Maharshi, Srimanthudu, Bharat Ane Nenu: How Mahesh Babu’s films have attempted to empower rural India
The actor’s latest film, Maharshi, took a closer look at the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides in rural areas.
In Mahesh Babu’s recent films, Maharshi, Bharat Ane Nenu, and Srimanthudu, all the proverbial roads led to the same destination - to delve into social issues and empowerment of villages. The concept of a hero going to a village to bring justice to the poor & downtrodden is one of the most recurring narratives in Telugu cinema. Yet these films, starring Mahesh Babu, went a step further to make an earnest attempt to highlight real issues plaguing the countryside.
The actor’s latest film, Maharshi, took a closer look at agrarian crisis and farmer suicides in rural areas. One of the subplots of the film is about a village, Ramavaram, which is on the verge of being wiped out when a business tycoon begins acquiring land to build a gas pipeline. As a result, thousands of farmers are forced to sell their lands and migrate to other areas.
In Bharat Ane Nenu, directed by Koratala Siva, Mahesh Babu played the role of Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh. While the film touched upon numerous issues including education, health care, traffic, corruption, what really caught everyone’s attention was the idea of self-governance in villages. The lead character, Bharat, proposes a fund of Rs 5 crores per village every year to let them solve their issues at a local level, much to the chagrin of other politicians. The film also highlighted the need for proper health care in villages and information centres for farmers. And in Srimanthudu, it was all about a rich man adopting a village and how he handles the problems, especially that of illegal land acquisition and water woes, at the local level.
All the three films went on to become huge hits at the box-office. Mahesh Babu’s star power might have drawn people to the theatres in big numbers, but it’s essential to understand the context why these films clicked so well. Every issue that has been dealt with in these three films has its roots in real life incidents and ongoing debates on how to solve the problems that the farming community has been facing.
For instance, the aspect of farmers being forced to sell their land to make way for multi-billion dollar projects has a striking resemblance to several real life instances across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In 2011, more than 250 farmers near Hyderabad complained that they were cheated by a gas transportation company and alleged that they didn’t receive a fair compensation. The biggest issue in recent times unfolded in Andhra Pradesh’s state capital, Amaravati, where hundreds of farmers were in a dilemma on whether to give their land voluntarily to build the new capital city or to continue farming.
These are just two such instances of how land acquisition forced several people to give up farming. Not to forget, the unseasonal rains in both the states have wreaked havoc, causing immense loss of income.
In another scene in the same film, Rishi, the character played by Mahesh Babu, declares that he’s donating 90% of his wealth to build warehouses and help the farmers sell their products directly to the consumers. The scene reflects another burning issue of lack of MSP (Minimum support price) for the farmers, for their produce, in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In some areas, the problem is so severe that farmers have taken unusual steps to make their voice heard. Earlier this year, more than 200 turmeric farmers filed nominations for the Lok Sabha elections in Nizamabad constituency in Telangana after the government failed to set up a committee to fulfil their promise to guarantee MSP for turmeric. Some even went as far as Varanasi to file a nomination there to contest in elections, just to make their voice heard.
The subtext in these three films has been that the farming sector, as a profession, has taken a backseat in general which has led to a major disruption of life in villages. It coincides with the general impression that a significant number of farmers themselves feel about their work. According to a survey done by The Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), nearly 76% of the farmers want to give up farming due to various reasons including poor income, rising labour costs, and unseasonal rains. The lack of poor healthcare and education facilities has also, in turn, led to their migration to cities. This aspect was at the core of Srimanthudu, where Rajendra Prasad, who played a key role, tries to convince people in his village to not leave the village. And then in Maharshi too, there is a discussion over how villages are being wiped out and people being forced to leave their homes in search of a livelihood.
Not only are the issues addressed in these three films relevant in today’s time, but they are also necessary.
However, there’s been some criticism of these filmmakers, both in Telugu and Tamil, stating that they have reduced farmers and their issues to a punchline in the narrative. While this aspect is open for debate with respect to Maharshi, Srimanthudu, and Bharat Ane Nenu, the films did inspire a few to contribute to society. Post Srimanthudu’s release, Mahesh Babu himself adopted his native village, Burripalem in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. “It all started when my brother-in-law Jay Galla suggested that I adopt a village, but I was still shooting for Srimanthudu. And I didn’t want to make it seem like I was doing it for the sake of the film’s publicity,” Mahesh Babu said, back in 2015.
His latest film, Maharshi, highlighted the concept of ‘weekend agriculture’, which was a call of action for urban dwellers, especially the youth, to spend their weekends on a farm. Soon after the film’s release, there were multiple posts on social media from enthusiastic fans and moviegoers who seemed to have warmed up to the idea.
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