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Last week, an incredibly hammy scene from the 2015 Punjabi film Sardaarji 2 assumed new meaning for me. The protagonist of Sardaarji 2 is Jaggi Khoowala, a mild-mannered organic farmer in Punjab, who shares a familial relationship with his crops and vegetables. He’s in deep conversation with a potato when an elderly farmer in the village is assaulted by a local goon and Jaggi is called to settle the dispute. Jaggi politely asks the goon to apologise to the old farmer so that he can go back to his vegetables. The goon gets more obnoxious, pushes Jaggi, and calls him a ‘mental Sardaar’. All hell breaks loose. It turns out that Jaggi is not as zen as we thought. Balls of smoke shoot out of his ears, literally, (the VFX is so bad it’s good) and an alter-ego (a second Jaggi dressed in all-black, therefore more badass) emerges and beats the goons to a pulp. 

Jaggi is essayed by Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh. I had almost forgotten the whistles this scene got at the suburban Mumbai theatre I saw it in. It came back to me in a flash when Diljit was caught in a maelstrom of heated tweets with actress Kangana Ranaut a few days ago. Diljit is superb at using social media but the closest he’s come to a fight was with Alexa when she couldn’t understand his Punjabi. This was different. Like in the scene, an angry alter-ego had been awakened. Diljit’s Bollywood co-stars Kareena Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and Sonakshi Sinha have in the past said the reticent actor barely spoke to them on set. I wonder what they thought of his retaliation. But if they’d seen Diljit’s Punjabi films, they wouldn’t have been surprised. For his entire career is practically a lead-up to this Twitter showdown.

Diljit was set off by a false tweet by Kangana about an elderly lady from Punjab (Mahinder Kaur) being a protestor for sale at the ongoing standoff between the farmers and the government. The back and forth between the two actors turned into an intense verbal tennis match. Here’s the essence of what Diljit said –  Don’t mess with Punjab/Punjabis. We aren’t Bollywood folks, you can’t bully us. If you rub us the wrong way, we’ll hit back hard. Speak to us with respect. 

This is the underlying message of every Punjabi film Diljit has been in, even if it’s been served to us as a high-pitched slapstick comedy. In fact, a running gag in Sardaarji 2 is that Jaggi smacks anyone who forgets to add the ji after sardar. There’s a dialogue that loosely translates to – ‘A sardar maybe a  brigadier in the Army, the mayor of Canada, the Prime Minister, a member of the village panchayat or a kulfi seller. Either way, don’t ever forget to add ji after sardar’. In the period film Sajjan Singh Rangroot, Diljit’s a Sikh soldier in the British Army. When faced with an opportunity to defect to the German army that’s offering him better protection, he says, ‘We Punjabis can die even for the men we barely know. We rather die than be called traitors’.

In 2017, Diljit played Punjab’s first superhero in Super Singh. It’s probably the world’s cheapest superhero film as well. Super Singh’s weapon is his magical turban that turns him into a desi Iron man or a ‘Jatt lohe da’. ‘Pag hi Singh ki asli taakat hai’, he says. But director Anurag Singh (Punjab 1984, Kesari) constantly tells us that not just Super Singh, every noble Sikh is nothing short of a superhero. In one scene, Diljit’s character, who is based in Canada, tells a homeless man that if he’s ever hungry he should go to the nearest gurdwara and he’ll be looked after. In another, he tells a scared young girl that if she’s ever in trouble, all she needs to do is find a Sikh to help her. The young girl asks, ‘You mean Sikhs are like the 911? You can call them when there’s an emergency?’

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As Diljit launched one tweet after the other (against Kangana’s put-down of his people), I could feel the collective chest swelling of every proud Punjabi on my timeline. The rest of us were taking crash courses in Punjabi on Google translate to catch up. Some Punjabis helpfully translated his words in English so that we could all enjoy the spat without interruption. There was also some talk of a few of his killer Punjabi phrases being put on T-shirts. Meme makers got their content for the day. By the time the dust settled, everyone had become an honorary Punjabi. At least for a few hours. 

This too reminded me of a ridiculous scene from Jatt and Juliet 2, where Diljit plays a rough-around-the edges cop from Punjab who is sent to Canada on a secret mission. When he goes to interrogate some petty local criminals, a white guy is so intimidated by this loud Punjabi cop that he instantly confesses. And that too in Punjabi. ‘Main chori kittiyaan,’ he shudders. The moral of the story lies in one of Diljit’s superhit songs – ‘Jatt na clash karde’. 

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