04 Feb 2018 16:42 IST

The problem with Pad Man

When Bollywood goes beyond cultural appropriation to turn a Tamil story and hero into a Hindi-heartland one

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Tamil has been the butt of jokes and caricature in Bollywood.

You know the Tamil guy in Hindi films, of course? If he’s a brahmin then he is the chap who wears his orthodoxy and tradition on his sleeve, sings Carnatic music (forgive Bollywood, too, TM Krishna), slurps thayir sadam, and smears his body with holy ash. If he’s not, then he’s the other quirky caricature: the Quick Gun Murugan, twirling his handlebar moustache, hitching his veshti (lungi, in Bollywood lexicon), and growling with menace. And the infantilised Tamil lass can only squeak, ‘ Aiyaiyo! Appa!’ in the same breath.

In 1968, Mehmood played the crazy Carnatic singer Mr Pillai in Padosan who loses both the singing match and his lady crush to the true love of the north Indian hero. But not before he’s caricatured as a clown, singer of a funny kind of music, an oddity with flying tuft and forehead smeared with ash. The original in Bengali, Pasher Bari, or the Tamil Adutha Veetu Penn (1960) did not go in for a rival caricature of a Hindustani singer to make the hero shine.

And then there are the plentiful caricatures by Shah Rukh Khan. His Quick Gun Murugan take with “ Yenna rascalla, mind it” in Om Shanti Om was followed by “ paithyakara” Subramaniam in Ra.One slurping noodles with thayir sadam, and more in Chennai Express.

The odd Abhay Deol playing Anantha Krishnan in a Shanghai cannot make up for the many times the Tamil has been milked by Bollywood for laughs, ethnic stereotypes and quirky “otherness”.

Along comes Pad Man, a Hindi film based on the life of Tamil inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham, which will hit screens next week. However, what could have been a film with potential to reverse years of insults has been let down by Bollywood strongman Akshay Kumar (who’s played a Malayali as a Punjabi in Airlift) and filmmaker R Balki, who has portrayed Muruganantham as a Hindi-belt character. The story has been airlifted from Coimbatore to Madhya Pradesh, complete with promotional images showcasing Madhya Pradesh’s BJP CM, Akshay Kumar and Balki publicised on social media.

This comes at a time when, worldwide, there has been a pushback against casting and cultural appropriation. Hollywood finds itself pushed towards casting beyond star power and the clout of studio honchos. The industry is having conversations about “whitewashing” (casting of white actors in non-white roles) — Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan monk in Nepal in Dr Strange, or Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, or Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a Hispanic Colombian druglord in Cocaine Godmother.

Even in India, critics were quick to question the wisdom of casting a Bollywood mainland heroine like Priyanka Chopra in the role of the boxing legend Mary Kom. However, even they did not make the travesty of locating a biopic in the wrong regional and ethnic context. Attenborough’s Gandhi followed the geography of the Mahatma, and even the 2015 biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity, on the math genius Ramanujan, was located both in Trinity College in Cambridge and in the temples and agraharam locations in Kumbakonam.

'Cinematic adaptation'

Muruganantham, who held many odd jobs in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, was given an awareness lesson on female menstrual hygiene well into his adult life as a married man. Overcoming social ostracism and familial rejection, he invented a cost-effective sanitary pad for mainly poor women in rural areas. A watch of the TED talk by Muruganantham gives away his Tamil traits: that snarky humour, and the nerdy and logical approach to problem-solving.

Balki, who met Muruganantham and hung out in Coimbatore with the original Pad Man, is not buying it. He told BLink that making a Hindi film with a Tamil hero would be “unnatural and cinematically wrong”. He says his film is “inspired by Muruganantham” and is a “cinematic adaptation”, and that he would prefer to make the film in Tamil with a Tamil hero than in Hindi.

Balki admits that for long “Tamils have been wrongly depicted in Bollywood” but, in this case, “the story of Muruganantham transcends regional identity”; he adds that having the Pad Man set in Tamil Nadu with the hero speaking Hindi would only highlight the “disconnect between Hindi and Tamil in real life”.

It’s not that Bollywood has not mounted regional stories or stories revolving around cities outside Mumbai. There are films on Goans set in Goa ( Jalwa, Finding Fanny, Khamoshi, Drishyam); Punjabis, set in the mustard fields ( Pinjar, Veer Zaara, Jab We Met among many others); Uttar Pradesh ( Shatranj ke Khilari, Umrao Jaan, Tanu Weds Manu, Ishaqzaade) ; Gujarat ( Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kai Po Che); and Kolkata ( Kahaani, Parineeta, Barfi, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and Yuva).

The south Indians, especially the “Madrasi” Tamil who has to make do with a Madras Café or a 2 States, will now have to watch the mansplaining about menstrual hygiene by a Hindi strongman. And Bollywood has blown its chance of reversing years of insult and caricature of a region and a people.

(Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)