My friends from North India, like many others, loved Bollywood and everything related to it. Being part of this predominantly North Indian group of friends has centered an adequate part of my life in Bollywood culture, regardless of my South Indian ethnicity. Sitting in my friends’ cars, I would hear the last song from the latest Bollywood movie that I would watch a few hours later at their house. We would sit huddled together on the couch with a few fleece blankets, sharing a bowl of burnt popcorn as the opening credits played. The first appearance of Shah Rukh Khan or Saif Ali Khan in the movie was the signal to start my usual three hour trip to Bollywood: go on my phone for 10 minutes, watch the movie a bit, scroll through my Instagram feed, reading the subtitles to realize that the film was only slightly colorist and / or misogynistic, going back to my previously visited Instagram feed, then re-reading the subtitles to realize that the film was actually very colourist and misogynist.
While I had always noticed Bollywood’s prejudice against me for having darker skin tone through its not-so-subtle use of dark-skinned actors as villains, I was quite oblivious to the stereotypical depictions of South Indians in them. media that millions of people consume. It took me years to realize when my friends invited me to watch Chennai Express, with Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. When my friends first mentioned the title I was excited as a large part of my family now live in Chennai and it looked like a long awaited performance. However, my excitement quickly died down once the movie started. Why don’t any of the South Indian characters speak English well? I was confused because many Tamils, including my entire family still in India, can speak fluently. South Indian states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu are among the upper ranking of the English-speaking states of India. The film crippled the intelligence and efforts of my family and the thousands of other English speakers in South India who were all doing to learn English as a second or third language. I kept trying to find excuses as the movie went on, telling myself, Maybe it was because it was happening in a small village. But if they took this into account when making the film, the characters also wouldn’t be able to understand Hindi while most of the characters could.
Things took a turn for the worse as the film progressed. He portrays all the men of South India as barbarians and unruly. They were all violent and constantly seen causing fights and beating other people. The men all carried machetes and large knives or swords and withdrew them at their first inconvenience. To make matters worse, they described the only North Indian living in the village as helpful and innocent, while all South Indians were violent and uncivilized. They lacked common sense and good manners and overall they were just uncomfortable to watch. I watched the whole movie in silence, feeling a bit of culture shock with the realities of Bollywood. I always knew the industry was misogynist, but seeing this movie made me realize how blatantly Bollywood disrespects minority groups and other cultures. But despite everything, seeing my friends laughing like the movie was funny to them hurt them the most. How could they think it’s funny? Do they think of me? While I was now counting the minutes until it was over so I could get home, my friends were saying it wasn’t long enough and were happy to see him again later.
Chennai Express isn’t the only time Bollywood has portrayed South Indians in this way, with nearly all films focusing on South India using the same offensive tropes. In the movie Ra a, Shekhar, a Tamil character also played by Shah Rukh Khan, has been described as an unintelligible English speaker who added many random Tamil words and ayyo or naughty in almost every sentence. While there is nothing inherently wrong with not understanding or being fluent in English, the inconsistency of Tamil characters has always been contrasted by the display of North Indian characters, an English practically perfect. Words like ayyo have become common words in Tamil, and using our own words to laugh at us is hurtful, especially when it’s overdone to the point that Shekhar can’t hold a single sentence without it. Shekhar humiliates his family for most of the film, failing to fight a thief who only used a butter knife to steal them, constantly causing car crashes and mixing curd (yogurt) into noodles. The curd is popularly eaten alongside many South Indian cuisines, but extort it and make a joke about how harmful anything we eat is. This not only adds to the idea that South Indians are embarrassing and lacking in common sense, but downplays our pride in our cultural cuisines.
Similar to its derision of curd, Bollywood takes parts of our cultures that we are proud of and turns them into something demeaning. In Chennai Express, all Tamil men wear a lengthen and tends to confuse lungis with veshtis, a more formal type of cultural clothing commonly worn at weddings. As a result, the film devalues the Tamil marriage culture, which is already considered inferior and bland to the Indians of the North. Additionally, a song from the film Lungi Dance features dancers wearing lungis while mimicking stereotypical Kollywood dancing. The song includes lyrics such as Coconut mein lassi milaa ke, which roughly translates to a blend of coconut and lassi, a traditional yogurt drink. There is a well known stereotype that South Indians are obsessed with coconut: we use coconut oil and eat coconut rice, chutney, curry and drink coconut lassis. Additionally, Tamil women are often dressed in traditional wedding sarees with jasmine flowers pinned to their long tresses. While there is nothing inherently wrong with traditional fashion, it creates a stark contrast between the female figures of North India who are often dressed in more modern clothing. South Indian women are therefore portrayed as unwanted and old-fashioned when in reality they lead lifestyles no different from those of northern women. When many North Indians think of traditional women the old way, they automatically think that they are more oppressed. The entire plot of the film contributes to this outdated notion by centering on a Tamil woman who is kidnapped to be part of a forced marriage. While these tragedies do take place, it is certainly not so standardized as the movie suggests, and painting it as such makes Tamil Nadu even meaner.
When I bring up my discomfort with movies like Chennai Express, I immediately face negative reactions from Bollywood fans who invalidate me and say I overreact. But these are the same people who turn around and make stereotypical comments about me. The same people who ask me if I’ve seen Chennai Express the second I tell them I’m Tamil and the same people who ask me if I’ve ever worn a lungi or if my favorite dish is curd rice. The same people who call South Indians dirty and refused to believe my friend was really South Indian because of her lighter complexion. Ironically, these are also the same people who are calling for a positive and inclusive Hollywood portrayal while refusing to recognize Bollywood’s negative and regressive portrayal of me and my people. For these same people, being Indian only involves participating in North Indian culture, and they alienate me from their groups of friends because I am too different. In informal conversations, they call the South Indians madrasis, a regional and ethnic insult. The term was originally a harmless way to refer to the people of Madras, now Chennai, but was mainly used with negative connotations which make the word derogatory to many. These comments always mean something more, like when an acquaintance casually told my family that all South Indians dress badly with a disgusted look on her face, or how another told us that she didn’t. ‘disliked South Indians, my family being the only exception and like we were supposed to thank them for seeing us as different.
Discrimination against South Indians is not limited to cinematic stereotypes, as racism manifests itself systemically in politics and government as well. Tarun politician Vijay once openly denied the country’s racism, claiming that if they were racist they would not be living with South Indians, who are black. His blatant hypocrisy demonstrates the extent of colorism in Indian society as Vijay and those who support him refuse to see South Indians beyond their skin color. Vijay is a bigger problem in India, where South Indians face a systemic disadvantage that prevents them from reaching the top ranks of government, language barriers being one of them. Although there is no official language in India, many official testing is only offered in Hindi, preventing South Indians (of which the most commonly spoken languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) to obtain higher scores. The Kannadigas, inhabitants of the southern state of Karnataka, are also widely discriminated against against in the labor market, probably because of their ethnic origin. All of these issues target South Indians and hamper their chances of succeeding in India, showing that prejudices against South Indians are ingrained in the system.
Bollywood stereotypes of South Indians are clearly harmful, especially since there is so much anti-South Indian rhetoric already established in the North, alongside the systemic discrimination and jokes that deepen the rhetoric. Stereotypes only further alienate us from others in the North instead of uniting us all as Indians, which in turn drives the narrative that we are less Indians. For many in the North, I am seen as inferior and unworthy of their attention. But in the diaspora, I’m whitewashed. They joke among themselves in front of me saying, you are not Indian if you haven’t watched this movie For them I’m a fake Indian because I haven’t assimilated into their culture, and I’m a fake Indian because I can’t stand Bollywood a film industry that has failed to support me by tearing up my skin color, my femininity, my ethnicity, my culture, my family, my origins and my upbringing.
MiC columnist Roshni Mohan can be contacted at [email protected]
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