Middle Class Melodies, Moothon and the growing spotlight on multiculturalism in South Indian cinema

Karthik Keramalu
·5-min read

When a section of film-buffs raved about the usage of the phrase "Neellu Poskovadam" (it literally means: Pouring water over yourself) on social media, I was shocked. I didn't know that so many Telugu people were hearing those words for the first time in their lives. Maybe, that's why they found the dialect from the recently released Amazon Prime movie Middle Class Melodies (MCM) endearing.

"Neellu Poskovadam" might sound funny and childish for people who have grown up using the phrase "Snaanam Cheskovadam" (taking a shower). Languages take different shapes as centuries pass. But films, as a medium, commonly build a lexicon around a specific region and forget to accommodate the words of the subaltern. There are hundreds of movie songs that have been shot around the old city of Hyderabad that speak about the neighbourhood's charms. That's completely fine, however, what about the other cities and small towns of the Telugu states?

In Telugu cinema, what is often the case is that filmmakers forget about people and stories outside the borders of big cities and urban milieus. There's has been no room for multiculturalism anywhere in mainstream Telugu cinema €" right from the dialect to the upper-middle-class setting, it's the same set of tropes that the characters are straitjacketed into, as we've been seeing through the years.

But MCM breaks that rule by shifting its lens to a city that's not seen much on screen. If you dive into the Guntur song, you'll know that director Vinod Ananthoju has tried to romanticise the city with the help of lyricist Kittu Vissapragada's colloquial turns of phrase. Since the movie is all about Raghava's (Anand Deverakonda) attempts to set up a cute restaurant that serves Bombay Chutney (the chef's special), the song features mostly foods from different pockets of the city, like Pulihora Dosa from Brodipet, Biryani from Subhani Hotel, and Maalpuri from Kothapet.

It's a visually pleasing song that lets the viewers peek into the vibrancy of Guntur. And this is a much-needed, pleasant surprise.

Looking for multiculturalism in a homogenised industry

South India is a region where the language-and-culture of one state invariably seeps into another. Though Visakhapatnam, Kurnool, Vijayawada, and the Krishna-Godavari districts make an appearance every now and then, they're not as popular as Hyderabad in mainstream Telugu cinema.

And when it comes to Telangana, mainstream cinema doesn't look beyond the dialect. Earlier, only the antagonists and comedians used to speak the Telangana dialect, wherein the protagonists made fun of them by referring to their uncouthness. In recent times, films like Fidaa (2017), Dorasani (2019), and Mallesham (2019) have explored the other small towns in the state and made their principal characters adopt the Deccani language and their festivals.

These are, again, exceptions like the focus on Guntur in Middle Class Melodies and Nellore in Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya.

This problem doesn't just exist in Telugu cinema. It's there in Kannada cinema, too. Bengaluru, Mandya, Mysuru, Mangaluru, Udupi, Davanagere, Shivamogga, Chitradurga, Chikmagalur, and Kodagu are the places in which Kannada movies are normally set. North Karnataka (cities such as Gulbarga, Bagalkot, Belgaum, etc.), on the other hand, is mostly forgotten. The North Karnataka forts are sometimes used as picturesque backgrounds for Kannada songs. But that doesn't tell us anything about the aspirations of people from those towns.

In Tamil cinema, many cities are taken into account €" Chennai, Madurai, Pondicherry, Coimbatore, Ooty, Kodaikanal, Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Sivakasi, Pudukkottai, and Thoothukudi. Tamil filmmakers don't hesitate to venture into new territories either, as they go to Singapore, the United States, Sri Lanka, London, Russia, many little European countries, Myanmar, Japan, and Australia. But there's a glitch here €" all the characters inevitably end up playing Indian Tamils. There are rarely movies made about Australian Tamils or Malay Tamils, whose culture and day-to-day affairs are far removed from their counterparts in Tamil Nadu.

That's where Malayalam cinema scores a goal, really. It uses its geography pretty well. You can argue that the state is smaller in size compared to the others, which allows them to travel all over the coastal area to make slice-of-life comedies. But they find inspiration even in Lakshadweep (Moothon, 2019). Moothon is a brilliant example of multiculturalism. Akbar (Nivin Pauly) speaks both Jeseri (a Malayalam dialect) and Hindi with delight and fervour in the movie. And his friends and family members also occupy that space neatly.

I'd like to raise another toast to Malayalam cinema that has produced the latest official entry to the Oscars (Jallikattu, 2019). No other South Indian film industry makes room for Muslim and Christian characters as wonderfully. In movies made in Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil, Christians and Muslims are, undoubtedly, the fringe characters. They are never the central figures who hog the limelight. If they do, it might turn into a romantic drama in which the man and the woman go their separate ways, like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (Tamil, 2010). Bombay (Tamil, 1995) and Vishwaroopam (Tamil, 2013) are pet-projects that are made once in a blue moon. And even here, the religions of the protagonists are attached to the core plots. If Jessie (Trisha) hadn't been a Christian in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, there wouldn't have been too many problems in her love story. She could have perhaps married Karthik (Silambarasan played a de rigueur Hindu man) and lived happily ever after.

Now that South Indian cinema is looking for variety and expansion, I hope they find untouched cities, and maybe countries, to focus on.

Also See: Middle Class Melodies movie review: Anand Devarakonda fits the bill in a tale that's all heft and heart

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