Much like what happened in Jim Crow-era America, popular culture here, especially the movies, are rife with casteist caricatures and profit from it.

NetflixImage courtesy: Netflix
Flix FILM COMMENTARY Monday, August 09, 2021 - 12:55

Google the history of “sambo” and “coon” jokes, the products of Jim Crow-era America and you will find the historic overlap between racism, white supremacy, segregation and slavery. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, many American states, especially in the south, had Jim Crow laws. These laws were put in place to enforce racial segregation. Black people were considered second class citizens and these laws legitimised anti-black racism.

In America, during that time, everything from childrens’ books to Hollywood movies profited of this caricature, that propagated a crude portrayal of black people as slow-witted, ugly, bestial-looking (“coon” was a derivative of raccoon, the animal, says the Jim Crow Museum website), monstrous, lazy, inhuman. Popular culture serves both to defy social injustices and to cast bigotry in iron-clad armour—and in this case it revealed the hatred in white America’s belly.

This isn’t a short lesson on the racist tropes in American cinema. Unamusingly, I’m really here to talk about Navarasa’s ‘Summer of ‘92’, the Yogi Babu segment in the nine-part anthology film that is streaming on Netflix. The segment is dedicated to ‘hasya’ or humour.

If I have to start by drawing parallels to white supremacy in old Hollywood films, it says enough about how little sensitisation there seems to be about caste within a multinational company like Netflix that puts out voluminous content in India.

“Panni-munji vaaya” (pig-face), “aadhu panni maathiri irrukum aana nai dhaan” (it looks like a pig, but it’s really a dog): these were the comic offerings on display in the short film– dialogues spoken about a character who is from a marginalised-caste, most likely Dalit. We know his caste-location because his dark-skin, curly hair and facial features are bestialised, we also learn it from his father’s hope to send him off to Sri Lanka to work as a plantation-labourer. 

Casteism passes for humour

The appalling jibes come from upper-caste and Brahmin characters. The twist in the plot is how this marginalised-caste protagonist loses control of a situation and brings an excrement-covered dog in contact with a Brahmin family who are apparently too “aacharam” (pure) to be around even well-bathed animals. The joke isn’t at their expense, no, because it’s he who has to apologise for the past as a grown man. The people who called him “panni munju”, “sandala” (another casteist slur spoken by a Brahmin character) were just being funny.

A large portion of audiences, reviewers have not protested against any of this. These lines got written into the script, the movie got made, a platform of towering proportions like Netflix streams it. So, at no point was the question, “can we allow casteism to pass for humour?” raised. Or did it pass muster because of the deafening silence they knew it would receive?

This isn’t a singular occurrence in Tamil cinema either—an industry consumed by an obsession for light-skin, especially for women. It has set in stone for decades that light-skin is beauty, dark-skin is fair game for ridicule. But without a hint of irony “thamizhan da” sentiments are set to the perfect musical scores, if the plot permits even half a chance. No points for noting that “beautiful Tamil girls” should ideally be pale North Indian women. Or at least just pale. The hatred in the Tamil Film industry’s belly comes from internalising caste hierarchies, and subscribing to Brahmanical tenets of beauty. Yogi Babu like many actors who look like him are routinely subject to barbs about their hair, skin, face and figure. Like “sambo” and “coon” caricatures, this subset of comedy holds a mirror up to a casteist-society.  

I’d colour myself unconvinced by the “introspective” statements about race and (mis)representation that streaming giants made last year in support of Black Lives Matter. I wouldn’t be alone in this scepticism. They’ve been forced to have a reckoning of sorts, perhaps because the fight for racial justice in America or in Europe have had mainstream reach. Public figures take stands. In India, we have far too many celebrities who talk about caste-pride and a handful who say anything about social justice. 

What representation do Bahujan communities have in the India offices of OTT platforms, if they do what would be the personal cost of speaking against casteism in the company’s content? It’s up to those in the cinema industry itself, those of us skirting the expansive borderlands of this industry as writers, reviewers, podcast makers, YouTube hosts, the audience with their consuming power, to make streaming giants nervous about providing a platform for casteism.

Read: 'Navarasa' review: Some interesting films, some misses in this 9 film saga

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