First Appears in The Indian Express
Imagine a mime of SRK going kkkkkkk... for 10 minutes. Imagine Aamir Khan walking into a college campus. Not because he studies there, but because he is checking out where he wants to go when he leaves school. Imagine Sunny Deol jumping from a skyscraper in Andheri. And landing in Pakistan.
So any one of those scenarios is how a north Indian version of the "rascala" scene, (where Shah Rukh Khan plays a Tamil hero) would play out in a south Indian version of Om Shanti Om.
Let me start by making an admission. I don't find Shah Rukh Khan's stereotyping of south Indians in that scene or the unintentionally hilarious noodles and curd scene in Ra.One all that offensive to my south Indian identity. I probably would have if Aamir Khan had done it though. I understand an SRK movie is just that, "an SRK movie". You don't imagine teams of researchers working on plot and characterisation to ensure authenticity.
I don't consider myself an expert on "the depiction of south Indians in Bollywood" either. When asked to write this article, I had to complement my meager knowledge by watching a few films, talking to journalist friends and researching on the Net. But what puts me a little ahead of the average-Hindi-film-watching-south-Indian is the fact that I owe my film career to the kind of thing SRK did in Om Shanti Om. You see my first film was a spoof on Tamil cinema (Tamizh Padam). This was subsequently remade in Telugu as Sudigaadu (Riteish Deshmukh is set to play the lead in the Hindi remake). I am therefore in a good position to tell you how south India reacts. But we'll return to SRK in a bit.
Let's start off with Raanjhanaa and the south Indian actor it has launched in Hindi films. At the time of signing up for Raanjhanaa, Dhanush was already a celebrated actor in Tamil with a National Award for his spell-binding performance in Aadukalam) under his belt. All the praise that the national media, which only knows him through Kolaveri di, is showering doesn't come as a big surprise to us.
While I found Raanjhanaa a delightful film in many ways, it uses only a fraction of Dhanush's repertoire as an actor. The actor has breezed through similar roles (a wise-cracking, lovable scoundrel obsessively in love with a girl who is clearly out of his league) in the early part of his career. But as Aadukalam and even the trailer of his to-be-released Mariyaan show, he has grown into a performer of enviable range and is arguably the best of his generation in the south. It would, therefore, be interesting to see him in an author-backed role like Ranbir Kapoor in Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar or Manoj Bajpayee in Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur. I am optimistic about Dhanush's future in Bollywood despite the false starts other south Indian actors have had because in a film industry chock-a-bloc with hunks, an ordinary-looking guy whom everybody can identify with will stand out.
It is amusing, though, to see a section of the media and the online community making snide remarks about Dhanush's Hindi accent. There is a rationale for the character to have such an accent and it must have taken him a lot of effort to dub in his first Hindi movie. It is all the more amusing given the fact that a long list of Bollywood actresses has been making south Indian films without once dubbing in the regional language even after years in the industry.
If we look at the depiction of south Indians in Hindi films, from Padosan to Aiyaa, Ra-one, Om Shanti Om and Quick Gun Murugan, even the average Hindi-filmgoer would agree that without exception they are all incorrect stereotyping at best and over-the-top caricatures at worst. No one here says, "rascala". No one eats noodles with curd. The last south Indian cowboy film was at least 30 years ago, as were the dance movements and costumes in Dream um wake up um (Aiyaa). The irony is that only Quick Gun Murugan was a deliberate spoof, the rest seemed at least in some degree, earnest.
Revenge though was sweet when we got Prabhu Deva to make Akshaye Kumar say, "Don't angry me!" in Rowdy Rathore. Did he know that it was a famous Tamil comedian's line? In a movie where he plays a bumbling clown. A Prabhu Deva movie. How we laughed.
To be fair, the reason for some of the stereotyping is understandable. All the south Indian films that get big releases and media exposure in the north are big-star vehicles, most of which are formula-based mass-entertainers. Also the films that are remade from south Indian languages into Hindi (Rowdy Rathore, Bodyguard, Wanted, Singham) are of a similar variety. And above all this, like a colossus, looms the figure of Rajinikanth.
I find some of the Rajinikanth jokes funny too, but as any Tamilian can tell you, judging him to be a single-dimension actor based on the few recent films you have seen is as fair as a south Indian judging Amitabh Bachchan based on RGV ki Aag.
While the big-star vehicles get all the exposure, something almost miraculous is happening in Tamil cinema. A TV reality show is shining the light on makers of short films and half-a dozen of them have made the transition to the big screen. All of them were box-office hits on debut! The films are non-star vehicles, high on innovation and virtuoso writing. And this is not even counting people like Thiagarajan Kumarraja whose cult Aaranya Kaandam did a successful round of international film festivals. The one Bollywood filmmaker who took the trouble to look beyond the stereotype is Anurag Kashyap. His tribute to the three Tamil filmmakers, Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar in Gangs of Wasseypur has made a difference. Every time I meet a journalist from the north, they ask about these directors and always with respect.
In Bollywood's defence, a bit of exaggeration can be excused as cinematic freedom. If it guarantees laughs, I would totally do it too and have done it in Tamizh Padam with an over-the-top Telugu hero. But much of what passes for humour there is lazy writing. If you wanted to give the Ra.One hero an authentic south Indian eating quirk, a phone call to a trusted south Indian friend was all that it should have taken.
But this time, from what I see of the promos of SRK's Chennai Express, he has at least got his stereotyping right. His 1, 2...Get on the dance floor sounds like the prototype for a south Indian kuthu song. And as a friend pointed out, that is how we dance! Oh, but wait! In Titli, the Tamil girl played by Deepika Padukone is in a Kerala sari with Kathakali dancers in the backdrop. I give up.
Let me end by saying though that the south Indian film industry is equally culpable. We only have two types of north Indians in our films: one is the Money-Lending Evil Settu, the other is Dawood Ibrahim.