Appropriating the Malayali’s story to build the Punjabi hero
By Elsa Mathews
It is much after the credits of the film Airlift (2016), directed by Raja Krishna Menon and produced by Nikhil Advani, roll that audiences become aware that the actual act of airlifting 170,000 stranded Indians from Kuwait to India was facilitated by two gentlemen from Kerala – Mathunny Mathews and Vedi. While certainly Mr Mathews and his colleagues did the needful when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, this story of heroism and courage finally got portrayed on the silver screen with Akshay Kumar – a Bollywood hero known to play macho roles in films. His character had the name of Ranjit Katyal and he was shown to have Punjabi origins. The character played by Akshay Kumar is an amalgam of Mathunny Mathews and Vedi.
Such a portrayal brings us to the question: why is that an act of courage that was actually perfomed by Keralites (people belonging to the southern Indian state of Kerala) was finally portrayed on the silver screen to have been done by a Punjabi, with the original story of heroism to be left as an endnote? Is it because there were no South Indian heroes who could play the daring Mathunny Mathews (both Mammooty and Mohanlal, super heroes of popular cinema in South India could have easily fitted the bill) or is it because Malayalis are considered too tame to be imagined as courageous in popular imagination?
The answer lies in understanding what is considered to be stereotypes of courage and nationalism in Indian popular culture.
Punjab, nationalism, and Bollywood
Historically Punjabis have made their mark as warriors and valiant leaders of armies. Despite their defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars, they had gained the admiration of the British for their fighting spirit. During the revolt of 1857, while Hindu and Muslims wanted to overthrow the British, the Sikhs joined the British in quelling the rebellion.
During World War I, 40 per cent of recruits from India came from Punjab with their demand increasing by almost 500 per cent from 1914-1918. The struggle for Independence was further marked by the patriotism of the Punjabis. Out of 121 patriots hanged by the British government, 93 were Sikhs. Of the 2626 awarded life-imprisonment, 2147 were Sikhs. Of the 1300 martyred at Jallianwala Bagh, 799 were Sikhs (Duggal, 2008). Further, the legacy of Bhagat Singh, the young socialist leader from Punjab, who embraced death at the tender of age of 24, remains engraved in our minds.
The Mumbai film industry is further dominated by Punjabis who flocked to Mumbai (then Bombay) from Lahore (Ishtiaq, 2016). In the backdrop of the partition of India, which deeply wounded the state of Punjab as well of the sensitive nature of relations between India and Pakistan, the Mumbai film industry’s idea of a nationalist, patriotic hero remains the robust, macho Punjabi, who stands up for India.
Representing South India in Bollywood
The representation of the courage and valour of other Indian regions in popular culture got overshadowed by the dominant Punjabi imagination of land, loss, and courage. While people from the North-East got represented as villains, the south Indian was usually represented as a bespectacled, mundu-sporting, ai ai yyo-spouting character, mouthing broken Hindi.
Despite the four south Indian states having their own unique culture and cuisine, there was a time anyone hailing from the south was stereotyped as a ‘madrasi’ or ‘hailing from Madras’, the largest metropolitan city of South India, along with Delhi in the North, Kolkata in the East, and Mumbai in the West.
It was with the arrival of south Indian actors, predominantly of Tamil origin, who came to Mumbai to try their luck in Hindi cinema during the 1970s and 80s, that Bollywood got its first notions of female beauty as understood in South India. Heroines like Sridevi, Hema Malini, and Rekha soon ruled the hearts of the Hindi filmgoer with their coy, coquettish mannerisms.
With the idea of South India reduced to Madras and Tamil Nadu, stereotypical representations of the Tamilians began to emerge. In recent times, even as the idea of all south Indians being ‘madrasis’ have diminished, stereotypical ideas of south Indian culture continue to be propagated by Bollywood. In recent films like Chennai Express and 2 States, south Indians are stereotyped as idli-dosa-eating, silk sari-wearing, spouting dialogues in broken Hindi; the villains sporting handlebar moustaches and wielding machetes. Sometimes elements of Malayali culture, like Kathakali or the gold bordered saris typical of Kerala are also passed off as part of Tamil culture in Bollywood.
While Tamilians got a fair share of representation in Bollywood, they have been used to stereotype south Indian culture as the other south Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala – hardly got any representation in Bollywood. Perhaps the only time that a Malayali got a fair characterization in Hindi cinema was in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002). The actor Mohanlal, who is considered to be the superstar of Malayalam cinema, played the role of a police commissioner hot on the heels of the Mumbai underworld.
Apart from that the character of Varghese, a broker in Katti Batti (2014) was the only fleeting yet precise representation of a Hindi-speaking Malayali in the metropolis. More recently, Anu Menon’s Waiting (2016), which was set in Kochi, Kerala, also had a near perfect Malayali character.
Representation of the Malayali in Airlift
Airlift was a film which had ample scope for representing Malayalis, considering the Gulf region is home to millions of Malayali migrant workers, a substantial number of whom were among those stranded when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. They were, of course, represented but through the character of George Kutty (played by Prakash Belawadi), who had the capacity of underplaying himself and yet portraying the sceptical Malayali, critical of all, uncooperative, and abusive. The character of another rich Malayali, Kurian remains wishy-washy as Katyal’s drink buddy, who chips in when needed.
While the Malayali way of underplayed dressing, speaking, and body language was well captured by the director, the real narrative of courage was appropriated through the character of Ranjit Katyal, denying Malayalis their image of enterprising risk-takers in popular imagination. The Malayali population was represented as poor and helpless labourers, waiting for rescue, with the stereotype of the passive Malayali prevailing.
Finally it is Ranjit Katyal, who emerges as the hero; manages the sceptical, uncooperative Malayali; puts his life in danger, and rescues the stranded Indians from the clutches of the Iraqis. With the use of Punjabi metaphors and songs as well as references to the refugee situation during the partition, Airlift becomes another saga in building the myth of the valiant Punjabi.
Malayalis did their fair bit for the freedom struggle and have stood out as exemplary statesmen, military men, bureaucrats, and writers. The remittances from Malayalis settled abroad are more than what the central government pays to the state budget. Their entrepreneurial spirit has further contributed to the economies of the Gulf. Yet, the idea of a Malayali hero is inconceivable in Bollywood’s imagination. Malayali culture fails to get individual representation in popular culture and tends to get clubbed together with a stereotypical idea of Tamil culture, which in turn serves to stand for the whole of South India.
Besides, it is tough for Bollywood directors to find actors who may be able to play a firm, yet gentle and self-effacing Malayali. Despite Kerala being home to two of the finest actors in India – Mohanlal and Mamootty – it is telling that Raja Krishna Menon, the director of Airlift chose an actor from Bollywood and put him in the mould of two Malayali bravehearts – Mathunny Mathews and Vedi – to create a fictitious Ranjit Katyal, a Punjabi, to continue propitiating the legend of the brave, patriotic Punjabi in popular imagination.
 Recruitment and Literacy in World War I: Evidence from Colonial Punjab. Accessed 20/10/16
Duggal, K.S. 2008. ‘Sikhs in Freedom Struggle’. Mainstream Weekly (August). Accessed 25 October 2016.
Ishtiaq, A. 2016. ‘The Punjabi contribution to cinema’. The Friday Times (22 January 2016).
Elsa Mathews holds a Master’s degree in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies from Université Stendhal, Grenoble, France and University of Aarhus, Denmark.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.