Saturday, March 26, 2016


Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Madrasis’?

The non-caricatured portrayal of Punjabis and Tamil Nadu in Kapoor & Sons is unusual in a Bollywood otherwise ridden by community stereotypes if not exclusions

By Anna MM Vetticad

Imagine a Hindi film revolving around a Punjabi family, with not a Bhangra in sight. Imagine a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu, with not an “aiyyaiyo” or an oily-haired, clownish ‘Madrasi’ prancing around in the vicinity.

Actually, imagine a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu where a song and dance is not made about the setting, but it just happens to be what it is because — believe it or not! — Tamil Nadu is in India.

If you have watched Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), you need not strain your imagination because all these elements — rare though they are in Bollywood — converge on this one canvas. The film has received glowing reviews, audience acclaim and excellent opening collections. Hopefully, its success will be a message to the rest of the film industry, that viewers are open to an unexaggerated depiction of the multi-cultural Indian reality served in an intelligently entertaining package.

There are two issues at hand here: first, the stereotyping of certain communities on screen; second, exclusion.

Though Punjabis have for decades dominated the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood, the community has been inexorably caricatured by Hindi cinema, with Sikhs getting the worst of it. A foreign viewer of this fare is likely to assume that all Punjabis are loud, boisterous, unsophisticated, prone to dancing the Bhangra at the drop of a hat and punctuating their speech with the exclamatory “balle balle”.

“What’s wrong with the Bhangra and balle balle?” is the most common response to this criticism. Answer: nothing wrong at all. But a stereotype is a stereotype even if it is not negative, because it ignores the heterogeneity inherent in all communities. When perpetuated long enough, it can also be annoyingly reductive to those at the receiving end, even when accompanied by goodwill.

Unfortunately, most of us do not see this until we are at that receiving end.

A Malayali friend once told me of how he called out, “Oye Sardarji, ki haal hai? Balle balle!” when he passed a Sikh gentleman on a Thiruvananthapuram street. “They are jolly people, you know,” he said with evident warmth. All I could think of though was that he sees Sikhs as “they”, not one among “us”; and how irritating it has been for me, as a Malayali born and brought up in Delhi, to constantly hear stupid questions from seemingly educated people. “Are you a Madrasi?” … “Aishwarya Rai is so fair, how can she be south Indian?” … “You said you are a south Indian so what do you mean by saying you are not a Madrasi?” … And from the slightly well-informed lot who are aware that south India is not a single state, this: “Are you a Malayalam?”

Again, there is nothing wrong with being from ‘Madras’ (except that I am not) or being dark-skinned. Just as there is nothing wrong with being brilliant at mathematics, but is it not silly for a white American to assume that all Indian kids are great at maths? A stereotype is a stereotype, however positive it may be.

Sadly, most of Bollywood remains disinterested in portraying multi-culturalism realistically although it is the Indian reality. Sixteen years into the 21st century, the inclusion of a non-Hindu, non-north Indian or non-Maharashtrian character in a mainstream, commercial film is usually engineered with a pointed purpose.

Muslims? Explanation: secularism or lately, terrorism.

Parsis, Gujaratis? Explanation: comic relief.

Sikhs? Explanation: secularism and/or comic relief.

Four years back, when Shakun Batra named the leading lady of his first film, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (EMAET) Riana Braganza, he recalls being asked by several industry folk, “Why does the heroine need to be Goan Catholic?” Reason: his script did not typecast her as a quasi-foreign, skimpily dressed, sexually available cabaret dancer, secretary or gangster’s moll who could barely speak English, which is how most Christian women were once portrayed by Hindi cinema.

Bollywood dropped Christian characters in the 1990s, when it became socially acceptable to dress Hindu heroines in small outfits, get them to dance sexily and make them sexually active before marriage. It is not the Christian stereotype that has disappeared from Hindi cinema (that would have been a cause for celebration); what has disappeared is the community itself. It goes without saying then that EMAET’s atypical Riana seemed pointless to Bollywood in 2012.

Some critics slammed Chennai Express (2013) for caricaturing south Indians. Me? I was relieved to see it. If it was OTT, it was equitably so with all its characters; it did not revive the nauseating ‘Madrasi’ cartoon from an earlier era, exemplified by Mehmood in Padosan (1968); and it did not laugh at anyone, it laughed with. Besides, it got north India to watch a supposedly Hindi film replete with Tamil dialogues — without subtitles!

In any case, clichés can only be born of repeated, repetitive portrayals. With south Indians, the problem now is exclusion. Like Dalits, people of the Northeast and Christians, southerners too have now virtually disappeared from mainstream Bollywood films. It is hard to decide which is worse: absence or a trite presence?

It is only fair to state here that Bollywood is not the only Indian film industry guilty of such crimes. Discussing the misrepresentation of north Indians by south Indian cinema, for instance, would require more space than is available here. Try convincing a ‘Madrasi’ filmmaker of that though.

(This article was first published in The Hindu Businessline on March 26, 2016)

Original link:

Photo captions: Stills/posters from (1) Kapoor & Sons (2) Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (3) Chennai Express

Photographs courtesy:

(3) Disney UTV

Friday, March 25, 2016


Release date:
March 25, 2016
Nishikant Kamat

John Abraham, Nishikant Kamat, Sharad Kelkar, Nathalia Kaur, Diya Chalwad, Shruti Haasan, Nora Fatehi, Suhasini Muley

If you call a film Rocky Handsome, you had better deliver what the title promises: action that would do Sly Stallone proud plus a handsome man.

Rocky Handsome does not fall short on those fronts.

They say 1 Helen is the amount of beauty required to launch a thousand ships. The reference, of course, is to the legendary looks of Helen of Troy from Greek mythologyshe who possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships”. What do the Greeks know of such things?

From this day forth, let it be said that the universal unit of beauty comes from India: 1 John is the quantum of gorgeousness it takes to send a woman into such a stupor that for 24 hours she cannot gather her thoughts coherently to write a review.

But seriously…

In a world that chooses to unrelentingly objectify women, usually in a degrading fashion, this film is a lesson in how different the treatment is when men are the ones being objectified. We are given shot after shot of John Abraham’s naked torso, the camera captures his bare chest, back and voluminous arms from various angles, yet at no point does it cheapen him or play a song in the background that is remotely the equivalent of Main tandoori murgi hoon yaar, gatkaale saiyyaan alcohol se” (I’m a piece of flesh, consume me with alcohol) that Bollywood has unabashedly slapped on to female stars and unknowns over the years.

This is not a struggler hoping to get a foot in the door by making his body his USP or an established actor fighting for survival. This is a successful star and male producer (John has produced Rocky Handsome) in a male-dominated industry, holding the reins and all the cards in his hands and choosing, from a position of power, exactly how he wishes to be portrayed by a film.

Viewers are given the full blast of John’s exquisite physique and his wonderfully weatherbeaten-yet-not-apparently-Botoxed countenance throughout Rocky Handsome. There is more to the film than his sexiness though.

The action sequences dominating the narrative are completely breathtaking. Be warned: they are extremely gory. If you are not faint hearted and have a streak of masochism in you, the choreography of the fights is something to behold. Most are executed by John’s character. To watch him slaughter his enemies is to witness the grace of a ballerina combined with the energy of a troupe of Kathak dancers slapping their bare feet incessantly on the floor of a stage. He slices and dices humans with his bare hands, fists, legs, arms, knives and firearms, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes at a speed that could rival Superman.

Rocky Handsome also features a couple of neat club songs that are foot-tapping fun even if they – like the entire soundtrack – are too loud in the film. The bonus is that two talented artistes dance to them on screen: Nathalia Kaur for Titliyan (composed by Sunny and Inder Bawra), and Nora Fatehi for Rock tha party (the old Bombay Rockers’ number resurrected).

With so many elements hitting the bull’s eye separately, the team appears to make no effort whatsoever to stitch them together into a cohesive, emotionally resonant whole. Great-looking cast: check. Action: check. Music: check. Soul: ah now, therein lies a problem.

Rocky Handsome is an official remake of the South Korean film The Man From Nowhere adapted for Hindi audiences by writer Ritesh Shah. The story here is set in Goa. It revolves around a reclusive pawn shop owner, Kabir Ahlawat (John), who becomes fond of his neighbour’s neglected child Naomi (Diya Chalwad). The kid’s mother Anna (Nathalia Kaur) is a junkie who sparks off mayhem by stealing drugs from a gangster. Kabir goes berserk when the only person in the world he seems to care about is abducted. The destruction he leaves in his wake attracts police attention, which is how his tragic past is revealed.

Director Nishikant Kamat helmed last year’s Hindi version of Drishyam starring Ajay Devgn and that celluloid gemstone, Mumbai Meri Jaan, about the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings. He debuted with the acclaimed Marathi film Dombivali Fast in 2005. Clearly he took a vacation from his cinematic vision for Rocky Handsome, which is high on style and visual gratification, but low on substance and passion.

Nishikant had earlier directed Force – a far better film – with John in 2011. Here he cannot see beyond his leading man’s physical appearance and penchant for fisticuffs. John too appears so confident about the appeal of those elements in the film that he does not even try to act. Except for one scene in which he weeps for a woman he loves, he wears the same two facial expressions from start to finish.

The child actor Diya is not bad in the cuteness department, but is burdened by the heavy-handed dialogues she is expected to deliver. The zero chemistry between John and the actresses playing the women in his life – Shruti Haasan in a cameo and Diya – is what keeps the film cold.

The director has cast himself as a drug mafia boss called Kevin with limited effect (he has done better before). In the role of his brother is an actor desperately trying to blend menace with eccentricity and falling flat in the attempt. For a reference point he should have checked out Prashant Narayanan’s brilliant turn as a serial killer in Mohit Suri’s Murder 2 (2011), yet another Hindi remake of a Korean film – that one was illegimately copied, but very well done.

If you plan to watch Rocky Handsome then, you have two options: you could feast your eyes on John and his feats, or make the mistake of seeking depth and feelings within that pageantry. Choose Option 1 and you are pretty much assured of paisa vasool.

I know, I know, that’s a terribly superficial thing to say. This critic is guilty as charged.

Rating (out of 5 stars): **1/2  

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
126 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: