How Bollywood is arrogantly ignorant of south India

How Bollywood is arrogantly ignorant of south India

‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar,’ now showing on Netflix, is clueless about many aspects of southern culture.

We are a country whose history is an endless crisscross of migrations. And yet, the biggest of our storytelling industries, one built on the energy of these multiple crossovers, simply sucketh and is never ‘sakkath’ when it comes to telling the story of North and South. This is a paradox that doesn’t go away.

There are exceptions each of us can think of, I’m sure, but that is my point. These films should not be exceptions. I’d love to hear what you think, dear reader. Meanwhile, let me run past you the two honourable exceptions I can think of.  

I loved ‘Padosan’ (1968) for many reasons, including Mehmood’s verve, but found myself wishing for more than the limited Carnatic-loving Madrasi caricature that was allowed to him. Where did he come from? What was he doing in that town? Answers to these questions might have left us with a vastly superior film.

The other film that kicks some ass in this department is the somewhat underrated ‘Aiyyaa’ (2012). Only rarely do Bollywood films build themselves around the idea of female desire and rapture, and that part ensures that the Prithviraj-Rani Mukerji pairing gallop and gambols in the most fun way.

I am not given to giggling usually, but alas, such ambushes laid me low through the watching. If Bollywood ever got a lungi right, leave alone a lungi dance, I have only seen it happen in this beautifully self-aware film. ‘Chennai Express’ (2013) and its Thalaivaa song is worth only a well-articulated arc of saliva for its laziness in looking at the North-South adventure.

It is this laziness which is the mystery we will have to endure from time to time.

I have survived Vivek Soni’s ‘Meenakshi Sundareshwar’, and existential questions such as why anybody living in Madurai would begin sentences in Tamil and trail off into Hindi as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sanya Malhotra wears a look of extraordinary avidity through the film, and it a mystery that is never solved, because nothing in her vicinity inspires such devotion, or indeed explains it. 

Maybe they filmed her while she was acting in some other film. And maybe I’m just jaundiced, and have forgotten to congratulate Bollywood collectively for its new map of India, for having moved its Tam-brahm fantasies and clueless Rajini references from Madras to Madurai.

The kindest thing I will say is that it produces a Madurai which is magically empty and suffused with a weird kind of light, as if somebody forgot the camera inside a giant coffee filter. It also has a Bengaluru which looks like the inside of the International Space Station. These are the film’s true achievements. Apart from producing yawns and guiltless sleep. No shame was felt when I fell asleep during my first two attempts at watching.

If you want to set a film in Madurai, and travel across a language/cultural gradient, you don’t have to look very hard for real-life inspirations. The city that never sleeps is home to multiple migrant communities that have put down roots and left their mark on local culture. The Saurashtra community is only the most obvious example. I can only wonder about the infernal blindness that ignores these acts of bridging to plump for an empty heritage homestay costume-drama.

Far more interesting things happen when non-Bollywood film-makers turn their eyes to North-South journeys.

The Bombay film, in Tamil cinema, never dodges hard questions for exotica. Even a director like Mani Ratham, who routinely deposits his brains and his politics in sploshy omelette form into his films manages to do one or two interesting things in ‘Nayakan’ (1987) and ‘Bombay’ (1995). Pa. Ranjith has a better film about migration, and one that doesn’t really need its superstar in ‘Kaala’ (2018).

Selvaraghavan, whose hit-or-miss genius should have been given better chances, locates North-South encounter in the heart of Chennai in his ‘7G Rainbow Colony’ (2004) and makes some interesting points about the way class and caste might come together as he sends his protagonists careening through each other’s lives. Rajeev Ravi’s Malayalam film ‘Kammatipaadam’ (2016) has only a few gritty minutes set in Mumbai, but is far more attentive to these moments, and their potential for hinting at issues that matter. Nagraj Manjule’s ‘Sairat’ (2016) has its runaways arrive in a Hyderabad shorn of cliches and stock images.

One could wonder about whether it is gutlessness or blind privilege that besets Bollywood film-makers when it comes to staring into similar ethnographic opportunities that present themselves at every street-corner in their city.

There is also perhaps an arrogance that comes from never having to actually be accountable to an audience when you make films in a language with an invented majority, and tacit official imprimaturs. Maybe all sense of hinterland is trouble in such a situation and must be erased because the alternative would mean revealing fractures and fissions. If this is indeed the reason, then we will have no relief whatsoever from political dodginess and Conjeevaram-centered cliches for a very long time indeed.

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