Protagonist Can Die

Protagonist Can Die

Here's an article about the protagonist deaths in the world of cinema.

2 years ago | By Harsha Pagilla

One of my earliest memories related to movies is my parents trying to convince me to go watch the 2002 Mahesh Babu movie Bobby which is basically Romeo and Juliet. I heard from my friend that the leads die at the end and it immediately scared me(of sorts), a 6-year kid. My parents tried to convince me by saying they reshot the ending where they don't die but being the intuitive kid that I am, I still refused. Spoiler guys, there was no alternate ending. My parents did end up going without me. Some of the movies I disliked when I was a kid but now enjoy are ones where there is a major character death.




Another incident that comes to my mind is a friendly discussion between my family and my father's friends family who were from Kerala. We were talking about the differences between Telugu and Malayalam movies. One major difference pointed out was that Telugu audience does not accept tragic endings and lead character deaths. It seemed to make a lot of sense.


Cut to present, The last Telugu movie I saw was Devdas. I’ll admit it was entertaining. It had a decent story, good humor, and good chemistry between the two leads.  But around half an hour before the end, I knew all the exact beats of how the movie is going to end, especially the character arc of Deva. Despite enjoying the movie, I will forget it in a few days. Because it didn't stay with me. I knew it was not real. The tone of the movie was setting up to be a ruse at the end. So why would I worry if Deva is going to die? And there it all goes to naught. Even if his character arc is hitting all the emotional notes, his death would bring about a sort of closure when he chooses to not kill the villain. But it was never the character Deva, it was always the star Nagarjuna and it stayed that way throughout. Don't get me wrong I liked Nagarjuna's performance but my tiff is with the writers who took the easy way out and the result being the movie being yet another forgetful entertainer. The movies we remember are the real gems and they always have strong characters and amazing arcs. For simplicity, I will call movies where the lead character dies as a Deathies, for fun.


So it got me thinking, How do lead characters deaths play with the Telugu audience? The earliest success of that kind that comes to my mind is, wait for it, Devadas (1953). So people did accept the main characters death. But it is hard to remember such a resounding success or such a legacy for any other Deathie. I will not count the sidekick's death because it is not through their eyes that we see the story unravel. Sagara Sangamam(1983) is a Deathie that affected me. So did Vedam(2010) and Kanche(2015). The obvious reason is their deaths were not just simple deaths. They serve a greater purpose. They move you in the context of the story you have been watching for the past 2 hours. But I can only find one or two good Deathies in a decade among Telugu films.


But I frequently see Hindi or Tamil Deathies. And really good ones too. And the way the deaths are treated is very unique. Take Piku(2016). Amitabh’s character before dying takes the best shit of his life, something which anyone who has seen the movie knows is something he talks about constantly. It represents the character finally letting go. Or Rang De Basanti(2006). Every time I watch those young people dying towards the end I feel so many things. Million Dollar Baby(2005). The death and the way it arrives itself is symbolic of a lot of things. Subramaniyapuram(2008). And Nayagan(1987). And so many.


That doesn't mean all Deathies are good. They are not Game Of Thrones. Randomly killing off a character in a storytelling format with only 3 hours can be a hindrance. Like Shamitabh(2015) where death comes out of the blue. Or Engeyum Eppothum(2012) (Jai’s death) just to give one amazingly acted scene from Anjali. The feeling of loss is so personal. When movies try to make you only sad, they better be worth it. Otherwise, it is an exercise in futility.


But coming back to Telugu films, the issue is very different. Somehow we have stopped viewing actors as actors and can't stand their characters dying. The craft of acting has morphed in Telugu films. No wonder we do not see Telugu actors winning big in any major award ceremonies. We need to stop fanboying toward their quirks and instead appreciate/examine their performance. Let's not take these moments personally. As a kid, I felt death is scary. But it is something that is part of our lives. And movies or art, in general, is reflective of life itself. So instead of shying away from it, we should learn to embrace it or at least acknowledge its importance.


I have been fortunate enough to watch a lot of movies across various languages and I have acquired a particular taste in movies. I have grown up watching Telugu movies and have been amazed by the scale and larger than life quality of the Telugu movies. But my experience with other language films has been something different, something deeper. It is one of a storyteller narrating his story with sheer passion. And they are not afraid of letting their creation i.e. the character die(Shakespeare much?). Because it serves a greater purpose. But in an industry which runs on superstars, we are left with storytellers who do not get to voice their story the way they intended to. But we need to remember films are more than just box office and money and stardom. They are simply art.


Written By: Amit Akarsh


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