21 August, 2008

Triumph of the Caricature – Is Singh King?

The Incident:
The nuke deal was signed in one of the most shameful sessions of the Indian parliament. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had orchestrated one of the canniest of victories dispelling all doubts of his surviving a battle of real- politic. Watching this on TV, the PM could make no speech in the house in the melee; the man touted by his rivals as a puppet and a caricature had triumphed.

We saw his smiling face and heard the background music. Singh is King…Singh is King…Singh is King. This was the title song in a film to be released soon and the distributors rubbed their hands in glee at the unexpected bonus of publicity. We did see the film where the hero is one character by the name of Happy Singh, needless to say a Sikh.

The Question:
Is this coincidence or is this a distinct paradigm shift? Are truly the caricatures from the sidelines taking and demanding their space in the mainstream upfront?

The Search
“Art mirrors Society and Society mirrors Art”. I went down my memory lane to explore this question further through Hindi Cinema.
How many mainstream Hindi movies do you remember since Dadasaheb Phalke made “Raja Harishchandra” that had a Sikh as the leading man? Now what’s wrong with that would one ask? Nothing, but it had not happened yet. Sunny Deol did wear a turban in “Gadar” a huge runaway hit. Here the background storyline on partition had Indian and Pakistani jingoism in an overdose, that the leading man was a Sikh did not register at all. This new movie of Akshay Kumar has nothing to claim on any front ( No plot, no story, nothing) but that everyone here who is someone,is in a turban and all are Singh’s, the indomitable lions.

Before sound in Cinema, the caricatures were physical in their oddities. The fat man, The huge evil man, The big bully and the bumbling simpleton who gets the better of him every time to win his lady love ; Immortalized on screen by Charley Chaplin.

Sound came to Indian Cinema in 1931 with “Alam Ara”. From then and till the mid-1950’s all we saw were mythological, historical or adventure films. Music had become integral with cinema and songs occupied nearly as much space as the plot thus doubling the length of a feature film from its silent counterpart. As technology improved,the plots became crisper, light and sound sharper and the look of the package i mproved. More serious subjects in the plotlines demanded comic relief to keep the viewer engaged and the first caricature character was created.
They would hover around the fringes of the main plot, step in for their lines in a filler moment and retire back to the fringes. Let’s look at some of them.

Sample this
The Marwari Baniya / Munim
: Kanjoos marwari. He was born out of the poverty stricken era post independence that hoarded food grains and pinched his pennies. Look at the roles played by the actor Kanhaiyya Lal or Jeevan and his ilk in the fifties. These actors were mainstream performers but the character caricatures lived on.
The Pathan: He was a throwback till the Independence era and all he did was shout Oye Barkhodaar and Saab andar nahi hai from the gates of a palatial mansion. The exceptions were Balraj Sahani in Kabuliwallah and much later Pran in Zanjeer lent some credence to this caricature.
The Baawaji: The Parsi Bawa is Bombay or Mumbai’s unique addition to the caricatural filmography. They would have exaggerated accents scream Aeyyy Deekra, Bol ni and drive vintage cars, slip on banana peels. The Baawaji finally climaxed on the billboards in the advertisements for Sagar butter, simply the tastiest butter.
The Gujarati: Again all roles were those of grocers, and fringe businessmen. The caricature more than the man was the wife who would have her sari draped the other way as is the wont and would be the next door neighbour who would drop in to borrow a cup of milk or sugar and make eyes at the hero.
Ghaati/ Maharashtrian : He would wear the dhoti and mumble a "kasa kai bara hai I am Mumbai" type of dialogue and vanish into the woodwork. Typical roles would be of the cook or the maidservant.
Christian: Would be either a priest if a man or any female who wore a frock or a dress while the rest of the world wore a sari. Roles would be typical, secretary or moll either a Jenny or a Mona Darling.
The Madraasi: Aiyayyo..They would wear starched white lungis and smear their foreheads with white chalk and speak their Hindi dialogue with u guessed it Aiyayyo again.

Hindi movies were made by filmmakers who were Punjabi’s, Muslims or Bengalis hence you would have Muslim socials or films with a distinct Bengali ethos. So the hero would naturally be a Bengali or a Muslim. The Kapoor’s when they acted or made films largely did not have surnames as Raj was Raju.. And the bigger than life villain/father/father-in-law of the bride was just a Rai Bahadur/ Thakur title. When the Chopra’s made films all the heroes were a Vijay or a Raj with a Singh/ Malhotra /Chopra/ Khanna /Kapoor as a suffix. Here the caricatures as support characters had a regional bias to keep up with the spirit of National Integration. Guys like Manoj Kumar took it to the other extreme with his villains too being Hindu, Muslim or Christian

Cinema of recent times and exceptions:

For a couple of years now you could sense the mood was Gujarati and the NRI.
On TV the hit shows are “Baa Bahu Baby” or “Jassubhai Joshi ki joint family” both having a Gujju milieu. Unconvincing though the performance was "Kal Ho Na Ho’s" hero, the one who gets the girl, is a Gujju boy.Shahrukhs umpteen Raj Malhotras were feeding the NRI's image of an Indian world citizen.

Back in 1988, Naseeruddin Shah had played a Parsee in “Pestonjee” but it was not mainstream cinema then and suddenly we have a Saif Ali Khan playing the lead as a bawa (albeit a bawa of today) in “Being Cyrus”. Being Cyrus, is a dark film, on the other hand the Naserruddin Shah -Sarika starrer "Parzania" is starkly chilling in its recount. The best movie with a Parsi milieu has been Khatta Meetha and it is still a success on the DVD circuit a clean heartwarming family film .

A Mumbai Mac or Pau wala or a Christian too has not been seen as a leading man. The best example was Amol Palekar who played Tony Braganza in the 1979 film “Baton Baton Mein” by Basu Chatterji. But this was simply a one off case. The going was always going to be tough with the typical Anglo-Indian aunty character who said “kya man tumko kya maangta?” Ala Nadira in Julie, and Amitabh Bacchan with his Anthony Gonsalves pushed the absurdity levels over the top. Little wonder then “Albert Pinto ko gussaa kyon aata hai?”

Cinema of the recent times doesn’t make fun of characters with a regional bias as is exemplified by the Gen-next flick “ Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na” . Here kids are kids with different community backgrounds sharing equal screen space and time as with main ones.

Coming back to the movie that began this monologue, Singh is King, is this now a new rule or like the ones above just an exception, taken advantage of, for its shock value? I am sure Sikh youth are romantic or amorous as ever in Punjab and Punjabi cinema but one actually dancing and getting a Katrina Kaif? “Balley Balley” till I see more it’s difficult to foresee this as a trend. Whatever the market wants the market gets. However is the world ready for a US President who is a lady or a candidate of African American lineage or Hindi cinema for more heroes who are Sikhs/Parsis/Christians/Maharshtrians remains to be seen? For every 10 Vijays or Raj's ( thats still better than Bunty's and Pinkys of the past ) we may have fewer of a Kartar/Hormus/Jacob/Ramakant but the trickle has begun...

This movie is successful,but is Singh King? In one word ..YES..the side kick , the caricature of the past is emerging out of the shadows ..triumphantly into the mainstream in a leading role.


Gauri said...

Well written. Frankly, I have never looked at movies from this angle. This monologue surely opens a new way of watching films for me.
What does strike me is the maturity in recent cinema. The movement from the formula to simple story-telling. It is experimental and yet not boring like some so-called art cinema! This I see in Marathi screen as well as Hindi. The change has been wel-comed by cinegoers in metros and towns both. This means, One thing is sure that audience has been and will be the king!

jubin said...

dude, nice thesis, though it is only a partial telling of the facts.

dharmendra work a sikh turban in jeevan mrityu, (though that was a 'disguise')

kunal kapoor played a sikh in vijeta (1982). his love interest, suproya pathak plays a mac 'anna verghese'

amol palekar is a ghat in 'damaad' and an engineer no less

that should take care of leading roles.

in terms of caricatures, ramesh deo plays a ghat doctor in anand.

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Yup Jubin, Its partial telling certainly..and can count on u always to fill in the gaps.

But look at these instances so few and so far in between, gems of performances but steam rolled under the juggernaut of mainstream ..

Vish said...

enjoyed reading it!

agree with u.. it sure is a sign of times.. coming of age of mankind where an able and deserving person, irrespective of religion or gender can be a hero or a leader. But there is a long way to go... we still have riots based on religion and women do face the glass ceiling...

hope floats :)

PS - send it to TOI ;)

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thanks Vish..

Hope..is my favourite 4 letter word but definitely not the most used one.
Now looking at the US elections , a fair amount of posturing has been going for a long time..its now the acid test of the American electorate whether they have an American of Mixed colour for Prez or a lady for VP..

Suhas said...

While I did not enjoy the movie, your analysis is thought provoking. The search for a new hit formula is being conducted by an all new set of directors and story writers. Today's movies also reflect the current social mix where accepting a hero who is not your typical 'Raj Malhotra' is possible.