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Newly-released Meenakshi Sundareshwar passes the test, but made me think of how Bollywood & pop-culture have often stereotyped South Indians.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a Bollywood movie that is set in Tamil Nadu. Although this would normally lead to us preparing for 2 hours packed with the caricaturizing of South Indians, the movie is somewhat different. Watching Meenakshi Sundareshwar made me take a look at how South Indians have been portrayed in Hindi films & pop-culture.
For decades, Bollywood’s view of South India has been limited to highlighting stereotypes for comic relief. Rarely do we see a positive representation of South India without it feeding into the already present discriminatory ideas in the minds of the people.
South Indians have been depicted as the “other” (this holds true for any ethnic background in India that does not involve a metropolitan city). Their culture and language seen as alien and different.
Perpetuating negative stereotypes adds to the racism that people face. In schools, workplaces and social situations we’ve noticed these Bollywood stereotypes being used for mockery and ridicule.
Some of the unfair stereotypes perpetuated by Bollywood & pop-culture include:
South Indians have usually been shown through a very narrow lens. In most films there is a depiction of Tamil Brahmins who are uptight and conservative. Others include showing them as gangsters and goons. There is a lack of humanization of these characters in all the depictions which makes it even more problematic.
Like, the ‘Strict Tamil Father’ trope is one that is seen everywhere in media. Be it, Chennai Express or 2 States. In fact even though Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a far more realistic portrayal of South Indians, even this film has the ‘stern authoritarian father’ cliché.
The infamous depiction of a Carnatic music teacher in ‘Padosan’ is seen by some as the start of this entire plague. In the movie the teacher (played by Mehmood) dressed in white, vibhuti on his head, and with a thick accent is a comic element in the script and is even shown as a creep. Sadly, even in recent times we have ample examples of the same. Iyer in ‘Tarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chashma’ is one such character. The actor Tanuj Mahadhabde even spoke up about the issue recently. These depictions are nothing but harmful to the minds of the audience and directly or indirectly harm the society.
Black face is an issue that is usually talked of in relation to white people painting their faces black to look like African American people. In India however, Bollywood movies have used black face to represent people from the south. This is not just offensive but yet again shows how Indian audience is taught to judge people on their complexion.
For instance, in the 2013 movie Chennai Express all the goons and bad guys (all South Indians) have a darker skin tone than the ‘good’ characters. This is a stereotype that is observed in Bollywood consistently. The damage these actions do on the society as a whole are long lasting and harmful to say the least.
Food is an essential part of all cultures, especially in India. Movies have depicted South Indians negatively by making fun of their eating habits, going as far as to mock it in songs like Chamak Challo from ‘Ra. One’. In fact, the one image from that I distinctly remember from the movie is of the main character Shekhar, played by Shah Rukh Khan, eating noodles with curd. Such scenes do encourage a stilted perception of South Indians.
This is perhaps the most over-used trope in Bollywood. Using accents to depict the background of a character is nothing new but Bollywood as usual has taken this a step further. To highlight a distinctive quality without turning it derogatory is a skill that a lot of directors have yet to learn. Repeated use of words like “aiyo” or “Yenna rascal-a” fall flat and have stopped being funny. Like the example given earlier, Iyer in ‘Tarak Mehta’ is characterized by a distinct tune playing in the background every time he comes on screen. And he uses “aiyo” in every other sentence. It seems as if the only notable personality trait he has is the fact that he is from the south of India.
When asked why he made a film about South Indians in Hindi, director Vivek Soni was quoted as saying, “If I make this entire film in Tamil, it becomes a regional film and there is nothing bad about it, those are good films and I love them. But I essentially wanted to make a Hindi film. So, either we go all out and make a Tamil film or you keep an accent, which we did not want to do, then it becomes stereotypical. Then it would have looked like you are making fun of the language. So, we have made it a Hindi film and few Tamil words were spoken by the characters to give a flavour.”
After watching Meenakshi Sundareshwar, it is very apparent that the director has made sure not to depict any character like a caricature. These are very real characters, going through real problems.
The setting of the film is spot on and so is the culture that is depicted. None of the characters are defined by a harmful trope, except Meenakshi’s obsession with Rajinikanth and even that in the narrative of movie is not used as a comic element. However, The strict father trope does play into the movie.
Despite that, Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a breath of fresh air and is an overall beautiful representation of the South Indian culture.
It looks like Bollywood is trying to take steps in the right direction. Suffice to say, we hope more directors follow these footsteps and treat all communities with equal respect.
Image source: Stills from various movies
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