The year was 1990. My sister and myself had gone to watch an eminently forgettable film starring Sonu Walia and Akbar Khan ( remember them?). While the name of the film and most of its plot has been erased from my memory, what stays intact is a very curious sequence in the story- the hero had met with an accident and the heroine was seeking divine intervention. So we have a sequence like this… She goes to a temple and prays “Bhagwan,, etc etc”, then to a dargah and finally  to a church . Now here is the interesting bit- while the temple and the dargah prayers were in bollywood Hindi her prayer in the church was in English – “Oh god.. please blah blah!”.  We found that very funny. We wondered if  prayers inside a church would be heard only if they were said in English!!!!!

But tell me folks, isn’t this a popular  stereotype?   For example, most Indian films show a Christian bride wearing a gown!!  However, in reality very few of them actually do! I have attended Malayali, Tamil, Telugu and Manglorean  Christian weddings and I am yet to see a bride in that white gown!  And about the use of the English language inside a church – I can only say that it is ridiculous! Christianity  as a religion has worship sessions in almost all Indian languages.

Coming to portrayal of Muslims in Hindi movies- there are actually two typical types that used to be popular until the 1990s. One was your “Abdul chacha” sort of person ( portrayed almost always by A. K. Hangal!)  and there was the “Nawab Sahab” !!! So hilarious! Why these extremes? But now I think there is a new Muslim stereotype that is emerging –the “Bhai” or the underworld don ( poor guy he was originally a Christian with names like “ Robert “ or “Michael” in the 1970s and 80s but post 1990 he has converted to Islam).

Muslim women shown in films unfortunately were again of the “Sahib jaan “ or “Umrao Jaan” type or the Burqa clad girl who ties a Rakhi to the hero! But these are again pre 1990. I am yet to come across a story with a different portrayal of a Muslim woman.

There are also some personal experiences around stereotyping that I would like to share. I am a Hindu married to a Christian. Both myself  and my husband maintain a secular household where both religions are given equal importance and festivals of both religions as also cultural ones like Onam and Pongal celebrated. Our daughter does not have a religious identity. But people see her forehead without a “Pottu”/ “Bindi” and automatically assume that she is a Christian! She gets very furious when that happens because not wearing a “Pottu”/ “Bindi” for her is a personal choice. She does not wear it because she does not like herself with one.  Now I have seen this happen in the reverse too. There used to be a college friend of mine by name Maria. Maria was a catholic from Mangalore and used to wear colourful bindis . She had very long hair tied in a plait reaching till her waist and was very fair. Both of us used to almost always be together. Our roll numbers were also consecutive ( Meera and Maria). But most professors used to think I was the Maria- guess why? I was the darker one, with shorter hair and often without a pottu/bindi!!! While the “pottu/bindi” thing might be the reverse of what my daughter experiences I think the dark skin and the short hair again were stereotypes associated with a Christian girl!

Sometimes I wonder if it is unfair to blame the media completely for creating these stereotypes. After all what we see on screen is a reflection of what our general understanding about something is all about.  This lack of understanding is due to our own closed  mindedness and lack of exposure to any culture outside our own. We fail to realize that while Islam and Christianity may be religions that are not of Indian origin, those who practice them are very much part of this country and its culture. Therefore how can we expect anything different ? Christians in India are not British or Portuguese- they are as Indian as the so called majority and their culture is therefore not western though their religion might be! Yes, there were once upon a time a community called the  “Anglo Indian” who tried to maintain a distinct western identity during the British and the early independence period. But to club all Christians into that group is an injustice not only to them but tthe Anglo Indians too!
India is a country with differing cultures. So putting people of the same religion into one box and labeling them is very unfair. You cannot compare a Moplah Muslim from the Malabar with a Muslim from Lucknow!  We do realize that Malaylis and people from UP are distinct from each other but how is that we are unable to extend this understanding to include within it people of different religious groups. We would like to limit this differentiation to people from the majority religious group. We probably think that Muslims as a group are all the same irrespective of  their local roots.  The local context influences the religious identity to a large extent. Otherwise how can we explain a name  like “Allah Picchai” –a variation of “Allah Baksh”? ( it is true, I have met a person by that name in Nagore in Tamilnadu)

While there are so many misconceptions about the minority religious groups like Christians and Muslims, I am surprised why no one mentions the  positive realities vis-à-vis these groups. If we look at the sex ratio in the 2011 census we find that in the Christian communities there are 1009 women for 1000 men and among Muslims it is 936 women for 1000 men. Compare this to the sex ratio among Hindus which is only 931- lower than the two important minority groups! ( Demography tells us that  in any society nature made it such that women would be equal or more than men in number. Anything otherwise tending towards lower numbers of women are due to man made interventions. ) And interestingly both these communities maintain  high sex ratio  among children in the 0-6 years category which in simple terms means that they do not practice female infanticide or foeticide! In terms of  literacy Christian women are  second highest at 76.2% ( the highest female literacy is among Jains at 90%) Muslim women are the lowest at 50.1% but it is only marginally different from their Hindu counterparts which is at 53.2%. And interestingly the male literacy among Muslims is also low –only 67.6%  unlike in Hindus which is 76.2% leaving nearly a 23% gap between male and female literacy rates. Therefore if we are talking about discrimination against women, Hindus are probably equal to Muslims in that if not worse !

So why do we continue to believe in myths and misconceptions about certain communities instead of looking at facts?  Why don’t we mingle with our fellow citizens from other religious groups and learn for ourselves what or who they are?  It is not a sin to read the Bible or Koran or books about them? We don’t have to practice the religion but why not learn what they are all about? Do we think it is an act of betrayal towards our own religion?

An finally and most importantly, we need to realize that it is unfair to club every individual under a  label! Every person, even within the same culture and religion is a distinct human being with his/her own likes and dislikes as also habits.  

I would like to end this post with a beautiful line from an old Hindi film song “Tu Hindu banega ya Musalman banega, Insaan ki aulad hai Insaan banega” ( roughly translated it means – Will you be a Hindu or a Muslim? You are the child of a human being and so you will grow up to be a Human being)

(  Muslims constitute  13.4% of the Indian population and Christians 2.3% . The word minority has been used in that context. I sincerely apologize to any reader whose sentiments I may have hurt inadvertently  by using this word )


  1. great post, i agree with you, we have some misconceptions about people from specific religion, what they symbolize in media is true either, we can't judge the whole community just because of 1 or 2 experiences, racism is in our blood and we can't eradicate it, we can just avoid showing it and thereby it will avoid hurting a person, These minority and majority are ridiculous and sadly it is still ruining our integrity.. Realization is the only key to save our multicultural society...
    GOOD POST mam :) Keep going...

  2. well as they say "Kuch to log kahenge .. LOGON ka kaam hai kehna " .. do what you may there will awlays be someone who will have something to say about a situation ALWAYS and the worst thing is they dont look into their own house ot determine it ...

    out nations is the most racist and we shout hoarse when we get the same treatment abroad ...

    lovely post ... and coming to movies have you seen in which they show a SARDAR .. how pathetic is that , we in punjab do not live like that and definitely dont behave like that ...
    and yes weddings shown Definitely dont happen like that in punjab :) its all a DRAMA


  3. Absolutely perfect insight, Meera. Being born a Christian and blessed with short hair i always stood out from the crowd. I was genuinely interested in learning more about Hindu worship when i learnt Baratanatyam and have visited most of the famous temples in TN. I can recite The Bible and Thiruppavai with equal passion. What i fail to understand is the generalisation we find everywhere- i am crazy about bindis, metti, kumkum on the forehead. But it makes me sad when known faces peer at me like some specimen from lab when i publicly sport it. Is it a crime to dress as we wish and learn about other religions? And lol at the comment on Bollywood villains- have you noticed it is always a Helen or Daisy who do the item number?:P

  4. Clearly your posts denote a person who is educated and educated the right way. Though the point was on stereotyping in films, you touched more vital subjects.
    Stereo typing is one bane afflicting Indian films. If it is school teacher the person will have wear glasses; if it is psychiatrist he must sport a French beard so on.
    Even religion and language has not all things common in different parts of the country is what is unique about the Indian composition.
    You are right. The Muslim woman in UP has not much in common with the one in Calicut, except they both are Muslims.
    Though India has the second largest Muslim population in the world the folks are among the most underprivileged. Thanks to the leaders of their own society, to a good extent.
    Why we do not see comfort in the uniqueness is because the division in social living is so entrenched for centuries. Much of the bonhomie is only superficial. It is an irony that identifying with what we call religion in the name of the creator is something that forever has been destroying civilisations and societies.

  5. @ Deepak Karthik and Bikramjit- you are right. India is a " racist" society!!! @ Cloud Nine along with Helen, Daisy there is Lilly - most famous of the villian's gals!!! @ Anil it is always a pleasure to receive your comments. YOu are right about the comfort we draw from a fragmented society!

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog and your comments thereof.As suggested I visited your post about your name and the complexities/niceties surrounding it.Very enjoyable.
    Reg this post: Indian films are well known for stereo typing and seldom convey reality.This has not changed much over the decades -except that heroes now have 6 packs(against zero packs) and heroines are now size zero(against size 6):)Its time films stopped portraying characters as Hindus, Muslims or Christians but simply as Indians.

  7. Its true not just in the way they are portrayed in the movies, but in real life too.. there are some cristian friends of mine, who likes to keep a bindi and wear bangles and vise versa, hindy women who hates both, but they still carry on for the sake of others, the prejudice stays not only in others mind but also in self..

    The opening para reminded me of a Malayalam movie called " pranchiyettan and the saint" where Saint Francis comes in front of the hero and speaks in Crist's language. (its not english) and the hero's reactions.. :)

  8. Namaste.....
    None of this surprises me as it all bears its fruit in RACISM and the false notions of SUPERIOR/INFERIOR. Unfortunately many nations implemented this practice and its people have internalized this behaviour and regurgitate it on each other. Divide a people among their selves and they will fail to rise and recognize each other’s humanity.

    great post, have a fabulous day.

  9. this is the same problem we have in nigeria. i just understand totally what you have just said. nice post too.

  10. nice post. Thank god, people have started travelling more and more, reading and writing as you are, these stereotypes and inhibitions will be shed. I think irrespective of religion, almost every community tends to adapt, react and learn from the local environment (socio, economic, cultural, political, geographical).

  11. movies alway make caricatures, not characters, so stereoptyping is always there, as they exaqggerate everything..even in Hollywood, I always find one white cop assisted by black one, and black one is always good at heart:).same way in hindi movies, its always the muslim or sikh character who is mor e patriotic and sacrificing:)
    These misconceptions can be removed only by people themselves..minorities communities must come forward and show all thatthru their social and cultural life.

  12. This is rue. Film has its own regular ways of portraying things in order to help the audience to catch the right ambience of the scene. For example, usually in Malayalam films village scenes start with the cococorico of a cock or a kausalya supraja kirtan from a temple

  13. Movies can be blamed for a most of this stereotyping, because a person living in the North cannot possibly have seen many of the Malabar Muslims to comment on them. Its the thoughts that form in a story writer's head that ultimately come on screen. But then later when we do come across that category of people, we do see that it is correct to some extent. Every religion and every region has its specialities. You can distinguish between them. Yes, there are exceptions.

    I just read another post a few minutes back about how languages separate people into regions. Now I read about how people are separated based on their religion. What does it matter? If every person learns to respect every other person irrespective of religion, caste, creed or sex , life would be perfect. There wouldn't be a need for a heaven then.

    I was just wondering how people have come up with such statistics about literacy rate and religious communities. Is there any website I can research more on this? Its pretty interesting!

  14. About the films, I remember watching "I am" some time back, that had a woman played by Nandita Das, who has a msulim name but otherwise there was no other stereotyping. But it is indeed sad that it is difficult to think of other such films.

    I am also a Hindu married to a Christian and our son grew up with both the religions. About five years ago, he decided to get married to a sikh girl. So I can safely say that love is the best way to learn about other religions! :)

  15. @ Sunil Deepak, you are right -love is the best way to understand and learn about another culture. I must see " I am". @ Juxtaposition, you can visit the census of India web site and get a wealth of information on the various parameters, statewise, religion wise.
    @ Renu completely with you on the extra patriotism bit :-)
    @ Krishnapriya you are right- Jesus spoke in Aramic and not English! Mary probably looked like a middle eastern woman and not with blonde hair as we see in her statues.
    @ Rhapsody yes, the notion of cultural or relgious superiority is definitely a trigger behind all this stereotyping.

    @ Nitin you are right- travelling has opened up vistas and minds


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