SRK says no to Hollywood stereotypes: But 'Madrasis' are A-OK
Shah Rukh Khan says he won't do Hollywood because it can't give him a role that isn't about his colour or his accent. But when it comes to stereotyping he should look in his own backyard.
Hollywood calls and Bollywood rolls over. The siren call of Los Angeles is so seductive that perfectly respectable Indian actors happily show up on screen chowing down on monkey brains. Or puff up with pride as they boast about blink-and-you-missed-it roles.
At least if you believe Priyanka Chopra. She’s the voice behind Ishani, the Indian plane in Disney’s latest animation adventure, Planes. She takes the hero, Dusty Cropper on a little layover around that most un-clichéd of Indian sights – the Taj Mahal.
Hollywood.com’s Michael Arbeiter notes that the film has a lot of excess baggage when it comes to ethnic stereotypes:
The trailer showcases a Southern yokel leading the cast, backed up by a passionate and poetic Latin lover, a mystical Indian temptress, an uptight and rigid British character, and a quip-snapping African-American forklift.
But our Priyanka, she who has lately released a music video called Exotic, tells Aseem Chhabra at New York Daily News that she held her ground.
“You know that stereotypical accent that most people see Indians speak with in movies? I was clear that I didn’t want that. That’s really not how we speak. I want to keep it real.”
And where Piggy Chops goes, can Shah Rukh Khan be far behind? In an interview with IANS, our resident Badshah says he does not want to do just any old role in Hollywood.
He says, “I think the kind of role I would want to do in a Hollywood film is one that makes India proud.” Yes, and reverse the plummeting downward slide of the rupee against the dollar while he’s at it. King Khan, in his desh-bhakti, seems determined to out-patriot Manoj (Mr India) Kumar himself. Except it’s not clear that anyone has offered him anything but hey, such petty details should not stop anyone from making a virtue out of the hypothetical.
SRK then gets more specific about what Hollywood is NOT offering. “To get a role that is not specific to my colour, or the way I speak, look or act my age, it’s very difficult. I mean you can’t go to a big filmmaking world and say write a role for a 47-year-old actor who is brown, has hair like this, acts this way, dances a bit.”
But he could go to a Bollywood director and make that demand instead of insisting that he gets to wear tights and play a superhero. Like perhaps co-starring with women closer to his age. He has allowed himself to be 40 in his latest, Chennai Express, but his leading lady is the 27-year old Deepika Padukone.
Bollywood meanwhile proves you don’t need monkey brains to stereotype. You can just eat noodles with curd. Surely Shah Rukh Khan hasn’t forgotten his Ayyo software geek in Ra-One? And it doesn’t look like Chennai Express’ Lungi Dance with Yo Yo Honey Singh putting on a Tamil accent and singing about lassi in your coconut is going to make up for that travesty despite being peddled as an homage to Rajnikanth.
There are already complaints about Deepika Padukone’s Tamil accent. “Remember that atrocious Tamil accent SRK had on in Ra-One? He sold it on eBay and Deepika Padukone bought it for Chennai Express,” mocks @mojorojo on Twitter. Others have claimed it sounds Malayali. Padukone has defended it, vaguely, by saying, “it’s definitely a South Indian accent.” Surely someone who grew up in Bangalore should know there is no such thing as a "South Indian" accent. As a colleague quipped “Good lord, how far we haven’t come.”
Shah Rukh is clearly not the worst offender in this regard. As Baradwaj Rangan points out in The Hindu Bollywood thrives on stereotypes:
(D)oes every Punjabi male start to shake his shoulders to the sound of an off-screen dhol as a chorus bursts into balle-balle? Is every Christian father a cheerful lush who trundles off to a portrait of the Virgin Mary after proclaiming “Hum God se baat karega, man”? Isn’t there another way to evoke a blue-collar locale of Mumbai than to depict the Dionysian revelries around a giant statue of Ganesha?
Tamil cinema, Rangan notes, is hardly blameless either with its North Indian seths and Malayali women in tight-fitting blouses. And the way Bollywood caricatures westerners in its movies is beyond the pale.
At least the old Bob Christos were meant to be over-the-top but Shah Rukh’s My Name Is Khan is deadly serious as it unwittingly reinforces stereotypes about African American while trying to challenge Muslim ones. As Su’ad Abdul Khabeer writes on AltMuslim “My Name is Khan mimics a cinematic standard that flattens black humanity: black people need saviors.” They are helpless and huddled in a church after a Katrina-like storm, unable to do anything other than sing We Shall Overcome until Shah Rukh the Saviour sails into town. Shah Rukh no doubt thought it was endearing that he named the two black characters he met there as “Funny Haired Joel” and “Mama Jenny” as if they had just stepped out of some 1920s vaudeville act.
Planes aside, Hollywood actually has gotten a little more sensitive about how it portrays different cultures. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had its annoying tics, including Dev Patel’s on-and-off Indian accent but it’s a far cry from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Amitabh Bachchan’s cameo in The Great Gatsby was not specific to his skin colour or ethnicity.
It’s pointless to get too worked up about stereotypes. They are stock-in-trade for movies, whether it’s Bollywood or Hollywood. Sometimes they are even funny. But it’s a little rich for our superstars to get holier-than-thou about Hollywood and stereotypes and for Shah Rukh Khan to wring his hands about the kind of roles Hollywood can offer a 47-year-old brown man without looking in the rear view mirror at his own career.
Keeping it real, like charity, should begin at home.
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