I have been watching Hindi movies before the name Bollywood was coined! These films were originally made in Calcutta during the 1940s but later Mumbai became the nerve centre of this industry. The industry is wonderful in the sense that there are people from various parts of the country who work together without any religious ,cultural or ethnic divide –being brought together by the unified desire to create!
Each period in the history of Hindi cinema has had its own flavor – starting from social dramas to the dishum- dishum action films to today’s story of the metro sexual hero with shades of grey. The characters though different had certain stereotypes- there was the villainous/ arrogant “Thakur”, the loyal “munimji”, the ever suffering “Ma”, the affectionate Muslim neighbor “Khan chacha” and of course that angry young man “Vijay”. And yes, there was also that villain who ruled the underworld from a warehouse/ godown surrounded by his henchmen and his moll.
These characters were universal and except for Khan chacha or Rosie /Robert who were part of the villain’s entourage , one could not very well ascertain their socio cultural affiliation easily. For example, a Thakur could be from Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh. Vijay generally did not have a surname. It was also difficult to understand the cultural affiliation of the villain considering that he was often called “Lion” or “Mogambo”!
Once in a while we had some silly stereotypes in the form of a South Indian or a Bengali. They generally did not play any major role in the movie and were more in the form of comic relief.
But that did not mean that the characters were culturally neutral. If you think back, you will find that almost in all cases where the character had a surname, it would invariably be a Kapoor, Khanna, Mehra or Malhotra!! It was often strange to see a very South Indian looking Hema Malini masquerading under such a name.
If you examine closely, the language called Hindi, you would find that there are different versions of it being spoken across the northern and central belt of the country. Sometimes, I am not sure if cinema by itself helped popularize this dialect that we hear being spoken. So it is rather surprising that the characters had to be Punjabi!
Over the years as India became more globalized and English became the language of communication among the educated urban classes, the Hindi movies started using “ Hinglish” – Hindi peppered with a lot of English in their dialogues. But did that change the surname of the characters? No! They continued to be Kapoor, Behl etc! And it was not only that, there was also a trend to romanticize the entire Punjabi culture through movies like DDLJ/ JTHJ/ KHNK etc. Are you noticing a certain trend emerging from the names of the movies I have just quoted?
If you have, then the answer to why this has been happening must be clear to you! The audiences in India had evolved beyond what those movies could offer. But the NRI who had left India decades ago had not! And who is the NRI who watches the DDLJ / JTHJ kind of movies? Those who have migrated from Punjab! So obviously the characters had to be Simran, Vicky, Bunty etc..! And these clever film makers often expanded the scope to include within that vista a Ahmed, Hamid etc who was from Lahore- London being the place that they bonded! So these Yash Chopras and Karan Johars were assured of the moolah from both sides of the border!
But what annoys me is when film makers who are obviously non Punjabis also stick to these stereotypical surnames. I watched a movie “Phir Milenge” directed by Revathi – the South Indian actress! Strangely, her lead male character was “ Sameer Manchanda” and the female also had a similar sounding name ! The funniest thing was the story was set in Bangalore! So why not try a Kamath, Nair or a Rao ? I wrote to her about this and received a standard mail “ Thank you for your feedback”!
If a story is set in Mumbai or Delhi it is likely to have a lot of characters from various parts of the country living there and all of them would speak decent Hindi ( that is if you can call what is spoken in Mumbai as Hindi!). So why can’t we have characters who represent different parts of the country without making them a cultural stereotype?
In this context one must mention the character of Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi in “Kahani” ! Played superbly by Vidya Balan, she was completely devoid of stereotype. The movie was in Hindi but set in Kolkata. Each of the characters spoke the language clearly and correctly without the hint of an accent! The same can be said of Abhay Deol’s character in the movie “Shanghai” where he plays a Tam Brahm.
I was very happy to watch the movie “EnglishVinglish” where the lead character was Marathi and thank god, the wedding song was not a Bhangra!!! It was a traditional Marathi number, in keeping with the characters( had it been Yash C/ Karan J they would have included a Bhangra no matter where the character was from and made us believe that Indian culture abroad is only Punjabi).
While Punjabization ( if there is such a word) is the main trend, the recently emerging trend is “Bengalization”! “Bengalization” can be seen in movies like “Devdas” and “Parinita” that are desperately, “colonial” showing Calcutta before it became Kolkata – horse carriages, vintage cars, jazz concerts, tram rides, Victoria memorial etc. The characters’ Bengaliness is over the top- huge bindis, partings smeared with Sindoor, white sari with red border … !
Why can’t we make movies in Hindi which are devoid of these stereotypes? We have evolved today into a society that does not have to have government media air songs like “ Mile sur mera tumhara” to foster national integration! The market forces have ensured that India is integrated! The chauvinistic Chennai also tolerates Hindi today. Cuisines have transcended regions- the idli is almost a national dish!
It is only those caught in a time wrap ,living in some Indian ghetto in the UK who want to see their country as it was when they left! They are rather uncomfortable about watching a movie like “Videsh” which is uncomfortably close to them and their real problems. So, the KJos sell their stories of Simran and Bunty to these fellows. Why should we waste our time and money watching them? Punjab is also about Milkha Singh, Rocket Singh and Amrita Pritam.
We have enough in terms of serious authentic themes dealing with our reality. And our reality today is about a mainstream urban culture that uses English peppered with local language as the lingua franqua. If movies are being made for the Indian multiplex audience then they need to have more cultural diversity in terms of characters. I would strongly recommend Mr. Karan Johar to start looking at this seriously. His NRI audience will soon age and die and it would be difficult to keep the cash boxes ringing based on the second generation’s loyalty because that loyalty does not exist. Those kids are more children of the country of their birth and they could not give a fig leaf for what Mr. KJ has to say about their “culture”!