Is there no love lost between north and south India? Or are they ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’?
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Is there no love lost between north and south India? Or are they ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’?

Will the day ever dawn when we see seamless integration of south Indians into Bollywood? Here’s a look at how South India gets caricatured and, conversely, how Hindi figures in films down south.

regional movies Updated: Jul 12, 2017 13:13 IST
Thejaswi Udupa
Thejaswi Udupa
Grist Media
Hindi,South India,Non-Hindi speaking Indian states
A still from K Balachander’s classic Ek Duuje Ke Liye starring Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri.

I hardly ever studied Hindi in school. At least, not enough to come to grips with even basic grammar. Whenever I attempt to talk in Hindi, I am prone to mixing up kaa, ki, and kii, effortlessly achieving gender fluidity of a sort. One trick that I use to reduce the mistakes was to memorise lines from Bollywood movies I have seen, and string them together as needed in conversation. And I think I know where I stole that idea from.

Ek Duuje Ke Liye was the Hindi remake of the Telugu blockbuster Maro Charitra, a romantic tragedy about two doomed lovers with a language problem. In the Telugu original, Kamal Haasan’s character spoke Tamil, and Saritha, the heroine, spoke Telugu. When the movie was remade into Hindi, Kamal still spoke Tamil, and Rati Agnihotri, the new heroine, spoke Hindi. The highlight, possibly the lightest the movie ever got in its narration, is Kamal Haasan wooing his heroine while stuck in an elevator by singing a song whose lyrics were essentially a bunch of movie titles strung together. Mere Jeevan Saathi. Pyar Kiye Jaa. Jawaani Deewani. Khoobsurat. Ziddi. Padosan. Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri feature in the song, Mere Jeevan Saathi... Pyar Kiye Jaa from Ek Duuje Ke Liye.

The other thing that stands out about Ek Duuje Ke Liye is that Kamal Haasan’s character, although a Tamilian in a Hindi movie, is not a caricature, the way such characters usually are in Bollywood movies. Unfortunately, recent statements by our politicians, be it Venkaiah Naidu’s hilarious ‘Hindi hamara raashtrabhaasha hai’ paeans, or Shashi Tharoor’s more measured statements about how Hindi occupies a better-than-other-languages position in polity has meant that such caricatures are just reflections of imposed realities.

In April this year, former BJP parliamentarian Tarun Vijay sparked a row, when he explicitly said something that most North Indians leave unsaid and implicit. In the context of India’s perceived racism against Africans, he said, “If we were racist, why would we have all the entire South… Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra… why do we live with them? We have black people around us.” For many from Tarun Vijay’s part of the country, their idea of India is a monocultural north. South Indians exist among them, and they bemusedly tolerate them. For the most part, Bollywood filmmakers belong to this ilk and share the viewpoint. And therefore, when they have South Indian characters in their movies, they resort to stereotypes. From Mehmood’s Master Pillai in Padosan, to Shah Rukh Khan in near-blackface as “Omiswaami in and as Mind It” mouthing “yenna rascala” in Om Shanti Om. But there’s a reason why Kamal Haasan’s character was not distilled into a stereotypical caricature. K Balachander, who directed the Telugu original, directed the Hindi remake too, instead of signing away the rights to a Sippy, or a Chopra, or a Kapoor.

Mehmood’s Master Pillai in Padosan: The archetypal ‘South Indian’ in Hindi films.

A dozen years ago, I spent two years in IIM Bangalore. Given its standing as a national institute rather than a regional one, in some ways, life inside the campus represented a certain microcosm of the nation as a whole. It was my first time in an environment where north Indians were not a minority. Almost every Saturday, there used to be an all-night party in the hostel blocks, called L-Square, because incongruously the dance floor was both a square and L-shaped depending on where you looked at it from. Given I had two left feet, I never ventured onto the dance floor, and would instead, along with similarly handicapped batchmates, nurse my cheap booze on a nearby terrace while watching the party below. The DJ, or to be more accurate, the man loading up the Winamp playlist was almost always a north Indian, which, in turn, meant that a lot of the songs played were from Bollywood. Two standards though were not. One was ‘Appadi Podu’ from Ghilli, the Tamil movie. Another was ‘Aa Ante Amalapuram’ from Aarya, the Telugu movie. While the DJ may have meant these as token south Indian songs, what I could see from the terrace was that it was clearly the north Indians who were enjoying it much more. It fit their idea of south India. It is the same idea that gave us the song ‘Lungi Dance’, in Chennai Express. It is the same idea that in a different era gave us ‘Naino Mein Sapna’, from Himmatwala. Or from an even earlier era, ‘Ramaiya Vastavaiya’, from Shree 420. For Bollywood, the south was best dealt with either through gross caricatures or catchy songs.

Lungi Dance from Chennai Express proves stereotypes continue in Bollywood.

However, Hindi is not entirely alien to south Indian cinema. While usually played for comic relief, there is a strong undercurrent of the dominant position Hindi has in the eyes of the nation-state.

Some of the funniest scenes in regional cinema involve attempts to learn the ‘raashtrabhaasha’. In the Bhagyaraj movie Indru Poi Naalai Vaa, G Ramli’s character Rajendran is attempting to learn Hindi with aim of impressing his Hindi teacher, and more importantly his comely daughter, but he gets badly stuck. It’s for the same reason why I have a friend in Chennai named Magesh Agarwal — he cannot get the first line of a lesson named ‘Baap Ka Beta’ right, thus giving us the immortal line, “Ek gaav mein ek kissaan Raghu thatha”. In the Vamsy movie Ladies Tailor, Rajendra Prasad, whom the north Indians know best unfortunately for Quick Gun Murugan, wants to get into the good books of a lady with a mole (yes, that is his kink), Archana, and decides to learn Hindi among other things from her. His attempts result in a language that will make anyone forget Hindi, including Archana. “Sujata main mar jaata, tumhaara chuttu phir jaata, adhi naa talaraata”. In the case of the Malayalam movie Sandhesam, we have the north Indian politician Yashwant Sahai making his way into Kerala and speaking nothing but Hindi, with obviously hilarious results. After finally getting more coconut water than he can possibly handle, he eventually storms out declaring that he will not help Kerala unless they learn Hindi. A scene that started off as poking gentle fun at political workers in Kerala, has a denouement that reflects the stepmotherly treatment central parties mete out to non-Hindi speaking states.

Hard to forget lines like “Sujata main mar jaata, tumhaara chuttu phir jaata, adhi naa talaraata” from Telugu film Ladies Tailor.

The other situation that warrants Hindi in south Indian movies is when you have characters from the north who have become part of the fabric of the south Indian cities where the movies are set in. Sowcarpet, literally ‘rich man’s town’, is a neighbourhood in Chennai which has a sizeable population of Marwaris who have settled there now for generations. Sowcarpet seths are a common fixture in Tamil movies, speaking their Hindi-infused Tamil, and almost always being miserly, comical, and evil — all in one breath. Kannada movies too have a long tradition of including Marwari traders with their grammatically incorrect Hindi (because the script is usually written by a Kannadiga) being the main villain’s financier, or sometimes, the main villain himself. Perhaps the producers had run into one too many a Marwari moneylender while raising money for the movie, and this is how they took revenge.

A notable exception to this weaselly typecasting is in the Ambarish classic Antha, where in the role of Kanwarlal (Ambarish plays a dual role here), he is more a wounded tiger straining at his chains. Little surprise that the “Kutte Kanwarlal bolo!” dialogue from that movie is one of the most popular ones on Kannada dubsmash.

Movies set in Bangalore also often have side characters, usually the hero’s friend, who speak in Shivajinagar Urdu/Dakhni. The title song of the Shankar Nag movie Nodi Swamy Navirodu Heege (literally, We Are Like This Only), a movie where the city of Bangalore is as much a character as any of the cast, has the title sung out in various languages one hears in Bangalore. And apart from Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu, the only other translation one hears is “Apun toh bhai aisa hai” — Shivajinagar Urdu and not grammatically correct Hindi.

Despite the fact that over the last couple of decades, driven primarily by the IT revolution, there has been a huge influx of north Indians into Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad, one does not see a similar influx of Hindi-speaking North Indian characters into regional cinema.

Sonia Agarwal and Ravi Krishna star in Selvaraghavan’s Tamil film 7G Rainbow Colony.

When they do, like Sonia Agarwal’s character did in Selvaraghavan’s 7G Rainbow Colony, it looks like they serve little else but to show up class and skin colour disparity. Which often is anyway achieved by just casting north Indian heroines without actually having them play north Indian characters. This is possibly because North Indians do not watch regional movies, and it makes commercial sense for the producers to ignore them. But it is important to get ‘them’ to watch ‘us’. While the central government busies itself with shoving Hindi onto those who do not welcome it, south Indian pop culture should get more insidious in imposing itself on North India. Some of it is already happening. Classic movies like Kshana Kshanam are now up on YouTube with subtitles, links to which are frequently being shared on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, Priyadarshan has made a business model out of remaking his Malayalam movies into poor Hindi copies — Hera Pheri, Hungama, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Garam Masala, and so on. There is a whole generation of people who stay at home and are getting entertained by Hindi dubs of masala Kannada and Telugu movies on Star Gold and similar TV channels. There are loud, big budget remakes of south Indian hits such as Singam. And then, of course, there is Baahubali.

Mohanlal stars as Veerapalli Srinivasan IPS in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company.

I got carried away there. We are still quite far from seeing a seamless integration of south Indians into north Indian movies. Ram Gopal Varma, an import from the Telugu industry into Bollywood, used to regularly provide exceptions such as Mohanlal’s turn as Veerapalli Srinivasan IPS in Company, but his grip on his art has long waned. I was impressed by how natural the Hindi scenes in Kammatipaadam, the runaway Malayalam hit of last year, were. The hero, played by Dulquer, holds a job as a security guard in Mumbai, and stays with other Hindi-speaking colleagues. And having been in Mumbai, and in a job that requires him to converse in Hindi, he does so, like every implant from the south actually has done. With an ordinariness that does not stand out, and does not lend itself to any sort of a caricature.

But it will be a long wait though, to see something similar in mainstream Bollywood. After all, the minor tragedy in Ek Duuje Ke Liye, is that it is the Tamilian played by Kamal Haasan who ends up learning Hindi, and not the other way round.

(Published in arrangement withGRIST Media)

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First Published: Jul 12, 2017 13:07 IST