Monday, July 09, 2007

Christian Brothers: More Stereotypes from Bollywood

In Hindi films, there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. Post Kargil and 9/11, the fundamentalist Pakistani/Islamic terrorist became too lucrative a choice for filmmakers to make a villain out of. So, he became the Bad Muslim. And obviously, there are millions of Muslims who contribute to the 9% GDP of this country and three who rule Bollywood. So, you give this guy some jingoistic lines containing the words ‘qaum’ and ‘badnaam’ – and you have the Good Muslim.

Unfortunately, there are no good Christians and bad Christians in Bollywood. Only stereotyped Christians. They drink a lot, swear in English, pepper their dialogues with ‘man’ and is by-and-large a Good Samaritan.
Of course, there have been a lot of Foreign Devils (made famous by Bob Christo and Tom Alter, exaggerating their accents!) but they were more of British oppressors and had nothing to do with religion. And of course, they died ever since Manoj Kumar stopped making films.

Christian characters in Bollywood have appeared in two broad types of roles:
* Priest – Usually a solemn person hovering in the background usually presiding over marriages and the occasional confessional, his dialogues have a profusion of ‘my son’ and ‘Lord tumko shanti de’. Made famous by Sujit Kumar in a French beard, they have also seen enough number of times as principals of ‘good colleges’.
This stereotype got smashed so badly with Vinod Pande’s Sins (in which Shiney Ahuja plays a psychopathic sex-crazed priest in love with a nurse) that Christians erupted in protests!

* Drunkard – Generally seen in a street corner, slurring over dialogue and sloberring over life. Pran’s part in Majboor is probably the longest example of this character as he even got to sing a song – “Daaru ke bottle mein tum kaiku pani dalta hain / Phir na kehna Michael daaru pee kar danga karta hain.
Otherwise they are restricted to borrowing money (Naseeruddin Shah in Ardh Satya) or giving tips to police (Om Prakash in Zanjeer).

The most important signpost of the Christian is a suitably bombastic name.
Anthony Gonsalves is undoubtedly the most famous Christian name in India and even overshadows Vijay Verma occasionally. Actually, it is probably Amitabh’s only screen name, which came close to overwhelming his actual name. Post the stupendous success of Amar Akbar Anthony, people actually started calling AB Anthony-bhai on the streets! A story goes that a girl in coma was mumbling ‘Anthony-bhai’ in her unconscious state and AB went and met her after she came about.
That the name was that of Laxmikant’s (of Pyarelal fame) violin teacher only added to the allure.
The second most popular name is probably Bobby Braganza, who spoke like an Indian teenager though her father (Prem Nath) managed to live up to every single stereotype of the filmi Christian!
Aamir Khan dressed in drag for a song in Baazi and with his customary perfectionism, Julie Braganza managed to sport even a cleavage!
Ajit’s villainy (which got exaggerated in the subsequent series of jokes) was always centred on a group of henchmen and molls with ‘Christian’ names, though no allusion was ever made to their religion and Ajit was quite happy with Punjabising the pronunciations! Raabert, Tawny and Mona have been flogged to death, actually!

Next is, of course, the device of attaching a sermon on secularism.
The secular message of having a Christian around has been used several times by Manmohan Desai, AAA being the most famous example.
However in Naseeb, he went overboard about the secularism when he showed Pran having three wives – Hindu, Muslim and Christian! Thankfully, trigamy as a lasting solution for communal tension is yet to find extensive usage in our country.

Parental opposition to teenybopper romance is more commonly based on affluence than religion in Hindi cinema. Probably because of the inherent touchiness of discrimination on grounds of religion, most films depend on ‘haisiyat’ and ‘khandaan’ (sometimes, dushmani as well) to keep lovers apart.
Saagar is a typical example, where the rich Hindu boy falls in love with the poor Christian girl but the grand-parental opposition invoked only the girl’s ‘poor-ness’ and not her religion.
Only a few films have covered this ground – and even fewer in the Hindu-Christian domain.
I remember a film called Lovers – starring Kumar Gaurav and probably Padmini Kolhapure, who are put to sword by the heroine’s brother (Danny Denzongpa). Finally, they take off their Crucifix and Om lockets and burn them in an act of defiance!
Julie is the probably the most famous film but the social divide shown between a ‘cultured’ Hindu family and a ‘crass’ Christian family was rather exaggerated. And of course, because it was a Christian family, they sang their family song in English! Thank god for that cliché and we have Preeti Sagar’s wonderful ‘My Heart is Beating’.

Basically, all of the above devices are caricatures of real life people and mainstream Hindi cinema has never done too much to get any tinge of reality. Very few films have done it right.
Prahaar is one of those films I can remember that have depicted Christians realistically – with their language, milieu and motivations clearly etched out. Madhuri Dixit gave a stellar performance as Shirley Pinto of Bandra village (as did the ensemble cast, borrowed from the theatre).
Baaton Baaton Mein was set in an authentic Christian domain and that was part of the novelty of the film but there was nothing in the story that was exclusive to the community. A love story in Bombay peppered with a genial uncle, crazy brother and pestering mother is as cute and relevant today as it was thirty years back.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was a love triangle set in Goa with Sunil, Anna and Chris running after each other but the religion was never the issue. Sunil’s forging of his mark-sheet was! Again, it had perfect atmosphere and casting – especially Naseeruddin Shah in the role of a ‘hatke’ Father, who insisted on taking lifts from everybody and spoke in a brilliant Portuguese accent!
Of course, if I want to get into arthouse territory, then we have Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hain – in which Naseeruddin Shah (again!) played the title role as the angry son of a retrenched mill worker. I had heard somewhere that Albert Pinto was the name of one of the vendors (caterer / costume / something) one of the producer’s earlier projects, who could not be paid. In order to placate him, the lead character was named after him!
I don’t think Commissioner De Mello of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron can be counted as a Christian character because he was hardly alive!

Moral dilemmas have never been the forte of the Bollywood director – and Christian moral dilemmas, even less so!
In fact, the only one I can think of was presented in Aakhri Raasta – where David (played by Amitabh Bachchan) goes into a church and confesses crimes he is about to commit. His rationale being that he is a devout Christian and at the end of the three murders he is about to commit, he may not be around for a confessional so he was doing it beforehand.
The priest broke the sacred oath of secrecy and reported it to the police. He declared that while it was a sin to divulge details of a confession, he was doing so because he considered saving three lives more important.
The police officer (David’s lost son – AB in a double role) logically concluded that if the guy is indeed a devout Christian, he would get really upset by this and would probably try to kill the priest as punishment. So he wanted a whole lot of security around the priest.
He probably forgot that it was a Hindi movie as his father did the most illogical thing in the world. David walked into the police headquarters and murdered his first victim – the Police Commissioner himself!

Damn, all my posts end illogically or with Amitabh. This time, I managed both!
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