They were not quite the triumvirate of RRR, being feted for capturing the cinematic imagination of the West with their over-the-top gigantism. Yet they were a threesome in their own right, these women in bindis, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the men, but in complete contrast to the latter’s crafted superheroism, they were remarkably disarming, heart-warmingly honest and supremely confident about being comfortable in their skin, no designer updo or sari required. And they certainly caught attention on the red carpet, simply because they did not feel the need to “present” their Indianness or wear it to prove a point. They wore their Indianness the way they live it in the real world, with the ease and comfort of carriage. With that one group portrait, they made the everydayness of the Indian woman an original attitude and a global motif that no red carpet stunner at Cannes has been able to all these years.
Rama Rajamouli, wife of director S S Rajamouli and M M Srivalli, wife of music composer M M Keeravani, wore traditional saris, draping them like any of us and choosing to flash a million-watt smile than shimmery diamonds. Unknown to many, both of them play non-glamorous but robust roles in the film industry and have seen more studio floors than their husbands. Rama began as a struggling actor and ultimately became a costume designer and stylist, adorning the characters with epic grandeur and grace in her husband’s films. Srivalli is a line producer, which means she has run crews and watched budgets, which requires a practicality and smartness she took to the red carpet. Actor Ramcharan’s wife Upasana Kamineni is an entrepreneur in her own right and let her folksy bandhani pallu do the talking than her baby bump, something that Bollywood topliners choose to show off in their bodycons. Young Lakshmi Pranathi did go Western, choosing a classic black gown to match Jr NTR’s tuxedo, but she wore it as any globalised millennial would do at her age, unconscious of making an identity statement.
Little wonder then that Keeravani actually acknowledged his wife in his speech while the other men, regardless of all their gravity-defying antics on screen, showed why they needed their better halves around to feel grounded in their big moment.
In many ways, these three women have been a counterfoil to what RRR represents, a cliche of the East that the West loves feeding on — of fantasy and spectacle, singing and dancing, colour pops and overwrought orientalism, the underdog challenging the conqueror. That’s what Hollywood actor Jessica Chastain meant when she described RRR as “a fun party”. With their rootedness, these three women refused to play that stereotype. They would neither be the underdog nor try to be the conqueror. The Golden Globes were just another after-work party that they attended. And at a time when our fashion industry is trying very hard to make the sari look and feel global, all tulle and frills, these women, with their at-home originality, made an elegant statement about how they had indeed shed the colonial hangover. Isn’t that the subliminal message of RRR?
These women dared to own their signature than blend in. This despite the fact that Bollywood A-listers have put so much equity on the red carpet look, be it at Cannes, BAFTA or the Oscars. Let’s not forget that in our obsession to twist the sari — outrageous cape-gown fusions with opera gloves and corset belts, as endorsed by Sonam Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut and Deepika Padukone — Indian films have lost out in competitive categories at film festivals for decades now. Yet once it was our sari-clad actors, who drew attention to their craft and the films they starred in. In fact, last year actor Shabana Azmi had tweeted a photo of herself and her co-actor Smita Patil on the Cannes red carpet in 1976. Both were accompanied by their director Shyam Benegal to promote their film Nishant. “We had no publicity material and no money so #Shyam Benegal asked #Smita Patil and me to wear our best saris and walk up and down the promenade to attract attention. And when people turned around… we would persuasively plead ‘Our film is showing on so and so date, please come to watch it’ and we managed a full house! That was the advertising acumen of #Shyam Benegal,” Shabana wrote.
Much before photocalls became a qualifier for women actors to feature on the Cannes jury, two women had already been there, done that. Filmmaker Mira Nair, having picked up competitive awards at Cannes first, became the first woman juror. Author Arundhati Roy, who has written many screenplays, was our second. Nobody remembers how they wore their saris. It seems the extreme cosmetic effort to iconise the sari as a global drape has subsumed its individual imprint and dynamism, one that should not be limited by geography. Somewhere down the line, we have relegated the traditional sari and the way we naturally wrap ourselves in it as uncool, hardly modernist. The three women behind RRR just reminded us that it’s the best way to drive into a gala, rather than just being driven around.