Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chennai Express, stereotyping and cinema

About a week ago, I saw the Chennai Express trailer and posted it on fb with an equivalent of- 'The only reason why Chennai Express can be this bad is if Mumbaikars are taking revenge on us for the Tamil movie Mumbai Express'. The two-minute trailer had about two million mistakes. (My Intel Media days make me say: That should be ~694 mistakes per frame! Ya, I know I am using my hyperbole license here.) 

Anyway, almost every Tamilian I knew was aghast. Even some non-Tamil south Indians were shocked. THIS was not how we were. (The most glaring mistakes included using Kathakali to depict Tamilians and showing goons threatening with knives that are actually used for harvesting- which no self-respecting goon would even touch. And I am not even going to start on the accent :-/). 

But then, I thought for a few minutes- aren't "North" Indians misrepresented in Tamil movies? From the assortment of "Singh"s who speak unbearable Hindi to Mallu women in blouse and mundu (tied in a way that I have never seen any Mallu woman wearing in all my years in Kerala!), Muslim men always with beard and cap and talking Hindi-mixed Tamil- the list is endless. And you might have noticed the stereotyping in Hollywood as well- Chinese accents, French romantic men, rude Germans, Indian women with jingling jewelry, and it goes on.
If you know me, you might be tempted to ask at this point- didn't you miss TamBrahm stereotyping in Tamil? I was actually saving the best for the last :P From the earliest time I can remember of watching Tamil movies, I have always wondered why Brahmins were sooooooo misrepresented in our movies (Hindi and Tamil alike. Hindi- Hum hai rahi pyar ke, Shaktimaan (the series), Malini Iyer (don't remember the name) are a few off the top of my head!) What did we ever do to the world to be stereotyped so poorly? With all my interaction with Brahmins, I have met too many "normal" people to believe that everyone uses Brahmin accent at work and with non-Brahmin friends. It is almost like somebody picked a stylised accent from a century ago and decided that anybody who is a Brahmin in a movie should speak that archaic accent. (I know some Brahmin guys who look awesome, speak flawless English AND are very intelligent. Which is the exact opposite of the typical thayir-saadam Ambi types in movies!)

So, am I saying that just because we have so much stereotyping in Tamil cinema, it's ok for Bollywood to stereotype us? Well, it depends.
The idea behind having a stereotype is that it is easy for the audience to fill in some gaps and make inferences. Also, it often makes humor very easy- an effort-saver if you are unable to think up good jokes. Which is fine if the audience understands that this is a stereotype used for a joke and not carry the stereotype home.
But there are two caveats to this. The first is that- even some very good movies have stereotypes.  When an otherwise sensible movie has a stereotype, it clashes with how realistic the plot is. It ruins the movie for people who know the stereotype, it spreads the stereotype for those who don't. 
The second is that- unfortunately movie watching usually triggers the emotional circuitry of the brain, but not much of the cognitive circuitry. (There are some MRI studies which show brain activity in the medial temporal lobe, but almost none in the frontal cortex.) What this means is that the audience is emotionally involved with the movie, but not usually thinking. So when a stereotypical character is bad or stupid, the audience is angry or frustrated along with the protagonist, and might potentially carry that frustration back home. (This is just my inference, not part of the study!) So you see, the stereotypes are not harmless comedy at all! 

At this point, I am sure someone is thinking I am creating a mountain out of a molehill. I used to think so too, until I faced some typical racist comments from people around me- From "You are a South Indian so you don't understand Hindi" (which pisses me off because I have read more Surdas and classic Hindi literature than many people who comment), and "You are a TamBrahm so you love curd rice", to "I am surprised you are not mean. Are you sure you are a (*insert any group I belong to here- Indian, Tamilian, Brahmin, Iyengar, whatever*)?" When someone says that, I have an instinct to say "You racist *#*^$%*". But instead I swallow and say "You were wrong about (*the group*) then, weren't you?"

I know that stereotyping doesn't originate in cinema. But because cinema is such a powerful medium, it might be worthwhile to cut down the stereotyping.

As for Chennai Express- it is still an unforgivable stereotyping attempt because it seems to have only racism and almost no humor. But then again, when did I start expecting good cinema from Shah Rukh?

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