My Year of Prakash Raj

Some people spend a year
cooking Julia Child's recipes, or following all of the rules in the Bible, or reading books by people who spent a year doing something. My quest is to watch the 200-some films of South Indian character-actor-extraordinaire, Prakash Raj. (It'll probably take more than a year... and I'll post about some Prakash-less films here as well.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Heroine's Journey in Pournami

This is something that I started to write three years ago for blog project that Katherine at Totally Filmi organized about women in Indian Film. In honor of International Women's Month, I'm finishing it up and getting it posted for International Women's Day.

The Telugu film industry is the most hero-centric of all of the Indian filmdoms, with its larger than life fighters, acrobatic dancers, and hirsute comedy heroes.  Many of these films trace the journey of the hero, and closely align with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth/Hero's Journey/Hero With a Thousand Faces. The hero is called to adventure, and after first refusing the call, finds a mentor, faces a series of tests, leading an ultimate ordeal, reward, and return to normalcy.

The second or third Telugu film that I ever watched was Pournami (2006, Prabhu Deva, dir.), the intertwined stories of two dancer sisters and a young man caught up in a violent family feud. If Pournami followed the pattern of most Telugu films, the protagonist would be the tall, mustachioed dance instructor/tortured factionalist Shivakesava, played by Prabhas. It would also be logical, and an interesting twist, if the protagonist was the title character, dancer/circus performer Pournami, played by Trisha. (In fact, these two characters get center billing on the DVD cover.)
But I think that there's a compelling case that the true protagonist of the film is Pournami's younger sister, Chandrakala, played by Charme Kaur. This film--directed by Prabhu Deva, no less--is a rich story of a young women's heroic journey, and that's why it remains on my favorite and most rewatched films (even though Prakash Raj isn't even in it.)

To write this post, I revisited Campbell, as well as this Australian curriculum for a screenwriting and myth activity, and the overview at The Writer's Journey, and will use them to examine how the film presents Chandrakala's mythic journey as a heroine.

WARNING: There will be lots of spoilers. Most Telugu films do not rely on big surprises, but knowing some of these things might impact the emotional punch that they pack.
SUGGESTION: I highly encourage watching (or rewatching) the film, it's on youtube with English subtitles.

PRELUDE: Introduction to the myth.
The film begins in 1953, with a young girl having a meltdown during dance lessons. The family travels to visit a temple, where the father tells his two young daughters, Pournami and Chandrakala, the story of a young woman who danced in the Shiva temple for many days and nights. Her dedication so pleased the deities Shiva and Parvati that they send rains to end the drought in the village. The dancer's dying wish is that a girl from her family must dance on pournami (full moon night) every 12 years in front of the temple. The father explains that the elder sister will continue the tradition of bringing rains to the village by dancing at the temple on the full moon night, just like her mother before her.

ACT I– Within the hero’s “normal” world
The ordinary world: The normal world – setting, characters, beliefs, that the hero inhabits.
The story jumps to the future, and we meet Chandrakala in her daily life. She's still presented as a "girl", dressed in a youngsters pigtails and clothes. We see that she is impulsive and resourceful at fighting off the rowdies in the marketplace, that she suffers hurt from the words of her unkind stepmother, and has aspirations to a larger, better life. She sits on the front steps and thinks about her elder sister Pournami, who is presumed to have eloped, mere months ahead of the all-important temple dance.

Call to adventure: The hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure
The flamboyant and impulsive dance instructor Shivakeshava arrives and rents out a room from the stepmother. He challenges and irritates Chandrakala, and the two constantly bicker and compete to undermine one another through a series of tricks and pranks. (This is the portion of the film with lots of the over-the-top, silly, physical comedy that Prabhu Deva loves.)

Refusal of the call: The hero hesitates because of fear – something happens to further tempt the hero to take up the challenge
As stated in the prelude, the heroine's ultimate goal is save the village by dancing at the temple during the full moon, As Kesava starts his dance classes at her home Chandrakala feels drawn to dancing, but resists joining in, because of here prejudice against him. It's revealed that the evil stepmother had promised to give Pournami to the evil Zamindar/landlord (Rahul Dev) before the dance. With Pournami gone, she must appease him and plots to offer up Chandrakala. She tells the girls' father  that Chandrakala should either prepare to dance at the temple (and be given to the zamindar) or get married to an old man. Her father refuses both options, due to his fear for his daughter.

The mentor: Someone to advise or guide the hero is introduced
At village festival, Kesava takes on the village rowdies when they attack Chandrakala. She begins to see him as a supporter and romantic interest, rather than an enemy. Chandrakala accidentally drinks some spiked cane juice, and frolics off to the forest, followed by Kesava. As it starts to rain, Chandrakala begins to dance to the beat of the thunder and Kesava's heartbeat, while watches with a smile. The next day Kesava meets with her father and shares a story that convinces him to allow Chandrakala dance for the temple. Kesava is presented as the mentor to both the heroine and her father.

ACT II – Outside the hero’s “normal” world
The first threshold: The hero commits to undertaking the challenge and agrees to face the consequences
Chandrakala is confused by her father's sudden change (and the implication she will be replacing Pournami), but agrees to take on the training, by placing the bells on her ankles. What follows is a classic film "training montage", as Chandrakala practices with her father. Kesava drums the beat for their practice, and watches closely.

Tests, allies, enemies: A series of further problems to test the hero along the way
Only a few days before the dance, the evil stepmother kidnaps Chandrakala, and brings her to the zamindar's palace. Chandrakala takes action and tries to escape, but she finds herself trapped in a room with the zamindar and his henchman. Kesava arrives to rescue her, and defeats the zamindar in an impressive display of musical instrument-based martial arts. In front of the defeated zamindar and terrified mother-in-law, Kesava declares that Chandrakala is his destiny and promises to defend her from anyone who would do her harm.

Approach the inmost cave: The edge of the most dangerous place in this other world
Chandrakala is confused by Kesava's declaration, and mistakes it for a declaration of love. She realizes that she loves Kesava, writes him a love note which she sends to him as a paper airplane. Chandrakala has reached an important point of self-understanding, and she opens up and makes herself both emotionally available and vulnerable. Before Kesava can read the note, his servant finds it and makes a phone call. The next day, an older man and his daughter come to the house looking for Kesava. Kesava declares that the young woman is his fiancee, and publically rejects Chandrakala by crushing up the note and placing it her hand.  Chandrakala reaches her breaking point at the next day's dance practice. When her father yells at her for being distracted (just as he chided a young Pournami in the prelude), she begins to cry and runs away.

Ordeal: The hero confronts her/his greatest fear – the height of suspense and tension in the story
Kesava finds Chandrakala and tells her to return to practice. She tearfully confronts him and asks why he said she was his destiny, only to reject her like that. Kesava explains (in a long flashback) why he has been so focused on Chandrakala. ShivaKesava's was caught in his family's cycle of revenge killings with a rival family, which recently left Kesava;s brother dead, and another young man dead at Kesava's hands. Kesava flees, and meets Pournami who in hiding with a group of traveling circus performers. After a short, trouble-filled romance, Pournami is killed trying to save Kesava. In her dying breath she asks him to work to fulfill her family's duty to dance at the temple. (This middle story is pretty straightforward remake of the 2001 Brazilian film Abril Despedaçado/Behind the Sun.) Chandrakala breaks down in tears, mourning the loss of her beloved older sister.

Reward: The hero seizes the object of the quest e.g. Knowledge that leads to a better “ordinary” world, a magic key or grail or an insight
As Chandrakala mourns her sister, she also makes an important transition as she sets aside her romantic infatuation with Kesava because she realizes he loved her own sister. She embraces the larger task of dancing at the temple not only as a communal goal, but as a personal obligation to her own sister. This is a key moment (unusual for a South Indian film heroine) where she is shown making a sacrifice for the larger end game. Chandrakala picks up the bells of her broken ghungroos and recommits herself to practicing for the temple dance.

ACT III – Return to the “ordinary” world
The road back: The hero still has to deal with the consequences of the reward: evil forces might pursue him/her

The final dance at the temple represents the "road back", although this section of the narrative is far from ordinary, and fully-infused in the divine and supernatural. Chandrakala dances, and begins the final stage where she is to carry pots of fire down the temple causeway, never ceasing to dance. The zamindar's henchmen rise from the temple pool and throw bottles on the causeway, hoping to stop the sacred dance by injuring the dancer. Kesava rushes forward and uses his own body as a walkway for Chandrakala, rolling over the broken glass so that she can continue the dance. To me, this scene is the most convincing that Chandrakala is the main hero, not Kesava. He makes the sacrifice to assist her in her completion of the task. Unlike the typical Telugu heroine, Chandrakala doesn't breakdown and focus on her injured true love, she stays focused on her sacred goal of dancing to save the village. (In a male-centric Telugu film, this would also be the big fight scene with the lone hero and 100 bad guys. I love that choreographer turned director Prabhu Deva has devoted the bloody, dramatic climax to a dance.) The two sisters are joined in the sacred quest, and Kesava and her father both see Pournami dancing in her place. At the final moment, it is Chandrakala, our heroine, who pours the fire that makes the rain come.

Resurrection: The turning point for the hero who is forced to use this new knowledge or magic object to prevent his/her own “death”
Chandrakala's moment of triumph is bittersweet. As she thanks Kesava for helping her to complete the task, he sees Pournami's face and pulls her into a hug. Then the moment of triumph is further marred when  His Chandrakala must give up her "reward" of Kesava's love so that he can meet his commitment to his fiancee, who has arrived with her father. When the final son of the rival family shows up with a gun, Chandrakala takes action and jumps in front of Kesava to take the bullet.(Surprisingly, it isn't even Kesava/Prabhas who delivers the final machete stroke of justice in this film, but his father.)

Return with the elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world with new knowledge, or object to heal or benefit the ordinary world. Chandrakala recovers in the hospital while Kesava waits outside. The fiancee realizes that she doesn't love Kesava enough to take a bullet for him, and releases him to marry Chandrakala. The girls' father declares that Pournami will be happy if KesaIn the epilogue, we see Chandrakala in her father's place, teacher her daughter, Pournami to dance. She is the caretaker of the mystical, magical tradition that brings peace to the world. Kesava appears again, but as her assistant, rather than mentor.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: (Thanks for making it this far!)

The other female characters: The two-heroine film, where one love interest tragically dies at the end of an extended flashback is a pretty common trope in Telugu films. What makes Pournami different is not only that Chandrakala is the heroine, but that her sister Pournami also has a heroic arc in the flashback. Even while she's in hiding with the circus, she is still focused on practicing and returning to dance at the temple. She resists becoming involved with Kesava and his family's feud, because she doesn't approve of violence and she doesn't want to be distracted from her goal. Pournami does make the ultimate sacrifice for Kesava, but her final words speak to the larger goal. Even though there are only a few scenes of the sisters together, they convey a clear sense of the importance of this relationship to each of them.
The fiancee, Mallika, is an interesting twist on the single-minded female rival. When her own parents encourage her to end the engagement due to the blood feud, she threatens them with a rifle. She has her own (small) arc at the end when she realizes that she doesn't love Shiva Kesava that much.

The role of dance: As I noted before, I love how the dance scenes fill the role of the action/fight scenes in hero-centric Telugu films. It underlines the heroic role of the dancer, and the importance of sacred dance within the context of the film. I know Charme is a good dancer, and I think the film shows of Trisha's dancing well. There's great symmetry between the montages of Chandrakala training and the scene of Pournami practicing at night. I know I'll probably watch the final temple dance another 30 times.

Charme as heroine: I'm impressed with how Charme shows Chandrakala's humor, grief, determination and emotional growth. This film is also a really good example of Charme's work in the Telugu film industry. She has played the more traditional romantic lead, but she's also played the lead role in thrillers (Anukokunda Oka Roju), interesting characters in more offbeat films (Prema Oka Maikam and Dongala Mutha), and seems game to show up for special appearances in other films. As I was getting this post together, they released the teaser for her latest film Jyothi Lakshmi. It's still a bit of a mystery of what the film is about, but it's really exciting that Puri Jagannadh is directing a heroine-centric film, and that Charme is the lead.
I have no doubt that Charme will create many more complex, interesting heroines to watch (if not write epic blog posts about) on future International Women's Day!


  1. Hi,

    First of all, I commend your dedication to watching all of Prakash Raj's movies and I hope you reach your goal someday. Secondly, your analysis and observations of Pournami are excellent. I recently saw this movie for a second time now and it has become one of my favorites. I have just come accross your blog and it seems really interesting. I am looking forward to exploring it more

    TJ Stevens

    P.S. if you ever want to talk about telugu movies, you can email me at

  2. Hi,

    First of all, I commend your dedication to watching all of Prakash Raj's movies and I hope you reach your goal someday. Secondly, your analysis and observations of Pournami are excellent. I recently saw this movie for a second time now and it has become one of my favorites. I have just come accross your blog and it seems really interesting. I am looking forward to exploring it more

    TJ Stevens

    P.S. if you ever want to talk about telugu movies, you can email me at


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