New Delhi: Even as 'Super 30', his biopic on Bihar-based mathematician Anand Kumar readies for release this Friday, actor Hrithik Roshan has already courted criticism for what seems to be yet another Bollywood example of racism and cultural stereotype. Roshan appears in the trailer with darkened skin and a thick accent, the latter similar to Hindi cinema’s other Bihari characters, Arjun Kapoor in romantic drama 'Half Girlfriend' and Alia Bhatt in black comedy crime film 'Udta Punjab'.
Bollywood is all set to offer other films set in distinct cultural milieus—Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar will play Uttar Pradesh-based sharpshooters in director Tushar Hiranandani’s 'Saand Ki Aankh' while there are reports of a biopic on Phoolan Devi. But the challenges of cultural stereotyping persist.
“It’s always tricky to strike a balance in mainstream cinema, bring out cultural flavor but not too much of it so that it is able to reach maximum number of audiences," said film critic Baradwaj Rangan. He added that Hindi cinema generally tends to use the piecemeal approach where if say, Aishwarya Rai plays a Bengali in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 'Devdas', she would at most throw in a few words here and there. And it’s not just Bollywood that has learnt to compromise, Tamil cinema thrives on caricatures and in a lot of Hollywood war films, German characters are shown speaking English with a German accent which would definitely not be the case in real life. If there is an attempt to be too realistic, the film often ends up alienating a large number of audiences like Abhishek Chaubey’s 'Sonchiriya', a dacoit drama released earlier this year that was set in the ravines of Chambal and had characters speaking in the local dialect and supplementing the same with subtitles.
Writer duo Siddharth Singh and Garima Wahal who have worked on films like 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha' and 'Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela' said the challenge with such films is to bring cultural nuances most audiences are not familiar with into the larger cinematic format. Most people have a certain idea of the spoken dialect and prevalent practices in specific geographical regions, it is the film’s responsibility to then sound fresh to them.
“The problem today is after a film is written, filmmakers hire dialogue coaches for their actors who are otherwise completely disconnected from the writing process and have their own ideas of how characters can sound authentic. A lot then gets lost in translation," Singh said. To prevent the exaggerated portrayal, Singh and Wahal try and remain present on sets to ensure the vibe, in their own words, isn’t ‘fake desi.’
In the recent past, they feel Aamir Khan’s 'Dangal' and romantic comedy 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha' got the cultural nuances right without going over-the-top. The duo is next directing a film set in Gujarat which they have spent two years researching on.
To be sure though, any kind of cultural nuance is welcome.
“Realism is just one style of filmmaking, not a yardstick," Rangan pointed out. “And this (distinct cultural milieus) are a great balancing act because they add colour to protagonists who would otherwise all just be generic Punjabis."