After the promos of Chennai Express came out, the online world is full of outrage about the stereotyping of South Indians, as lungi-wearing “Madrasis.”
To large parts of North India, the difference in the language and culture of the four Southern states is the same, they all eat idli-dosa, they all wear lungis and prominent caste marks on their foreheads, speak with a funny sing-song accent and punctuate every sentence with “Aiyyo.”
Hindi cinema has done little to correct these misconceptions, and simply flatters every community into what the filmmaker thinks is an easily identifiable stereotype. Southerners have come in for a fair bit of caricaturing. Mehmood rolled up his checked lungi and sang ‘Hum kale hain to kya hua dilwale hain’, in Gumnaam. His accent was meant to be Hyderabadi, but the mannerisms, he used the same as in Do Phool, when he sang ‘Muthukodi kawadi hara’, in Tamil, but he and the actress wearing what looked like Kerala costumes. In Padosan he had a shaved-head-with-tuft get-up and Aiyyo-ed his way through the Tamilian part.
In the old Agneepath, Mithun Chakraborty played Krishnan Iyer MA with an atrocious accent—part Bengali, part Bollywood Madrassi. Several actors have played Anna types with faux accents and without the slightest research. All that is required to play Anna—whether he is a Shetty, a Reddy or an Iyer—has a sandalwood tilak on the forehead, gold chains and a few Aiyyos thrown in. But Bollywood merrily caricatures every community; a Parsi in full ceremonial costume will always be seen chugging along in an ancient car, with a fat, shrieky wife. The Bengali will be wearing a pleated dhoti, eating paan and speaking with an easily mimicked ‘roshogulla’ accent. The Muslim will always be wearing a prayer scarf and skull cap, and have the mark of the devout namaazi on his forehead. Dandiya music accompanies the Gujarati character, bhangra music goes with the Punjabi and laavni with the Maharashtrian. The UP-Bihar character will say “bhaiya” at regular intervals, and the Marwari moneylender with outdated red headgear will address everyone as “bhaaya”. The Sindhi can be identified with the “wadi” he adds to his dialogue.
These quirks were supposed to help a viewer identify a character’s regional identity at a time most film characters didn’t have surnames. Bollywood had also not bargained for mixed marriages or migration. If they can’t slot their characters, they probably won’t know what to do with them!