My North Indian friends, like many others, loved Bollywood and everything about it. Being in this primarily North Indian friend group centered an adequate portion of my life around Bollywood culture, regardless of my South Indian ethnicity. Sitting in my friends’ cars, I’d hear the newest song from the latest Bollywood movie that I’d watch only a few hours later at their houses. We would sit huddled together on the couch with a few fleece blankets, sharing a bowl of burnt popcorn as the opening credits played. The first appearance of Shah Rukh Khan or Saif Ali Khan in the film was the cue to start my usual three-hour-long Bollywood journey: going on my phone for 10 minutes, watching the movie for a little, scrolling through my Instagram feed, reading the subtitles to realize the movie was only slightly colorist and/or misogynistic, going back through my already viewed Instagram feed and then reading the subtitles again to realize the movie was actually very colorist and misogynistic.
While I had always noticed Bollywood’s prejudice against me for having darker skin through its not so subtle use of dark skin actors as villains, I was quite oblivious to the stereotypical portrayals of South Indians in the media that millions of people consume. It took me years to come to a realization when my friends invited me to watch “Chennai Express,” starring Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. When my friends first mentioned the title, I was excited since a lot of my family now lives in Chennai and this felt like long-awaited representation. However, my excitement quickly faded away once the movie actually began. Why couldn’t any of the South Indian characters speak proper English? I was confused since many Tamilians, including the entirety of my family still in India, can speak fluently. South Indian states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu are among the highest ranking English-speaking states in India. The movie was invalidating my family and the thousands of other South Indian English speakers’ intelligence and effort they all put into learning English as a second or third language. I kept trying to make excuses as the movie progressed, saying to myself, Maybe it was because it took place in a small village. But if they took that into account when making the movie, the characters wouldn’t be able to understand Hindi either when most characters could.
Things only went downhill as the movie progressed. It portrayed all of the South Indian men as barbaric and unruly. They were all violent and consistently seen causing fights and beating other people. The men all carried machetes and large knives or swords and pulled them out at their first inconvenience. To make matters worse, they painted the only North Indian living in the village as helpful and innocent while every South Indian man was violent and uncivilised. They lacked common sense and manners and overall were just uncomfortable to watch. I sat through the entire movie in silence experiencing somewhat of a culture shock with the realities of Bollywood. I always knew the industry was misogynistic, but seeing this movie forced me to realize the extent to which Bollywood blatantly disrespects minority groups and other cultures. But despite everything, seeing my friends laugh as if the movie was funny to them hurt the most. How could they think this is funny? Is this what they think of me? While I was now counting down the minutes until it was over so I could go home, my friends were saying it “was not long enough” and were excited to rewatch it later.
“Chennai Express” is not the only time Bollywood portrayed South Indians in this way, with almost all South India-centered movies using the same offensive tropes. In the movie Ra One, Shekhar, a Tamil character also played by Shah Rukh Khan, was portrayed as an unintelligible English speaker who threw in many random Tamil words and “ayyo” or “rascal” in almost every sentence. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with not understanding or being fluent in English, the incoherence of Tamil characters was always contrasted by the display of North Indian characters’ virtually perfect English. Words like “ayyo” have become common words in Tamil, and using our own words to laugh at us is hurtful, especially when it is exaggerated to the extent that Shekhar cannot go a single sentence without it. Shekhar is humiliating to his family in most of the movie, failing to fight against a thief who was only using a butter knife to rob them, constantly causing car accidents and mixing curd (yogurt) in noodles. Curd is popularly eaten on the side of many South Indian cuisines, but to extort that and make a joke about how that’s all we eat is harmful. It not only adds to this idea that South Indians are embarrassing and lack common sense but belittles our pride in our culture’s cuisines.
Similar to its mockery regarding curd, Bollywood takes parts of our cultures that we have pride in and turns them into something demeaning. In “Chennai Express,” every male Tamilian wears a lungi and tends to confuse lungis with veshtis, a more formal type of cultural wear commonly worn at weddings. As a result, the film devalues Tamil wedding culture, which is already seen as inferior and bland to North Indians. Furthermore, a song from the film “Lungi Dance” features dancers wearing lungis while imitating stereotypical Kollywood dancing. The song includes lyrics such as “Coconut mein lassi milaa ke,” which roughly translates to mixing coconut with Lassi, a traditional yogurt-based beverage. There is a well-known stereotype that South Indians are obsessed with coconut: We use coconut oil and eat coconut rice, chutney, curry and drink coconut lassis. In addition, Tamil women are often dressed in traditional wedding sarees with jasmine flowers pinned to their long braids. While there is nothing inherently wrong with traditional fashion, it creates a stark contrast between the North Indian female characters who are often styled in more “modern” clothing. South Indian women are consequently painted as undesirable and old-fashioned when in reality they lead lifestyles no different from the women in the North. When many North Indians think of old-fashioned traditional women, they automatically think they’re more “oppressed.” The entire plot of the movie contributes to this obsolete notion by centering around a Tamil woman who is kidnapped to be a part of a forced marriage. While these tragedies take place, it is certainly not as normalized as the movie suggests, and painting it as such further villainizes Tamil Nadu.
When I bring up my discomfort with movies like “Chennai Express,” I am immediately met with backlash from Bollywood fans who invalidate me and say that I am overreacting. But these are the same people who turn around and make stereotypical comments about me. The same people who ask me if I have seen “Chennai Express” the very second I tell them I’m Tamil and the same people who ask if I’ve ever worn a lungi or if my favorite food is curd rice. The same people who call South Indians dirty and refused to believe that my friend really was South Indian due to her lighter skin tone. Ironically, these are also the same people who call for positive and inclusive Hollywood representation while refusing to acknowledge Bollywood’s negative and regressive portrayal of me and my people. To these same people, being Indian entails solely participating in North Indian culture, and they alienate me from their friend groups because I am too different. In casual conversations, they call South Indians “madrasis,” a regional and ethnic slur. The term was originally a harmless way to refer to people from Madras, now Chennai, but has been used mainly with negative connotations which renders the word derogatory to many. These comments always signify something more, like when an acquaintance casually told my family that all South Indians dress poorly with a disgusted look on her face, or how another told us she doesn’t like South Indians, with my family being the only exception and as if we were supposed to thank her for seeing us as different.
The discrimination against South Indians is not just limited to movie stereotypes, as racism also manifests systemically in politics and the government. Politician Tarun Vijay once openly denied the country’s racism, claiming that if they were racist, they would not live with South Indians, “who are ‘black.’” His blatant hypocrisy demonstrates the extent of colorism in Indian society as Vijay — and the people who support him — refuse to see South Indians beyond their skin color. Vijay represents a bigger problem in India, where South Indians confront a systemic disadvantage that prevents them from entering higher ranks in the government, language barriers being one of them. While there is no official language in India, many official tests are only offered in Hindi, which prevents South Indians (whose most commonly spoken languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) from obtaining higher scores. Kannadigas, people from the Southern state Karnataka, are also widely discriminated against in the job market, likely due to their ethnicity. All of these issues target South Indians and hinder their chances of being successful in India, which shows that the prejudice against South Indians is rooted in the system.
Bollywood’s stereotypes about South Indians are blatantly harmful, especially since there is so much previously established anti-South Indian rhetoric in the North alongside systemic discrimination and the “jokes” just further the rhetoric. The stereotypes only further alienate us from the others in the North instead of uniting us all as Indian, which in turn pushes the narrative that we are “less Indian.” To many in the North, I am seen as inferior and unworthy of their attention. But in the diaspora, I am “white-washed.” They joke around with each other in front of me saying, “You’re not Indian if you didn’t watch this movie…” To them, I am a “fake Indian” since I did not assimilate into their culture, and I am a “fake Indian” since I do not support Bollywood — a film industry that failed to support me by tearing my skin color, my womanhood, my ethnicity, my culture, my family, my background and my upbringings down.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org