If you live in America, Rudhramadevi just made it to Netflix, and you should definitely watch it! It’s like Bahubaali, but with a feminist message and really really bad CGI. But I like the message so much, I can look past the CGI.
So, this is based on a “true story”, but it’s a true story from like 1200 CE, so they probably had a lot of freedom to fill in the details as they wished. Which means I am going to give full credit to the filmmakers for putting in all the bits I like best. Heck, for digging this story out to begin with and using it!
I am also giving full credit to the cast, Anoushka Shetty for anchoring the whole thing, and Ranu Daggubati and Allu Arjun for agreeing to play second fiddle to a woman. Both in terms of screen time, and in terms of macho-ness! Anoushka OWNS this film! She is the best fighter, the bravest warrior, the wisest ruler, the world has ever seen!!! And all the guys are just there to scurry around and do her bidding.
And what I love is, she does all this without losing track of being a woman too. Not “being a woman” in the stupid way it is usually meant, with “tee-hee, she is overthrown by love!”, but in the real way, where she gets her period, and misses gossiping with girlfriends, and wants her mother. In fact, her whole love story is just a side-effect of this yearning, first she desires to go out and celebrate on the special girls-only holiday, and then secondly someone sees her in her female garb and falls in love with her.
And her whole “looking like a woman” physicality is handled perfectly too. Okay, there is a weird thing where when she is a woman, her skin gets like 5 shades paler. But otherwise, it is all in her walk, and her way of looking at people, and talking, all the little things that make up your gender identity. When she is a man, she isn’t just dressed as a man, she IS a man. And when she is a woman, she IS a woman. And she is herself.
Watching this film, what it kept reminding me of is the trans people I know. The feeling of having spent your whole life putting on an act of being one gender, in a million small ways, constantly policing your behavior so your real self doesn’t peek through. And then the enormous relief when you can stop pretending! No matter the consequences or losses, to finally be yourself, that is worth anything. An odd connection to make, I know, and I am sure it is not one that the filmmakers intended (or maybe it is, maybe one of them has connections to the Hijra community), but mostly it is a tribute to Anoushka’s acting, that she so clearly conveyed the pain of pretending to be a gender that you aren’t inside.
It’s kind of amazing what a firm grasp of gender versus sex that Gunasekhar has, versus, for instance, R. Balki in Ki & Ka. While Anoushka’s sex was always that of a woman, when she is being a man, it’s not just that her performance is different, everything is different. The way she is filmed, the way other characters interact with her, everything! She is truly the Prince of the kingdom. And then when she is a woman, it all changes again.
(Spoiler: There are elephants in this movie)
This is making this sound like some deep gender identity discussion film, when really it is also a super fun action movie! It definitely has a vibe of something made for children. I mean, I enjoyed it, but some of the jokes and “heroic feats” felt like something my Sunday school kids would laugh at or find impressive. And that’s a good thing! We should have fun family friendly films that kids can enjoy. Especially if they have an awesome heroine.
The CGI is also where I had to do a little bit of a “okay, but imagine watching this if you were 8!” It’s just soooooooooo bad. But bad to the point where it goes from “realism” to “cartoon”. Which is when I started thinking “okay, if I were 8, this would be kind of nice. A fantasy. Not scarey and ‘real’ looking.” Although, there were other times when it was just plain lazy. I understand doing very bad CGI for a scene where people are leaping onto the top of towers and stuff. But when you use it for the background of a banquet scene, than it just looks like you didn’t want to bother painting some backdrops and buying props.
Okay, I can’t get into the rest of it without SPOILERS. So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
The framing device for this whole thing is Marco Polo, telling the story to the king of Spain (I think?) in order to encourage him to put Isabella on the throne. So, hey! North and South Americans! We should care about this, because if Marco Polo hadn’t convinced him, Columbus would never have gotten funding to “discover” America!
At least, that was my take-away. The real take-away was supposed to be that India was so advanced, and it’s Queen was so awesome, Europe could learn from them. And also, fake beard technology needs a lot of improvement.
The story goes that this was a nation under threat. The king needed to have a Prince to ensure the continuation of his rule, and the confidence of his people in their ruler. What is made very very clear is that the king himself, as a person and a father, is deeeee-lighted to have a daughter! Who wouldn’t want a daughter! Daughters are the best! It is only after his chief advisor reminds him of the inheritance laws and the people’s expectations, that he even thinks that anyone would have a problem with this. And then he goes along with his advisors suggestion that they put out that a son was born and raise the baby in seclusion. So for 12 years, Anoushka is raised someone in a forest, taught all the skills of prince-dom by the kingdom’s chief minister, and then brought home.
I was going to say that the child actress does a really good job playing a boy but with girl touches. But, no, all she really does is wear boy clothes and then be herself inside of them. She smiles a lot, she leans forward, she asks questions, in just a million little ways this looks like a girl. Or, you know, a very curious and isolated from the world boy. One or the other.
I don’t know why they thought this plan would work, because of course as soon as she is shown a statue of a woman, she starts to get confused since the body looks like hers. And then she goes home and rips off her bindings and lets her hair down and I think “oh sure, it’s going to be the pretty parts of puberty that make the difference!” And just then her period starts and there is blood streaming down her leg. Woo-hoo! A legitimate acknowledgement of the one most defining part of the female sex! No, it’s not the pretty pretty boobies, it’s the massively uncomfortable and messy thing that happens once a month between your legs.
And again, woo-hoo, after this very disturbing experience, she immediately runs to her mother for the support of another woman. Again, an acknowledgement that there is a special bond and support woman-to-woman that a man can never replace (even the chief minister of your kingdom who raised you in a remote forest hiding place).
But perhaps the best part of this whole “discovery!” sequence is that she makes the decision for herself to continue the charade. It is a conscious sacrifice, having just learned the beauty of female bonds, the weakness of the female body, and (maybe) been a little attracted to the idea of her new male friend appreciating her body, she is giving it all up for the good of her kingdom and her people, declaring that she will continue to live as a man for as long as is needed.
And then she tames an elephant. Not immediately, but like several years later we jump right into her appearing in public before her people and proving her valor by taming an elephant. Awesome! And, of course, the women in the audience immediately all fall in love with her (again, very nice line between gender and sex! These women aren’t lesbians, they are attracted to the male gender, and at this moment, her gender is male so far as they can see). The female love interest, by the way, is Nithya Menon, who is all spunky and adorable.
(Nithya in a later song, being spunky and adorable)
And then a lot of other stuff happens, the kingdom is threatened from without by their evil neighbor king, and from within by the untrustworthy and greedy nobles. Anoushka, with the help of her advisors, consistently defends and supports the kingdom. She lowers taxes, builds reservoirs, does all sorts of good ruler things.
Oh, and at the same time, she’s got a little romance going, but you can tell it only takes up like 10% of her brain. Like I said, it’s not even the biggest reason she wants to be a “woman”. First, she wants to enjoy the all female holiday. Then, while celebrating, she accidentally shows herself to Rana Daggubati (her best friend and most loyal soldier in her princely life) who immediately falls in love with her. She only goes to meet him a second time as a woman when she learns that his swanning around in love is adversely affecting his performance as her warrior. And on the third meeting, when he learns everything and suggests that she just run off and marry him, she is horrified, because of course she would never leave her kingdom, just for love!
And what’s great is that she really does love him! She’s not just uninterested because she’s uninterested, it’s because her whole concern with “true love” is soooooooooo far down on the list of things that really matter in her life. So great for a female character!
Oh, and I know she “really” loves him, because it is the agony of her decision to turn down his marriage proposal which makes her finally decide to tell her wife, Nithya Menon, the truth. They’ve been married a while, but she told Nithya that she was under oath not to have sex, so it has to be a marriage in name only, and Nithya was surprisingly fine with that.
We learn why in this scene, when Nithya cuts her off before she can explain and says that she has known all along, ever since they first touched hands at the engagement. But she was making her own cheerful sacrifice, keeping the secret and going along with the marriage because she knew it was best for the country. See, women are totally capable of logical thinking and putting the greater good above their petty desires! Even if most movies don’t make it look like that.
Men, and people in general, meanwhile, are stupid and petty. When the rest of the country finds out that Anoushka is a woman, they are horrified and reject her as their ruler. Even though she lists off all the things she has done for them, proving that a woman really can rule (even if they didn’t know she was a woman), “She had all loans waived. With foresight, she built lakes for public welfare. She developed business avenues. She built maternity hospitals and brothels. Happiness and joy, prosperity and peace in plenty, she ensured you had access to all of this.” Okay, someone who speaks Telugu has to help me with this. Did they really say “brothels” in the middle of that, or was it a miss-translation?
Anyway, people are stupid, so they send her out of the palace and the kingdom, with only her elephant (that same one she tamed earlier) for company. Elephants are a symbol of kingship, right? So the elephant going with her isn’t just a neat visual, it’s a sign that she is truly fated to rule and has the ruling touch?
Rana asks her, again, to just forget these horrible people and run off and marry him and be happy. But she refuses, because she has a responsibility. And Rana agrees, and asks how he can serve her. Oh yeah! That’s what I want in my love interests! Obedience and courtesy and respect for her wishes!
(Plus, she gets all the stupid people to acknowledge her as a ruler eventually by just sitting there in a temple and waiting for them to realize their mistake)
So, right, massive battle at the end, etc. etc., but what I find really interesting is the resolution to the Allu Arjun character. He’s been popping up all along as this cool forest rebel type. I was kind of disappointed when her romance was with Rana instead of him, because he is just soooooo cool!
But it pays off, at least for me, in the end. Because we learn that while their enemies may have thought that he was working against them, in fact they have been working together all along, and Allu has been obeying all of Anoushka’s orders. Which is SO IMPORTANT. We already have one big heroic guy (both the character and the actor) just bowing down and doing what she says, but then he is in love with her, so wouldn’t he do it anyway? But Allu isn’t in love with her, he is in love with some other girl (her cousin? her sister? her sister-cousin? Anyway, some woman of Anoushka’s household), and he is STILL obeying Anoushka. Because she is awesome and smarter than him and his legitimate ruler. That’s why the lamer guy is her love interest, to show that the cool guy respects her just because he respects her and for no other reason.