How does stereotyping in films impact society?

Two Hindi films, one making waves at the box office and the other nervously waiting for a release in Chennai — Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express and John Abraham’s Madras Café — have recently been under the scanner for similar reasons — stereotyping of Tamils. While this is the second time Shah Rukh has chosen to make a caricature (Remember Shah Rukh eating noodles with curd in Ra. One?) of those living in the South of the Vindhyas, Madras Café has been singled out citing more serious concerns.

Several groups have raised objections over how the film depicts the rebels and the armies involved in the civil war in Sri Lanka. “We oppose the screening of Madras Cafe on the basis that it is a propaganda film in which the Tamil rebels are shown as aggressors while the excesses of the other players in the conflict are ignored. It is a thoroughly one-sided representation of the LTTE and the Tamils who participated in it,” says Joe Britto, member of Students Federation of Free Eelam, who saw the film at the special screening.

The critical question here is: what should be our response when confronted with such stereotypes? Perhaps, we must begin by resisting the naïve response that seeks to dismiss the effects of such stereotyping in popular culture. The history of cinema is filled with examples of how political movements have used the medium as a tool of propaganda to misrepresent conflicts and cultivate stereotypes. Even recently, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was labelled as an attempt at justifying the use of torture and intimidation.

Imagined social fact

How do stereotypes seep into public discourse?

“Stereotypes are often constructed out of an inference of an imagined social fact that is informed by social and/or political prejudices. I would call this the “politics of the average”, in that it is a message that targets the average intellect,” says Karthick RM, a research scholar, working on Identity Politics at the University of Essex. This explains why social groups that perceive themselves as being victims of stereotyping protest vehemently. For, when stereotypes are constructed out of a pre-existing social prejudice, it could possibly end up reinforcing those very prejudices and, in worst cases, even spawn violence.

This is perhaps why women activists raised the alarm bell with a flurry of opinion pieces against the skewed representation of women in the recently released Hindi film, Cocktail. More recently, films such as Vishwaroopam and Thuppaki drew criticism for the way they discussed complicated present-day religious and political conflicts.

Though stereotypes have a negative impact on society, it doesn't mean they don’t have the potential to create solidarity and awareness about different social groups. Stereotypes are often deployed in stand-up comedy where they function to push the upper limit of community, ethnic and race-based comedy, opening up the space for discussion about stereotypes in society. Stand-up comedian, Aswin Rao, who admits that all his acts are full of invoking stereotypes, says, “I poke fun at every community, including mine. I try to expose the hypocrisy of each of these groups. I have done as many as 50 shows and a lot of people have come up to me and said that they would like to change their perceptions.”

While the use of stereotypes to create solidarity among different social groups — Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters is known for skewering various ethnic groups in the world precisely to delegitimise the racist discourse — needs to be welcomed, there is also a need to be vigilant of representations that seek to reinforce myths about social groups as an unquestionable fact.