Lakshmi’s character and portrayal resonate in the current scenario, which demands that the Indic woman artiste remains instrumental in building a political renaissance through culture.
In megastar Chiranjeevi's film Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Raja Pandi, a man from Tamil Nadu (played by Vijay Sethupathi) tricks a native informer to the British into the forest. Pandi’s aim is to reach Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi). The aim of the native informer is to ensure that Reddy is killed.
Reddy is the thorn in the British flesh — for igniting, leading and consolidating a freedom revolt against them. He has humiliated them several times and tasted blood. They are not able to find him. "Hunt him!" the British order yells.
The native informer leads the restless Raja Pandi into the forest. Here Reddy is building a strong force with the help and support of other courageous administrators of the Renadu region.
Just when this squad spots Narasimha Reddy and his comrades, Raja Pandi strikes from the back. He kills the native informer with a sharp weapon. Pandi's pretense is over.
"Who are you?" Narasimha Reddy asks.
“I am Raja Pandi.”
"Where have you come from?"
"I have come from Tamil Nadu, the land of the brave." In the Hindi version of the film, the dialogue is: "Veeron ko jan-ne waali Tamil bhoomi se".
Pandi tells them that he wants to strengthen Narasimha Reddy's revolt and will serve him just as Lakshman (served Sri Ram). Avuku Raju, another staunchly loyal paleghar to Reddy, becomes slightly uneasy.
Raja Pandi is Tamil, and they all are Telugu.
"How can we include you in the team?" he asks.
To this, Pandi evokes "Bharat Mata" and says that they are all brothers to one mother.
But how does Pandi, a man from Tamil Nadu, know about Narasimha Reddy, a paleghar from Renadu?
How do language and regional barriers break?
Who is secretly building a new communication in this hour of crisis?
Transformation In Portrayal
In recent years, Telugu cinema has strengthened its storytelling to ascend higher levels in the art of portraying the true Indic woman.
Two years ago, the Baahubali series set a creative precedent by portraying the Indic woman in her feisty, dutiful, ambitious and war-ready avatar. This year, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, which is a film based on the Renadu paleghar and freedom fighter Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, has sparked a new momentum in the tradition.
This film lets a woman artiste stumble into love and find her way through her own arts and its diversification to freedom, the ultimate goal.
In Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), the character of Heera (played by Rani Mukerji) isn’t given the opportunity to shine alongside the hero until the end.
She is shown to be a nautch-girl. The protagonist’s love interest. She is just a lover. She does take up the sword at the end but her art remains unused in the freedom struggle, without finding the space or dignity.
Next. Lagaan. Gauri (Gracy Singh) is the rustic girl in love with Bhuvan — the main protagonist. She is mostly jealous of Elizabeth Russell (Rachel Shelley), who plays the empowered white lady. Swap their roles and the brown girl would be left with no power before her own people.
The immense freedom that Devasena, Avantika, and Shivagami have been given in the Baahubali series was bound to open the arena for the transformation seen in the Indic woman’s portrayal in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy.
The Power Of Art In A Freedom Revolt
Back to the forest scene.
Raja Pandi tells them that everyone knows Narasimha Reddy in Tamil Nadu and songs praising his courage and heroism are sung in every village.
Everyone is surprised to hear this. Narasimha Reddy is not.
Here, Chiranjeevi the artiste does the talking with his eyes. He understands who the person taking his story to the ordinary masses to Tamil Nadu could be.
From this intense set of scenes built on male camaraderie, arises the brave story of a solitary woman dancer. She is Lakshmi — regal, beautiful, a bold lover, a dedicated bhakt to the devas, a thinking artiste, and a manifestation of shakti.
Director Surender Reddy shows the woman artiste committed to the arts and its propagation — in soul and not just body. She remains dutiful to the man she loves, and his struggle for freedom.
She uses her art, on Narasimha Reddy's insistence, for the masses. She diversifies it to unite them for the revolt.
Lakshmi's Art — The Method In Madness
For the next few minutes, we meet Lakshmi, first on a proscenium stage setting, and then on open ground, and then in a market place, and then in an utsav, and then again on stage.
Episode after episode — over a song track — it is shown how Lakshmi performs to tell and retell stories of Narasimha Reddy's bravery and revolt.
Lakshmi, played by Tamannaah, is a dancer who performs for the devas. And this character ends the long wait for a much required creative intervention in Indian cinema. An initiative that was needed to introduce us to the real elements that go into the making of a patriotic Indic woman artiste.
Her audience is made of ordinary men and women. In her performance, Narasimha Reddy's mark of bravery — his flag with the momentous motif of Narasimha remains in focus.
It is because of Lakshmi that Narasimha Reddy's bravery and revolt have reached people like Raja Pandi through her songs. Not songs alone, but dance, an art she masters. She uses dance to attract the audience, then weaves a story of Reddy's courage and energy through drama and props.
She enacts scenes of British atrocities on the people of Renadu with the help of co-actors. She subtly presents a scene of a British officer raping Renadu women — mostly daughters and wives of farmers, who are tortured and raped by the British when they fail to pay the tax.
From a distance, she helps add the numbers and force to Narasimha Reddy's battalion of men and women.
Love — The Ultimate Trigger
In her neck, there is a string of beads and a pendant carrying a depiction of Narasimha. This is the only tangible remnant of Narasimha Reddy's requited love and its approval, and its binary existence for Lakshmi.
Her first mesmerising meeting with Narasimha Reddy takes place underwater, where she has plunged for a quick dip, and he is meditating to Shiva. She takes notice of his ability to use his mental strength for survival.
Life began, love blossomed, and her death, too, she decides, will be dedicated to him.
Narasimha Reddy and Lakshmi are not meant to be together. He has been married to Siddhamma (played by Nayanthara) and she reappears in his life 24 years after they were made to tie the knot as children. He was unaware of this life event all these years.
Lakshmi attends the yagya Narasimha Reddy and Siddhamma perform together as a couple. It is meant to relieve the people of drought. Lakshmi is heartbroken. It is then that Narasimha Reddy tells her that she has a purpose as an artiste. It is to awaken the masses, and it is to give her life and death a particular meaning.
After this, Lakshmi’s dance movements are simplified. Her dance vocabulary seems to have become easier for the ordinary man to understand.
It is Narasimha Reddy who asks her to simplify her art and communication for the masses. She tells him she dances for the devas. He tells her that there is a deva in the common man, and she must make the best use of her art by helping to awaken and unite them.
The first and the last time we see Lakshmi holding the sword — is for a performance and for her art. Aesthetics are her weapon — to win him over, and to win the masses through the arts — for his revolt.
When She Wore Fire To Protect Her Honour
Lakshmi's death is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful portrayal of her going up in flames to save her honour when she is caught by the British informers.
In custody, the revengeful British want her to dance without a layer of cloth on her body. Angered, she wraps another layer — that of fire — on her sari.
She dances to her death wearing the sari, dousing it in flame, using it to blow up the British ammunition depot floating on the river. The dance movements curl into her off-white sari and the flames. She contributes to the revolt, now, by using her death to destroy her transgressors.
Rani Lakshmibai is shown as the narrator-in-chief of Reddy's story. She breaks the story of Narasimha Reddy to her soldiers when they are ready to put down their swords in surrender after suffering defeat. She tells them that they have no right to withdraw.
This scene helps in bringing together the unfamiliar and familiar ends of the history of India's first freedom struggle. It could be a coincidence that Reddy's own beloved — who leads his struggle from the cultural front — is called Lakshmi.
Chiranjeevi has given to Indian cinema a memorable portrayal of an Indic woman dedicated to the arts and her motherland. Lakshmi’s character and portrayal resonate in the current scenario, which demands that the Indic woman artiste remains instrumental in building a political renaissance through culture.