The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Becoming More Catholic

Minority communities have always served a token purpose in Hindi films. 'Rahim Chacha' or 'John Uncle' have served the same purpose in our films as the cleverly calculated vote banks of the politicians. Though the Muslim community did get a more mainstream treatment, particularly in the genre known as the Muslim Social, the Christian community remained largely marginalised.

Though there were several eminently memorable Christian characters in the films gone by, for instance, Lalita Pawar's Mrs D'Sa in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anari and, of course, Amitabh Bachchan's Anthony in Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony. But these stabs at secularism didn't really translate into genuine insights into the psyche and workings of a community'until Aparna Sen's 36 Chowringhee Lane focused on the desolation of a Christian spinster.

The film's authentic detailing of Jennifer Kapoor's character's inner and outer lives served to mirror the entire community's ethos with unparalleled integrity. Bengali filmmaker Anjan Dutt attempted to probe the community in Bada Din (where Shabana Azmi played a cantankerous Christian landlady) but with limited success. Sen's film apart there have been very few successful attempts to look at the Christian community with anything more than a tokenist's curiosity. Hiren Nag's Akhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se and Bharathi Raja's Lovers tried to pin down a Hindu-Christian romance into a formulistic pattern.

Now one notices a sudden resurgence of the Catholic-Christian community in Hindi films. Time it was when fullfledged films on their lives was sporadic ' Hiren Nag's Akhiyon Ke Jharokon Se and Shyam Benegal's Trikaal were two films in the past which were set in the Christian community.

Now in quick succession we have Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black and Vinod Pande's Sins set entirely on Christian characters. In debutant director Sanjay F. Gupta's stylishly assembled Karam, John Abraham's character, John, is again a Catholic, although indulging in extremely un-Christian activities.

Debutant director Shashi Kumar's neglected Kaya Taran was also set in a convent and depicted a crisis in the lives of the nuns played by Seema Biswas and others. Another new release, Socha Na Tha, is partly located in the Catholic home. Debutante Apoorva Jha who plays Abhay Deol's fiancee is Karen. And much of the humour stems from the Hindu hero mock-warning his Catholic girlfriend's parents about the pitfalls of cultural and religious conversion.

Like the heroine's grandfather in Raj Kapoor's Bobby 30 years ago, the girl's father in Socha Na Tha spends most of his time drinking. The minority stereotypes do not cut into the fact that films and filmmakers are looking at setting their films again on the Christian community.

Bhansali who pegged two of his films, his debut-making venture Khamoshi: The Musical and now Black, on a Christian backdrop, feels the ambience afforded by such a setting renders itself effectively to cinema. 'The church, the organ music, candles and candle-lit interiors, the whole discipline and etiquette of the Christian community, makes for very aesthetic cinema,' says Bhansali. Is that why so many debutant directors ' from Aparna Sen to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, from Imtiaz Ali to Sanjay F. Gupta ' have pitched their films in the church'


Multi cultures

India is an abode of diversity. Different communities having their distinct style ' of communication, costume, dialect ' have been used in Hindi films to add spice to characters. Be it Christians, Muslims, Parsis or be they the Sikhs, the Bengalis or the South Indians, they have all found prominence in Hindi films. Some are the butt of jokes, some the villain and some the heroes. A look at some of the better known examples.

The christians

The most celebrated film at the moment, Black, shows a christian family. But earlier lots of 'loose', 'immoral' female characters would be Christians. Vamps were shown wearing a cross, they were seen as barmaids or cabaret dancers. Helen, Faryal, Kalpana Iyer, Bindu who played negative roles most often had Christian names. There were the Mona darlings, Rosy or Lily in the movies. Robert and Peter were the righthand men of the bad men. There have been protests in the 70s, too, from the Anglo-Indian Christian community when the film, Julie, was released. The leading lady, a Christian protagonist, succumbed to sex before marriage and the community felt hurt by such projection. A few weeks back there were similar protests from the community when a priest was shown losing his pledge of celibacy in a film called Sins. With changing time, however, the heroines themselves double as the oomph factor thus replacing these 'girls'. But then we have central characters like Amitabh's in Amar Akbar Anthony, or Dimple in Bobby which were very positive and popular.

The Muslims

Earlier, Muslims were presented onscreen mostly wearing sherwanis and chewing paan, while the women dressed in heavy ghararas. They would do qawwalis while the men would portray a hakim, a poet or tailor. Muslim characters have been also painted in negative shades like the smugglers, the bhais, the underworld dons. Even the local rowdies are seen dressed in lungi and sleeveless banyans and involved in murder, rape and all sorts of anti-social activities. The most common thing of Bollywood is the characterisation of the nautch girls who often have Muslim names. With the political scenarios changing Hindi films saw their villains as Pakistanis. But that doesn't mean that there has never been great characters or heroes from the Muslim communities. The Pathan played by Balraj Sahni in the Bimal Roy classic, Kabuliwala, or A.K. Hangal playing the Muslim priest in Sholay or Pran, the ultimate in friendship in the film, Zanjeer, singing Yaari hai imaan mera yaar meri zindagi, are still remembered.

The Sikhs

The Sikhs are mostly treated with a slant. Mostly they are dim-brained or possess hyper-testosterone. One can imagine only a Sikh lunging forward with a war cry and most often shown as one protecting the country's borders and making the ultimate sacrifice. Or one may find them being projected as a truck driver. But with films like Gadar, Kal Ho Na Ho, Veer-Zaara or even Bride & Prejudice the community has become very popular. The way Bollywood looks at the Sikhs has changed. Bhangra has become very popular and these characters invariably bring with them their spirited song and dance. Actually the community owes its popularity mostly to the Johars and the Chopras.

The Parsis

Bollywood is rooted within the Parsi community. A lot has been done on them in past Bollywood. They are shown as absent-minded people having a peculiar accent while speaking Hindi and provide entertainment to the audience. In most movies one will notice them riding a vintage car with their sizeable family. There has been enjoyable films on this community like Basu Chatterji's Khatta Meetha. The film starts off with a tribute to the Parsi community on their influence and contributions to India over generations. Pestonjee that starred Naseerudin Shah, Anupam Kher and Shabana Azmi, gave an accurate glimpse into the Parsi community of Bombay in the 30s. In Deepa Mehta's, Earth 1947 is a story of partition as seen through the eyes of a Parsi girl, Maia Sethna.

The South Indians

The South Indians have almost always been the butt of jokes on the Bollywood screen. Their way of dressing, eating, talking, have all been ridiculed here. The characters are never toned down, they are almost always loud and slapstick. The trend began when Mehmood played a 'Madrasi' in the movie, Padosan, in the 60s. Another caricature of the character appeared recently in Nayee Padosan. The South Indians have also been shown as the deadly villains, though on rare occasions. One would also remember Mithun Chakraborty's depiction of Krishnan Iyer, MA the 'narial paaniwala' in Agneepath.

The Bengalis

As targets of jokes, even the Bengalis are not far behind. Their inability to pronounce Hindi words properly (or getting the gender wrong) have always been used to raise laughs in films. Invariably the fat-bellied servant who's lazy, loves eating and sleeps: one can recall Asit Sen in such roles. But since a lot of movies have been made from Bengali literature the Bengali characters have always been coming back. Most recently, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas upheld the Bengali zamindari culture at its most oppulent. In Anand, Rajesh Khanna's heartening call for his friend Amitabh as 'Babumoshoi' is still remembered.

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