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Punjab gatecrashes Bollywood
Mainstream Hindi cinema has never been kind to regional identities. For decades it gave voice to standard national prejudices: all south Indians were 'madraasis' identified by their white knee-length lungi and a broad, white tilak slash on the forehead. It was a stereotype immortalised by Mahmood as 'masterji', the classical music teacher in Padosan. Similarly, Sikhs and Punjabis have been type-cast as over-the-top Navjot Sidhu clones spouting "balle balle" and "chak de phatte". And this was even before Sidhu arrived on the small screen to make hyperbole his idiom. The stereotype existed, Sidhu just jumped into its skin and made it his own.
Deliberately or unwittingly, these stereotypes portrayed regional communities as frivolous, fringe entities.
According to a story on the Internet, a "top secret manual" was being circulated in Bollywood advising Hindi film directors on how to transform your average Hindi-speaking family into a Punjabi khandaan.
Some excerpts: 1. Call anyone younger than you "puttar" 2. Increase the volume when a turbaned, bearded uncle is speaking. Have said uncle raise his arms up as if to hug the whole world 3. Have a kid yell "unkkal-jeee" as uncle is shouting to him 4. Have an aunty grab the ears of the heroine and say something like "kinnee sohni kudi hai". The important thing is the word 'sohni' 5. There must be an aunty who flirts with the hero. When he coos back to her she blushes and turns her head, saying something like "haaaai, main mar jaavaan. . . " or something of the sort 6. Add "Oye" to the beginning of any sentence to make it sound Punjabi
But Bollywood appears to have moved beyond that. This stereotype is being demolished by a string of recent releases which indicates that a creeping Punjabi renaissance could well be underway.
Movies like Vicky Donor, Band Baaja Baraat, Patiala House, Jab We Met, Khosla ka Ghosla, Do Dooni Chaar have brought Punjabi concerns and family culture centrestage. Yes culture, though there will always be sniffy snobs who snigger that Punjabi culture has never moved beyond chhole bhature. These movies, among others, have highlighted common existential anxieties and dilemmas but in a Punjabi setting. Moving beyond the bombast of balle balles, they have showcased the community's largeheartedness, valour, character and work ethic, its spontaneous exuberance and vivacity. And above all the Punjabi's unquenchable capacity for squeezing every last drop of pleasure from every living moment. For laughing at life even if it includes laughing at oneself.
Call it escapism, call it joie de vivre, but this is an attitude that current cinema audiences appear to find refreshing. The commercial success of movies like Jab We Met, Band Baaja Baraat, Vicky Donor has sent producers scurrying for new Punjabi themes, indicating that Bollywood's love affair with all things Punjabi is going to be around for some time. This fascination for Punjabiness may appear to be new. But look closer and you will see that the Punjabi idiom has been creeping into Hindi movies over the years, most prominently in the form of trans-cultural Punjabi music starting from the inspired bilingual Punjabi-English version of "O Carol" (mainu jaavin na jaavin na jaavin chhad balliye). And the more recent but equally brilliant Kylie Minogue-Sonu Nigam song "I want to Chiggy Wiggy with you Boy" picturised with the ebullient Mr Punjab - Akshay Kumar. The movie in which the song featured may have been forgotten, but the song itself is high on the list of danceable Indian numbers.
When the Punjabi beat segues seamlessly into western pop and Punjabi lyrics mingle and merge with Hindi and English, you have a new fusion sound that sets disco dance floors vibrating.
Just take a look at any recent Karan Johar movie. He loves setting dance numbers to Punjabi lyrics e. g. "Shava shava, maahiya" in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Not many people outside North India may know what "shava shava" means, or "maahiya", but they know that they can chiggy wiggy to this kind of music. And when your shoulders start shrugging automatically to the seductive beat of Punjabi pop, you know that you have been bhangra-ed.
As Bollywood has been. This phenomenon has been a long time in the making and big-time Punjabi producers Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra and Karan Johar have played a major enabling role. They brought their own Punjabi sensibilities and their understanding of the Punjabi milieu to their movies. They may have started out as Punjabis but their tastes got secularised when they realised they had to reach an audience larger that Punjab and Delhi. But their essential Punjabi genes peep out once in a while.
But, surprisingly, what has recently helped mainstream Punjabiyat is the arrival of non-Punjabi film directors like Shoojit Sircar and Imtiaz Ali who have captured the Punjabi ethos so authentically that true-blue Punjabis are left gaping. But Sircar seems to have spent a large part of his life in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar, and studied in Bhagat Singh College, so he literally inhabited the milieu he depicted so faithfully in Vicky Donor.
Though not as steeped in Delhi culture as Shoojit Sircar, Bihar-bred Imtiaz Ali's students years at Delhi's Hindu College obviously gave him enough of a feel for the North that he could portray it so faultlessly in Jab We Met and Love aaj Kal. Delhi University remains a lurking brooding presence in his latest, Rockstar which seeks to explore a rootless, guitar-toting, middle-class Delhi boy's rebellious search for identity.
Before these producers and directors came to the scene, there were the Punjabi romantic heroes such as Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand and later, Rajesh Khanna. They did not fit the "he-man" mould that Punjabis are often cast in. They were educated, urbane but narrow-shouldered, a little limp-wristed and suffered from a serious lack of musculature. The first imposing presence was Shammi Kapoor - tall, broad-shouldered, and beefy and who pioneered a goofy, giddy acting style of his own.
Sadly, however, Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna remained stuck in outdated stylised grooves and mannerisms which, once charming, later hardened into self-caricature.
It was only when Dharmendra stormed in from the wheat fields of Ludhiana that serious brawn arrived in Bombay, as it was then known. Till then few leading actors ever took off their shirts. They were either too spindly or pudgy. Or worse, spindly with a belly bump. The poster of Phool aur Patthar with a bare chested Dharmendra towering over Meena Kumari changed all that. Here suddenly was a muscled Punjabi stud who combined manliness with a rustic innocence. Add to that some serious acting ability and fine comic timing and you had a Punjabi man for all seasons.
He made sculpted bodies fashionable and essential for leading men. But it wasn't till Akshay Kumar arrived on the scene that Bollywood found in one man the same macho-rustic combination that had endeared Dharmendra to earlier audiences.
Akshay Kumar's Singh is Kinng remains a crossover film that brought Bollywood its first Sikh romantic hero. But most of the other Sikh characters in the film are used for comic relief. This formulaic approach is divisive, and it was left to the Karan Johars and Yash Chopras to fuse Sikh and Punjabi-Hindu identities into one composite Punjabi ethos. Take, for example, Karan Johar's Kal Ho Na Ho. A Punjabi Hindu family is always shown praying to Guru Nanak. This was once the reality of Punjabi togetherness.
In their own small way, the Johars and Chopras are helping bridge the chasm of separateness created by the Akali-Arya Samaj rivalries in the 1960s.
Who says movies cannot be used to unite people?
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