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?

Kai Po Che and forgiveness

I recently happened to see Kai Po Che.  The film had a strong impact on me as I was deeply moved by some scenes in the film. However, I would like to state that I do have major problems with the politics of the film per se. (Please read these two very well argued articles on this topic.) But this is not what I wish to talk about right now.

The film is about three friends —Omi, Ishaan and Govind— and how their friendship gets affected owing to certain events that happened in Gujarat in the last decade viz. the Gujarat Earthquake, the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent pogrom of Muslims that took place.

The three friends and their entrepreneurial dreams is what forms the crux of the film. While Govind is the money-minded ‘Baniya’ of the group, Ishaan is an angry young man who is all heart. Omi, I thought, was someone with no striking characteristic to his name. But the fact that he was so regular and his transition as someone who has definitive views against the Muslim community was very deftly shown. Omi ends up becoming the financier for the trio’s entrepreneurial endevours and thus finds himself embroiled in the workings of the Hindu party in return. That’s a quid pro quo since his uncle, who is the leader of the party, is the man who lends him the money.

In the end of the film, Omi ends up losing his parents to the Godhra train burning incident.  He also ends up witnessing his uncle’s death, when the latter is all set to kill a Muslim man in the riots that followed the Godhra incident. Blinded by grief and rage over the loss of his parents and his uncle, all Omi wants is to kill; someone, anyone, who is Muslim. And he runs after a young Muslim boy, whom Ishaan tries to protect. After a brief tussle, Omi ends up having control of the gun and when he presses the trigger aiming for the boy, the bullet finds home in Ishaan’s body and he dies on the spot.

The scene where Omi accidentally shoots Ishaan, and the scene after that—Omi’s shocked face and disbelief—stayed with me for a long time. Even after coming out of the theatre, I couldn’t forget his eyes and the shock! It was a powerful scene.

Omi goes to jail. His eyes portray deep sadness even as Govind comes to receive him after his release. Omi’s life post his release from the jail, by the looks of it, is surrounded by everything related to Ishaan—the business in which all of three were partners, Ishaan’s sister who also happens to be Govind’s wife, their child who is named Ishaan and the Muslim kid he tried to kill (whose life Ishaan tried to save) who has become a successful cricketer! Ishaan is also shown as being forgiven by his best friend, Ishaan’s sister.

The film made me think deeply about forgiveness. I am sure there are many people who choose forgiveness as a way of dealing with difficult situations in life. (Please read this excellent piece on restorative justice.) Forgiveness, as a friend of mine always points out, is not to accept what the person did was right. It is a process of having no bitterness about it. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the process of forgiving the self. Omi does get punished by law. Omi is shown breaking down in front of Ishaan’s sister. He also gets forgiven by the main people concerned but is he able to forgive himself? Out here, the punishment by law seem rather feeble considering the humungous task that lay in front of him— forgiving himself.

They say time is the big healer but how can you heal from the finality of death of a loved one, especially if you have killed the person. How can you forgive yourself after doing something like this? It was a mistake his friend died. But the friend died! Death is final. Death is irreversible. How can one live with this burden? Seeing those final scenes, especially those, where he ends up going to all those places, meeting all those people connected to Ishaan, I kept wondering how he could do it.

I believe guilt and the inability to forgive self is one of the toughest things one can experience. But can self-forgiveness be even possible in a situation like this? What can you do when you know you have been the one to make the irredeemable mistake? How do you forgive yourself? Should one even try? Does one even deserve self-forgiveness in a situation like this?

I don’t know. I have no answers.

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/shobha-sv/kai-po-che/10151569518663478

My paati’s birthday

“Hi Paati,” I said over the phone. “Wish me! It’s my birthday!”

“Happy birthday Kanna,” she said.

“Will you sing Happy Birthday for me?”

“Oh paadarene..” (Translation: Sure, I’ll sing)

And she sang. The whole song! Thanks my cousin, who kept helping her with the words she forgot. Paati is my 81-year-old grandma and one of my most favourite people in the world. Some months ago, her health deteriorated very badly. She was put on a ventilator. The doctors were not hopeful and we thought she would leave us forever. To see my paati helpless in the hospital, poked with needles all over her body is an image that I will find it very difficult to wipe off my head. It was one of the first times that I have had to deal with the possibility of the death of a loved one. After a particularly depressing hospital visit, I remember, all of us in my family, sitting around, talking about making arrangements for her funeral. There were so many things that had to be done. Trying hard not to choke, some of us clinically went about discussing the arrangements. Suddenly, S, a cousin of mine, after prolonged silence looked up and said, “We are all sitting here making arrangements for paati’s funeral. What if paati decides to change her mind? What if she says—Screw you all making arrangements for my funeral! I’m coming back!” A short silence followed the statement before all of us broke into a big laugh, inspite of ourselves. And guess what! Paati did exactly that! She came back! Surprising one and all.

While, she is back with us, her memory has gone for a toss! Her ability to remember things that has happened recently has really suffered. For instance while she might remember me, she will forget if I visited her. Every time I speak to her, she complains about how I haven’t visited her. This, when I have easily visited her 3-4 times in as many months. However, this memory loss of hers has resulted in some hilarious situations. When my cousin and her husband came to visit, she pointed to all of us (her granddaughters) and asked if he (my cousin’s husband) is interested in any of us! You see, she wanted to set him up with one of her grand daughters. She completely forgot that they were married just a little over two years ago! The entire house roared with laughter, while my paati had a sheepish grin on her face 🙂

I visited my grandmom a few weeks ago. It was a small family reunion. The reunion was followed by a dinner at a hotel. For the first time in many years, paati accompanied us! Owing to her ill-health, she had hardly stepped out of the house in the recent past. She was more than happy at the prospect of going out with everyone. In the hotel, while she enjoyed the food, she couldn’t remember why we were there in the first place. For some reason, somebody told her that it was her birthday and started singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song! All of us immediately joined the chorus. A musician in the hotel also joined the merriment! I don’t think I can forget the look on my paati’s face! The initial puzzlement gradually metamorphosed into joy resulting in her gorgeous toothless smile! She was overwhelmed! I wanted to freeze that moment.

Why am I sharing this today? I am sharing this because this memory occupied my mindspace for most part of my birthday that was yesterday. The image of my paati looking happily bewildered, a tad confused followed by a huge toothless smile listening to all of us singing happy birthday to her, remains etched in my memory. I think it is THE best birthday party I have ever attended!

Quite often I go through this phase wondering about the general pointlessness of life, existential angst if you will! I have often wondered about the pointlessness of celebrating birthdays too! There has also been a general reluctance in wanting to ‘celebrate’ in the recent past.  But I have come to feel that the seeming pointlessness can also be very weary. The existential questions have no easy answers and I doubt if there will be any. Given that, I have come to a conclusion that pointlessness does not mean I should not have fun. I am going to exploit all reasons to have fun. Personally, this is what birthdays or any festivals ought to be about. Lots of love, laughter and fun and of course food! On my birthday I want to celebrate my paati’s presence in my life.  I wish her more and more of such happiness. And thanks to her poor memory now, I think she is going to have many more such birthdays! Love you paati.