National Bias in Indian Cinema
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Recently, I caught Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers (2007), a thought-provoking film about a group of students who are divided by race. Based on real events, the film revolves around Erin Gruwell, a teacher who decides to help these students by uniting them and trying to make them understand that they all face the same kind of problems on a daily basis and that no one is the enemy in this war. The film pushed me to look into Indian films and their portrayal of such friction. Although much less obvious and less violent, Indian films also have their share of intranational conflict – in the form of bias.
Intranational conflict is a term used to describe the disdain that one part of the country has towards another. Sometimes, the unrest exists as a fight over something – like a resource. At other times, it’s just there, drilled into people’s consciousness before they can think for themselves. It may be too strong a term to address the obvious problem in Indian films, but it still holds, because film is an important medium of expression in the country. It is something that often plays the role of shaping people’s opinions and controlling how they think. Before this goes any further, I must state that I love most of the films mentioned here and do not intend to call anyone out on anything. This is a piece that simply explores the different ways in which such conflicts occur and how they can have an impact on real life. In more movies than I can count, the script calls for mocking someone who belongs to another part of the country. The mocking comes off either as friendly jokes that characters make at each other’s expense or the character himself being in embarrassing and comical situations. Off the top of my head, I can think of 3 Idiots (2009) – an important character in the film is Chatur Ramalingam (Omi Vaidya). The portrayal of this character is that of a ‘typical’ Tamilian boy brought up abroad. A geek who knows not to speak Hindi and is overtly competitive and jealous of our protagonist. He embarrasses himself trying to speak in front of a crowd and then cuts a sorry figure when he realises that the person he’s been plotting against and the person he admires are one and the same.
Another film I can think of is English Vinglish (2012) – a film whose characters are people from different walks of life, all succumbing to the social mandate that is the knowledge of our colonizers’ language. One of them is P Ramamurthy (Rajeev Ravindranathan), another ‘typical’ character – works in the United States, doesn’t conform to personal boundaries, misses his Amma’s idli.
An unforgettable and completely unjustified film in this regard is Chennai Express (2013) – Deepika Padukone’s fake accent, the scumbag named Thangabali and the deplorable song – Lungi Dance. One of the things that inspired me to write this piece was Aravind SA’s royal takedown of the song in one of his standup sessions.
Having attracted global media attention, SA further made up his own version of the same song.
Down south, we have Tamil films that portray Marwari moneylenders as stingy men causing real or comic trouble to the main characters. Addressed as ‘Saetu’, these characters most often exist for comic relief and nothing else. Vijay-starrer Minsara Kanna (1999) portrays a Tamilian acting as a North-Indian watchman or ‘Ghurka’. Again, he is made fun of by everyone around, despite being a Tamilian.
But it doesn’t stop with mocking. In a Tamil film by name Rhythm (2000) set in modern Mumbai, a Rajasthani man tries to misbehave with the female lead, scaring her with paan in his mouth, a pure white kurta and the red Kumkum-like strike on his forehead. The scene was a bonding moment for the two lead characters, thus justifying its presence in the script, but one might argue that the character could as well have been played by anyone else, depicted in any other fashion.
One thing I have noticed in YouTube videos and movies alike is a stark prejudice against South Indians. Apparently, people from the Uttar don’t have any measurable knowledge of the country’s geography, thus addressing anyone from the South as a Madrasi. I myself have never been in such a situation, but the way that these videos make it sound, it is pretty sad that a Kannadathi should be addressed as a Madrasi, especially given their pre-existing conflict over the Kaveri river.
A part of the country which absolutely cannot be missed in such a conversation is the northeast. Northeast Indians are not only misrepresented as anti-nationals or infiltrators or “Yeh Chinky log”, they are simply missing from Indian films altogether. The only film I can think of at this juncture is Mary Kom (2014) which is a biopic. That means that a woman from the northeast had to win two Olympic medals, a medal each in seven championships and five awards for pretentious little Bollywood to represent the northeast.
So what does such portrayal or lack of portrayal mean? Hindi movies have managed to make it big across the country, possibly because of its misconceived classification as the ‘national’ language or likely because of some really good marketing. Several of us across the country and the world hence understand and perceive many topics from what we see in these films. Someone who doesn’t know A or Z about India could make his assumptions about the country just through its films. So what kind of picture are we giving them? This is something we need to think about, because we are headed towards a world whose lack of unity is likely to be the cause for its own doom. At this point, the last thing we need is bias in entertainment.