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Tera Kya Hoga Kalia?

Tera Kya Hoga Kalia?

May 16, 2013
Tribal background dancers. Hip-hop rappers with attitude. Obama. Ladies and gents, the black characters of Bollywood.

The black demographic of India stands at approximately 0.008% - the near equivalent to the number of people who practice the religion of The United House Of Prayer in the USA (yes, them!) Seeing that Hollywood has never featured a strong character to represent The United House Of Prayer, why should it be so important that India show more positive and three-dimensional characters to represent its miniscule black community? Actually, let’s forget India’s black community – how has Indian Cinema served black characters as a whole over the years?

Black faces only first started appearing in Indian cinema in the 70s, possibly encouraged by the blaxploitation movement that kicked off in the US. However black characters were mainly pushed to the background, with the filmmakers often confusing African identity with Indian tribal characteristics (e.g. Vidhaata, Disco Dancer). With the filmmakers scarcely coming into contact with anyone of black descent, they often relied on playing on the public’s fear of the unknown by representing people of colour as animalistic voodoo workers - not unlike how Indians were shown in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Though they were more prone to be shown as muscular henchmen in their new action-packed city settings (e.g. Vishwaatma), the 80s showed a hint of hope with the film Razia Sultan, the only Indian film to date that has a black lead character. Based on the story of the only female Sultan of Delhi and her alleged affair with an Abyssinian slave, no black actor would accept the role due to its clichéd portrayal, and the role of the slave eventually had to go to a blacked-up Dharmendra. Following its mega-budget flop results, no Indian filmmaker has since attempted a story with a black lead.

With nothing of worth in the 90s, it wasn’t until Indian filmmakers realized the financial merit of their NRI audience that they begun to bring in personalities that were less African and more ‘street’, aiming strongly to the cool hiphop-listening youth market. Even now, the majority of African-American characters in Indian films tend to speak with a ‘whack’ lingo, yo. This was accentuated further with a strong urban influence on Bollywood music, with artists like Snoop Dogg and Akon collaborating with Indian composers on hit soundtracks Singh Is King and Ra.One.

Despite having a bit more to do in Indian films nowadays instead of pure window dressing (Matru Ki Bijlee withstanding – see later) black characters still tend to be written one-dimensionally, and often negatively. In Shaitan, there’s a drug racket run solely by black men. Jaan-e-Mann shows a neglectful black nanny. Housefull had a black child who was used as the butt of a poor joke. And worst criminal of all, Fashion shows our protagonist at her lowest ebb when – God forbid – she has a one-night-stand with a black man!

In vain, My Name Is Khan attempted to defy this negative stereotype by showing the complete opposite - a small rundown town in Georgia, USA, populated solely by black people. What is supposed to be modern day America seems more like the Deep South at the beginning of the 20th century. And when the town gets hit by Hurricane Katrina and Shah Rukh is done miraculously saving them, in a heartwarming turn droves of ‘regular’ Americans come to rebuild the place. The only query is, why are these regular Americans only white and South Asian? In order to defy the Bollywood stereotype, Karan Johar sided with a more familiar Hollywood stereotype of the ‘poor black folk in need of a saviour.’

Has there been any good representation of black characters in Indian Cinema? Well, I guess My Name Is Khan should get some brownie points for showing a black actor playing the President of the USA. On a more serious note, there is some proof that things are going in the right direction, with Akshay Kumar’s adorable (albeit unlikely) black grandmother in Khiladi 786, but in terms of three-dimensional characters with a purpose, praise can only be given to English Vinglish for its portrayal of a shy, black man who we eventually discover is withdrawn because of his homosexuality. Okay, granted it doesn’t fully infringe on the main plot, but at least the character has something to do. Unlike the random troupe of Zulu dancers in this year’s Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola that serve no purpose to the story. At all.

Outside India, NRI filmmakers like Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) and Gurinder Chaddha (Bhaji On The Beach) have bravely brought attention to the taboo cross-race relationships that happen between black men and young ‘disillusioned’ NRI girls, but it is telling that there has been nothing since the 90s. Even more significant is the fact that not one black female protagonist has been featured in NRI films.

It’s not a secret that Indian culture is inherently racist towards dark skin, and this has traveled overseas to the NRI Diaspora. With larger black demographics in countries like the US and the UK, the stereotypes set by Indian Cinema has not helped in breaking down borders between black and South Asian communities, more often breeding more prejudice in the process. What’s most ironic is the large fanbase that Bollywood has in East African countries, along with the mixed black/Asian populations in Caribbean and Polynesian islands like Fiji, Mauritius and Trinidad. There is a major gap in the market for Indian filmmakers to exploit, and nobody’s batted an eyelid.

If the Indian industry was solely making films for Indians, the scarcity of black leads would make sense – the same kind of sensitivity for a community cannot be expected when the demographic is so small and invisible. But it cannot be argued that it’s now a global industry with a mass global following. At the same time, the industry fails to recognise the majority of its own communities – when was the last time you saw a Manipuri or Assamese lead character in an Indian film?

We learn about the world from what we experience in life, but also from what we pick up from the media. Selling over four billion tickets a year, Indian cinema holds great power. Maybe its time that power was used for better purposes than purely setting cash registers ringing. Although saying that, with Indian Cinema’s fanbases in East Africa and the islands, the most enterprising producers may potentially be able to have their cake and eat it too.


  • Tobi
    30.05.13 03:29 AM
    Really interesting read. Just wanted to say re: English Vinglish: the one off-note for me in a film that was so pro-tolerance thematically was the Black waitress, who seemed such a grotesque caricature. It really marred the whole film for me, although of course not everyone in a film needs to be likeable, and her rudeness did serve a narrative function, but still, it bugged me.
  • Shai
    28.05.13 02:42 PM
    @Chaitanya Fair and lovely heroes and heroines - too true! It makes me wonder whether things in India are similar to the West with film producers.

    When they read scripts, producers here in the UK often ask "Why is this character British-Asian instead of British? Does it affect the story if the hero is Sikh instead of Christian?"

    I found a similar thing with Muslim characters in Indian cinema, where characters would only be Muslim if there was a terrorist slant or a religious conflict Hindu-Muslim theme. It wasn't until recently, with films like Zindagi Na Milega Dobara and Jab Tak Hai Jaan, that we've had Muslim characters whose religion doesn't impact on their story. They could have been any other religion, but their story would have remained the same.

    In a passive yet effective way, these films help to break down prejudices by showing that people of different religions really aren't that different, faced with the same problems as anyone else. If the same could be done with characters from different Indian racial backgrounds, rather than having all heroes being 'Fair and Lovely', this would be a great step forward for Indian Cinema.
  • chaitanya
    28.05.13 12:04 AM
    Blaxploitation- awesome!
    And it's annoying how blacks have been stereotyped everywhere- but at least they make it to the screen. How often do you see a dark-skinned hero or heroine in Bollywood? Everyone wants Fair and Lovely.
  • Shai
    24.05.13 05:59 PM
    Good points, My Say. I completely agree. India is such a huge country with so many different regions and languages, it would be wise of Indian Cinema to represent more of its own people.

    In a BBC interview, Karan Johar recently said: "Of the 1.2 billion population of India, movies should reach out to at least 300 million people. But currently, our reach is limited to 45 million. If we figure out how to cover this gap, it will be a game changer."

    The reason why this is, is because of the evident lack of representation. So many gaps in the Indian film market, yet no filmmakers are ready to open their eyes to the possibilities.
  • My Say
    My Say
    24.05.13 12:19 AM
    not willing to divert the course of the post .. but its so true that North East has never been in bollywood's radar except for Danny ... who probably is the only man representing so many states in NE !! food for thoughts !
    or should we say.. its about business and bollywood shows what sells most !! Nice post !
  • Shai
    20.05.13 03:10 PM
    Pamela, Binal - Thanks for the kind words guys.

    Tushar, regarding the comment I made about NE representation - I believe that gratitude should go towards fellow journalist for The NRI, Lekha Menon, who informed me of this uneven spread in her article here: Thanks for reading :)
  • Binal
    18.05.13 12:01 PM
    A great thought provoking article!
  • Tushar
    18.05.13 10:32 AM
    I am glad that someone pointed out absence of representation from North East in Bollywood... to add on I haven't seen any NE representation in News, Popular Media, Parliament.
  • Pamela
    17.05.13 07:25 PM
    Bollywood films are also popular in the Caribbean especially in countries like Guyana where more than half the population can claim Indian ancestry. I spent many Sunday mornings in Guyana (with no cable) wathcing hours upon hours of Bollywood movies.
  • Shai
    17.05.13 07:19 PM
    @Hena(pa): Very true. And thinking towards the future, where films will be available digitally in homes at the touch of a button, it's time for both Hollywood and Bollywood to stop being so insular with their audience reach. The future is digital and digital is global.
  • Hena
    17.05.13 04:27 AM
    Not just East Africa - North and South Africa too - not to mention South East Asia. Bollywood films are globally popular - they are cashing in on it through channels like Zee Arabiya so maybe it's about time to introduce some international characters.

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