant uprisings in Warangal and other districts.

One of the first few Telugu films which took note of this campaign was Dhavala Satyam’s Yuvataram Kadilindi, which released in 1980. The story revolves around a lecturer, played by Ramakrishna, who inspires his students to mend their ways and play a role in eradicating feudalism in the society. As part of their study tour, his students visit a village and inspire the villagers to fight back against a local feudal lord, and put an end to his atrocities. Another subplot in the film is that of apathy of college administration towards the fate of the teachers (they are not paid salaries for months altogether), and how poverty forces them to the brink. The film ends with the murder of the lead character, which leads a mob of students and the rest of the youth to revolt against the culprits.

Violence on campus and criminalisation of student politics

The unrest in universities and campuses across India was captured a 1971 documentary, Crisis on Campus, directed by Rabindra Dharmaraj, which threw light on various factors ranging from political awakening among the youth to violence on campus. George Reddy appeared in this documentary saying, “Our society has become rotten. And this rottenness has spread into every facet of our lives, including into our universities. Today, we have no other course left to us open now. We have raised our voices in protest. Our protest has remained unheard. We have marched in procession. Our processions have been broken up by the police. We have erupted in spontaneous violence. And our violence has been met with a greater violence. Today, what is left to us but to organise ourselves, and meet violence with violence.” He is also said phrase a slogan, “Jeena hai toh marna seekho, kadam kadam par ladna seekho”, which became a clarion call for an entire generation of students.

However, each large-scale procession of its time was met with an equally strong opposition from police officials and state government. Student unions had been protesting against a wide range of issues, including capitation fees, donations, hostel facilities, and police brutality among other things, apart from voicing their concern on state and national politics, and in the process, scores of people lost their lives. A case in point being: the Telangana agitation in 1969, during which nearly 369 students were killed in police firing. George Reddy himself was murdered on OU campus in 1972 by his rivals. The intervention of politicians and police force on campus to control students had far-reaching consequences.

Then, in 1988, the Andhra Pradesh government banned elections on campuses altogether, following the murder of a former Nizam college student leader, Devender Yadav. The ban remains in effect to this day, although there have been numerous appeals by student unions to reinstate elections on campus.

One of the mainstream films that is often seen as a seminal work on criminalisation and exploitation of student politics is Ram Gopal Varma-Nagarjuna’s Shiva (1989). The protagonist, Shiva, a student, rises up against Bhavani, a crime boss with immense influence on student politics, and in the process, Shiva has no choice but to turn a gangster himself. By his own admission, RGV says that he was more interested in the lives of goondas than students when he made his film.

From Shiva to upcoming film on George Reddy tracing origin of films on student politics in Telugu cinema

Nagarjuna in a still from Shiva

Putting things in perspective about how the portrayal of student politics had changed in mainstream Telugu cinema by late ‘80s, Professor SV Srinivas, who teaches at Azim Premji University, says, “Shiva actually makes a strong case against student politics, which is seen as largely corrupt, and controlled by gangsters who have nothing to do with students. Moreover, the movie ends with Siva himself becoming a gangster. This distrust of student politics is also seen in the opening sequence of Pawan Kalyan-starrer Cameraman Gangatho Rambabu.”

Another film, Alajadi (1990), directed by Thammareddy Bharadwaj, too portrays its protagonist Ravi (Bhanuchander), as a charismatic student leader who fights against the influence of corrupt politicians on student politics, and ends up losing in life towards the end of the story. The message on the wall was clear: leave the students alone, and let them focus on academics.

Corporatisation of education and Telugu cinema post liberalisation

In the ‘90s, soon after elections were banned on college and university campuses, another major factor which led to the dramatic fall of discourse on student politics was corporatisation of education in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. A senior film critic says, “Post the liberalisation of economy in the early ‘90s, the Telugu society underwent a sea change. Education in engineering became a major goal for a lot of students in the state, and a lot of them moved abroad in the late ‘90s. Moreover, the proliferation of private schools and colleges became the order of the day. Then, with the advent of corporate colleges in the state, student politics became a thing of the past, even in universities. Some of the leading student unions lost their prominence, so to speak. Things have changed so much in the last two decades that even people have become averse to student politics. So films based on student politics to seem to have died a natural death.”

Yet, this subset of political dramas has somehow found a space in mainstream cinema, although its form underwent a lot of change in the ‘90s. “From the ‘90s, there have been two kinds of political films: a trickle of red/Naxalite films (and later pro-Telangana films) made by Narayanamurthy and others, and the other set is films inspired by director Shankar’s work, which focuses on cleaning up the political establishment, and replacing it with educated, upper-caste leaders (examples include Rana’s Leader and Mahesh Babu-starrer Bharat Ane Nenu). The former kind of films, especially after the Naxalite films gave rise to pro-Telangana films (like Jai Bolo Telangana), fuses student politics or any other constituency’s politics with a larger political agenda. The latter kind does not leave space for collective action because they are quite leader-centric,” SV Srinivas adds.

Dawn of a new era

In the early years of the 21st century, which saw new filmmakers, who were more inclined to make action dramas and comedies, gain prominence in the industry, the audience too had changed so much that student politics-themed films met with a cold response, even when they had popular actors at the forefront. NTR Jr-starrer Naga (2003) had the actor play a law student who takes on the political system when his family gets embroiled in a fight between two rival political parties. In the film, NTR Jr urges politicians to stop causing discomfort to people in the name of their political rallies, and instead use electronic media for their campaign. In a remarkable turn of events, he is appointed a youth leader by the chief minister, and post that, Naga, with the help of thousands of other students, helps curb violence in the state.

Later, Naga Chaitanya-starrer Josh (2009) too dealt with the nexus between politicians and student leaders. The protagonist, Satya, urges the rival groups in his college to set aside their differences, and remain united so no politician can exploit them.

Both Naga and Josh turned out to be huge flops at the box office. Since then, neither NTR Jr nor Naga Chaitanya have toyed around with student politics.

In the past, Dil Raju, the producer of Josh, acknowledged he had gone wrong in judging the timing of the film, and whether it is relevant today. “The instances of violence on campus has reduced drastically these days. Back when we were in college, things were a lot different, and student politics was a big thing. Soon after Josh released, when we analysed where we went wrong, it became apparent that it’s not a story which resonated with the youth today,” he said.

Now, more than a decade later, with Jeevan Reddy’s film on George Reddy’s life making news, it makes one wonder if the film can capture the imagination of the film audience who have shied away from such films for a while now. However, Jeevan remains optimistic the ideals of George Reddy will resonate with people today. Whether the film portrays him as an inspiring leader or revives public interest in stories from the past about the rise and fall of student movements remains to be seen.

All images from Twitter.

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