Gold: Akshay Kumar's Tapan Das is a recent case of Bollywood's unabated stereotyping of Bengalis
A common reality that one has to accept as an Assamese living outside the state is the assumption that one is actually, Bengali. When it comes from salesmen or vegetable vendors, the inclination is to ignore; but the same reaction from literate, urbane professionals and social acquaintances can get a bit daunting. As restaurants and food videos become a nation’s new evolving fascination, a new set of clichés emerges around Assam and the North East in general: bamboo shoot and pork. Never mind that there is a lot more to eat, smell, experience and see. That there are eight different states with countless tribes living the region seems besides the point.
The Eastern frontier of India, including West Bengal, has been one of the least understood and most generalised cultures on Hindi cinema. In the '60s and '70s, quality filmmakers from West Bengal managed to create lovable and convincing characters from the state. After that, Bengal has been a backdrop or a cliché most times, with over the top, talkative or simply annoying caricatures from the state popping up in cinema.
Which is why, it is surprising that Reema Kagti, a fine writer and filmmaker, would create a clichéd and unconvincing protagonist (and an equally stereotyped wife) in Gold. Tapan Das, being Bengali, has little context or relevance to the film’s plot. Yet, he is. Perhaps the aim was noble: unity in diversity in a volatile, pre-Partition India. So it is a mixed thali; a Bengali leader of sorts, royal family protégé from Uttar Pradesh, a Sikh from Punjab, a Muslim star player and a benevolent Buddhist monk among others. The sum total though is an absolute stereotype that diminishes the film’s impact.
Kagti is Assamese by origin and has grown up in the state. Like any other migrant from the region, she must have experienced the standard clichés that people from the state face. Representation of Eastern cultures and stories is next to nil on Hindi cinema. In terms of mindset, lived experience and local culture, the North East is distinctive and Bengal is also very different from the rest. Yet the stereotyping continues unabated. Consumption of Hindi films is minimal in the region; sometimes, bans interfere with exhibition in insurgency-hit states of the North East. Perhaps that is why interest in incorporating stories and cultures from the East, including Bengal, has been sparse.
Yet any good story and a historical fiction film for that matter should set out to be accurate in setting cultural context.
True, some Hindi films have risen above this tendency to paint Bengalis with a certain brush stroke. Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh Bakshy is a good example. Bakshy is suave yet normal in his behavior and does not speak with a fake accent. Playing the accent card convincingly is Saurabh Shukla’s character in Anurag Basu’s Barfi!. Shukla delivers a fine performance as the local cop. Shukla’s character has an accent but it does not seem affected. And then there are Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani films, perfectly set in Kolkata and Bengal, and seamlessly told in Hindi, without pandering to clichés. While Amitabh Bachchan tended to go a tad bit over in Piku, Shoojit Sircar captures the essence of a modern Bengali father-daughter duo beautifully in the film.
The larger tendency though has been to overdo the 'Bengali' bit for most filmmakers. The most prominent victim of this is Sanjay Bhansali’s melodramatic Devdas. The women are overdressed, they shout too much and over-emote at all levels, sometimes coming across as unhinged. Jackie Shroff, as Chunni Lal, must go down as one of the most irritating screen characters ever, for his turn as the debauch friend from this classic novella is completely off track. Bhansali has stated that he mounted the screenplay of Devdas like a nautanki, over the top by nature. It still does not justify diluting a culture with gaudy colors, glitter and overacting.
With the interpretation of Being Bengali that Kagti brought out in Gold, it is clear that clichés appear to be a safe route to take for a mainstream film. But is it necessary to use this tool at all? As a film, Gold would have made for better viewing had Tapan Das been himself first, and a Bengali just by chance.
Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 09:27 AM