Sunday, July 21, 2013

FROM ONE STEREOTYPE TO THE NEXT




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 These films were originally made in Calcutta during the 1940s but later Mumbai became the nerve centre of this industry.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”!

11 comments:

Deepa said...

I agree. I was rather astounded to learn that the latest hit - Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani, having surnames like Thapar and Talwar - had a Bengali director. Ok, so it was produced by KJo. But I feel that making a movie is like having a baby - a part of you is there in it. So why would you deny that part of you, unless you are (a) ashamed of it (b) ignorant of it (c) simply dont care!

BTW, it is Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi. Not Sandhya. :)

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks for that correction:)!!! I was confused with the name because I had a friend called Sandhya Venkateshwaran!

SG said...

Very interesting post. I completely agree with you. May be the producers/directors are superstitious.

Meera Sundararajan said...

:) SG that is an original thought!! Superstition!!! So any non Punju in the story line is like a black cat crossing the street ? Ha ! Ha!

anilkurup said...

I stopped wasting my time watching the nonsense called Hindi films . Folks like Karan Johar only tapped on the stupidity of the masses. Wonder what creativity the guy has in any case.Stereotyped or whatever one may call Hindi films are not even fairy tale like they are grossly unrealistic. In the name of entertainment they dish out all the offbeat clichés.
Mercifully there are a few good young guys serious about movie making and economics too.
I happened to see some clippings of “Chennai Express” and mother of god help the movie goers.
As for the stereotyping and names you mentioned they are ridiculous to even be termed stupid.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Anil, K Jo tried to make a "real" film in the "Bombay Talkies" recently. It was to be his "coming out of the closet" venture! But since this guy only makes movies about Indians in London and US the characters were rather unbelievable ( though they could easily have been made believable)! BTW you SHOULD watch Bombay Talkies! Really good!

SuKupedia ™ :) :) said...

I was really enjoying your post and the flow of it.. very genuine thoughts and interesting observation about the film industry and ofcourse the Chopra and the Johar Camp...And you perfectly justified your thought on the inclusion of cultures in bollywood without stereo typing it by giving Vidya Balan's example..Completely agree that it is high time that Bollywood starts evolving itself and stop it's continuous stereotyping of some cultures..

but then I do not agree with the part where you started judging 'NRIs living in ghettos abroad or the second generation Indians probably not wanting to see hindi movies'... Bombay Talkies was Internationally acclaimed than domestically approved.. and I feel there are more 'time wrapped Indians' living in India than UK.. don't we see examples daily on some or the other news?? and about 'NRI Kids not caring about Indian culture' They are in equal proportion to Indian Kids in India not caring about their culture...

You were writing about Indian Cinema and then you suddenly started with NRIs...and that too it was not an open question or doubt.. you straight away passed a judgment... Frankly speaking I went back to read if you had really written that!

But your take on the Indian cinema and the way you have questioned it I totally liked it...

Divya said...

I agree with your post :) I think in recent times, Kahaani was a movie that aptly and beautifully portrayed a city in its true picture - devoid of colloquial stereotypes...if you think of stereotypes, it is not limited to Bollywood alone -where Hindi cinema is associated with Punjabis..think of food - Indian cuisine is also always promoted as being butter chicken globally - surely Indian Cuisine is more than just the region of Punjab...don't you think?

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Sukupedia, thanks for the good words- I think I can now try my hand at Film Journalism :) :)
About the observation on my comments on the NRI communities - let me explain it a bit. It is not completely disconnected. Have you ever thought why the KJ and YC movies are set in London and the US and are about NRIs living opulent lives? Well that is because their major audience comes from those places - often it is the really poor and lower middle class immigrants who watch these movies. These are people who have migrated abroad ( primarily the UK) for survival. They are not your educated types who move for higher studies or well paid professional jobs. For these people who are ekeing out a living as taxi drivers, janitors etc the links to their roots is stronger - and yes, they DO live in ghettos because numbers provide safety for such people. They yearn to be successful like those rich millionaires that are shown to be living in some fancy buildings in the city where they drive cabs or scrub floors. These are almost like the people in India who made "Vijay" the hero- people who want to escape to the world of dreams. It is a dream world and they throng to watch these movies paying in pounds! The star nites etc fetch in more moolah in these places than in India. Movies are not devoid of audiences just as books are not devoid of readers. If someone tells us about the sort of books they read or the kinds of movies they like to watch we can develop a profile of hat person. The second generation NRI kid is a child of that country and culture- they are not interested in these stupid movies! They may be brought up to respect their culture but really watching Kajol, Kareen and Jaya celebrate Karva Chauth on screen is not exactly Indian culture is it?

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Divya, you know I was taking one of my friends from the UK out for dinner. When he saw the menu, he told me that he did not want any British dishes like "Chicken tikka masala" . Apparently it is now considered a "British" dish -almost like "Fish n Chips" - guess this is what is called culinary integration!

Cloud Nine said...

Another lovely post, Meera. The Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes are really annoying. Can't agree more. And this is rampant in Kollywood too. Look at the Madurai and Coimbatore dialects impinging every scene in te recent movies...I wish chennai tamil was far more better than the so-called 'eleiiiii' sprinkled Madurai dialect!

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