What is the appropriate response to stereotypes in cinema? Well, that depends on the kind of film, doesn't it?
When I reviewed Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar, an update on the Heer-Ranjha legend that situates its heroine in Kashmir, a Kashmiri reader wrote back in angst: "The problem (likely only for me)... is that no Kashmiri girl would be named Heer! As silly and petty as it sounds, this sort of cultural tone-deafness is one of the reasons I haven't bothered to see the movie. I guess I'm just tired of Kashmir and Kashmiris being used as exotic props in Hindi films without even an attempt at truly engaging or reflecting the culture." Going by the feedback to the teaser/trailer of the Shah Rukh Khan-Deepika Padukone starrer Chennai Express, an entire state (or at least, its tweeting population) appears to be up in arms. People are sick of the stereotyping – understandably so. Not every Tamilian is characterised by forehead stripes, a fondness for idlis and an accent that appears to have been gargled through a mouth full of sambar.
But then, does every Punjabi male start to shake his shoulders to the sound of an off-screendhol as a chorus bursts into balle-balle? Is every Christian father a cheerful lush who trundles off to a portrait of the Virgin Mary after proclaiming "Hum God se baat karega, man"? Isn't there another way to evoke a blue-collar locale of Mumbai than to depict the Dionysian revelries around a giant statue of Ganesha? Is every Bengali a dhoti-twirling egghead whose favoured mode of address is a musically rendered babu moshai? The answer, of course, is no – and the question, really, ought to be framed differently. Should we care about stereotypes in mainstream cinema? Perhaps at some level we should care that these templates, in films that are going to be seen by millions, are forever going to render us – as a community – a certain way in the minds of those from elsewhere. But is this worth getting worked up over?
The general outrage around Chennai Express seems to revolve around the fact that a Hindi film has reduced a Tamilian to this crude stereotype. I am not defending this. All I'm asking – rather, wondering out loud – is whether Tamil cinema is so blameless. (I take the example of Tamil cinema because I am familiar with it, but I suspect what I say is true of other regional cinemas as well.) For the longest time in Tamil films, Malayali women wandered around in tight-fitting blouses and mundus, tending to tea stalls and answering to pen kutty. Any North Indian was aseth, a Shylock who'd count his lent-out pennies until he ran out of breath – and he'd speak a strange, fractured patois. And Telugus are buffoons, goltis existing only to be spoofed. But forget the depiction of these outsiders and look at Tamilians – say, Tam-Brahms – and the exaggeration is no less. Not every Iyer woman is trussed up in a nine-yard sari, and neither is she always a Carnatic music expert.
Why, then, haven't we seen many protests against these stereotypes in Tamil cinema? Probably not many from outside Tamil Nadu watch Tamil films, and we probably sigh at the inaccuracies but don't do much else because we are making fun of ourselves. This explains the success of the Suryan FM show Kittu Mama Susie Mami, which saddles a stereotyped Tam-Brahm with a stereotyped Anglo-Indian spouse. No one's offended. It's just a joke. But when an outsider, especially from North India, makes fun of us, we erupt in rage. "How dare you?" we seethe. "What makes you so superior?" Do the extra-loud Punjabi characters in Hindi films make sardars equally angry? I doubt it. Because there's a shared ethos. But we get offended because most of us have nothing in common with Hindi culture, and the stereotyping assumes the form of deliberate mockery: Deepika Padukone is no longer playing a character in a silly comedy – she's the latest embodiment of the Other's longstanding attempt to belittle us.
I have mixed feelings about stereotyping. On the one hand, I am annoyed when every Tamilian in a Hindi film makes his entry in a lungi, scratching his armpits and uttering aiyaiyo. But I also don't take these films all that seriously, and I find the stereotyping in a so-called serious film likeMr. and Mrs. Iyer more galling. In the latter, I expect accuracy, pointillistic detail. In the former, I only expect entertainment, and the question – to me – isn't whether Deepika Padukone is authentic, but whether she can make me laugh. In other words, it all comes down to the tone of the film. Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany's is all wrong not because he's offensive but because he's playing it so broadly in a film that's otherwise so subtle, so sophisticated. But when Monty Python, in their song I Like Chinese, tell us "They only come up to your knees/ Yet they're always friendly, and they're ready to please," the only thing to do is laugh.