Sunday, March 22, 2009

Who are we when we are Indians?

A couple of people we know have made the strangest critical comment on Sooni Taraporewala's "Little Zizou". They're not saying it didn't amuse them or the script leaked or the cameraman didn't know which way to point his camera or the performances were like something from the annual school concert. If they'd said any of those things, we could have written them off as idiotic/prejudiced/mentally challenged etc. But they are saying something much more fundamental. "We've had too many Parsi films. Why make another?"

It worries me that two otherwise sensible people feel this way about films made at intervals of roughly ten years. We saw "Khatta Meetha" in 1978 and "Pestonjee" in 1988. "Being Cyrus" came 16 years later in 2005. "Percy" was made a year after "Pestonjee" but never released. None of these films was documenting "the Parsi way of life", which might have gotten a little tedious by film number five. They all told stories which is what feature films are supposed to do. "Khatta Meetha", was a delightful comedy centred around an elderly man and woman looking for companionship with each other but finding the going tough with hostile offspring. "Being Cyrus" was a dark film that ended in murder. How could they be lumped together as "Parsi" films? Have we been so taken in by the suggestion that Hindi films with their concocted tales of men and women located in nowhere land, are "national", making any film revolving around a specifically located Indian regional or even ethnographic?

Who or what is Indian is not a new problem. It dates back to Raja Ravi Varma, a strong influence on Hindi films. He addressed the problem of Indianness head on when he submitted a batch of ten paintings to the International Exhibition of the World Columbian Order in Chicago in 1893. One of them, "Galaxy of musicians", shows eleven women dressed in regional costumes playing a variety of instruments. While their costumes are regional, their faces are "Indian", which means their skin is fair, noses straight and narrow, foreheads high, chins pointed, hair straight and postures modest. This was probably the first visual representation of what we mean by "variety in diversity".

The national/regional divide in films is best illustrated by Nishikant Kamat's "Mumbai Meri Jaan". Though Mumbai is its location, Kamat's characters do not belong specifically to any of the communities that inhabit the metropolis. The Soha Ali Khan character is Rupika or Ruchika Joshi. Joshi is a Marathi surname but it can also be Gujarat, or UPian. We don't know which community Kay Kay Menon the Muslim hater belongs to. He is plain Suresh. But Madhavan is Nikhil Agarwal. Agarwals come from the north, so they are "Indian". In short, when a Marathi film maker makes a film in Hindi, he is persuaded that his characters will be acceptable as "Indians" only if they are not seen as belonging to any other place but the north. "Indian" audiences may not relate to characters called Chavan or Screwala or Subramaniam. It's like upwardly mobile PIOs in America. They call themselves things lime "Bobby" to enable their names to slip easily off American tongues. When they have children they call them Neel if it's a boy and Maya if it's a girl.

So there you have it. Unity in diversity is all about assimilation.

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