Bollywood’s Clichéd Caricatures
Syed Ali Mujtaba
Some Indians consider Bollywood movies as their staple diet; many may miss a meal, but not a new release on Friday. The three hours of solace in the dark and often dingy cinema halls for many is more soothing than visiting a mosque, temple or a church. Truly Bollywood movies are the lifeline for many Indians, their recouping pill to help them grapple with the harsh realities that surround.
However, those who make these movies do not care about the sensibilities of those who go to see them. On-screen characteri-sation of some real-life characters are so depressing, that instead of being entertained some really feel hurt when they identify with those characters. Hindi movies still have not broken from their clichéd presentations and continue to do so despite all round advance-ment in the filmmaking techniques.
Take for instance the depiction of south Indians particularly the Tamilians in Hindi cinema. Their peculiar mode of dressing, eating, talking, all is an object of ridicule in Bollywood. It is not that those who make the movies are unaware of the sensibilities of the Tamils; all the more galling then that they do not tone down the characterisation of south Indians in Hindi cinema. The trend began back when the comedian Mehmood played a ‘madrasi’ in the movie Padosan in the 1960s. The only rationale behind such deli-berate portrayals would seem to be to highlight the superiority of north Indians vis-à-vis the southerners. Rarely has the Hindi cinema depicted north and east or north and west divides, the way it does between north and south.
Rarely has the Hindi cinema depicted north and east or north and west divides, the way it does between north and south
The coloured Muslim
The other set of clichéd characters of cinema are the Muslims, whose identity is para-mount in Hindi cinema but remains locked in certain stereotypes. Muslim men wear Aligarh cut sherwani, chewing paan, and women dress in heavy ghararas. The men are portrayed either as hakims, poet or tailors. Whenever such characters appear on screen, audiences know it is time for a bout of qawaali. More often than not Muslims are painted in negative shades. Smugglers are shown dressed in the traditional Arab robe, carrying a briefcase, making lewd gestures at the dancers at the villain’s wine and dance party. Then, Bollywood heroes are often shown bashing local rowdies dressed in lungi and sleeveless singlet, an image that somehow gets mixed up with characters that live in the old Muslim localities in many north Indian towns. The most common cliché of Bollywood is the characterisation of nautch girls, who often have Muslim names.
The political agenda have started colouring Muslim characters on the Hindi screen. Most recently, in good-versus-evil plots, Kashmir, Pakistan and the Taliban all have become a symbol of ‘evil’ in Hindi cinema. Kashmiri militants are shown as gun-toting bearded guys wearing skullcaps and fighting the Indian security forces. The Kashmiri militant linkage moves further in a linear direction to identify with Pakistan and Taliban. Characters dressed up in Afghan outfits with scarve over the shoulder are shown mouthing some Arabic words while scheming to launch jehad against India.
The villain in these recent films cari-catures ‘bin Laden’ and looks like a typical Muslim priest holding a rosary in hand, counting beads, and spitting fire against India. Audiences feel pained when the heroine somehow lands in the clutches of the Talibs and gets thrilled when she escapes from their dragnet. The painting of the Taliban, Pakistanis and Kashmiris are all done with the same brush. Anti-Pakistan movies have been a recent favourite of Bollywood directors who lack the skills and creativity not to follow the crowd. In order to sell patriotism, Pakistan is depicted as the monster in whose defeat rests Indian national pride. These anti-Pakistan movies end up conveying that all Muslims living in India are either black sheep or Pakistani agents.
There almost seems to be a design in such cinematic characterisation to erode the commonalities, which Hindus and Mu-slims have synthesized living side by side for centuries in India. It was not always this way. Who can forget the powerful portrayal as the compassionate Pathan by Balraj Sahni, in the Bimal Roy classic of the early 60s Kabuliwala; or AK Hangal playing a Muslim priest in the 1975 epic Sholay. But even an innovative director like Mani Ratnam was unable break the cliché in depicting a traditional Muslim girl eloping with a Hindu boy in Bombay (1994).
The villain in these recent films caricatures ‘bin Laden’
and looks like a typical Muslim priest holding a rosary in hand, counting beads, and spitting fire against India.
The treatment of Christians in Hindi cinema again leaves one pondering. In fact, there was a protest in the early 1970s from the Anglo-Indian Christian community when the film Julie was released, typecasting the leading lady as a Christian protagonist. Hindi movies often present ‘loose’, ‘immoral’ female characters with Christian names. Vamps are often shown wearing a cross, working as barmaids or cabaret dancers. Helen, the sizzling dancer of yester-years had Christian names in most of her movies. So did Faryal, Kalpana Iyer and Bindu who all played negative roles. They were all Mona, Rosy or Lily in the movies. These names gained notoriety because ‘Mona darling’ or ‘Lily don’t be silly’ were often villain Ajit’s catch phrase in his movies as were the names of his henchmen, Robert and Peter. Christian names seem now to have outlived their purpose, as new oomph girls have taken over their role as the ‘other lady’ and have merged it with the central female character. In the first half of the movie today’s heroines are attired in the skimpiest of dresses, once reserved for vamps. But in the second half they dress like a typical Indian lady as it becomes time for them to get married and live happily thereafter. The Christian vamp has become redundant as the Hindu girl doubles as vamp and heroine.
The Sikhs too are treated with a slant. They are either shown as dim-witted or possessing hyper-testosterone levels. The Sikh image has come to be synchronised with either the one who is protecting the country’s borders or is a truck driver. The moment the Sikh character appears on screen audiences know it is time for a ‘bhangra’ dance number. The irony is that even though there is much influence of Punjabi culture on Hindi cinema, there are hardly any nuances in the characterisation of the Sikhs.
Since Bollywood is based in Mumbai where the Parsi community is concentrated, the directors are fond of their characteri-sation. But again Parsis are shown as absent-minded lost people who speak Hindi with an accent and provide entertainment to the audiences. In most movies, Parsis are shown riding a vintage car with their sizeable family; the vehicle breaks down in the middle of the road, leading to verbal duels with other commuters and the films end up depicting all Parsis as buffoons.
Bollywood finds fun in ridiculing a community to make others laugh. The depiction of the south Indian as licking their palm while eating, or saying “ayyo amma” in a particular accent does not put any Tamilian in splits. Similarly, the portrayal of buxom beauties, wearing a cross and saying “yes boss” does not please people belonging to the Christian faith. Muslims sentiments are hurt when they are regularly shown as ruffians, dancing girls, smugglers or terrorists. Mere tokenism of characters on some occasions - sporting a beard and a cap, a frail good-natured tramp that lives in penury next door - is not enough of a sop to placate. Somehow Bollywood still steers shy of port-raying the real life Shahrukh, Aamir or Saif on screen. One cannot dispute the fact that there has to be the ‘bad’ guy and the ‘good’ guy in a movie but why this invincible typecasting? If Hindi cinema is meant to be wholesome entertainment then it has to break away from its clichéd presentations. The day Shahrukh Khan as Abdul or Aamir and not as ‘Raj’ or ‘Vijay’ delivers a blockbuster like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge, Bollywood will have woken up to the times.