The second season of The Family Man has reignited the debate about representation in mainstream pop culture in India. The showrunners were commended for the appropriate casting throughout the season. And it’s been one of the show’s strong points since season one.
Take Suchitra for example. Her character is a Tamil girl who is married to a Hindi speaking man in Delhi. And the showrunners have not strapped in a well-known Bollywood actor to play the character. Remember how Shah Rukh Khan perpetuated South Indian stereotypes by playing a curd-eating, heavily accentuated, unnecessarily timid Tamilian living in Ra.One in the UK? Aiyo, who can forget that?
Only you don’t hear Suchitra or any other character with a Tamil background reduce their identity to the obsessive prefix ‘aiyo’ for every conversation they start. Suchitra comes across as a strong-willed, independent, educated, smart and modern working woman because Priyamani was able to really fit in with the character’s cultural background, rather than fall back on familiar stereotypes.
Now let’s see how Deepika Padukone portrayed Meenalochni Azhagusundaram in Chennai Express (2013). Interestingly, Deepika had the advantage of growing up in Bengaluru, a melting pot of cultures. And that means that in her early years she must have had plenty of opportunities to come into contact with people from different cultural and language backgrounds. And yet, when she got the chance to bring a Tamil-speaking girl to life in a Bollywood movie, instead of getting real, she became lousy, shallow and delivered an ill-informed performance. How can she explain her horrible accent? In which part of Tamil Nadu do people speak with that accent?
It seems that Bollywood is stuck in the 1960s. It seems to most actors and filmmakers that Mehmood’s Master Pillai in Padosan is the ultimate point of reference for writing and portraying a South Indian character. We can understand that in the past there may not have been much awareness about the vast diversity of South India, which consists of five states and two union territories. Each state has its own rich and distinguished social and linguistic background.
And some five decades later, we still have some successful filmmakers who are unwilling to acknowledge the evolution of South India that has spawned some powerful CEOs in the world (Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella). And yet, for the sake of a few laughs, some filmmakers prefer to believe that all Rajinikanth fans wear lungis on dance floors. It’s like they haven’t met a single South Indian in person yet.
Now stereotypes remain an important part of comedy culture. But stereotypes are no longer funny when done without any kind of awareness. If people still laugh at blatant stereotypes, chances are they find the breathtaking level of ignorance of some creators humorous.
However, the creators of The Family Man 2, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, popularly known as Raj and DK, have done a good job of assimilating two different languages and cultures. They’ve even debunked a few stereotypes in the process. Since most of the story takes place in Chennai, they have cast some very talented Tamil actors. Ravindra Vijay as Muthu Pandian, an officer with the National Investigation Agency, and filmmaker-actor Uday Mahesh, as seasoned spy Chellam, seasoned comedy and character artist Devadarshini, as Chennai agent Umayal, have all become fan favorites for being a cultural asset. brought to their respective characters, which actors from the Hindi heartland could never have imitated.
And Raj and DK were wise to have Samantha Akkineni play the highly skilled rebel Rajyalakshmi Sekaran aka Raji. She is very convincing as a stifling force of nature that can unleash a trail of destruction in the blink of an eye. And then there was Mime Gopi as Bhaskaran Palanivel and the very talented Azhagam Perumal as Deepan. These actors gave memorable performances as they were able to connect with their characters not only spiritually but also ethnically.
What makes the show more appealing to a diverse audience than the show’s target audience is its cosmopolitan nature. Raj and DK have not restricted the use of the Tamil language to benefit the Hindi speaking viewers. In a way, Tamil is spoken in such a way that it feels like an original Tamil series with a few characters from inland Hindi. And that must have made it easy for many Tamil audiences to connect with the show.
The cultural connection between an actor and the character he or she plays is vital. So much so that the connection would allow the actor to deliver a performance of a lifetime or just ruin a very powerful and lovable character. The mainstream Hindi film industry, in particular, has so far taken the topic of diversity in terms of character representation very lightly. And finally, in 2021, we see the winds of change that, sooner than later, would diversify the entertainment industry as diverse as the country itself.