From the pot-bellied hawaldar to the kaamwali bai, Maharashtrians have been portrayed as comic stereotypes in Hindi cinema for decades. But that’s changing now. Yogesh Pawar finds out why.
What is common to the movies Aiyyaa, English Vinglish, Khiladi 786, Agneepath, Kaminey and Viruddh?
Their main characters are Maharashtrian.
However, unlike films we have seen previously [Dayavan (1988), Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Sajan (1991), Beta (1992), Anari (1993), Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994) and Rishtey (2002) to name a few], the Maharashtrian characters are not glorified extras for comic relief but full-fledged people with real stories.
Despite Mumbai being the cradle of Indian cinema, why has it taken so long for the Hindi film industry to portray Maharashtrians as more than just hollow stereotypes?
Maharashtrians shouldn’t take this personally, indicates film historian Mukund Joshi because Bollywood loves stereotypes. “In Bollywood, Christians speak in a funny accent, drink a lot and their women are skimpily dressed in Western outfits; Parsis have to be good-natured simpletons and Muslims have to be devout,” laughs Joshi. Maharashtrians have been subject to a similar ‘xenophobia’
In the good old days
For the record, Maharashtrian characters in films weren’t always comic stereotypes. In the first few decades after Indian cinema was born, many actors and filmmakers were bilingual. Films were made in Marathi and dubbed in Hindi later. They had full-fledged and well-etched Maharashtrian characters.
“When films moved from mythology to social issues in the late 1930s, most cinema coming from companies like Prabhat was bilingual. Right from what the characters wore and how they spoke, there was a strong Maharashtrian flavour to themes since most of these films were made in Marathi first,” says filmmaker Sanjay Jadhav, director of Marathi films Jogwa, Dombivili Fast and Ringa Ringa .
The difference then was that the characters were written powerfully and this made them real. These pioneering directors, including visionary V Shantaram, were Maharashtrian but made a conscious effort to create well-crafted characters with a pan-Indian appeal, says Jhadav.
Enter the stereotype
Things started going downhill in the mid-seventies with the release of the hugely-popular Marathi film Pandu Havaldar that was nothing more than a series of antics by a Maharashtrian constable. The image of the bumbling fool stuck to the community.
“Once something clicks, filmmakers lazily refuse to give characters from the community any other nuance,” explains Joshi. “These stock characters were rarely more than one-dimensional.”
Critically-acclaimed documentary filmmaker Anjali Monteiro says the creation of the pan-Indian Vijays in the action-packed ’70s also contributed to the stereotype in a big way. “While this character and everyone around him like the suffering mother, the sacrificing courtesan and the ubiquitous Muslim friend was kept pan-Indian by not having surnames, what unfailingly came across was that they were all North Indian.” Thus anyone else, and by default Maharashtrian characters, were relegated to the periphery and thus the stereotype.
This is not to say that there weren’t films that had well-thought out Maharashtrian characters. You had Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Saransh (1984).
Why were they different?
Veteran actress Rohini Hattangady says a lot depends on the director’s vision and what he does with the written material. Hattangady played a bai in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982) but never felt that her character was peripheral. “The bai’s struggle had a strong resonance with what women have to endure irrespective of class.” That was precisely because the director was rooted in reality.
Bhatt admits as much. “I was not setting out with an agenda to make the old Pradhan couple in Saransh Maharashtrian, or set out to make Rohini’s character in Arth the Maharashtrian bai. I was brought up in this city and I grew up among Maharashtrians. Isn’t it natural that when you inhale these characters they will be the ones who you exhale in your work?”
Ignoring this natural instinct is what has led to a surfeit of unreal, plastic characters in popular cinema, adds Bhatt. “If that is changing, one can only say it is good.”
It’s all about the money
So what’s behind this change in mainstream cinema now?
The current crop of films with ‘real’ Maharashtrians is part of the larger move of traditional narratives sweeping across the creative arts, says Monterio, who is also dean, School of Media Studies, TISS. “Whether it is cinema, TV serials or even books, there seems to be a sudden rush to return to the vernacular which was, till now, seen as inferior and scorned and sniggered at.”
Marathi film critic Amit Bhandari has another take on this. He attributes this change to two factors: commercial pressure, and socio-political pressure created by right-wing regional political parties.
But he is quick to clarify that more than sentiment, commerce is the overriding factor. “The film fraternity realises that the markets are reaching saturation point. As the fight for the pie becomes aggressive, producers start exploring growth within niche segments.”
Bollywood finds it hard to ignore that a film like Singham collected over Rs100 crore at the box office. “If it takes the character to mouth lines like ‘Ata maajhi satakli re,’ Bollwood wants to play along,” he says.
The increased buying power of the average Maharashtrian in smaller towns like Kolhapur, Miraj, Jalgaon, Dhule and Amravati has helped, says Bhandari. “Their hunger for big ticket entertainment has grown. So, if they want a stronger Maharashtrian flavour, Bollywood is willing to give it. There’s zero emotion involved. It’s all about money!”