My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.
As SRK and Deepika board Chennai Express this week, I anticipate an avalanche of stereotypes (and bad accents) thus perpetuating a strong Bollywood tradition of depicting South India in racist light. Here is a look at some of the South Indian stereotypes from down the ages.
[Knowledegable Chennai crowd, please excuse as this is an academic treatise.]
Mehmood is the easily the first and worst offender, who imprinted the South Indian stereotype in Bollywood with an exaggerated accent and dark makeup in Padosan. In Manna Dey’s classically trained voice, he belted out a Carnatic version of ‘Ek chatur naar’ and created comic mayhem before being defeated by Sunil Dutt and Kishore Kumar in the musical battle.
Mehmood returned as yet another Southern denizen in Gumnaam – this time as a Hyderabadi bawarchi in a deserted mansion where people were dying one by one. The lungi and accent firmly in place, he chose to sing an entire hit song around his dark skin and big heart (Hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain).
The Hyderabadi accent returned once again in Hero Hiralal but this time, it was far more authentic as it was Naseeruddin Shah who was playing the auto driver in Hyderabad out to help a film crew in his city and fall in love with the heroine. You could say this was one of the few times a Southern character did not become a spoof in Bollywood.
When Kamal Haasan debuted in Hindi, he had a thick Tamil accent. This disadvantage was turned into the plot of Ek Duje Ke Liye—where south Indian Kamal and north Indian Rati Agnohotri fell in love despite being from different sides of the Great Indian Divide. Kamal Haasan’s character learnt Hindi during the course of two songs, of which the more innovative one was composed entirely of Hindi film names sung to tune.
In (classic) Agneepath, Krishnan Iyer, MA (pronounced Yem Yeah!) had a Master’s degree from Kerala University but sold coconuts on the streets of Bombay and spoke in some Tamil words and accented Hindi. When he wasn’t saving mafia dons from assassinations, he was guarding the don’s sister and sang the original ‘lungi song’ – mixing (what I suspect could be) Bharat Natyam with Disco, calling it Disco Nariyal. Sigh.
And Mithun Chakraborty got a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
Pralaynath Gendaswamy was the villain of Tirangaa. Played by Deepak Shirke, he turned out to be the ideal foil to Raj Kumar and Nana Patekar’s bombat in the hyper-jingoistic movie. There could be a debate if the makers intended this character to be South Indian or if anything (apart from the Swamy at the end of his name) indicated him to be one. But I will take away the benefit of doubt and list this one as well.
Feroz Khan remade Mani Ratnam-Kamal Hasaan magnum opus, Nayakan in Hindi as Dayavan and the hero (Vinod Khanna) purportedly had a Tamil accent. He was Shakthi Velu who was the savior of all South Indian people living in the slums of Bombay. Vinod Khanna did not seem to have made any effort in getting the accent right and depended on his half-folded white veshti to communicate his
In Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Mr Iyer decreed that his daughter Vaijayanthi (Juhi Chawla) would marry a boy from the community (and he even found a classical dancing pansy to fit the bill). Vaijayanthi had other plans and ran off to become the governess of a handsome bachelor’s (Aamir Khan) nephews and nieces.
Carnatic music was said to be boring. The South Indians had thick accents and purveyed high-quality Tamil wisdom. When Mr Iyer was asked what was wrong with Aamir for marriage with his daughter, he said with all honesty—‘Buraai kuch nahin. Woh achha chhokra hai. But he’s not an Iyer.’
All stereotypes are not negative.
In Ram Gopal Verma’s Company, we had Commissioner Sreenivasan—played by Mohanlal. With a strong Malayali accent and seemingly slow movements, his roots were made quite clearly visible right from the outset. And yet, behind the calm demeanour was a steely resolve and sharp brain to counter the aggression of the Mumbai underworld. Said to be modelled on real-life Mumbai Police Commissioner D. Sivanandan, this character was a positive stereotype from India’s most literate state.
In recent times, Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal franchise has become amazingly and inexplicably successful.
The series has an avalanche of spoofs, where every character and every scene is designed around taking somebody’s trip. Thus, it seems almost normal when you have Celina Jaitley playing a south Indian woman by the name of Meera Nair (!) in Golmaal Returns. As Shreyas Talpade’s wife, she went around in heavy Kanjeevarams, spewing aiyo ramas. While the stereotypes were hackneyed, the choice of the name was quite inspired.
In Ra.One, SRK played a video game developer called Shekhar Subramaniam. who loved eating noodles with curd! By professing this love for curd-noodles and interspersing his dialogues with stray Tamil phrases (most notably, inge vaa), SRK managed to piss off almost everyone in the southern part of the country. He tried to make amends by getting Rajinikanth in a special appearance but that did not cut too much ice either.
Now please note: SRK (Shankar Subramaniam in Ra.One) + Rohit Shetty (Meera Nair in Golmaal Returns) = Chennai Express. All the best!