Balle Balle, Bhangra and deshbhakti: why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Positive stereotyping ends up otherising the community, whereas what a deeply divided India desperately needs is the representation of minorities as regular people, “one of us”.

Anna MM Vetticad December 22, 2020 16:05:56 IST
Balle Balle, Bhangra and deshbhakti: why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Akshay Kumar in Kesari

As a child growing up in Delhi, I remember not viewing Sikhism as a faith separate from Hinduism and vaguely assuming it was a sect of India’s majority religion. Until the 1984 riots, that is. That was when a close friend told me how a Hindu neighbour – thankfully, only one – called aside some boys in our locality and in hushed tones told them to keep their bats and hockey sticks ready for any eventuality “kyunki inn Sikhon ka koi bharosa nahin” (these Sikhs cannot be trusted). 

Uncle K’s ominous warning notwithstanding, the Hindus and Sikhs of our street in our residential area stayed calm. And in the rest of the city, it was “these Sikhs” who were slaughtered, raped and their property plundered. Back in school just days later, I was startled that a classmate – again, thankfully, only one – argued with me about the pogrom, saying, “Unke saath yahin hona chahiye” (they deserve it). This was a different Delhi from the home I had known till then where non-Sikh parents would tell their children, “If you are ever in trouble, try to find a Sardarji – he will definitely help you” and “Sardar jokes” abounded the rest of the time.  

My pre-teen self in 1984 struggled to understand how the dominant mood could shift so dramatically from celebrating the Sardarji as a Good Samaritan or making him the butt of silly jokes to distrusting and ultimately massacring “these Sikhs”. 

Thirty-six years later, in 2020 in north India, public commentary on the community still seems to switch between extremes: lampooning, deep affection or deification on the one hand versus animosity. On social media, it is now customary to sing hosannas to Sikh generosity, charitable works and the spirit of the langar tradition. Bollywood – an entertainment staple for audiences in this part of the country – has also for decades earned a great public response to films that indulgently stereotyped Sikhs either as fiercely brave patriots or as eternally cheerful creatures, garrulous, boisterous often to the point of being cartoonish, a community brimming with joie de vivre

Yet, since farmers began congregating in the National Capital Region in end-November to protest against the new farm laws introduced by the Central government, and as Punjabi Sikhs have become the most visible face of the ongoing agitation, social networking platforms have exploded with government-supporting trolls describing the protesting farmers as “Khalistanis”, “terrorists” and so on.  

Click here for LIVE updates of the farmers' protest.

The link between this abuse and Bollywood’s favourable stereotypes of Sikhs may seem inexplicable to some. Not everyone considers a stereotype a stereotype unless it is outrightly nasty. Over the years when I have used the term “positive stereotyping” while writing or speaking on public platforms, readers and listeners have often responded with confusion. “Positive”, after all is…positive. Yet a close examination of the positive stereotyping of two communities – Sikhs and at one time, Muslims – by post-Independence Bollywood is crucial to an understanding of collective social reactions to the Sikh community in north India and minorities at large.  

First, for the record, I am counting the comical Sikh as a positive stereotype because these portrayals, cringe-worthy though they often are, are presented without overt malice. 

Second, Sikh characters have not so far been the norm in Bollywood stories and Sikh protagonists are not common at all. Scripts that have featured the community have tended to divide Sikhs into two distinct groups. Category 1 consists of valiant deshbhakts – mostly male – who will give their lives for national pride and boldly go where most Indians fear to tread. Sunny Deol in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), for one, went so far as to uproot a handpump in Pakistan and wield it against a horde of Pakistanis, security personnel among them, when asked to shout “Hindustan murdabad” – the mob froze at the sight of this intrepid lone Sikh. Later in the narrative, a mere roar from him in a forest in the night-time was enough to send an entire Pakistani police force scurrying away in fright. 

Balle Balle Bhangra and deshbhakti why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Sunny Deol in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha

Category 2 consists of the comedic Sikh with a penchant for yelping “Balle Balle” and dancing Bhangra at the drop of a hat, the joyous, energetic, kind-hearted, usually rustic character who shares all these qualities with the Bollywood stereotype of the Punjabi community as a whole. 

Audiences have routinely rewarded Category 2 films such as the raucous Ajay Devgn-starrer Son of Sardaar (2012) and December 2019’s Good Newwz with massive collections. Viewers who are not inclined towards such films tend to consider them formulaic and silly but harmless. The more over-the-top clichés in the Bollywood representation of Sikhs – the signature frivolity and loudness – have been criticised by some sections of the Sikh community and professional critics. The repeated representation of Sikhs as patriotic bravehearts has, however, mostly passed muster with critics and the community. 

Balle Balle Bhangra and deshbhakti why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Ajay Devgn in Son of Sardaar

The latter point merits particular focus. 

The positive stereotyping of minority and marginalised communities should always cause unease among commentators because of what these stereotypes leave unsaid. No community is homogeneous, therefore no community can possibly be uniformly light-hearted or courageous. So when Bollywood slots almost every Sikh character in almost every script as either funny or gutsy or both, it fails to do what it does for the majority community – it fails to normalise Indian Sikhs. 

Advocates for minority representation in films tend to object to a villainisation of minorities or condescension – the evil Muslim, the black who is shone the right path by a gentle white person, and so on. Objections are hardly, if at all, raised, at least in India, when positive qualities and superior virtue are constantly attributed to persons from minority groups. The goal though must be a 360-degree take on any community when films featuring individuals from the community are collectively assessed – this can happen only when scripts incorporate characters ranging across the rainbow spectrum of humankind, from good to bad, evil to righteous and ordinary in between, from lead roles to significant supporting roles and random bit parts. Anything else shows that the community is viewed through a “them”-versus-“us” lens, indicating social segregation in the minds of filmmakers and society at large even if, in real life, that segregation is not evident (as is the case with Sikhs) in our neighbourhoods and housing complexes.  

I have discussed this subject at various forums in the past decade, and would like to reproduce here a part of my review of the 2019 Bollywood film Kesari

The positive stereotyping of marginalised and minority communities tends to lull liberals and members of those communities into complacence, but needs to be viewed with concern for what it is: a sugar-coated form of othering, a manifestation of the filmmaker’s inability to see that community as “one of us” or, at worst, a mask for prejudice. If you find your heart warming up to the routine pedestalising of Sikhs in Hindi films, remember that pre-2000 Hindi cinema was marked by a positive stereotyping of Muslims, with the golden-hearted, all-sacrificing Muslim being a regular in stories back then. What did that trope seek to hide?

Blanket statements and blanket characterisations of communities in films should always give us pause.

If you still do not see why we should be bothered by the near-relentless portrayal of Sikhs as either jovial or fearless and almost never anything else in Hindi films – with rare exceptions like Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009) – remember Abdul Chacha.

No seriously, remember him? Abdul Chacha was the saintly old Muslim gentleman played by Manmohan Krishna in Yash Chopra’s pathbreaking 1959 Hindi film Dhool Ka Phool who found an abandoned baby in a forest and brought him up as his own, defying an intrusive society across all divides that demanded to know the child’s religious and caste identity before giving his actions their sanction. “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega / Insaan ki aulaad hai / insaan banega,” he sang to the infant. (You will become neither a Hindu nor a Muslim. You are the child of a human being, and you will become a human.)

Abdul Chacha occupied centre stage in an era in which Muslims in Hindi films tended to be the flawless fakir, the selfless tawaif, the shayar, the elegant nawab or the loyal friend, while the villains of Bollywood scripts were often quasi-foreign, hyper-Westernised Indian Christians. When the good Bollywood Muslim in those days was not Abdul Chacha of Dhool Ka Phool, he was the angelic Rahim Chacha (AK Hangal) of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), she was Fatima (Nirupa Roy) taking in an orphaned child or the courtesan Zohra (Rekha) willing to die for the boy when he grows up to be the hero (Amitabh Bachchan) in Prakash Mehra’s Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). Through these portrayals, Bollywood sought to heal the wounds left in the wake of Hindu-Muslim violence during Partition. 

The intention of this column is not to question the motivations of the makers of these classics. Some were written by Muslims themselves – Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar wrote Sholay, Kader Khan co-wrote Muqaddar Ka Sikandar – while Yash Chopra who directed Dhool Ka Phool was nostalgic about his childhood and early youth spent in Lahore that now lies in Pakistan. Besides, a particular portrayal does not become a stereotype unless a large number of people adopt it. The fact that Bollywood as a whole embraced and adopted positive Muslim stereotypes in those decades speaks volumes. From that same industry has emerged a steady trickle of in-your-face, unapologetically hate-filled portrayals of Muslims in post-2014 Modi’s India, which suggests that many in that earlier era were either over-compensating for their innate, carefully camouflaged prejudice or were, quite simply, opportunists latching on to a formula that had yielded box-office dividends for other filmmakers in Jawaharlal Nehru’s India where the overriding establishment narrative was not anti-Muslim and emphasised reconciliation rather than divisiveness. Nothing else explains the change since 2014. 

That said, even if a positive stereotype is authored by a member of a minority group being stereotyped or by an individual with a fondness for that social group, the fact remains that it still ends up exoticising the community. As an expert or a member of a marginalised community you make it harder for yourself to condemn a negative stereotype if you once happily embraced a positive one. 

A detailed analysis of Muslim portrayals by pre-2000 Bollywood, including a genre described as “Muslim socials”, and the rampant negative stereotyping of Christians in that time requires a separate essay. Suffice it to say that liberals, even Muslim liberals, tend to lament the disappearance of this positive Muslim stereotype. Yet when pre-2000 filmmakers romanticised the community, it too was a type of othering that should have rung a warning bell to observers for what might emerge from Hindi filmmakers if the establishment were ever to be taken over by Islamophobic forces. 

This is why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs in Hindi cinema for decades should be watched with trepidation because it ends up otherising the community, whereas what a deeply divided India desperately needs is the representation of minorities as regular people, “one of us”. 

It is worth noting that some of these portrayals of Sikhs have come at the expense of India’s beleaguered Muslim minority. Anil Sharma’s Gadar, for one, ranged Tara Singh (played by Sunny Deol) against Pakistan, a nation whose existence has been used to taunt India’s Muslims since 1947. Cringeworthy lines about Pakistanis uttered by character after character in the film were written such that they could well have been directed at Indian Muslims. At one point, Tara Singh’s Pakistani Muslim father-in-law, who is trying to separate his daughter from her Indian Sikh husband, tells a senior Pakistani official after the notorious handpump scene: Humey kya maloom thha, Sarfaraz, ki tumhare 200 Soormey uss Jatt ke saamne hijre bann jayenge?” (A literal translation is impossible, but roughly: how could I have known, Sarfaraz, that your 200 Muslims would turn into eunuchs in front of that Sikh?)

Anurag Singh’s Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari last year went so far as to distort and falsify history in a bid to present a band of plucky Sikhs as freedom fighters and demonise their Muslim opponents in pre-Independence India, when in truth, in the real-life episode of history on which the film was based, the Sikhs – heroic though they were – were part of the British Army fighting against Pathans who were opposing the British. The exploits of the British Indian Army’s 36th Sikh regiment at the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897 were almost superhuman: according to historians’ accounts, 21 Sikh soldiers withstood 10,000 Pathans for several hours, inflicting considerable damage on their adversaries in a memorable last stand. This astonishing reality was apparently not sufficient for Singh who sought to further lionise his Sikh characters and pander to prevailing Islamophobia in India with untruths.

Balle Balle Bhangra and deshbhakti why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Akshay Kumar in Kesari

The labelling of Sikh farmers as “terrorists” in the public discourse and the allegations of the protests’ Khalistan links in the media discourse have come in the year of Good Newwz in which Punjabi superstar and occasional Bollywood actor Diljit Dosanjh co-starred with Kiara Advani as a voluble, buffoonish Sikh couple, Honey and Moni Batra, from Punjab who wear shiny technicolour outfits while his visiting card bears a photo of him in Bhangra-ready pose. The two clash with a sophisticated non-Sikh Punjabi couple from Mumbai played by Kareena Kapoor Khan and Akshay Kumar. Good Newwz released on 27 December, 2019, and ran for several weeks in theatres.

The turbaned Sikh actor is a regular in Punjabi cinema, but Bollywood films have so far had Sikh characters being played either by non-Sikh actors or Sikhs who have given up the traditional turban in their personal lives. As a turban-wearing Sikh both on and off screen, Dosanjh is therefore a rarity on the Hindi screen, and his fledgling success in Bollywood is a new frontier crossed in minority representation in Hindi cinema (notwithstanding the triteness of Good Newwz or its icky gender politics). 

Balle Balle Bhangra and deshbhakti why the positive stereotyping of Sikhs by Bollywood should bother us

Diljit Dosanjh in Good Newwz

Just 11 months later, Dosanjh is under online attack for backing the farmers’ protests. For proof that Bollywood’s portrayal of Sikhs has more to do with commerce than affection, note the silence of most industry bigwigs while Sikhs are being slandered, the most deafening silence being from Akshay Kumar whose career owes much to Sikh characters he has played, especially the excitable Happy Singh in Singh Is Kinng (2008) who catapulted him from stardom to superstardom. 

It took just 10 years for Bollywood to journey from Kabir Khan’s sensitive handling of New York (2009), the story of three south Asian origin friends (played by John Abraham, Katrina Kaif and Neil Nitin Mukesh) in the aftermath of 9/11 to Nikkhil Advani’s Batla House (2019) in which Abraham plays a Hindu policemen in Delhi who refers to India’s Muslims as “inki qaum” (their community) in court and whose nightmare consists of being swamped by a mass of men in skullcaps. The Abdul Chachas and Zohrabais of pre-2000 Bollywood have now given way to the ravenous rapist Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018), the one-sided depiction of the Partition in Kalank (2019), the marauding Muslim mobs of Kesari, Batla House and the far more insidious, cleverly disguised Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior earlier this year. 

The Sikh community is not as politically and financially vulnerable as Muslims are in India today, which is why Bollywood would hesitate to transpose the current off-screen vilification of the community to the screen, but given this film industry’s track record of opportunism, there is no guarantee that that will not happen in the near future. Either way, this is a good time to confront India’s most prominent film industry with the question of why it by and large avoids writing Sikh characters who are unlike the happy-go-lucky Happy Singh, Kesari’s Havildar Ishar Singh whose demeanour is best described by the song 'Ajj Singh Garjega' (Today Singh will roar), or Honey and Moni Batra wearing velvet exercise attire and carrying a gem-studded music player to their gym. Sikhs, after all, are people too. 

As I write this, I am reminded of a luncheon I attended earlier this decade where a certain major Bollywood star arranged to meet a bunch of Delhi journalists. It was a private affair so I will not name him or my colleagues present. The actor grinned when asked why Sikhs are stereotyped so inexorably by his film industry and his own films. “This is not stereotyping,” he insisted. “If you spend time with a lot of Sikh people you will see that this is how they are.” Then looking around he threw us a challenge: “Please tell me if you can name one famous Sikh who is a quiet person,” he said. Without batting an eyelid, one of our group piped up: “Manmohan Singh?” Our celebrity host was gracious enough to join in as we all dissolved into laughter. Oh yes, Manmohan Singh is a Sikh. You would not guess this as a foreigner watching Bollywood films, but quiet people can be Sikhs too. 

(Also read: Behind Punjabi stars' vocal support of farmer's protests, a film and music culture that celebrates agrararian way of life)

All images from Twitter.

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