The Convenient Stereotypes That Feed Our Nostalgia

A poster for the movie 'Piku'.

A poster for the movie ‘Piku’.

Dysfunctional characters, while they provide onscreen comedy are people very difficult to deal with in real life. The success of Piku, which celebrates dysfunction, and the triumph of the maladjusted over those who follow rules, is surprising. This is not to say it is a badly made film or boring. It holds up its end of the bargain and entertains. I laughed too, even though most of the humour is of the potty variety, the kind that makes a six-year-old burst into giggles at the mention of the word fart.

Bhaskor Bannerjee, the lead character described as “endearing” in review after review, is flawed, as we are all. But his cantankerous behavior is at times so unreasonable, that it crosses the benchmark of the tolerable. Where are positive, heroic traits that would redeem him? Which exact quality is it that the critics have found endearing?  His utter selfishness in robbing a dutiful daughter the chance at a normal life? His hypochondria? The fact that in a world full of serious issues, the only concern of this presumably educated man is his alimentary canal?  Were this character not played by Amitabh Bachchan, would we still like him?

True, as we get older, our tolerance levels decrease and our ailments increase. I have seen so many older people face debilitating disease far graver than constipation, with great dignity. If those are the characters that we admire in real life, I fail to understand the value we ascribe to the whiners and complainers on screen. Because make no mistake behind the façade of  Bachchan is a man who has used both his wife and daughter, never mind the grand platitudes to women’s liberation.

Eccentric Bengalis, dim Punjabis

But then Bhaskor Bannerjee is Bengali. And maybe that’s why we are expected to forgive him, for, increasingly in the movies, the Bengali is given a license of sorts for eccentric behavior. Behavior of the kind if it ever came from another community would be labeled uncivilized. This is a problem that had its genesis in the earlier Vicky Donor – set in Delhi — by the same director writer team of Shoojit Sarkar and Juhi Chaturvedi. They paint their characters with broad strokes- the garrulous but slightly dim Punjabi, the intellectual Bengali. These are characters whose only primary identity is their region, characters that don’t really fit into the modern aspirational India that is assimilating and integrating. These are types who unashamedly ask strangers on the very first meeting where they hail from. Punjabis from Lajpat Nagar; Bongs from CR Park; Chowdhrys from UP; Bangalis from Kolkata.  All stereotypes reinforced over and over again, as if real people fit into neat little boxes created by a writer.

But why are contemporary cosmopolitan audiences identifying with these characters? Most Bengalis I know are capable of speech without the crutch of Bengali interjections. They assimilate into the mainstream, and it would be hard to point them out in a mixed crowd. And Punjabi characters from Delhi and elsewhere cover the gamut from garrulous to gentle. The stereotyping doesn’t stop at these communities. The violent Jat is a cinematic staple, which the recent NH 10 took to extremes. And it is seems to be an unwritten rule that a female character south of the Vindhyas comes with a stock range of accessories: mogras, kanjeevarams and an atrociously bad accent. There is acceptance, even applause for cinematic characters in a cookie cutter mould. Why did we laugh when Anu Kapoor’s over-Punjabified doctor constantly referred to pure Aryan sperm? At least in retrospect, we should have reviled a character that referred to sperm in terms of race, especially given that the idea of the propagation of the Aryan race has a long and unseemly history.

Are we just ignorant cine-goers who don’t like nuance coming between us and a good time? Or is it our case that content that has humour does not have the responsibility that more serious work does?

Many years ago when I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s  celebrated novel Namesake, I was carried away by the wonder of her words. But when I thought about it later, about Ashima, who a million miles from home is so stubbornly resistant to change, who recreates the dishes of her childhood all her life and lives in a permanent state of nostalgia, interacting only with others of her kind, I wondered if I would like her. She is one of a breed of early NRIs urban Indians have always despised, the ones that settled abroad and promptly became members of Marathi Mandals, Gujarati Gaurav Groups, and Bengali Samajs, clinging defiantly to their own culture to the exclusion of all else.

Lahiri at least had the excuse of painting a people caught between cultures. With the popularity of her work, came an explosion of Indian American writing that liberally used payals, mehendi, gajras, arranged marriages and coy women in veils, among other exotic India motifs in their works. Only a very slight leap from the land of snake charmers and elephants.

Films catering to the urban multiplex audience seem to follow the same template. This is a an audience looking for roots and cultures that it let go a generation or two ago to embrace modernity. Nuclear families meant that eccentric aunts and dotty grandparents were no longer conveniently available. The idea of the cultured Bengali in particular has great appeal in decaying Calcutta. A city from where the successful have moved out; they just go back to visit to indulge in sanitized nostalgia. And for those who don’t have the time or luxury of an authentic Calcutta experience, voila here is culture and roots served on screen, with a dash of mustard oil thrown in. And of course we’d never be caught dead in Bhatinda or Ludhiana, but see how endearing their women are. A perfect mix between the traditional and modern, things our parents once aspired to, and we the ultra modern drifters now see as paradise lost. We applaud as our heroines win gourmet competitions in foreign lands, serving vegetarian pani puri, while we flit between macrobiotic diets and molecular gastronomy.

I feel for Piku, burdened by the weight of cultural expectations. By a father, and bound by his vision Piku herself, who never saw the good looking, successful and obviously besotted by her business partner, as the perfect match for her. Maybe our parents’ generation had similar cultural expectations from their children. But times have changed, except on the screen it seems. When I look around me, as I sit in Starbucks and write this piece, I see a microcosm of global Indians surrounding me, people who I have fleeting polite encounters with, unburdened by caste and cultural expectations. To me and for many Indians, the coffee shop is modern day temple, where we worship at the altar of the Internet, as we bang away on our Macbooks. And then in moving forward, we look guiltily at the past we left behind. We do not really want to go back there. So we eulogize it. Those were the best of times-perhaps inconvenient to our modern and current existence, but oh-so-convenient on the big screen.

Samina Motlekar is an ad-film producer and freelance writer.