A character from the very popular 1968 movie ‘Padosan’ is still able to cause grown men to squirm uncomfortably as they feel their South Indian pride trampled upon – I’m talking about Master Pillai played by Mehmood.
Master Pillai was portrayed with epic insensitivity as an honourable and talented South Indian man forever fated to be the butt of jokes on account of his caricaturish South Indian accent, grooming and body language; To be unfeelingly used as a pawn by Saira Banu’s character to win the love of Sunil Dutt’s character – implying that he is sub-human and does not merit human consideration.
If you are North Indian by birth or by breeding, this may sound like a non-issue. If you are a South Indian who has systematically suppressed rage at the machine, it will strike a chord.
Ironically, Padosan means “neighbour” and sadly, the movie has top comedy billing. If you watch Padosan with anything approaching an egalitarian perspective, it is far from a comedy. The “comedy” in Padosan draws from a collective North-Indian disdain for South Indian sights and sounds that empowers the viewer to guffaw at anything south of the National Capital Region. For South Indians (and emancipated North Indians), the movie is mortifying to watch. Even the classical music of the South has not been spared this treatment, despite being similar to North Indian ragas and rhythms.
Padosan has many popular songs, including one called “Ek Chatur Naar” which is a contest-cum-duet that pitches Carnatic style singing against a vaguely North Indian style of singing. While the song is a milestone in film music, it is also quite the Fascist Manifesto. The North Indian character prevails on the South Indian by sledging, heckling and insulting rather than clean battle. “Ek Chatur Naar” has several racist elements, two of which are listed below:
Exhibit A. Colour superiority expressed by the North Indian:
“Jaa re jaa re kaare kaga” – translated, “begone you black crow”.
“kaala re gaare gaare..etc.” – translated, “blackie, sing if you can. Otherwise, go soil your face in drain water.”
Exhibit B. Musical superiority expressed by the North Indian:
“kaa kaa kaa kyun shor machaye” – translated, “stop the crow like cacophony you’re making in the name of music”
Maybe I am reading too much between the lines, and maybe Padosan is not as annoying as I find it today. It was made in the cultural milieu of the 70s and a calibration is necessary when watching it now. But Ra.One?
Dumb, and seriously annoying, partly because the movie was terrible, and partly because in this day and age a North Indian filmmaker has seen enough South Indians to know that the stereotype is not valid.
Most Indians grow up feeling that it is fine to laugh at, or mock, a South Indian accent in spoken Hindi or English. The bias is in the media, and is so pervasive that even South Indians have bought into it – some think that they are worthy of derision. Another North Indian meme is to mock the sounds of a South Indian language with faux onomatopoeias like “bhandi kundi” or “akdam tikdam”, in an ignorant imitation of the consonant play.
The fact is that Hindi is not inherently more or less beautiful than any other language. The fact is that after Independence, States were drawn up on linguistic lines. The fact is that Hindi should never have been declared the official language – it was too arbitrary a choice, and shows that our founding fathers also had a Northern bias. The fact is that South Indians make an effort to learn and speak Hindi (a foreign language) whereas most North Indians can’t even distinguish between the Southern languages. The fact is that North India itself does not speak Hindi uniformly, but that does not temper the sniggering or snide remarks when a south indian breaks out in an accent. In South India, a northerner trying to speak Tamil or Telugu is received appreciatively – accent and all. We need the converse to also be true. Why should AR Rahman be the only South Indian to walk scot-free with his Hindi accent (and maybe Abdul Kalam) – we want to see that “generosity” on the streets.
The fact that Vasu could not speak Hindi allowed him to sing “Mere Jeevan Saathi”, a song made up entirely of Hindi movie names and make Ek Duuje Ke Liye a hit, but he did nothing to refurbish the Southie’s image – the best I can say is, at least a South Indian played a South Indian.
Nothing is as patronising as a North Indian (or East Indian) playing a southie, and making it a slapstick hash. Witness Mithun’s Krishna Iyer MA from Agneepath. Even SRK’s “Enna Rascala” parodied Rajini’s screen presence in Om Shanti Om, but in the scheme of things, it was pretty harmless.
And now onto a movie that goes around in the guise of being very liberated, but still does a number on the South Indian – yes, 3 Idiots and Chatur Ramalingam. Rajkumar Hirani tried some obfuscation by making Uganda Chatur’s country of origin, but ultimately played to the worst South Indian stereotypes – geeky, nerdy and ignorant of Hindi.
That final aspect actually makes for the biggest gag in the movie, in which the comedy comes from the fact that Chatur does not understand the language.
Apart from the lopsided qualities (awkward, geeky, stunted) that always seem to go with a South Indian’s portrayal is the issue of casting. Madhavan is a Tamilian born and raised in Jamshedpur. It is almost as if not conforming to the stereotype disqualifies him from being a Tamilian! Proof – why wasn’t he cast as Chatur the Tamilian in 3 Idiots, where he could have played it without dripping slapstick and stereotype? What about Siddharth Narayan, someone with Tamil/Telugu lineage being cast as Karan Singhania (fawgodssakes!) in Rang De Basanti, thereby missing an opportunity to present a proper mainstream South Indian character free of the usual hooks, tics and accent. I can’t say how Abhay Deol did with his Tamil in Shanghai, but I daresay it is totally unnecessary. If it has to be Abhay, why does it have to be a Tamilian – if it has to be a Tamilian, why Abhay?
This prejudice and bad behaviour is no longer one-way; South-Indian movies, which have traditionally not derided the North, have lately started taking potshots – albeit subtle ones.
In at least two Shankar movies (and he is arguably the biggest masala filmmaker in the south) there are jabs against North Indians. In Gentleman, when Arjun and Goundamani are stealing jewelry from a seth’s store in Chennai, the seth calls the police (or something like that, we forget the exact details but remember the dialogue that follows). The burglars have already outsmarted him, so they turn to him and say something to the effect of “Saala, chappati khaane waala tuu itnaa chaalaak hai, to salna (could be salan, eaten with Biryani or saadam or rice) khaane waale hum tumhaare baap nahin honge?” (“If a chapati-eater like you can be cunning, can’t rice eaters like us outsmart you?”).
The other example is from Mudhalvan (later remade in Hindi as Nayak with Anil Kapoor). When some seth has occupied the flat meant for a person from the slum, the ek din ka Chief Minister kicks him out of the house with this line – “Saroja, saara saamaan nikalo”. This is not explicitly Northie stuff but there’s a throwaway line where the seth tells Saroja, “Sowcarpet jaayenge“. Now Sowcarpet is the Northie businessman area of Chennai and the CM’s PA (Manivannan) looks at the CM and says knowingly, “See. They’re going off to Sowcarpet.” Subtle, and somewhat pointed.
Then there is the song “Saroja saamaan nikalo” from Chennai 600028. The title of the song is a takeaway from the same “Saroja, saara saman nikalo”, we described earlier.
Right before it, a generic North Indian is shown singing “Papa kehte hain…” in a lukewarm tone until the “real” Chennai kids take over. The point we are making is, the South is not silent anymore. Slowly, subtly, they are getting back.
I despair when people say “It is different now, the prejudice is not there.” Wrong! The prejudice is there. Political correctness pushes these things underground where they continue to fester. We have to be vigilant, and tackle this with sternness every time it surfaces.
Sure, Ram Gopal Varma and Mani Rathnam have good strong South Indian characters in the Hindi movies they made, but that doesn’t count. It will count when a North Indian powerhouse director puts a strong, well rounded South Indian lead in his movie and makes it a hit. A Yash Chopra casting a Madhavan as a respectable South Indian character, paired off with a fair North Indian female lead to create a hit will be the Gab Bar’s benchmark for the coming of age of Indian movies, with regard to cultural disparity.
A related discussion could be – What is populist Hindi Cinema? (or Bollywood, as it is popularly called). Is it pan-Indian cinema or is it North Indian cinema? Why can’t the populist filmmakers make a Srinivas Iyengar woo a Simran Kaur / Lalitha Ramaswamy in the glorious tulip gardens of Switzerland, fight the villains the world over, kill them all, save the world and get the girl? Does this point to something? It points to the fear that the wider audience (non-Southie) will not accept it. These are not simple questions and there are no easy answers, but it is a worthwhile enquiry.
There are those who object to the use of the word “racism” in the Indian context, since “Aren’t North and South Indians the same race?”.
My response is, “Are we going to split hairs about the labels?”. If it walks like racism, talks like racism and feels like racism, it is racism. And its got to go.