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Arenas and Acts of Telugu-ness


Asma Rasheed

POLITICS AS PERFORMANCE: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TELUGU CINEMA
By S.V. Srinivas
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2013, pp. 453, Rs. 950.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 4 April 2014

S.V. Srinivas’s new book tracks a history of Telugu cinema over fifty formative years, in terms of its industry as well as the cultural shifts in the medium. Beginning with the premise that the connection between cinema and the politics of a society is a crucial one, SV (as he is popularly known among colleagues and friends) explores the beginnings of Telugu cinema in the context of the rise of new socio-political elites in post-Independence India as well as the emergence of a new idiom of mass politics through Telugu cinema. The focus is not so much a historical take on Telugu cinema in technical terms but, rather, a study of cinema and the political economy of Andhra Pradesh.   The book has five chapters. Any attempt to review with a focus on one or the other chapter would hardly do justice to the exhaustive detail, the meticulous minutiae and exhilarating narrative of the book. Instead, let me lay out as briefly and yet as richly as I can each chapter. ‘The Making of a Peasant Industry: 1930s-1950s’ talks of the mobility of money and men from agriculture and related spheres into new areas of investment, geographically as well as financially. The key shift by the end of the 1950s is that stakeholders of the industry were no longer the zamindars with ‘old money.’ A new group of non-feudal, non-trader castes—small and medium land-owning ‘peasantry’ with ‘new money’—had become invested in both the exhibition and distribution of films. SV chooses to eschew Maoist or earlier associations of the term ‘peasant’ and instead uses it for this group—Kammas, as well as Reddys and Velamas—that spread out their surplus capital from sugar, tobacco, transport, real-estate and newspapers to cinema as well.   The chapter identifies three key individuals who entered the industry during the 1930s—Akkineni Lakshmi Vara Prasad (L.V. Prasad), Gudavalli Ramabrahmam and Bommireddi Narasimha Reddi (B.N. Reddi) to flesh out his argument. L.V. Prasad came from a well-to-do Kamma agricultural family that went bankrupt during the Depression. Beginning as a minor actor and director in the 1930s, he became a producer over the next three decades and also set up film laboratories in Bombay, Madras and Hydera-bad. Ramabrahmam, a Kamma business manager, public intellectual and reputed editor, directed ‘Gandhian melodramas’ (most famously, Malapilla in 1938 and Raitu Bidda in 1939). In 1936, Reddi set up, ...


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