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Don’t South Indian women deserve better representation in Bollywood, instead of the usual saree-clad, oiled hair, heavily accented ones?
The history of cinema is replete with instances of several communities and social factions facing stereotypic portrayals. In 2018, Rory Turnbull, an Assistant Professor of Linguistics, took to Twitter to speak up about the banal homework-yelling professor in cinema. This tweet was soon echoed by several professionals and socio-cultural groups, describing their restricted portrayals in media, including Bollywood.
We may be moving away from sexist depictions of women in Indian cinema, as characters move to career driven women and single mothers. However, these are applauded as the minority among female roles.
Discussions revolving around the portrayal of women are hollow if they are restricted to uplifting a select class of characters. The 2018 Twitter storm witnessed many people speaking up. Especially about color, caste, race and class in conjunction with the portrayal of women. And also about how these continue to be poorly addressed.
In India, Bollywood and mainstream Hindi shows have an exceptionally wide reach within and outside the country. These are majorly the channels with the potential to influence large sections of the population. Thus, they have an added responsibility in the practices, ideologies and appearances associated with characters they portray.
It is, therefore, all too easy to propagate stereotypes concerning specific communities. Especially, when their characters are written without sufficient understanding of their socio-cultural practices.
The dominance of Hindi speaking characters, and their allied writers and directors, leaves the non-Hindi speaking character to comic sidelines. Among the many misrepresented sections, the South Indian community has taken a hit in such movies, leaving their image to funny accents and racist roles.
This is one among many such avenues, where the gender divide in Indian media diverges. South Indian women face an added challenge when factoring in their socio-cultural differences, in their depiction in Bollywood’s mainstream climate. The biases in the south Indian community affect all genders. However, non-male genders face it, in addition to struggling for representation that isn’t subdued by patriarchy.
Apart from the submissive role she plays, the South Indian woman is almost always saree clad, wearing mounds of jasmine flowers in long, braided and neatly oiled hair. She doesn’t just face the routine objectification that other women do but also is shown with stereotypes. These stereotypes are often based in generalising all South Indian communities.
Convincing families to accept differences is a common storyline. This is shown in an exaggerated and unrealistic sense, with women only wearing churidars and living in palatial houses. It is also important to address the choice of actresses since casting North Indian ones and expecting them to lend authenticity to the role, is a hard game.
From Alia Bhatt’s unreal half-saree in Two States, to the women of Chennai Express with their thick accents, Bollywood fails to address the intersection between gender and socio-cultural variations. Although Two States showed a girl who could make choices for herself, the movie still managed to perpetuate stereotypes on Tamilian culture.
This problem of misrepresentation is evident in many progressive media shows. Amazon Prime’s series, Four More Shots Please! features a Malayali lawyer, Anjana Menon. Although her role as a woman breaks conventional norms, there is no evidence of her not belonging to Bombay. It’s not that we expect her to constantly embrace her roots, but the only link to her being a Malayali, is when she says refers to her father as acha.
If you’re putting in a first-generation South Indian immigrant as a character (as a message that not all of them must be from the same place) at least take the effort to depict why she bears any resemblance to her state. Most such shows place south Indian characters who communicate in Hindi all the time. This lack of character-depth when it comes to people from outside the Hindi climate only displays faux inclusivity, with diversity as a namesake.
Chennai Express lies on an extreme end of the spectrum, despite being a fairly recent movie. This goes the extra mile to reinforce overweight women with long hair, making idlis and sambar, who only know to say aiyyo.
These stereotypes often extend to providing specific roles for certain classes and castes. When they do not play the main role, female characters are often shown as fat and dark skinned, employed in comedic portrayals.
Further, the upper caste elderly woman is often restricted to describing dishes and ceremonies. It is rare for anyone to ever pronounce anything correctly, and their heavily accented speech extends to both Hindi and English. They are shown in stark contrast to the English (whatever little) flawlessly spoken by the north Indian characters.
The larger problem at hand is this – there continues to be an overbearing focus on the north Indian woman in such scenarios. And a detailed portrayal when it comes to their lives and culture, simply because they are supposedly united by a common tongue (untrue, for there are several dialects cast aside)
People calling southern states Karnaatak, Tamil Naad and Keral is overused and bland humour. The South is seen as separate, and its people provided one seat in the bus of 300 north Indian characters, the bare minimum for being accommodative.
Movies rarely have characters from outside a few main south Indian cities. They continue to be shown in an exotic nature despite today’s exceedingly cosmopolitan environment.
These representations are only reflective of mindsets that choose to singularly focus on the North Indian group, and stay ignorant of the rest. Anna MM Vetticad’s account of ingrained perceptions of the South Indian community highlights the same point:
‘It would be naïve, however, to ignore the country’s systemic pro-north bias and skewed balance of political power. The so-called ‘national’ media’s Bollywood obsession, to the virtual exclusion of our other thriving film industries. A journalism scene in which the molestation of a major Malayalam actress this year received little attention, though a similar assault in north India would have attracted wall-to-wall coverage. And the deeply political import of that woman’s words from so long ago, “Aap toh south Indian dikhti hai par aapki behen Indian dikhti hai.”’
It is important to address how this representation bleeds over into thought processes and prejudices, addressing the influential role this content has on daily life. The platform that Bollywood movies have in sensitising the North Indian community to these cultures is no trivial one.
Bollywood is a prime source of disseminating information. It is time, Bollywood moves away from the cliched north Indian woman around whom it is pivoted, and bring in better inclusivity.
Picture credits: Stills from Bollywood movies Two States and Chennai Express
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Spatika is a fourth year student, studying biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education
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