Hindi Cinema’s Idea of the ‘Exotic’ South Needs a Rethink

Hindi Cinema’s Idea of the ‘Exotic’ South Needs a Rethink

Madrasis, lungis, unlimited curd — when will Hindi cinema stop stereotyping South India?

In Salman Khan’s Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan (2023), a giant banana leaf with ‘Welcome to South India’ signals the interval, as if ‘South India’ is a distant, exotic country and the banana leaf is its flag. Nobody can accuse director Farhad Samji of realism, but when the giggly heroine (Pooja Hegde), supposedly of Telugu origin, mimics how ‘South Indians’ laugh, emote and express anger, a pertinent question arises: Has Bollywood learnt nothing since Shah Rukh Khan infamously ate noodles with curd in Ra.One (2011)? 

Ironically, Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan is a remake of the blockbuster Tamil film Veeram (2014). Yet the condescending attitude towards the ‘south’ – comprising five states with different languages and distinct cultural identities – is evident in the writing. Nandini Ramnath, film critic with Scroll.in, said that for the Hindi film industry, all of the south is one big country as well as a foreign land. “Some of the characters seem as alien to the Hindi film imagination as, say, the Chinese or Caucasians. They are also called ‘South ke log’ or ‘South walle’, just like the crossover films that are shaking up Bombay cinema are called ‘South ki picture’ rather than Telugu or Tamil or Kannada films, whatever the case may be,” she said. 

Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan
Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki JaanBathukamma song

There are several stereotypes associated with South Indian characters in Hindi cinema, ranging from women from the ‘South’ all being Bharatanatyam dancers and wearing flowers in their hair to men sporting lungis, visible caste marks, and exclaiming “Aiyo Rama!” The characters typically speak Hindi and English with thick accents, because that apparently is comedy. Their likes and dislikes are overly simplified – for instance, all South Indians are characterised as vegetarian or belonging to vegetarian families when in reality, the southern states have among the highest meat eating populations in the country. 

Further, ever since “Lungi Dance” from Chennai Express (2013), it’s compulsory for South Indian characters in Hindi films to be ‘Thalaiva’ fans – it’s THALAIVAR, for the record – and the representation is seldom authentic. In Mukesh Chhabra’s Dil Bechara (2020), for example, Sushant Singh Rajput plays a Tamilian Rajinikanth fan who says, “I want to be just like Rajini sir. I want to beat up the bad guys. Save the girl. I want to risk my life for her. I want to be a real life hero. Thalaiva!” As any true Thalaivar fan would know, Rajinikanth films are about the righteous hero fighting for a lofty goal rather than pining for the heroine. The superstar hasn’t done a romance in decades, and this simplistic characterisation of his brand is revealing of Bollywood’s lazy approach towards writing South Indian characters.

A still from Dil Bechara
A still from Dil Bechara

This isn’t a new phenomenon though. Actor Mehmood – whose father was Tamil – has played the South Indian to comic effect in several Hindi films. Independent film critic Namrata Joshi said that Mehmood from Padosan (1968), where he plays the music and dance teacher Master Pillai, is the most widely quoted example of such representations. However, it is the Mehmood song “Muthu Kodi Kawari Hada” from Do Phool (1973) that makes her recoil the most. “The whole song, the writing, the way it has been sung, and the way it has been shot – you find all the elements of quintessential comic stereotyping of the South coming together here in one sequence, be it skin colour, attire or accent,” she said.

Ramnath cited Mithun Chakraborty’s role as Krishnan Iyer MA from the first Agneepath (1990) film as yet another example of Hindi cinema getting it wrong. “Weirdly, Krishnan Iyer MA (pronounced “yem yay”) sells coconuts – a profession stereotypically associated with people from Kerala in Mumbai,” she said. 

A still from the song Muthu Kodi Kawari Hada
A still from the song Muthu Kodi Kawari Hada

Many South Indians have grown up resenting the reductive ‘Madrasi’ stock characters of Hindi cinema that don’t represent their diverse cultural identities. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Vivek Soni’s Netflix film Meenakshi Sundareshwar (2021) received an immediate backlash on social media when it was announced. The romcom, starring Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dasani, is set in Madurai, the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu. It has Hindi-speaking actors playing Tamil characters who speak Hindi in Madurai – and given Tamil Nadu’s rich political history of resisting Hindi imposition, the outrage was only to be expected. 

But Viveki Soni, a self-confessed Mani Ratnam fan, said he’d set the film in Madurai because he wanted to present a new landscape and culture to the Hindi audience. “Most of the Hindi films that were coming out around the time we developed the script for Meenakshi Sundareshwar were set in Uttar Pradesh or some other place in the north, and they all looked the same. As a viewer, I felt fatigued with these stories,” he said. 

An old photograph of Soni’s parents taken at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and his experiences as an engineering student in Andhra Pradesh where he met people from different parts of the south, led him to setting his film in Madurai. He co-wrote the script with Aarsh Vora, and the two of them stayed in the temple city for a month, exploring its rich cultural fabric and developing the script. 

Sanya Malhotra in Meenakshi Sundareshwar
Sanya Malhotra in Meenakshi Sundareshwar

Soni acknowledged that the negative reaction to the promos was partly because of the Bollywood tradition of mocking South Indians, but added that people made several assumptions about the film that were not true. “Many on social media and even reviewers said that I had shown a Tamil Brahmin family, but it was actually a Chettiar family – from the customs at the wedding to the jewellery and the style of the house,” said Soni. This perception about the characters’ caste location may well be because of a scene where eating meat at a Madurai mess is portrayed as a taboo, and Hindi cinema’s tendency to depict all Tamils as Brahmin. Actor Dhanush, who usually plays the oppressed underdog in Tamil cinema, for example, has been cast as a Tamil Brahmin in two of the three Hindi films he’s done – Raanjhanaa (2013) and Atrangi Re (2021).

But, despite the efforts of the Meenakshi Sundareshwar team, viewers spotted several linguistic and cultural errors in the film. One is in the scene where the hero’s father, who visits his office, is wearing a veshti/vetti but the garment is referred to as a lungi. The error might have been forgiven if not for Hindi cinema’s persistent mischaracterisation of the lungi – the “Yentamma” song from Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan is guilty of doing this yet again. 

According to Joshi, the mainstream Hindi film industry has resorted to stereotyping just about everyone and the representation of the South shouldn’t be seen in isolation. “Caste, class, gender, sexuality, religion, regions and languages have all been reduced to cliches,” she said. “A Sikh, a Bihari, an ambitious career woman, the queer community, Muslims, Christians, dalits. Just look at their stories and representation over the years in popular Hindi films and you will get the drift.”

Shah Rukh Khan in Ra One
Shah Rukh Khan in Ra One

In this ocean of misrepresentation and convenient cliches, it’s very rare to witness a scene like the one in the sports drama Chak De India (2007) where a young Telugu woman asserts her identity when asked if she’s a ‘Madrasi’. “If you see Javed Khan in Chak De India, the way he questions the Nethra Reddy character about being Telugu, it's he who is the joke of a stereotype. Full marks to writer Jaideep Sahni for forcing us to look inwards in however sentimental a way,” said Joshi. 

Ramnath noted that Hindi OTT films and series like The Family Man (2019, 2021), Monica, O My Darling (2022) and Farzi (2023) have better representations of South Indian characters – these roles are played by actors from the south who may speak Hindi with an accent but this isn’t portrayed in a derisive way. “I’m keenly awaiting Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas with Vijay Sethupathi,” she added.

Priyamani in The Family Man
Priyamani in The Family Man

It’s not that cinema from the South doesn’t stereotype people from other cultures.The ‘setu’ character who represents the Marwari community in Tamil cinema, for instance, is typically depicted as being greedy or stingy and speaking an accented, broken Tamil. The critically acclaimed Tamil courtroom drama Jai Bhim (2021) even had a scene where an upright police officer (Prakash Raj) slaps a Marwari man for speaking in Hindi. Quite a few contemporary Malayalam films refer to migrant workers from different states as “those Bengalis” since a large percentage of migrants in Kerala are from West Bengal. But, seldom do these southern films rely so heavily on problematic cultural stereotypes as do Hindi films. Some of these depictions should also be seen as a reaction to Hindi-first political policies that are vehemently opposed in the southern states, and Hindi cinema’s continued misrepresentation of South Indians.

For now, Joshi is hopeful about the Hindi film industry waking from its stupor and smelling the coffee (not lassi in coconuts). She believes the workforce is gradually becoming more representative and that this may lead to “steady progressiveness” in the future. “I see younger writers, directors, cinematographers, editors questioning the politics of gaze. It may not reflect immediately but incrementally it will change things for the better,” she said. If that happens, we might just see that miracle of miracles – a South Indian character who is capable of wearing pants, eating something other than thayir sadam, and is a Kamal Haasan or Mammootty fan. 

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