Home >mint-lounge >features >Lounge Opinion: Why Tamil is the new Punjabi—for now

Abhishek Varman’s debut movie 2 States, about the obstacle-laden union of a Punjabi man and a Tamilian woman, has drawn its share of flak and praise for attempting to offer a new perspective on the tried-and-tested formula of star-crossed lovers. 2 States has a together-forever couple that is cool enough to overcome their cultural differences, obdurate parents on both sides horrified at the potential pollution of their respective gene pools, and the usual misunderstandings and mutual insults. The adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s novel of the same name is like Ek Duuje Ke Liye, only (spoiler alert) with far lower stakes and minus the suicide by the sea. It ends well for Krish (Arjun Kapoor) and Ananya (Alia Bhatt), students at the elite Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad who are preparing to take their rightful spots in the globalizing economy. He will work at a private bank, she will sell shampoo, and the age-old and ageless opposition from their families will be resolved with the neatness and simplicity of a PowerPoint presentation.

A co-production between Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment Pvt. Ltd and Dharma Productions, 2 States opened on 18 April at over 2,350 screens in India and abroad. Distributor UTV Motion Pictures claimed an opening net box office of 38.06 crore.

Despite the easy-going chemistry between the lead pair, the everyday tone of the dialogue, and the buttoned-down melodrama, 2 States offers little more than a variation of a well-worn trope—swap Punjabi and Tamilian for rich and poor and the story stays the same. However, something else is at work here. The screenplay’s efforts to locate its characters within a recognizable social milieu, despite being superficial and ham-handed, signal Hindi cinema’s ongoing attempt to move from generics to specifics and from characters named Vijay No Surname to Krish Malhotra. Ananya is identified as a Tamil Brahmin Iyer, and while we never find out what Krish’s caste is (could he be a Khatri, for instance?), the character is clearly located in an upper-class south-central Delhi subset. Clichés abound in the representation of the families on both sides, but the movie skips the chance to stage a Punjabi wedding by opting for a simpler ceremony at a temple by the sea.

Populist representations of Punjabi culture are in no danger of disappearing, but the field is now broadening to include the rest of India. Film-makers seem to have been too much in thrall to a notion of Punjabi culture to bother with anything else, but the reasons are both cultural and economic. Several film-makers are of Punjabi stock, while the markets for such films extend beyond India to the lucrative overseas territories in North America and the UK. If we demand that film-makers must rummage in their backyards to tell their stories, then we can’t complain too much when they do precisely that, however nostalgic and rosy-eyed the picture appears. Only arthouse film-makers dare to challenge the fondly held stereotypes of Punjabi large-heartedness, affluence, good cheer and hedonism.

A dialogue exchange in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, one of the earliest films to celebrate wealthy Punjabi culture, sums it up perfectly. Why are Punjabis so ostentatious, asks an affronted Bengali woman after witnessing a typically uninhibited wedding ceremony. Why are Bengalis so pretentious, comes the reply.

Bengalis too have now been discovered as Bollywood seeks new horizons and markets. Like Republic Day parade floats, Hindi cinema is rolling out new backdrops against which to stage the latest entertainment spectacles. The ancient tribal folk dance chhau is now in vogue after being popularized by Barfi!. Chennai Express merrily and literally interprets the vague phrase “south Indian" by putting its telegenic stars against an eye-popping riot of masks, costumes and dance styles from all over the south. The Kolkata setting for Kahaani and Gunday provides the perfect excuse for further Bengali spectacles—the Durga festival, a Bengali wedding, ululating and starched cotton saris.

Hindi cinema’s well-established preponderance for geographical, racial and linguistic elasticity is a direct result of star power trumping authenticity and fidelity.

Some of these stagings are purely to provide a distraction from the staleness of the material. Bhatt’s dubious Tamil accent in 2 States can perhaps be explained away by the fact that her character has grown up all over India. A far better imitation of the real article is by the Bengali actor Konkona Sen Sharma in Mr and Mrs Iyer. Preity Zinta made her cinematic debut as a Malayali in Dil Se.., rattling off a sentence or two in Malayalam to silence naysayers. Madhuri Dixit-Nene’s unsuccessful rolling of her Mumbai tongue around the curlicues of Urdu in Dedh Ishqiya was clearly not a consideration during the casting. Priyanka Chopra has played a Marathi lass in Kaminey, and she will appear in a fictionalized biography of the Manipuri boxer M.C. Mary Kom. The complete lack of resemblance between Chopra, a Punjabi with international it-girl features, and Kom, is incidental, just as Farhan Akhtar didn’t quite breast the tape as a Sikh in his portrayal of Milkha Singh in the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Chopra’s movie is titled Mary Kom, but it is likely to be an adversity saga whose winning-against-the-odds narrative arc aims to be universal enough to eliminate criticism of the deliberate racial elision.

Hindi cinema’s thirst for surface diversity, partly a response to shifting sensibilities among film-makers and audiences, is only going to result in many more such films. A great deal is being made of the so-called “New Bollywood", a term that refers to anything that is not formulaic, and which includes the quirky mid-budget comedies and semi-realistic dramas that have been keeping step with action films and family entertainers in recent years. But this non-formulaic film itself is the new formula. A cursory look at the major releases in the past several months throws up a mixed bag. These include the global Hindi film, such as Dhoom: 3, Krrish 3 and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the rooted yet universal, such as Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Queen, and the formulaic old-new-old Main Tera Hero and 2 States. A common thread through these discrete films is star presence. All these films have actors with a quantifiable mass following that helps them sell the specific characters they are asked to play. It’s not about whether Akhtar is convincing enough, but about the sheer effort he has taken to appear to be convincing.

Popular Hindi cinema has rarely spun a good yarn by seeking performers who are cut from the same cloth as the social fabric on display. In this regard, the so-called New Bollywood isn’t too different. It isn’t trying to push the envelope by casting Marathi actors to play the role of Peshwa Baji Rao and his consort Mastani, or getting actual Goans to play jazz singers, or hunting for fresh talent from the North-Eastern states. The modest ambition seems to be that audiences will flock to the cinemas to watch their favourite stars go through the motions in new and different get-ups that keep costume artists and production designers fruitfully employed.

As Mumbai seeks to annex new markets and audiences as well as keep the loyalists engaged, we can expect all kinds of communities, languages and sub-cultures to surface on the screen. They won’t pass a verisimilitude test, will irritate the realists, and will eclipse or negate any attempts to depict authenticity. Some good is bound to come from this rediscovery of India, as forgotten and neglected groups find the most edible, exciting and exotic aspects of their lives being mined for entertainment. The Hindi masala movie as we know it has become stale, but its reflavouring might just push film-makers to challenge their own notions of what it means to be an individually multiple Indian. Hope is the best defence against homogeneity.

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