The Telugu-language film Virata Parvam in June 2022 released to positive reviews, despite flopping at the box office. The film grossed a meager ₹12 crore (~$1.5 million) against a budget of ₹15 crore (~$1.9 million). Even though the film didn’t do very well commercially, many scenes have gone viral on social media. Due to the film’s OTT release on Netflix, the film has found success and fascination amongst left-wing social media users in India and abroad. Stills of characters reading communist literature, drawing hearts around hammer and sickles, and talking about love and communism have all found popularity as viral tweets and profile pictures amongst leftist Twitter users. Many are fascinated by the explicit portrayal of communist revolution on screen, especially those not familiar with the somewhat marginalized canon of revolutionary and communist Telugu cinema, literature, art, and broader culture. While seeing socialism on the silver screen understandably excited many, the film was not without its issues in portraying the revolutionary movements that mobilized the oppressed people of Telangana for decades.
In Virata Parvam, politics did not take center stage, in spite of its extremely political setting. The film was mainly a romance film, a one-sided revolutionary romance. Protagonist Vennela, outstandingly played by Sai Pallavi, is a young, caste-oppressed proletarian woman from Warangal with a revolutionary fervor. From a young age, she’s seen to get carried away by her feelings for others, observed in a childhood scene where her irritated mother (Easwari Rao) throws her doll in a well, and she jumps in to retrieve it. She has a strong relationship with her father (Sai Chand), who reads her poetry. Her expansive grasp on literature makes her “not like the other girls”, as she goes on to start reading the revolutionary poetry of Aranya, pen name of Comrade Ravanna (Rana Daggubati). She wishes to meet Ravanna as she is enamored with his poetry, and they eventually cross paths. Warangal is caught in the crossfires between Naxal revolutionaries and the brutal police force, and Vennela and her father are being beaten by police for false accusations of Naxal collaboration. Ravanna and his dalam (unit) save their community and kill the police officers, and Vennela is fully in love with Ravanna at first sight.
Obsessed with her savior and his poetic pen, Vennela breaks off her engagement with her childhood sweetheart (Rahul Ramakrishna) and leaves her village in search of Ravanna. She risks her life multiple times in order to meet him, and is consistently rejected once they meet as Ravanna’s main focus is on revolution, and doesn’t believe in the bourgeois fantasies of love. Vennela doesn’t stop her pursuit, and joins the revolution as a cadre in Ravanna’s dalam in order to achieve the two things she loves most – communism and Ravanna. Ravanna eventually does reciprocate the feelings that Vennela has towards him, but this is short lived – tactically fabricated rumors of a police informer in the dalam causes him to kill her, seconds before figuring out the rumors were planted by the enemy.
I had considerable issues with the characterization of Vennela’s character. Her story was inspired by the life of Thumu Sarala, a girl with a similar background from Warangal who faced a similar fate after joining the Naxal revolutionaries. Director Venu Udugula seems to have a sympathetic view of the Naxal cause, with civilian characters explaining their support for them, while also making criticisms such as the leadership not adequately representing the caste make-up of the party’s cadres. While he sufficiently portrays women’s role in the revolution – with characters such as Shakuntala (Nandita Das) and Comrade Bharathakka (Priyamani) – he also infantilizes Vennela.
The trope of the crazy young girl, often referred to as “loosu ponnu” in the Tamil film industry, was extremely common in the 90’s and 00’s, with a relatively recent decline. While Virata Parvam strives to – and somewhat succeeds – in portraying women as capable of being revolutionary, Vennela is shown as an innocent young girl that is brought to the cause due to her childish, one-sided love before she has even met the man. Thumu Sarala joined the Naxals because she believed in revolution, not because she was in love with a man she hadn’t met yet. This is true for Comrade Panchadi Nirmala and the countless other women martyrs in Telangana. Women civilians and fighters were both the main victims of both state oppression and patriarchal oppression, which naturally led them to be great contributors to revolutionary causes. To portray a revolutionary’s devotion to the liberation of her people as a product of an infatuation via a poetry book is not something that would have been done to a man. It is insulting to Thumu Sarala’s legacy, as well as the legacy of the thousands of women involved in the struggle, to portray it as such.
That being said, I do have some sympathy for the production of the film and realize this may not all be on director Venu Udugula. Film censorship is strong in India, and sensitive political topics such as the Naxal rebellion in India’s interior are especially scrutinized. Any films that seek to critique the state are heavily censored, and we see this in the opening credits of the film. Comically, text saying “Special thanks to the Telangana Police” is immediately followed by a Karl Marx quote. This indicates that the police and the state likely interfered or collaborated with the script in order for it to pass censor boards, meaning much of Udugula’s original vision was likely compromised. Given Venu Udugula’s background as a notable poet in both Ambedkarite and Marxist movements, I’d like to believe that his intentions for the film were in the right place. Unfortunately, it is more than likely his script and vision were interfered with.
Women have played a strong role in the progress in revolutionary causes all around the world, and the Naxal rebellion in India is absolutely no exception. While Virata Parvam seems to have a noble intent, and does depict the strong role women played in fighting for liberation, it perilously delegitimizes and infantilizes their role through its treatment of protagonist Vennela.