Saturday, January 16, 2010

Diversity Bollywood-style

Trying to play catch-up with Bollywood, I watched 3 Idiots and Rocket Singh: Saleman of the Year back to back this week. And what struck me was that the narrator of 3 Idiots, played by Madhavan, was Muslim and the hero of Rocket Singh, played by Ranbeer Singh, was Sikh. And they were Muslim and Sikh for no reason other than they just were. I loved that.

Usually, Bollywood films will introduce a Muslim character to overtly and particularly refer to his or her Muslimness and use the fact to preach tolerance, secularism, partriotism etc etc – think Rang De Basanti, Heroes, Fanaa, Chak De! India.

As for Sikhs, they simply don’t exist except for ridiculous comic effect (anyone remembers that gawdawful Dil Bole Hadippa). Even in Rang De Basanti, the director gives Aamir Khan a Sikh name, family and son but not the turban and beard that would seal the fact that he is Sikh. It is simply not sexy to have a Sikh hero.

But in 3 Idiots, Madhavan is Muslim for no other reason than that surely there are Muslims studying in Indian engineering colleges. He dresses, acts, speaks, eats and behaves like his two other roommates. Sure, his parents put Kajal in their eyes and wear Salwar Kameez, but again their Muslimness has no bearing on the plot. The director even gives him a particularly devout Hindu roommate, played by Sharman Joshi. But Madhavan's Muslimness and Johsi's devout Hinduness is never a point of confrontation. Both facts exist simultaneously without any friction – as they do between me and my many Muslim friends.

Rocket Singh goes a step further by introducing us to a Sikh hero. Again, his Sikhness has no material bearing on the plot. He just as soon could have been a Christian, Hindu or Muslim. All of the three religions have the same moral code against corruption and greed that guide him through the film. His beard and turban is neither a subject of comic relief nor of any other particular interest. He has a girlfriend of ambiguous religious antecedents though we can be sure that she is not Sikh. The film tells us that a Sikh can be attractive, intelligent and the hero of a film without actually referring to Rocket Singh’s Sikhness at all.

Now, I am waiting to see the first Malayalam Christian hero of a Hindi film answering to the name of Jacob Kochumman.

After watching Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, Sid wants to know if Aamir Khan has got some special axe to grind with the Indian education system.

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