How Tollywood’s Two ‘Rival’ Castes Work Together to Maintain Political, Industry Power
SS Rajamouli, of Baahubali fame, is in the process of releasing another film on a similarly epic scale. With a whopping budget of 450 crores, RRR is a movie slated to release in October this year, starring Junior NTR and Ram Charan together.
This is worth noting for several reasons. First, the stars: Junior NTR and Ram Charan belong, respectively, to the NTR and the Chiranjeevi families – arguably the biggest and most powerful dynasty families in Tollywood today that have inherited their fan bases. Second, their castes: while the NTR family belongs to the Kamma caste, the Chiranjeevis are a family of Kapus. The Kammas and Kapus have had a longstanding political enmity, which is embodied by movie stars who become figureheads of caste pride. Thus, while the film promises to transcend a history of bitter competition, it also reveals a larger solidarity that is instrumental in keeping the Kamma-Kapu hegemony in the film industry, and in society, intact – and in keeping everyone else out.
It is no secret that Andhra Pradesh is a state whose politics is fueled by the caste pride of its three dominant castes – Reddy, Kamma, and Kapu. The role of Tollywood and its fan associations in enabling the clout of the latter two in particular and firmly cementing the intersection of the film industry, caste, and politics has been evident since the rise of NTR as Chief Minister and founder of the Telugu Desam Party, one of the main political parties of the state till date. The more recent (but relatively unsuccessful) entry of the Chiranjeevi family into politics is more evidence of the same.
This confluence, along with the lionization of individual stars by their fans, has led directors and producers, historically, to be reluctant to create multi-starrer films, particularly featuring stars from opposing castes, lest they are mistaken by competing fan bases for political cooperation or the undermining of their caste identity/pride. Instead, it’s been financially more expedient for each star to cater to their own fan – and political – base, owing to the intense rivalries between these respective groups. Further, the large populations of fans – which determines the commercial success of films – has to do with the fact that both acting families are known for playing characters from lower-class backgrounds and with ambiguous caste markers so as to have broader appeal. This allows little room for anyone to develop a community-based fandom and, therefore, political mileage.
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The region has had a history of fan associations and political activism being intertwined. SV Srinivas, Ph.D., a film studies professor who has extensively studied these dynamics in Telugu cinema, notes the conflict between fan associations of Chiranjeevi and of NTR’s son Balakrishna in Vijayawada and surrounding districts and their involvement in political campaigning, to the extent that the city became divided into designated fan territories, into which fans of the other could not venture. The tense rivalry between the two to uphold their star’s images often translated into fans controlling their image both on and off-screen, wherein any negative association with or perceived insult to the characters they played on-screen or controversial personal/political views of the stars would be met with outrage and threats to boycott their films. This meant that the dominant political discourse of the state has often heavily factored in the internal dynamics of Tollywood and its nexus with dominant caste politics.
However, neither stars nor their fans have mobilized for violence against marginalised castes — since both Kammas and Kapus were complicit in this particular issue. Movie stars, who often tackle social issues in their films either by appropriating marginalized struggles or by victimizing them with saviour complex narratives, have not denounced such dastardly events in real life. Fan associations in turn have never questioned their stars’ silence on these issues, and blockbuster hits continued to be churned out without any hitch.
And this is the issue disguised by Tollywood’s fan wars: the unquestioned hegemony of the supposedly divided Kamma-Kapu cine families speaks to their unified interest in keeping the industry and the springboard it provides into politics firmly shut to everyone else – even as Tollywood relies on Dalit-Bahujan labour to maintain its nuts and bolts. The collaboration among the two caste groups for RRR is hardly unprecedented – it’s just public and visible this time. In this way, the sidelining experienced by marginalized communities by the powerful dominant castes is normalized off-screen as it is on-screen, with film stars as larger than life icons blurring these boundaries. Their social locations and consequent role in popular politics perhaps explains the lack of political attention to – and mobilization around – caste issues outside of the main dominant ones, as is seen with the quiet acquittal of the accused in the aforementioned caste massacres despite their connection with the NTR government and their present-day entry into the other political parties of the state.
There is debate among scholars on the role of fans vis a vis their stars, and whether they are passive spectators or active agents in a film’s success and the star’s image. On the one hand, stars have been known to leverage their influence when it has suited them and to distance themselves from fans when it hasn’t. Behind closed doors, the Tollywood industry, particularly on the producer side of things, has long seen close collaboration and ties between families of opposing castes, even as their fans fight it out – sometimes literally to the death – on the basis of these differences. This shows how the ruling classes and political elite implicitly allow sectarianism to take place in their names even as they themselves are primarily motivated by profit and power. In AP’s art, as in real life, there’s only so much space at the top – and no one wants to share it any more than they have to. RRR, perhaps unintentionally, is simply the public façade of unity between historically divided families, one that papers over shared complicity in preserving a casteist political hierarchy that favors the communities its stars represent.
I always wondered how these two families monopolised the Tollywood industry. I knew it had something to do with caste but never understood the details. This really cleared it up for me. Tollywood needs to address these issues. Even when the nepotism debate was ongoing no one questioned Tollywood. This was a really good article. Thanks for calling out this system.