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.