Singham, Singham Returns, Aiyyaa, English Vinglish, Khiladi 786, Agneepath, Kaminey...A seemingly disparate list of films differing in theme, mood and backdrop but with one common thread. The protagonists are Maharashtrians, not extras put in for comic relief as seen in films such as Anari and Dayavan, but fully etched out characters with real stories.
Why has it taken so long for the Hindi film industry to go beyond hollow stereotypes while depicting a community? This, despite Maharashtra’s capital Mumbai being the cradle of the industry. Of course Maharashtrians are not alone. Bollywood loves stereotypes and has made caricatures of Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Bengalis... you name it, they’ve done it.
“This shouldn’t be taken personally,” advises film historian Mukund Joshi. “In Bollywood, Christians speak in a funny Hindi accent, drink a lot and are foolish sidekicks (Robert) to the villain. Their women are skimpily dressed in western outfits, are generally the gangster’s moll (Mona Darling) and are often women of easy virtue. Parsis have to be good-natured henpecked simpletons with buck teeth or funny moustaches and Muslims have to be devout and wear their patriotism and/or altruistic sacrificing streak on their sleeve along with abundant facial hair,” he laughs.
According to him, the trend began in the 60s. “Villains were landlords and moneylenders and would often be portrayed as Gujarati or Marwari with pagdis sitting with their sandooks even as the heroine or hero grovelled at their feet.” He points out that traces of Lala, played menacingly by Kanhaiyalal in Mother India (1957), were seen in Ram Lakhan (1989) where Paresh Rawal’s character Bhanu is the perfect complement to his fellow-villain Bishamber played by the late Amrish Puri. “When they weren’t villains themselves they were sidekicks, as the evil Thakur’s munim.”
Film critic Amit Bhandari feels there is historically ingrained bigotry which comes into play. He cites the portrayal of Christians as an example. “Apart from the occasional Parsi, girls were largely Christian. Film folks who settled around Bandra often frequented Anglo-Indian aunties who distilled arrack at home for additional income. Those characters with exaggerated accents and mannerisms then began to appear on screen. When they weren’t dancing cabarets as the gangster’s arm candy they were running liquor dens.”
He recounts how these characters would often be nothing more than glorified foils to the chaste heroine. “Bobby, Julie and Sagar would change that. Since then many top heroines, even the most unlikely ones like Hema Malini, have reprised such roles.”
For the record, characters in films weren’t always stereotypes. In the first few decades after Indian cinema was born, many actors and filmmakers were bilingual Maharashtrians, for instance. Harischandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar, was present when the Lumiere brothers’ representatives held the first public showing at Bombay’s Watson's Hotel on July 7, 1896. He was keen on trying out the Lumiere Cinematograph himself rather than showing Lumiere films to audiences. The public reception accorded to Wrangler Paranjpye at Girgaum Chowpatty on his return from England with the coveted distinction he got at Cambridge was covered by Bhatwadekar in December 1910, making it the first Indian topical short film.
The strong influence of its traditional arts, music, dance and popular regional (predominantly Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati) theatre on Indian culture meant Indian cinema had to go the route and insert song and dance sequences in the narrative. This was helped by the arrival of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870 -1944) or Dadasaheb Phalke, considered the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’, on the scene.
Central to this filmmaker’s career was his fervent belief in swadesi, which advocated Indians take charge of their economy for real Independence. Phalke, with his imported camera, exposed single frames of a seed sprouting and growing plant, shot once a day, over a month, thus introducing ‘time-lapse photography’. This became the first indigenous instructional film, The Birth of a Pea Plant (1912), a project which helped Phalke get financial backing for his first film.
Phalke fixed up a Dadar studio, scripted, erected sets and began shooting for Raja Harishchandra. India’s first full-length film released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and was widely acclaimed.These early films had well-etched characters, points out Sanjay Jadhav, director of Marathi films Jogwa, Dombivili Fast and Ringa Ringa. “When films moved from mythology to social issues in the late 1930s, most movies coming from companies like Prabhat were bilingual. Right from what the characters wore and how they spoke, there was a strong authentic flavour to themes.”
The characters were written powerfully and this made them real, adds Jadhav. “Pioneering directors, including the visionary V. Shantaram, were Maharashtrian but made a conscious effort to create well-crafted characters with a pan-Indian appeal.”
The stereotype cometh...
Things went rapidly downhill in the mid-70s with the release of the hugely-popular Marathi film Pandu Havaldar which was a series of antics by a Maharashtrian constable. That 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.”
According to critically-acclaimed documentary filmmaker Anjali Monteiro, the creation of the pan-Indian Vijays in the action-packed 70s also contributed to the stereotype. “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.” Anyone else was relegated to the periphery and thus the stereotype.
This is not to say that there weren’t films that had well-thought out characters. Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh (1984) stand out as exceptions.
A lot depends on the director’s vision and what he does with the written material, says veteran actress Rohini Hattangady, who played the kamwali bai in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982) but never felt her character was peripheral. “The bai’s struggle had a strong resonance with what women have to endure irrespective of class.” She credits that to the director being rooted in reality. Bhatt admits as much. “I wasn’t setting out with an agenda to make the old Pradhan couple in Saaransh Maharashtrian, or didn’t set out to make Rohini’s character in Arth the Maharashtrian bai. I grew up in this city among Maharashtrians. Isn’t it natural that when you inhale these characters they will be the ones who you exhale through your work?” Ignoring this instinct is what has led to a surfeit of unreal, plastic characters in popular cinema. If that is changing, one can only say it is good.”
So why is mainstream cinema making amends now ?
The current crop of films with ‘real’ characters is part of the larger move of traditional narratives sweeping across creative arts, says Monterio, who is also dean, School of Media Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “Whether cinema, TV serials or even books, there seems to be a sudden rush to return to the vernacular, which till now, was seen as inferior and sniggered at.” Film critic Bhandari has another take on this. He attributes this change to two factors: commercial pressure and the socio-political dynamic introduced by right-wing regional political parties. He clarifies that more than sentiment, commerce is the overriding factor. “The film fraternity realises that markets are reaching saturation. As the fight for the pie becomes aggressive, producers are exploring growth within niche segments.”
The Rohit Shetty directed Singham Returns (SR), starring Ajay Devgn and Kareena Kapoor, had a strong opening week, boosting its total collections to nearly Rs.112 crore, points out Bhandari. “SR’s collection is just shy of the second biggest 2014 Bollywood grosser. Holiday, which made Rs.112.65 crore, while the biggest grosser of the year Kick fetched Rs.230 crore. just in domestic business.”
“Sometimes the enforced regional flavouring can seem borderline ridiculous like Priyanka Chopra’s Kaali Gawde in Agneepath but as Bollywood finds it hard to ignore that a film like the SR prequel Singham collected over Rs.100 crore at the box office, it wants to play along. Even if it takes the main character Bajirao Singham to mouth lines like ‘Ata maajhi satakli re’ or ‘Ata mala rag yeto aahe’.”
According to him, the increased buying power of the average Maharashtrian in smaller towns like Kolhapur, Miraj, Jalgaon, Dhule and Amravati has helped. “They are not only buying more Z-class Mercs in these small towns, their hunger for big ticket entertainment has also grown exponentially. So, if they want a stronger Maharashtrian flavour, Bollywood is more than willing to provide it. There’s zero emotion involved."
It’s not communities. It’s all about money, honey.