I’m a huge fan of Indian cinema — including Bollywood filmis. I wouldn’t watch a Hollywood romantic comedy if you paid me, but I’ll watch just about any Bollywood blockbuster, even if the theme is the same as one I’d reject in a Hollywood flick. I’ve seen so many formula films out of the big American film houses that I get rapidly bored and can doze through most of the film, writing the dialog in my head and usually guessing the ending to near-perfection within the first half hour. Where’s the pleasure in that?
Indian film, on the other hand, is mysterious to me. I’ve never had occasion to go to India. I’m picking up a little Hindi here and there, so trying to sort out the words and phrases I know from the machine-gun quick, rapid-fire Hindi is challenging enough to take up the part of my brain that usually scoffs at the boy meets girl — boy loses girl — boy finally wins girl plot that resembles all other, similar plots in foundation if not detail.
I have noticed a few peculiarities in Indian films that puzzle me for reasons of cultural difference and just plain ignorance on my part. This will be the first of (hopefully) many pieces concerning unsolved mysteries of Indian cinema.
I spent a couple of years in my early teens getting up early on Sunday mornings to watch the Chinese kung-fu flicks that one of the networks used to run. Aside from the cheezy, over-the-top martial arts maneuvers and the obvious wires and ropes, my favorite part of these films was the exquisitely hilarious dubbing.
The villain would be standing on a roof or something, all buffed out and totally scary looking, very impressive indeed. The camera would go in for a tight close-up on the villain’s glittering, mad eyes. And then he would open his mouth.
This was always the prelude to laughing hysterically into a pillow so as not to wake my parents.
This impressive, scary, manly villain would have a voice like a querulous, senile old grandmother. It’d sound rather like Yoda on bad acid. The mouth would move a mile a minute, then this cracked, silly voice would say something short and sweet, like, “Make me!”
So of course, I’m primed to notice the silly voices in any given film. Indian film is full of silly voices. There’s always at least one person, usually a burly man or an elder, who comes out with this voice that belongs to some scrawny, bed-ridden, senile old goat farmer.
I have never in my life heard anyone use a tone like that unless it was a joke. So I’m assuming it’s done for the role. My eyebrows usually scrunch up, my nose wrinkles and I start giggling, which more often than not necessitates hitting rewind so I can re-read the subtitle to see what the line was.
I can understand this odd standard of voice-overs in a dubbed film, but in the original language, I just end up wondering for the rest of the scene (if not the movie) if that actor really talks like that or if he just thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do.
No doubt it is a cultural preference for a form of comic relief that isn’t standard here in the West. Perhaps it’s the Eastern equivalent of Chris Tucker. In which case I’ll never get it because I don’t much like Chris Tucker. I could quite happily live the rest of my life and never hear another word pass his lips.
I count my blessings that the silly-voiced roles in Indian film are always small and peripheral, good for one line or scene, and then gone.
Not always, but in many of the Hindi films, Sardars are written into the movie as comic relief — bumpkins, goof balls, and even downright moronic characters are cast as Sikhs. What is that all about?
It can’t be based on truth — the Punjabis and Sikhs I know here in the West are for the most part successful businessmen or hard-working college students, having at a minimum three languages and a better grasp of such concepts as mathematics than I do.
It must be quite insulting to those that are the butt of these rather unkind jokes. As I understand it, honor and pride are foundations for Sikh faith. How then has this subset of Indian peoples become such a joke in popular culture? Is this a conscious smear, based on some attitude that exists in India that I don’t have exposure to here and therefore am unaware of? Is it a way of picking away at a group’s image to make another group feel stronger or better about themselves? Is it something sinister to do with political smears in a subliminal manner? It’s not as if it hasn’t been done here with great success throughout the decades. Or is it just a rather juvenile sort of humor reminiscent of the Polish jokes so popular here in the US in the 1970’s-80’s?
And is it a sinister coincidence that these Sikh bumpkins are almost always the ones with the silly voices I mentioned above? Or do I simply think way too much about things that aren’t connected at all?
Having not been raised with a knowledge of India or Indian culture, I am learning all this on my own, with the help of literature, film and the internet to answer questions the first two media bring up. I feel at times like an alien anthropologist, trying to sort out what Earthlings are like from the sitcoms that are beamed out into space during broadcast.
Take me to your producer/director. I have a few questions.