As a history lesson, Rudhramadevi checks all the boxes. A girl is born to the queen of the Kakatiya dynasty, and because women cannot rule – even palaces, apparently, have a glass ceiling – the king raises the child as a boy, a warrior. He’s worried that his vassals will revolt at the prospect of serving a queen, and with good reason. One of them (Suman) declares that women were put on this earth solely to serve men and quench their desires. But such a secret can only remain secret for so long, and the rest of the film is about Rudhramadevi (Anushka) fulfilling her destiny and proving that she deserves that crown. It’s a great story, and it needs to be told. Even Amar Chitra Katha, which chronicled the lives of Rani Abbakka and Ahilyabai Holkar and the Rani of Jhansi, seems to have missed out on Rudhramadevi.
But what was she like as a person? “Gender identity” may be too modern, too psychoanalytical, a term – but surely a girl who grows up thinking she’s a boy is bound to have had some confusion. All we get is a scene where the girl comes of age and falls into her mother’s arms. But soon, she’s back as a boy. She thrills her people by taming an elephant – she drops the disguise only in her private quarters, wearing silks that no one else can see. It can’t have been easy. There’s a hilarious, yet troubling, scene in which the king sees women swooning over his “son” – he’s delighted that his ruse has worked so well, or maybe he’s begun to believe he really has a son. He gets Rudhramadevi married off to Muktamba (Nithya Menen). Did Rudhramadevi, at least for an instant, balk at the deceit? She only seems to care about keeping up appearances for the sake of her kingdom. And what about Muktamba? She, too, is a patriot, and she cheerfully reconciles herself to this “marriage” – but was there a moment the woman in her registered disappointment? This is a kingdom filled with saints.
Rudhramadevi, directed by Gunasekhar, is filled with eye-popping colour, but its characters are resolutely black-and-white. Anushka certainly looks the part. She isn’t the typical stick-figure model. She’s imposing, regal. But she has nothing to play. The character is all externalities. There’s no inner life to portray. Everything is conveyed through dialogue, and it’s purely functional – there’s no music in the words. The visual effects are strictly at a made-for-TV level, the battle scenes are anaemic, and the events are so rushed that even Ilayaraja, who has rescued countless films with his magic, can’t do much. Characters come and go without making us feel anything. There’s no tension. Shattering discoveries – a hidden passageway, the fact that Rudhramadevi is a woman – are ticked off perfunctorily, like a list of chores stuck on a refrigerator.
It’s sad. Our women-centric films are either those amman movies with special effects cobbled together on PaintShop Pro or modest empowerment tales like 36 Vayadhinile. Here’s a multi-crore epic centred on a female character, with the men (huge stars like Allu Arjun and Rana Daggubati) sawing away gamely on second fiddles – but the director treats it like any other masala movie, with the heroine performing gravity-defying stunts like… a hero. At some level, you see why. With so much money at stake, you have to give the audience something to whistle at, like that shot of Rudhramadevi leaping onto an elephant – it’s like performing a pole vault without the pole. But commercial considerations alone cannot drive an epic, especially when the central character is so complex. You need those Amar Chitra Katha thought bubbles too.
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