The curious case of Hrundi V Bakshi: Deconstructing Peter Sellers' brownface act in The Party

Kuzhali Manickavel

May 10, 2019 09:25:15 IST

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.

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This month, I'm revisiting one of my childhood favourites, the movie The Party, starring Peter Sellers in brownface. To quickly summarise, this is a slapstick movie about a bumbling actor from India who mistakenly gets invited to a swank Hollywood party and gets into all sorts of trouble while he is there. Despite an Illustrious Acquaintance’s advice to “be cool” about this movie, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would totally watch it again. I would recommend it to other people. If I had a bird, I would name it Birdie Num Num. I made some notes while watching which I will share, though they probably don’t make much sense.

- The opening scene with the bugle player who refuses to die will always be hilarious

- Note to self, Google Hrundi V Bakshi

- There don’t seem to be any actual Indian people named Hrundi V Bakshi

- There’s a part in the movie where he says ‘In India we don’t think who we are, we know who we are’. Not going to lie, I clapped when he said this and then I wondered what it meant.

- Fun Fact, Indira Gandhi was apparently very fond of repeating this line. Not sure what to do with this fun fact.

- Have they given him dark circles along with the brownface?

- This should actually be an article about that poor baby elephant and the mistreatment of animals in movies

The curious case of Hrundi V Bakshi: Deconstructing Peter Sellers brownface act in The Party

A still from The Party, starring Peter Sellers in brownface

The movie seems to do everything in its power to impress upon us just how very Indian this Indian man is. Apart from his oddly brown face, Hrundi V Bakshi speaks with a singsong accent and awkward constructions, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, shakes his head and hands at every given opportunity, offers up folded hands at the drop of a hat, he’s polite to the point of absurdity, knows nothing about things like dancing or pool, plays the sitar and has a pet monkey with a name that kind of sounds like ‘Oh Poo’. Oh, and when a pool cue hits him in the butt, he looks horrified and says "Hare Ram". And he keeps asking people if they speak Hindustani. Surprisingly, he is not a vegetarian. He bumbles through the party having one mishap after the other and it’s hard to tell if he’s bumbling because he’s Indian or whether he’s just bumbling and Indian. It’s probably a bit of both.

It’s the first half of the movie that is the cringiest. Once the party starts to go crazy, Hrundi V Bakshi becomes less and less of an anomaly as everyone and everything goes berserk — Russian
ballet dancers make an appearance as does a baby elephant, foam fills the house, people start dancing and falling into the pool. In the end, he’s just the good guy who gets the girl. In many ways,
Hrundi V Bakshi is no different from the many other characters Sellers has portrayed and while the brownface is definitely super-awkward, it doesn’t seem to be particularly malicious. Which then leads to the question: why?

Why was it so important for this character to be Indian? Why was it important for him to be Indian in that particular way, where the stereotypes are more important than anything else?

Still, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to be offended with the brownface in The Party. I was definitely disappointed with it, but that was about as far as I got. It’s cringey, but in a way that is disappointing rather than funny, not unlike that one relative who is lots of fun, but is also a bigot and says embarrassing things in mixed company. Unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other, which in this case, makes an otherwise fun movie a lot less fun.

Next month, we will delve into the various problematic shades of an old children’s song called ‘Little Brave Sambo’.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

Updated Date: May 12, 2019 13:18:02 IST

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