Is Hindi cinema guilty of stereotyping the city, asks Sudhish Kamath

Ever since the promos of Chennai Express came out, there has been an outrage of sorts from the South, especially from hardcore Chennaiites. And those not exactly outraged were at least mildly amused by the misrepresentation and approximation of different races, cultures and accents from the South through its “Tamil” heroine played by Deepika Padukone.

But how seriously can you take a film made by people who can’t tell a lungi from veshti or Bharatanatyam from Kathakali?

When I watched the film in a packed hall during the middle of the week, I could see how it entertained the audience. It made people laugh. Not with it. But at it.

They were laughing at Shah Rukh Khan giving a dramatic speech at the end in terrible Tamil. They were laughing at the hero lecturing the girl’s father about women’s rights in the 66th year of Independence as if women in the South were less free than the women from the North. They were laughing at how Shah Rukh made racist jokes and monkey faces to describe South Indian goons while his own over-the-top facial contortions during the comic scenes were no better!

It’s not the stereotyping that was amusing but the lack of awareness about people from different regions down South. Stereotyping could generate great comedy if done right. Mind Your Language, for instance. Or even the politically incorrect, inaccurate and irreverent Borat that annoyed all of Kazhakstan and caused irreparable damage to its reputation.

We would have overlooked the stereotyping out of our love for Shah Rukh.

After all, Hindi cinema has been guilty of stereotyping the “Madrasi” since the days of Mehmood. But people here love Padosan as much as they do in the North! We did laugh as much at Kishore Kumar and Mehmood having a little fun with stereotypes in ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ no matter how terribly fake the “Madrasi” accent was.

The “Madrasi” usage probably stems from the days of the British Raj when the Madras Province covered Tamil Nadu, parts of Kerala (excluding Travancore) and Andhra Pradesh and even Karnataka (excluding Mysore) and thus anyone from the South was automatically presumed to be from the Madras Presidency…a Madrasi.

But there is no Madras Province or Madras left for that matter. It’s Chennai these days, folks. But there’s no Chennai in Chennai Express either.

Chennai Express is just the excuse for Shah Rukh to get on the train to somewhere South and just like a character yanks the chain and stops the train somewhere in the middle of nowhere (near an exotic waterfall because that’s where the mythical South for the cinema begins) the makers set the film in a mythical land in the middle of nowhere. Just about as credible as Priyadarshan trying to pass off Ooty as a village in the North in his comedies. The result: Chennai Express is as funny or cute as Joey’s French. Just like Joey Tribbiani (Friends) genuinely believes he can speak French and auditions for a French play, Shah Rukh and Rohit Shetty genuinely think they are showing us the South.

It didn’t matter that Deepika’s accent was far from real because she kept it consistent. And the language of cinema is far more powerful than any spoken language or accent. We wouldn’t have complained if the film still had something to say.

So why didn’t Chennai Express set the film in Chennai? Because if it came to the city, they would see that this is not too different from any of the cities in the North. They would see that women do go out in clothes other than saris; free, independent and safe. They would see that Hindi movies, even the silly Rohit Shetty films, run house-full here. They would see that the nightclubs here stay open longer than they do in Mumbai. They would see that almost all reputed city schools offer an option to learn Hindi as second language. They would see Singam 2 before it hits their screens in Hindi as Singham.

The Madrasi is a Hindi cinema myth that continues to live on. Yes, exaggerated accents, conservative attitudes and goons who look like savages could be employed for humour in cinema but if they want us to laugh — with them and not at them — they really need to work on the joke!