Before diving into the topic of frivolous, and sometimes non-existent, friendships in contemporary Telugu cinema, let’s take a moment to explore a tender moment between Murad and MC Sher, two of the principal characters in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy. There’s a sublime scene where Murad, an amateur rapper, impresses MC Sher, a popular rapper, with his poetry. Later, when the two get talking, Murad confesses that he’s not quite a singer yet and also that he isn’t sure where his life is heading. Murad bares his soul and this confession gives us one of the most quotable lines from the film where MC Sher says, “Tere andar ka lava fatt ke bahar aane de (Let the lava inside you explode and ooze out). It’s a whistle-worthy moment in the film, and it sets Murad’s meteoric rise into motion. It doesn’t take too long for them to become the thickest of friends, but at every point in their friendship, Murad draws a lot of energy, inspiration, and hope from MC Sher. And given the response that this particular role received from the audience and critics alike, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Siddhant Chaturvedi is the new poster boy in Bollywood.
Watching this scene on the big screen made me question: When was the last time we saw an equivalent to MC Sher in Telugu cinema? Yes, there have been films like Tharun Bhascker’s Ee Nagariniki Emaindhi and Pellichoopulu, where the hero, so to speak, is a slacker and he loves whiling his time with his close friends. They talk about their dreams and wanting to do something over a pint of beer and whiskey, but take such handful of films out of the equation and you see an overwhelming number of films where the ‘hero’ remains largely alone and aloof even from his close friends. It’s a running joke in the industry that the rising stars of comedy graduate to becoming hero’s best friend. First it was Vennela Kishore, and soon, the likes of Priyadarshi, Rahul Ramakrishna, and Abhay Bethiganti joined the tribe. They get ample screen time and say things which might be deemed too blasphemous for the hero. Yet, when it comes to taking major decisions in their lives, the same set of people whom the hero hangs out with all the time vanish from the pages of the script. If this is the state of the heroes, it’s a whole different story for heroines. When was the last time you saw a heroine’s friend making a difference in her life? Of late, popular comedienne, Vidyullekha Raman has become the de-facto heroine’s best-friend in several films, but her role is often reduced to being a punching bag for cracking fat-jokes and portraying her as a glutton.
Quite often, most sane advice, or at least a meaningful conversation given to a protagonist, be it a man or a woman, comes from the family members. This, in turn, has led to the absence of meaningful friendships, where the viewers too are subconsciously made to not feel invested emotionally in supporting characters in any given story. And thus, we find that most of the ‘friends’ of a character are reduced to being props used to fill space in a frame. Each one of them gets a line or a wisecrack to make their presence felt, but remove them from the scene, it barely makes a difference.
There are countless instances where the roles of supporting characters have been chopped out during the edit because someone ‘important’ in the film felt that he was being overshadowed by another character. And then, there are a few which tilted the other way. One film which managed to stand out, with regards to how it portrayed friendship, was Nag Ashwin’s 2015 coming-of-age drama Yevade Subramanyam, starring Nani and Vijay Deverakonda. In the film, Nani is portrayed as a workaholic, who’s obsessed about making it big in life; however, his close friend (Vijay Deverakonda) prods him to embrace the beauty of life, and go on an adventure. Although Vijay’s presence is short lived in the story, he defines the entire journey of the protagonist and his last wish becomes a driving force for the protagonist. Another film which explores friendship among youngsters is Sekhar Kammula’s Happy Days, which narrated the story of four friends and the ups and downs they go through during their college life. The same director went on to make another film, Life Is Beautiful — a drama which addressed classism; however it didn’t quite do well at the box-office. Two decades ago, there were a bunch of films like Premadesam Pawan Kalyan’s Tholiprema and Shankar’s Boys, which delved into the friendship angle and set a new trend in storytelling. But it’s a different story these days.
Films like Yevade Subramanyam and Happy Days are more like a blip on the radar, but the truth is that writers and filmmakers have treated supporting characters, especially those playing friends of actors, as children of a lesser God. Take any mainstream film and you’ll find the hero setting the agenda for what needs to be done and everyone around him just follows the orders. Forget about being on the same page, we barely get to know what do they think and want. If there’s a twist in the tale, it usually comes from the death of one among the group, or the introduction of another character who takes the hero away on a different path. And one can’t help but wonder if there’s ever going to be a situation where a hero’s friend gets his due and not treated as a clown.
It’s one thing to make films specifically meant to address friendship, which brought us films like Ee Nagariniki Emaindhi, O My Friend, Boys, and Yevade Subramanyam; however, the need of the hour is for filmmakers to redefine the supporting characters in general. And write better speaking roles for whoever hovers around the principal characters. And until that happens, the chances of finding MC Sher(s) in Telugu cinema are as good as gazing up in the sky and hoping to find a meteor in broad daylight.