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Wherefore art thou, ‘Madrasis’?

Anna MM Vetticad | Updated on January 20, 2018
Punjabi by nature: Though Punjabis have for decades dominated the Hindi film industry, the community has been inexorably caricatured.

Punjabi by nature: Though Punjabis have for decades dominated the Hindi film industry, the community has been inexorably caricatured.

Anna MM Vetticad

Anna MM Vetticad

The non-caricatured portrayal of Punjabis and Tamil Nadu in Kapoor & Sons is unusual in a Bollywood otherwise ridden by community stereotypes if not exclusions

Imagine a Hindi film revolving around a Punjabi family, with not a Bhangra in sight. Imagine a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu, with not an “aiyyaiyo” or an oily-haired, clownish ‘Madrasi’ prancing around in the vicinity.

Actually, imagine a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu where a song and dance is not made about the setting, but it just happens to be what it is because — believe it or not! — Tamil Nadu is in India.

If you have watched Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), you need not strain your imagination because all these elements — rare though they are in Bollywood — converge on this one canvas. The film has received glowing reviews, audience acclaim and excellent opening collections. Hopefully, its success will be a message to the rest of the film industry, that viewers are open to an unexaggerated depiction of the multi-cultural Indian reality served in an intelligently entertaining package.

There are two issues at hand here: first, the stereotyping of certain communities on screen; second, exclusion.

Though Punjabis have for decades dominated the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry aka Bollywood, the community has been inexorably caricatured by Hindi cinema, with Sikhs getting the worst of it. A foreign viewer of this fare is likely to assume that all Punjabis are loud, boisterous, unsophisticated, prone to dancing the Bhangra at the drop of a hat and punctuating their speech with the exclamatory “balle balle”.

“What’s wrong with the Bhangra and balle balle?” is the most common response to this criticism. Answer: nothing wrong at all. But a stereotype is a stereotype even if it is not negative, because it ignores the heterogeneity inherent in all communities. When perpetuated long enough, it can also be annoyingly reductive to those at the receiving end, even when accompanied by goodwill.

Unfortunately, most of us do not see this until we are at that receiving end.

A Malayali friend once told me of how he called out, “Oye Sardarji, ki haal hai? Balle balle!” when he passed a Sikh gentleman on a Thiruvananthapuram street. “They are jolly people, you know,” he said with evident warmth. All I could think of though was that he sees Sikhs as “they”, not one among “us”; and how irritating it has been for me, as a Malayali born and brought up in Delhi, to constantly hear stupid questions from seemingly educated people. “Are you a Madrasi?” … “Aishwarya Rai is so fair, how can she be south Indian?” … “You said you are a south Indian so what do you mean by saying you are not a Madrasi?” … And from the slightly well-informed lot who are aware that south India is not a single state, this: “Are you a Malayalam?”

Again, there is nothing wrong with being from ‘Madras’ (except that I am not) or being dark-skinned. Just as there is nothing wrong with being brilliant at mathematics, but is it not silly for a white American to assume that all Indian kids are great at maths? A stereotype is a stereotype, however positive it may be.

Sadly, most of Bollywood remains disinterested in portraying multi-culturalism realistically although it is the Indian reality. Sixteen years into the 21st century, the inclusion of a non-Hindu, non-north Indian or non-Maharashtrian character in a mainstream, commercial film is usually engineered with a pointed purpose.

Muslims? Explanation: secularism or lately, terrorism.

Parsis, Gujaratis? Explanation: comic relief.

Sikhs? Explanation: secularism and/or comic relief.

Four years back, when Shakun Batra named the leading lady of his first film, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (EMAET) Riana Braganza, he recalls being asked by several industry folk, “Why does the heroine need to be Goan Catholic?” Reason: his script did not typecast her as a quasi-foreign, skimpily dressed, sexually available cabaret dancer, secretary or gangster’s moll who could barely speak English, which is how most Christian women were once portrayed by Hindi cinema.

Bollywood dropped Christian characters in the 1990s, when it became socially acceptable to dress Hindu heroines in small outfits, get them to dance sexily and make them sexually active before marriage. It is not the Christian stereotype that has disappeared from Hindi cinema (that would have been a cause for celebration); what has disappeared is the community itself. It goes without saying then that EMAET’s atypical Riana seemed pointless to Bollywood in 2012.

Some critics slammed Chennai Express (2013) for caricaturing south Indians. Me? I was relieved to see it. If it was OTT, it was equitably so with all its characters; it did not revive the nauseating ‘Madrasi’ cartoon from an earlier era, exemplified by Mehmood in Padosan (1968); and it did not laugh at anyone, it laughed with. Besides, it got north India to watch a supposedly Hindi film replete with Tamil dialogues — without subtitles!

In any case, clichés can only be born of repeated, repetitive portrayals. With south Indians, the problem now is exclusion. Like Dalits, people of the Northeast and Christians, southerners too have now virtually disappeared from mainstream Bollywood films. It is hard to decide which is worse: absence or a trite presence?

It is only fair to state here that Bollywood is not the only Indian film industry guilty of such crimes. Discussing the misrepresentation of north Indians by south Indian cinema, for instance, would require more space than is available here. Try convincing a ‘Madrasi’ filmmaker of that though.

Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad

Published on March 25, 2016

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