A Tamilian from Bombay reacts to the trailer of Chennai Express…

If someone asks me where I am from, I always say I’m from Bombay. Quite often that never seems to satisfy people. It is always usually followed by “But where are you actually from?” While I have lived most of my life in this city, the questions don’t end until I tell them that I’m a Tamilian from Palakkad, Kerala. Incidentally, I have never lived there.

Growing up as a Tamilian in Bombay is an unremarkable experience in a way. Being a cosmopolitan city, one assimilates easily and you don’t grow up feeling different from the rest. However, even as I say this, the fact that my roots are not from this place has always been pretty clear. Every summer vacation, most of my south Indian friends (including me) went to our respective “native” places; a place of our roots. It was subtle but clear that culturally we were different from the original inhabitants, the Maharashtrians.

Having grown up in a place where I only spoke my mother tongue at home, visits down south would always be interesting. For instance, I remember whenever I went to Chennai, it would always hit me that I couldn’t speak to my mother in Tamil to strategise with her before striking up a bargain with the shopkeeper. That’s because everyone spoke in the same language. It felt weirdly nice to have people speak in the same language (more or less) we spoke at home. It is a different feeling. You don’t get to experience that in Bombay. While Bombay is still home, I feel quite at home in Chennai culturally even though I have never lived there.

I recently happened to watch the trailer of Chennai Express.

On the day of its release, the trailer was widely shared on social media. However to say it disappointed me would be an understatement. My first reaction to the trailer was that of anger. What stuck out like a sore thumb was Deepika Padukone’s godawful Tamil accent. I mean it takes special talent to exaggerate an already prevalent stereotype.

Anyway, out of sheer anger I tweeted saying, “I wish Tamil film makers stereotype everything Hindi and show it in a Tamil film. I’ll go first day first show.” One of the responses I got to this tweet was, “Hey! But we do it too.” This remark initially stumped me a bit. But now that I think about it, my tweet is reflective of my poor knowledge of Tamil films.The same twitter user, who is also a Tamilian, later told me (in response to my tweet) that this isn’t an ‘us vs them’ issue with the ‘us’ being the Tamilians and ‘them’ being the ‘north’ Indians.

While I pondered over her statement, I realised it is not the same for me. It’s a bit complicated. During my childhood, I grew up on a very (un)healthy dose of Bollywood. A Govinda number has more resonance for me than a typical ‘tappangoothu’ song. My knowledge of Tamil films is pathetic to say the least. While a lot of my south Indian friends regularly watched the latest of Tamil and Malayalam films, I hardly ever did. While I am culturally a Tamilian, my pop-culture influences come more from Bollywood than Tamil films.

In a typical Bollywood fare, Tamilians have always been represented as the quintessential buffoons who struggle to speak in Hindi. (Remember Mehmood from Padosan?) That I still get the ‘Oh! You speak very good Hindi for a South Indian’ comment, is reflective of how deeply rooted the stereotype is.

One would be hard-pressed to see a lead character play a south Indian in a Hindi film. It is quite rare. They are at best, ‘side’ characters. So, one can never see a South Indian character like us being shown in Bollywood apart from the stereotypes, of course. Somehow the trivialised part of representations of Tamilians never irritated me this way. It was more of a matter-of-fact acceptance of the phenomenon (sad, I know!). However, despite an absence of my ethnic presence in an industry like Bollywood, there are other things have resonated with me. Especially the Bambaiyya lingo, which one sees in many films, is the one that I still speak with so many people. It is one of the things that strengthens my bond with Hindi films.

My reaction to the trailers of Chennai Express interested me and intrigued me for many reasons. I kept wondering the deeper reasons for my anger. Because this isn’t the first time that communities were being stereotyped in Bollywood.

This pondering reminded me of this concept in philosophy called ‘othering’.

“Othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an ‘other'”

To put it simply, othering refers to a phenomenon, when we isolate something (people, culture, habits etc) as different from ourselves. When one’s worldview becomes universal and superior, anything that differs from it becomes the Other. (More here) (More examples of othering concerning gender) When I saw the Chennai Express trailer, my Tamil identity reacted. That something which is a close part of my life can depict my own ethnicity in such an awful way irritated me to no end. In my moment of anger, I became the other.

While I have seen many characters being stereotyped, for the first time, I ‘felt’ it. I felt disappointed that a milieu, I feel culturally quite at home with, made fun of my ethnicity. It ‘othered’ people like me. No longer was I a member of the dominant cultural landscape of Bollywood. I am the ‘other’, I’m the Tamilian, different from anything Bollywood. The film managed to trigger a sudden sense of other-ness that I didn’t consciously feel at this level before. (Thanks, Shobha)

Migration is a tricky thing. One needn’t live in America to experience confusion as far as one’s identity is concerned. Experiencing migration within India generates multiple confusions too especially since there is so much diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, regions etc. While for many, the cultural loyalties in terms of Tamil film industry and Bollywood will be very clear, for many people like me, it isn’t. And such instances of stereotypes will constantly challenge these absolute categories and make us wonder— Where do we really belong?

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “A Tamilian from Bombay reacts to the trailer of Chennai Express…

  1. Hi,

    Yes. I am the person who discussed this with you on Twitter. I’m, in fact, glad you have written down your thoughts. Helps discuss better.

    I’ve a similar background as you (or not). Since high school, I’ve lived in Bangalore. I studied Kannada, have several Kannada friends and speak the language rather fluently. I’ve been a Bangalorean more than a Tamilian. And I’ve never been asked the ‘where are you from?’ question, perhaps because I speak like a localite.

    But the environment in Bangalore is different. There was a time when I was in school when due to the Kaveri water issues and Veerappan kidnap issues, Tamilians were even victims of assault. That’s when I became more of a Bangalorean because I could speak like a local and didn’t have to worry about being *caught*, the rest of the family lived in deep fear at that point.

    As far as pop culture goes, I’ve watched a grand total of 5 Kannada films (a couple of Kasaravalli films in college). It’s also interesting that Kannadigas themselves aren’t high on their films. However, films for me (all the more since I started studying them academically) were always Tamil. Family watched Tamil films, Tamil serials, listened to Tamil music, read Tamil magazines – so did I. I believe I understand Tamil films more than any other because I grew up in that culture.

    Having said all that, the Punjabi stereotype in Tamil films is all over the place (so much so that I caught myself gaping at a turban-ed man speaking fluent Kannada a few days ago). Watch this (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xegl6q_abhiyum-naanum-part-7_shortfilms) part the ones after. The nambalki-nimbalki seth, the omana-kutties from Mallu-land are all over Tamil films. Well, of course we know that stereotypes do exist. (In the quote, you mean “stigmatization of an ‘other”, no? There is a typo)

    The reason Chennai express didn’t make me angry is perhaps multi-fold.
    1. I wasn’t expecting better. It was in terrible taste. But I wasn’t hoping for a realistic representation in any case.
    2. It seemed too hideous to be taken seriously. I mean I am sure even Mumbaikars don’t believe we speak like that, no? Even if they do, it seemed more like a parody to me than anything else.
    3. And much of what we outrage happens. That scene where he topples an SUV with an aruvaal is taken from one of Tamil’s hideous films. All the more reason I’m convinced it’s a parody. (and that only we can mock our own films, to me, is ridiculous)
    4. Finally, if the world recognises it as a stereotype, it becomes harmless, no?

    • Thank you Ranjani for commenting and sharing your experience here. Yes, it was the conversation with you about the trailer that got me thinking. This post is not about criticising stereotypes in Hindi and Tamil films. Well, of course, at one level I disagree but then that is being very simplistic and I am not getting there. As my friend Shobha mentioned (please scroll down), my post is more about the film suddenly triggered a sudden sense of other-ness that I didn’t consciously feel at this level before. You know it is strange. I love trashy, over-the-top, formulaic Hindi and Tamil fare. I enjoy them because I know what to expect from them.I enjoy ther aruvaal toppling SUV type scenes. HA HA! 😀 Still it is funny that Deepika Padukone’s accent elicited this kind of response from me. Simmering emotions within I guess. And also, I would reserve my opinion about it being a parody. Still not sure about it. I’ll wait for its release, I guess. 🙂

    • Oh yes, mumbaikars do believe that you (everybody south of Belgaum) speak like that. (Many) Maharastrians (and others) believe that all Dravidian languages sound same. Like it is said: pebbles thrown in a pot.

      But I agree with:
      “All the more reason I’m convinced it’s a parody. (and that only we can mock our own films, to me, is ridiculous)”

      And basically agree with:
      “Finally, if the world recognises it as a stereotype, it becomes harmless, no?”

  2. Great post Shoba. I had only heard how terrible Deepika’s accent was until I just watched the trailer here. Gosh, it is worse than I expected, couldn’t have been prepared for that. Which is a shame really because if she had worked on the accent more, this might have been a very different watch. But your question of where do we belong is far more pertinent. Perhaps there is no definite answer, just like there aren’t any to so many of the baffling questions of life. It is just a process of constantly trying to find our place under the sun.

    • Welcome to my blog, Ayesha. 🙂 Thanks for dropping by. Yea, the accent is unbelievable! And yes I do agree with you. Where do we belong is such a loaded question. The answer keeps changing all the time. No?

  3. “Othering” and stereotyping exists in EVERY single thing we see in the media.. be it print or TV or anywhere else. I was just discussing with Andy how, for instance, the fair-skinned and skinny model is the only type of model that exists on TV. If an alien came to know of us and intercepted only TV broadcasts then they would think that all women are fair, and all men have six-packs. Short, fat, or non-native people (South indians in this case) are portrayed as blundering fools. People with distinguished faces, as cruel or evil. Blonde women as dumb. Mothers-in-law as evil. This sort of just goes on into posterity, as it has been going on for generations. This, while simultaneously sending out messages about equality. When characters become typecast it becomes difficult for individuals in real life to “be” without being influenced by these characters. The Mumbai thing, for instance. It has happened to me too. ALL THE TIME. In fact when someone asks me where I’m from I perceive it as a way the other is trying to set me apart from them. Often my response is I’ve been born and raised here, I’m a maharashtrian. But it doesn’t matter where one is from, does it? Not in real life. It shouldn’t.

    • I agree with you. ‘Othering’ happens all the time. And the examples that you give are pretty apt. However, I also think where we have lived, where our roots are (these are two different things) are extremely important. At least for me. However, that identity doesn’t determine anything. It shouldn’t determine whom one makes friends with, talks to, does business with etc. But it does form a huge part of whom I am, my personality.

  4. Shobha, I’m glad you posted this :). I have to admit I’m a little confused as to what the issue actually is. Is it the quality of the film? The responsibility you feel the film industry has to represent multiple identities more authentically? Or the effect of this film in triggering a sudden sense of other-ness that you didn’t consciously feel at this level before?

    If it is this last issue that is the key concern, then I just want to share with you its resonance with me, existing as I do in a setting where I am othered in many ways. I live in Singapore, where there is a Chinese majority. But my roots are Indian. I get more Indians asking me where I am from than I do Chinese Singaporeans. I’m not sure what to make of that. As we discussed once, I have this feeling of being awkwardly visible and yet invisible at the same time, and local films mirror this ambivalence through their portrayal of Singapore mainly through Chinese perspectives, with the token (and often caricatured) minority Indian. I think a lot about the complexities of this situation. For example: http://mrsv.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/dealing-with-messy-diversity/

    And it certainly is very complex. When I say that your musings resonate with me, I don’t mean to imply that they are the same as mine in every way. I do note the differences as well. The value I see in your post is the foregrounding of these complexities using popular culture as a springboard.

    Just as a response to Tharkuri, whose recount of being Tamilian in Bangalore during two critical events I found fascinating (thank you for sharing): I am not sure that recognized stereotypes necessarily become harmless. Even assuming that everyone recognizes them in the same way and to the same extent, the recognition itself can serve to trivialize the problems that underlie the stereotypes.

    • Hi Shobha 🙂 Thank you for commenting on this post. I think it is the last issue you mentioned—”the effect of this film in triggering a sudden sense of other-ness that you didn’t consciously feel at this level before.” I realise I’m not very clear and I am going to add this line to my blog. Do you think rather than asking “Where you are from?”, the correct question would be to ask, “Where are your roots from?” Is it a matter of semantics? Is that what causes ‘othering’? It also makes me wonder how can one deal with diversity in such a situation? Because roots are important. It’s where one belongs. But who decides where one can belong? I don’t know. I am asking these questions because honestly, when I meet people, I am curious about their ethnicities. But can one be curious and not ‘other’ the person at the same time? How does one do that? I know I am rambling. Please forgive me but these are questions for which I have no clear answers.

    • Hi!

      All I was asking was – if a stereotype is recognised as a stereotype, doesn’t it become harmless. Meaning if you said “women are bad drivers”, that’s a stereotype. But if you said “there is a stereotype that women are bad drivers”, then you acknowledge that it is gross generalisation and therefore ceases to be harmful, no?

      I am only asking a question. I am not convinced either. I’m just looking to be convinced. 🙂

      • You say: if everyone recognises it as a stereotype, then we have no cause to worry. I am not sure about it, Ranjani. Is it so simple? This particular stereotype has it making a buffoon of Tamilians, mostly. I think we underestimate the amount of ignorance there is.

  5. Hi
    First of all dont take the chennai express personally!
    Every one have accents ….so if deepika who is a tamil in the film tries to get into the role , whats wrong?
    The bhaiyas from UP, gujus etc all are made fun in films!
    Thats just entertainment…nthn personal….n srk has promised that there is no scene that shows tamils in bad light!

    • Thank you Prakrut for commenting here. Well, I have a small question. Do you really think Tamilians speak like the way Deepika Padukone does in the film? I know it is entertainment. However, it does have an affect on how people feel. I felt angry despite knowing the type of film Chennai Express is. I’ve not been able to figure the exact reasons myself. Yes, many communities are routinely made fun of in Hindi films.However, what’s problematic is when their ethnicity is shown as mockery.

  6. A two fold response to your well formed views:

    1. It doesn’t make much sense to cling on to geographies of our birth/upbringing. It’s a fact we had no control about. But having said that, respecting what we are, and expecting others to do the same is a feeling which is but natural. So the stereotyping doesn’t affect me much – way too many people do it, consciously or unconsciously.

    2. However, from a film making perspective, which is far more niche in comparison and with far-reaching repercussions, it irks me. Are we so creatively challenged to resort to slap stick humour, especially picking on gender, sexual orientation, or communities? Can’t an actor portray a character, without banking heavily on stereotypes? Of course they can. Konkana Sen in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Shabhana Azmi in “Rice Plate”, or Kamal hassan in “Tenali” (where he played a Sri Lankan Tamil). What worries me is when “Mass” wins over talent, research and hard work.

    More people will be exposed to such trash. They will in turn do a “dekho beta, Madrasi log aise baat karte hain” to their kids.

    • Thank you Raman for your comment. Well, I don’t think it is about clinging on to geographies of our birth or upbringing. Most often they end up being a part of our identity and I strongly feel that we can’t consciously choose to accept or discard it. Yea, as I said in my post, I had accepted stereotyping as a given in a very matter of fact manner. However, this time it really angered me. I think emotions were simmering somewhere in my mind. In any case, I totally agree with your second point. Such nonsensical portrayal just reflects poverty of intelligence. This assumption that mass always wants dumbed down nonsense is also problematic.

  7. Thank you Raman for your comment. Well, I don’t think it is about clinging on to geographies of our birth or upbringing. Most often they end up being a part of our identity and I strongly feel that we can’t consciously choose to accept or discard it. Yea, as I said in my post, I had accepted stereotyping as a given in a very matter of fact manner. However, this time it really angered me. I think emotions were simmering somewhere in my mind. In any case, I totally agree with your second point. Such nonsensical portrayal just reflects poverty of intelligence. This assumption that mass always wants dumbed down nonsense is also problematic.

  8. Well-expressed!
    Loved the line:
    “In my moment of anger, I became the other.”

    Identify with:
    “Experiencing migration within India generates multiple confusions too especially since there is so much diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, regions etc.”

    But don’t let it get you down!
    Identity is a complex thing. Neither let them simplicize it nor you! 🙂

    Oh yes, mumbaikars do believe that you (everybody south of Belgaum) speak like that. (Many) Maharastrians (and others) believe that all Dravidian languages sound same. Like it is said: pebbles thrown in a pot.

    But I agree with:
    “All the more reason I’m convinced it’s a parody. (and that only we can mock our own films, to me, is ridiculous)”

    And basically agree with:
    “Finally, if the world recognises it as a stereotype, it becomes harmless, no?”

    • Hello Harvey Pam! 🙂 Thank you for commenting here. Not just Mumbaikars, a lot of people tend to club everyone south of vindhyas as belonging to one community despite there being 5-6 different languages. And yes, identity is complex. Can’t simplify even if I try very hard. 🙂

  9. I get a feeling Bollywood is never going to be the go-to place for gathering information about life in various states of India.

    Even English and Hindi are spoken in different accents in different parts of India. I don’t think any region is ever going to be represented faithfully in movies. They will always live in a la-la-land where the actors speak in a Hindi/English that is peculiar to Bollywood.

    • Thanks for dropping by. 🙂 Hmmm. Even if we accept that Bollywood is never going to do justice to the myriad differences that exist, the power of reach that Bollywood has is huge. So, it does become problematic.

  10. Dear Shobha,

    Brilliant piece. I could relate to each and every point of yours; as me too have my roots from TN but brought up in Mumbai. It always had irritated me to no ends, when people stereotyped me in school when I used to sport a vibhuthi (sacred-ash) on my forehead, when I used to carry idlis/dosas for lunch etc. and when growing up friends would call me a ‘south indian hero’ because I sported a moustache. Calling anyone and everyone who has a dravidian tongue ‘Madrasi’ is horrendous. Another thing which beats me is when we talk fluently in Hindi, people just cannot digest it as if we are destined to speak Hindi in a southindian accent.
    It is funny when we southindians are expected to take it sportively when maharashtrians call us “Anna/ Aandu-pandu”, but get irked when refered to as “ghaatis”.
    As for the never-ending stereotyping in Bollywood; I would say it just caters to what the market demands. Making fun of south-indians by showing them clownish, pot-bellied, dark and scary! This is what the market demands and Bollywood is feeding it.
    Hope my kids dont have to grow in a environment where they are bullied and laughed at, just because they belong to a differnt language speaking community.

    Brgds,
    Ashwath

    • Dear Ashwath, welcome to my blog. Thank you for commenting. 🙂 Well, I don’t know if stereotyping our community or anyone else is a ‘market demand’ per se. I think that would be simplistic assumption. I think we all are perfectly capable of intelligent humour or at least humour that doesn’t involve stereotyping. I would fault the film makers for under estimating the audience tastes. Also I feel stereotyping in real life and in movies are a chicken-egg situation. I don’t know if the former affects the latter or vice versa. Also, the word ‘ghaati’ is a casteist slur. It isn’t just a silly stereotype. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s