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Bollywood, Learn Your South India Well Before You Make A Movie About Us; Regards, A Tamilian

What is the pressing need to make characters South Indian, really when their culture isn’t pivotal to the story? And when the makers haven’t spent a minute learning about the culture or the language except the word Ayyo?

If you are a Bollywood director and have decided to make a movie either set in South India or with South Indian protagonists, all you need are coconuts, Kanjeevaram silks, mallipoo (jasmine flowers) and a few litres of coconut oil. You definitely don’t need to research the cultural setting or the language that is clearly foreign to you and neither do you need representation or advisors from the community on the set to guide you.

It is 2021 and yet, film makers like Vivek Soni and Karan Johar think it ok to make a film set in Madurai (Maduraai as the protoganists in the film pronounce) with zero knowledge of the Tamizh mileu.

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a disaster from the get go. The lead cast has no representation from the Tamizh community and the film is replete with stereotypes. As a Tamilian myself, I have put together a few quick points for you, if you are a Bollywood filmmaker and somehow can’t control the itch to set the movie in South India.

We are not all a homogeneous mass of humanity

As a beginning, learn to first identify the states within the South. Each is distinctive in its culture, food, language and a host of other things. It is completely unfair that ‘South Indian’ is equated with Tamilian in all your movies. It wasn’t long ago when everyone south of the Vindhyas was called Madrasis. That, there is now a distinction between Madras and Madurai probably deserves an ovation of sorts.

  • Tamilians don’t wear the vibuti every waking minute of their lives. Neither are they richly draped in Kanjeevaram silks or veshtis. That is neither comfortable nor affordable.
  • Men do wear pants or shorts at home and the lungi is a fast disappearing garment. Also lungi and veshti are completely different and you may want to learn to make that distinction in the next movie you make.
  • Houses aren’t built Chettinad style with thick pillars and large, open courtyards where children wearing pattu pavadais (Sabyasachi – it isn’t pavada, for God’s sake) play and older women sit around oiling one another’s hair. Not all women wear mallipoo either and definitely not all the time.
  • Throwing in random Tamizh words and phrases (read Ayyo and Rascala, but more on that later) does not an authentic movie make.

Stop with the mish-mash caricatures, and the stereotypes!

Since the 60s and possibly even before, South Indians have been used as caricatures in Hindi films to provide comic relief. Mahmood is probably the best example, and his portrayal of a South Indian in Padosan was simply horrifying. He goes by the name Pillai and is supposed to be Brahmin, which any Tamilian will tell you is all things wrong in just one sentence. His entire persona is created for laughs and the song which is ‘evergreen’, Ek Chatur Naar degrades not just South Indians but the Carnatic classical music art form as well.

I remember walking out of the cinema hall unable to bear the caricaturish portrayal of the South Indian man.

In Ra.One, a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan agrees to play a nerdy, boring, loser gamer whose son mocks him while he eats noodles with curd using his fingers sloppily. South Indians HAVE heard of forks and spoons, wonder of wonders and most are very comfortable using them.

What is the pressing need to make characters South Indian, really when their culture isn’t pivotal to the story? And when the makers haven’t spent a minute learning about the culture or the language except the word Ayyo? Was the film maker trying to imply Tamilians are nerdy and intelligent and by extension ignorant of social etiquette?

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But in 2 States, Amrita Singh playing the character of a Punjabi mother alludes to South Indians being uneducated in a conversation with Revathi, a South Indian woman. While the scene shows the Punjabi character as being loud, rude and despicable, it brings to the fore all the stereotypes that South Indians have suffered from all along. Including her/their disgust at most South Indians being dark skinned.

Some part of the stereotype is racist since it is rooted in the difference in skin color between the North and the South. It isn’t uncommon to see an actor playing a South indian person being brownfaced.

Samantha Prabhu who plays a Srilankan militant in Family Man 2 had a ton of bronzer applied to her face to apparently add authenticity. Because even racism can’t be subtle in Bollywood, you have Mahmood (again) dancing to Hum Kale Hai to Kya Hua Dilwale Hai wearing a lungi (again) and black make up on the face, in the movie Gumnaam.

Brownfacing a person to depict a certain race or community is insulting in myriad ways.

Mithun Chakraborty plays Krishnan Iyer YEM YAE (M A) in Agneepath and his pronounciation of the initials is supposed to provide mirth for some twisted reason.

It is absolutely ok for Tamilians to pronounce M A as YEM YAE really, just as it is ok for a North Indian to pronounce bear as ‘beer’ or underwear as ‘underweeyer’. English isn’t our first language and ridiculing one’s knowledge of it or pronunciation is classist, and a sign of our colonial hangover. It is also cool to say accented ‘maiii’ for ‘I’ by us when the ubiquitous sambaar is pronounced as ‘sambar’ by the North, which is a type of deer.

But back to Krishnan Iyer YEM YAE. Krishnan Iyer YEM YAE is always bare bodied and wears a white tilak and a towel around his shoulders. This attire is a mix of goodness knows how many communities, real and fictional. Rani Mukherjee in Aiyyaa wears her hair up in ribbons, a towel on her shoulder (again) and jasmine flowers to seduce her South Indian beau.

The throwing of a towel on the shoulders is again a part of certain communities only and signifies a certain power dynamic the person enjoys. This mash up of different identities is most problematic and disrespectful to people from all communities.

Back to Meenaskshi Sundareshwar

Every community in every state in the South is distinctive, often marked by language or markings on the body. A depiction of a South Indian wedding scene correctly can reflect the research done by the director as well as the intent to represent communities correctly.

As wedding scenes go, Meenakshi Sundareshwar was a disaster right from the groom wearing a kurta to the bride wearing a black beaded thaali (mangalsutra) around her neck.

The black beaded mangalsutra is worn in Karnataka. Wouldn’t be surprised if Karan Johar thought ‘Maduraai’ was in Karnataka, given that in one interview he said his nannies speak Malayali. However the director of 2 States got the wedding scene right, and I wonder whether Chetan Bhagat’s wife oversaw the scene.

While Ayyo is a real word in Tamil, there is no word called Rascala – a word oft repeated by Shah Rukh’s character in Om Shanti Om.

And Meenakshi Sundareshwar bears many references to Rajnikanth, all of which would incense any fan of the Superstar. It is only the tolerance of the Tamizh audience that these horrific portrayals went unchallenged. Or maybe the Tamizh audience, secure in its identity and its own cinema, is so disconnected with Bollywood that they don’t really care. Can you blame them though, when the big movie moghuls of the North haven’t made the least effort in understanding this rich, diverse culture that cannot be ignored?

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About the Author

Poornima Kulathu

I am a banker, author, poet and an intersectional feminist. Speaking up on social issues, mentoring and coaching and cooking up a storm for friends and a certain strapping 21 year old boy are what read more...

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