‘Divide and entertain’: The way of cinema

‘Divide and rule’, that is something we have read in our history textbooks as a cunning tactic used by some British viceroy to exert his authority over India in a much more forceful manner. Unfortunately, the plan succeeded then. After 1947, this ‘Divide and rule’ became history, a memory that would remind us to be united. ‘Divide and rule’ no longer exists, but there is a new phenomenon ‘Divide and entertain’, something started by cinema. How can cinema divide and entertain?

I don’t want to say that national integrity is being affected by cinema that would be a far too serious allegation. But, to a certain degree, cinema does get involved in forming prejudices and preset notions in our minds. Cinema is just entertainment and we have to take it as just that. Some might say. But, an unrelenting barrage of certain kind material will ultimately have an effect that is not altogether healthy.

To clarify ask yourself a question, ‘How intelligent is a

Sardarji?’ Frankly, there is no way of knowing the average intelligence of a Sardarji. But for most people down south and even in other Northern states, a Sardarji represents a turban wearing strongly built man who can’t even tie his shoelaces without getting into knots. This image might not be as strong now as it was a few years back when every other joke started with the inevitable ‘Once a Sardarji….’ phrase. Cinema did make heavy use of this common butt of jokes to add to the humor quotients, Tamil cinema is no exception. It is difficult to say whether it was cinema that first started using Sardarjis as the butt of jokes or if it was the people who started it off with lengthy jokes sent through e-mails which were later adapted by cinema. But, it is true that for a few years, Sardarjis were mercilessly character assassinated in cinema and social conversations. It is only recently that Tamil cinema has stared showing some respect to the men from Punjab. Abhiyum Naanum and Dasavatharam are good examples of the change in attitude.

But, the ‘Sardarji syndrome’ is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other regional, linguistic and sometimes religious stereotypes and prejudices that are used to entertain audiences. Cinema has shown a fascination of using other populations as the butt of jokes. The British have never been able to resist a chance to take a dig at the Americans and vice versa through their films. The situation is somewhat similar in Indian cinema.

If Sardarjis were used down south, South Indians were being used up north for some heavy duty slapstick. A characteristically ‘Tamil mixed Hindi slang’ that always had a lot of ‘Ayyo’s mixed in it, ash smeared on the forehead and a vacant gullible expression consisted of the regular image that had been presented of South Indians in Hindi cinema. Even recently, Om Shanthi Om took a jolly dig at Tamil cinema (remember the ‘Mind it’ scene).

There are such incidences even amongst industries in the South, even where cultural differences are so little. Look back at Dasavatharam. Balram Naidu was the perfect caricature of a Telugu (‘Golti’ as used in many movies) who couldn’t speak Tamil and who was also a dumb wit. But, the film makers knew only too well that the same joke would not work in Andhra and so changed Naidu to Nadar, the Tamil who could not speak Telugu. We always like to laugh at others, not knowing our own shortcomings.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala have also been constantly exchanging stereotypes. A Tamil is shown in Malayalam cinema almost always as one who likes to be violent, is crude and unrefined (when used as the villain). As the comedian, a Tamil always has a big moustache, wears the ‘Patta Patti’ and gets beaten up in the end. Tamil cinema too has not missed chances. Any Malayalee in Tamil cinema has to be a ‘Chayakkada Nair’ and Malayalee women are always represented in a manner that is dangerously close to being censored.

The linguistic and regional differences have always been used to the fullest for comical purposes. At the end of the day, it is only cinema, entertainment, something that should not leave undesirable traces in our minds. But, think back. How often have you caught yourself calling a Telugu a Golti or deciding at first sight that a Sardarji is a dumb wit? Cinema ‘divides and entertains’.

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