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Shah Rukh Khan, idlis and ‘the Northie gaze’

If producers and platforms want a pan-India audience, communities have the right to demand proper linguistic representation

(from left) Salman Khan, Ram Charan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan in Jamnagar
(from left) Salman Khan, Ram Charan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan in Jamnagar

The biggest Hindi film dance number this year wasn’t in a movie, but at a wedding—or, to be precise, a “Pre-Wedding” function. The massive all-star shindig for Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in the city of Jamnagar gave us many an Instagram-breaking moment, not least of which involved the three most iconic Bollywood superstars literally shaking a leg. Aamir, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan grooved together to RRR’s Oscar-winning song Naatu Naatu, and it was a treat to see these three men, pushing 60 yet undeniably—even bafflingly—charismatic.

Then clips emerged of Shah Rukh Khan calling out to RRR star Ram Charan Teja to join them on stage. “Ram Charan, kahan hai tu?”, Khan began, looking out for the actor amidst the audience, then saying a string of words, mostly in Tamil, which included the word “idli”. Ram Charan joined the dance but several people took offence to Khan’s tone-deaf jibes, including Ram Charan’s make-up artist Zeba Hassan Zaidi, who walked out of the function, labelling Khan’s words “disrespectful” on social media. What Khan said was nonsensical, in poor taste, and significantly ignorant—his words were mostly in Tamil, while Ram Charan is a Telugu superstar.

This typifies the Northie gaze, which, for far too long, has painted many a southern state with the same brush. Khan’s cringeworthy behaviour is noticed because of his stature, but several recent shows and films have been guilty of the same. We may credit this burst of multilingual entertainment on Raj & DK’s The Family Man (Amazon Prime), where the creators took their already popular show and made its second season largely in Tamil. The flavour was authentic, the performances rang true, and the series felt impressively rooted.

Most other filmmakers have not been paying such attention to detail. Richie Mehta’s otherwise well-reviewed Poacher (Amazon Prime) struck the wrong chord with viewers who speak Malayalam. Vivek Santhosh, entertainment journalist for The New Indian Express, gave me examples of what rankled the most. “In the fifth episode, there’s a sequence where an ex-ivory dealer is taken in for interrogation, and his wife and daughter follow them to the interrogation site at night,” Santhosh wrote to me. “As the wife and daughter plead with Nimisha Sajayan’s character for his release, they drop to their knees and start praying. Regardless of the faction of Christianity they may belong to, that behaviour felt alien. Also, the Malayalam lines spoken by the daughter and wife in that scene unintentionally carried a funny tone with its rendering that reminds you of those amateur school dramas. Something that potentially prompts laughter even among Malayalis raised outside Kerala. And this scene was intended to be a serious moment.”

The other issue is that of dialogue written in English/Hindi, and translated quite literally into a language the director/creator does not natively know. An early Poacher scene features a character “raving” about another character’s virility, which, according to Santhosh, “may have seemed fine on paper in English, but when translated into Malayalam, one can only cringe if you are familiar with the language.”

Similar problems abound in Abhishek Chaubey’s thriller Killer Soup (Netflix). A Chennai-based filmmaker, who prefers not to be named, sums up the linguistic trouble with that series: “It’s based on a true story from a different state where they speak Telugu, not Tamil. But (the creator has) just gone for Tamil to represent all of the south: the main characters, the Shettys, are from Karnataka, the story is from Telangana, actors are from Mumbai and Kerala, and all of them are speaking [as if] they are in a Thiagarajan Kumararaja film.”

One of Killer Soup’s big gaffes is the character Arvind Shetty, played by Sayaji Shinde with a thick Maharashtrian accent and typically Mumbai “tapori” lingo. According to the filmmaker, the first time Sayaji Shinde speaks to the Manoj Bajpayee doppelgänger, who himself speaks Tamil very awkwardly, “Sayaji Shinde threatens him in Tamil after starting the sentence with a Malayalam word.”

We have all been there, of course. As a Bengali, it pained me every time Alia Bhatt, playing a Bengali woman, spoke the language in Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani (Amazon Prime). I admire Bhatt as a performer, and, thanks to Ranveer Singh, even enjoyed the film, but the wincing was significant. Bhatt, and even the great Shabana Azmi, were made to speak caricatured and overdone Bangla. Bengali actors Tota Roy Chowdhury and Churni Ganguly were far more natural as Bhatt’s parents. Now I understand the need for exaggeration in a film based on cultural extremes, but couldn’t this be done accurately? Like in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku? Heaven knows Bengalis are cartoonish enough to begin with.

Just because stereotyping has always existed does not mean we can’t outgrow it. I remember the film Ra One where Shah Rukh Khan, playing a Tamilian, ate noodles with curd. The bar now should rightly be higher, and we shouldn’t be okay with shows and films trying to get away without making an effort. If producers and platforms want a pan-India audience, communities have the right to demand proper representation, as opposed to linguistic guest-appearances merely adding flavour to Hindi productions. Times have changed, and to quote that great Channel V stereotype Quick Gun Murugan, Shah Rukh Khan and Bollywood had better… “Mind it.”

lso read: Where God Began review: A tale of everybody’s loneliness

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