Pushpa: The Rise, Where Toxic Masculinity Knows No Bounds

Pushpa: The Rise is a 2022 Telugu action-drama film starring Allu Arjun as Pushpa Raj and Rashmika Mandanna as Srivalli.

Pushpa: The Rise is a 2022 Telugu action-drama film starring Allu Arjun as Pushpa Raj and Rashmika Mandanna as Srivalli. But the real stars of this film are the Telugu film industry’s best friends- sexism and misogyny.

The film tells the story of Pushpa Raj, a coolie turned red sanders smuggler, and his rise as the kingpin of the smuggling industry. He is an arrogant man and will go to extreme lengths to fulfill his goals.

Pushpa Raj does not have a surname because his step-brothers did not let him take their surname, as his father had an extra-marital affair with his mother. People around him mock him for being an illegitimate son and his ego gets hurt whenever anyone asks him his surname.

We are expected to feel sorry for the hero that does not have a patriarchal surname, as if it is the only thing that determines a person’s worth. If he wanted a surname, he could have just taken his mother’s, but now, only the father’s surname is acceptable.

What makes Pushpa worse than other misogynistic heroes is that he doesn’t seem to respect any woman. He is unbothered when his employer’s brother rapes women, simply because it doesn’t concern him, not because he can’t do something about it. He then dares to say that he does “good deeds” when he lent his coat to a woman who was raped by his employer’s brother. Men’s violence against women is unnecessarily and excessively shown in the film leading to trauma voyeurism.

Pushpa’s Srivalli

Pushpa is instantly mesmerized by Srivalli when he meets her. He does the good old-fashioned stalking to get her attention and when this fails, his helper bribes her to smile at him. Later, she is paid extra to kiss him. He forces her to kiss him because he “paid” for it. She is uncomfortable as she should be, but it is also portrayed in a way that shows that she secretly enjoys it. When she starts crying in a baby-like fashion (again, to show that she secretly enjoys it) stating that she has reserved her kiss for her husband, he lets her go by vowing that he will do whatever it takes to kiss her because ‘it’s his’, as he paid for it, even if it means marrying her. What a romantic hero!

The film glorifies purity and submissiveness in women. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Pushpa’s employer demands Srivalli to sleep with him (read rape), if she needed her father to be released from his captivity. A helpless Srivalli gets ready for him in the way she is told to and goes instead to Pushpa.

Any other hero might be filled with rage on hearing that their lover is going to be raped, but Pushpa doesn’t seem to be bothered by it and instead asks her to do as the rapist says since she seems to be already decked up for it. Pushpa’s ego was hurt when their engagement was broken by his step-brothers creating a ruckus regarding his surname. So, it doesn’t matter to him if she is going to get raped because she is not his girl.

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Srivalli tells Pushpa that she thought he was in love with her and he was sad that she wasn’t looking at him (when he was stalking her!). And that, when he paid to kiss her, she thought it was his way of expressing love. That the reason she refused to kiss him that day by saying that it was reserved for her husband and this was to indicate that she wanted him to ask her to marry him. Even after degrading herself by saying all this, Pushpa blatantly refuses to help her.

Srivalli admits that she knows he wouldn’t help her but she still wants to share her first kiss and the first night with somebody like Pushpa whom she considers her husband. In the next scene which takes feminism back to 1000 years, Srivalli begs him to sleep with her once and tells him that afterward, she will disappear from his life forever. This moves our hero, who then realizes her submissiveness to him and goes to fight the rapist because now he won’t let anyone touch her because she is his girl.

This is the same hero who was once unbothered by other women getting raped. Pushpa fights and thrashes the rapist by firmly holding onto a scared and helpless Srivalli which again glorifies men as women’s protectors and women as weaklings.

In what is supposed to be a romantic scene, Pushpa gropes Srivalli’s breast that takes her by surprise and when she asks him about it, he plays innocent. When she continues to ask him about it, he threatens to leave, but stops when she says that it’s okay and that he can touch her. Not only was this scene uncomfortable to watch, but it also shows that women should be okay with wherever their partner touches them without their consent and that women secretly enjoy it too. Later, he tells her to cover herself with a shawl and not tell anyone about it.

In the end, Pushpa heroically arrives late to his wedding in nothing but his boxers and ties the mangalsutra around her neck with blood-stained hands without even explaining Srivalli. This shows his utter lack of respect for the woman he claims to love. She is meant to accept everything in obedience to him.

The women in the film have no identity of their own. They are portrayed as helpless, dumb, and naïve humans, completely dependent on men. Pushpa’s mother does not have any role other than to be a weeping widow dependent on his arrogant son. She is shamed and called names for having an extra-marital affair with their father. The fault is always on the woman. The only woman in the film with a little bit of gutsy attitude is Dakshayani. But even she doesn’t have much screen presence.

Toxic Songs

Samantha Ruth Prabu’s special song in the film, ‘Oo Antava’, landed in a controversy after Men’s Association filed a lawsuit against the makers for portraying men as perverts through the song’s lyrics. The song also received praise from a few for critiquing women’s objectification. In my opinion, a song doesn’t cease to become sexist or objectifying merely because it has lyrics that show men’s perverted nature.

The cinematography of the song is in sharp contrast to its lyrics. While she might be dancing to a song with lyrics that are critiquing the objectification, the focus of the camera throughout the song was on Samantha’s body, thereby objectifying her. The lyrics should not receive any praise at all because it ends up comparing women’s bodies to honey and sugar that men find hard to resist. We shouldn’t applaud male filmmakers for doing the bare minimum.

Samantha also received a lot of criticism for doing such a song and was also slut-shamed in an article posted by Firstpost that asked questions, such as what she is trying to prove by her lustful gyrations? 

Another toxic song in the film is ‘Sami Sami’. Srivalli dances to the song that repeatedly worships Pushpa as God. The lyrics go on to say that she feels like climbing the stairs of a temple when she walks behind him and that she feels like she is sitting beside Lord Shiva when she sits next to him. There is also a scene of her worshipping the ground that he has walked. The song glorifies and romanticizes his anger as God-like. It says that if he doesn’t comment on her new saree or the flowers in her hair, it is worthless. And that, if her beauty is not his, her birth as a woman itself will be meaningless.

I leave you with these questions that I have been pondering over some time- While I understand that Pushpa falls under the category of masala films and that such films thrive on exaggeration, what is the need to portray women as this helpless and naïve as shown in this film, especially in this day and age? Is it impossible to make films where women have a voice of their own? Also, was it really necessary to brownface the characters in the film?

Image Source: Still from the movie trailer, YouTube

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