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?