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Are “curry munchers” racists ?

Stereotypical characters in a still from a popular 1968 film (comedy)  "Padosan"

Stereotypical characters in a still from a popular 1968 film (comedy) “Padosan”

Parramasala, they call it. It is an annual event wherein artists of Asian/Indian/African origin get to perform live. There are various events, competitions, stalls, stage shows etc that are part of this event. I’ve got to say that this year it was bigger than what it usually is, as the organisers managed to rope in the ‘Badshah(king )of Bollywood’ aka Shahrukh Khan along with Yo Yo Honey Singh (infamous rapper, read: http://bit.ly/1bStMMu), Madhuri Dixit, Rani Mukherjee and Jaqueline Fernandez.

As silly as it might sound, ‘Bollywood’ is something that most people outside of India consider as the ‘true’ reflection of India and even believe that it accurately portrays the way Indians live. Most people in India don’t lead such a fantastic life, filled with romance and grandeur. We certainly don’t break into a dance routine or a random song while we go about doing the not so dramatic routine things in life. So as an Indian in Sydney when I get asked about “Bollywood” and “Bollywood dancing”, I’m always amused, (infuriated?) and confused. I’m not ashamed of it; I love films, even what you call “Bollywood”. In fact I am a big fan of Indian film music and actors. However I do find it really hard to call all off that “Bollywood”.  Over 50 % of Indian films that are made every year are made outside of what people call “Bollywood”. India is so diverse and vast; it’s just cruel to ignore the fantastic cinema and music that comes out of this great nation every year outside of “Bollywood”.  This makes me really sad.

Living here in Sydney for over 7 years now, I have made efforts to empathise with the Non-Indian communities with regards to their perceptions about Indian films and the way they think we (Indians) think/live. What I find really hard to stomach though, is when other fellow Indians in Sydney don’t respect or even make an effort to understand films /music that is made outside of “Bollywood”.  In other words films/music that is not in Hindi (or Punjabi). This is apathy and to a large extent arrogance that is regularly encouraged amongst certain Indian communities. Some Indian people are encouraged to display their ignorance with pride.

Why do I say this? As a South Indian (Tamilian) who works for a Indian (predominantly Bollywood) radio station I face this discrimination on a daily basis. Not by my colleagues or my employer, but definitely by the listeners. “You don’t sound like a Tamilian” is not what I call a compliment! I am a South Indian and I’m not trying to hide that in anyway. I respect the Hindi language and strive hard to speak it the way it should be spoken. It’s not very different to how all Indians try and speak in English here in Sydney. “Please don’t play boring (non Bollywood/classical/folk) songs”, “Did you have idli dosa this morning?” these are but only a few examples of what some people say to me on the radio. WHY?

Isn’t this also what we call racism? Racial stereotyping?

Coming back to the Parramasala event, I was really excited about The Raghu Dixit Project’s performance this year. This was a free event. There were a few in the crowd who were unfamiliar with Raghu’s work. (Which is understandable, how do you expect Indians to know anything other than Bollywood anyway?) This man is absolutely phenomenal. His music is quintessentially Indian, with traces of rock, reggae and funk. His performance at Parramasala was stellar, there was not a single dull moment during his show.

But here’s what happened… Raghu Dixit and team were dressed in lungis and kurtas. Now thanks to Mr SRK (Shahrukh) the “lungi dance” has interestingly made everyone believe that when they spot a lungi they know exactly what to expect.  We had some people in the crowd shouting out “lungi dance” for reasons best known to them. So they wore lungis, and therefore they’d do the “lungi dance” right? WRONG!

Let’s explore what the lungi is, the lungi is a garment, that is worn across the globe by men and women in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India and Singapore. In saying that the lungi is also worn in the North of India by certain communities as well and is not necessarily a south Indian thing to sport a lungi.

Then I heard the same bunch say, “Have you watched Chennai Express?” “Lets say something like Deepika Padukone in the film” This film Chennai Express is the biggest box office hit this year in India. The film is a romantic comedy that deliberately presents the tamil community/society in a one dimensional stereotypical (mythical?) fashion. The Tamil folk in the film are out-smarted and out-witted by the protagonist who hails from the north (Mumbai?!). Not sure if calling this a comedy helps one get away with the unapologetic stereotyping, which by the way was marketed as the film’s USP!

Deepika Padukone, is not even a Tamil in real life. She hails from Bangalore, her native tongue being Konkani. Her effort to look Tamil was rather comical, brash, garish bordering on offensive in the film. However people loved her in the film. Barring a few, no one had issues with the blatant racial stereotyping that was carried out throughout the film. When people within India couldn’t care less, why should one expect the Indians living abroad to know any better.

So lets examine SRK’s event here in Sydney, with tickets ranging from $99 to a whopping $700+ to watch him perform for Parramasala (Allphones arena), some obviously could not afford to see their “hero” performing ‘live’ in Sydney. SRK’s star power is unparalleled! SRK is an intelligible man, with a great sense of humour and is immensely talented. I also respect the fact he’s a self-made man, with no godfathers to back him up in the film industry, that is filled with stars and star families (dynasties?). The ticket prices were definitely justified. That’s not the point though. When the audience pays for a concert they’re there at the venue with the intent to watch a certain artist perform. Unfortunately if it’s a free event, some are not prepared in their heads for a performance.

(To me SRK is like say, Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr. I honestly don’t see what SRK was capable of doing live. He cannot sing, he can barely dance and I’m sure that this wasn’t an awards ceremony that he was hosting. Just what did people want to see at this event? They wanted to catch a fleeting glimpse of their favourite actor and all that, but that’s just about it! )

This is not a rant about SRK, it’s about the way people think. Why do Indians complain so much about racial discrimination when they are themselves capable of doing the samething to other Indians outside of their own community?

This rather audacious group in the audience at Raghu’s show were terribly loud. I was standing right next to them, they were catcalling, booing, making inappropriate remarks, clapping, jeering… they just wanted attention. I was mentally preparing myself to smack these people across their faces. I’m barely 5 feet tall, of a petite built, not intimidating in appearance in anyway …I somehow imagined myself successfully tackling 6 feet tall, well built men and their well built female companions (Indian Punjabis!). I was getting distracted and I hated it! Raghu noticed the group and said this ” this is my show fellas, I’m on stage…so thank you, we can manage on our own”

The group got the attention they needed and I gave them the death stare. The girl in the group moved away and offered me a spot in the front row, saying, “I don’t understand what he’s singing!” Then slowly but definitely the group vanished. I thought that this would be the end of the torture. But no, it wasn’t!

Raghu Dixit and band were also performing the following night and the closing night at Parramasala. Now while they were performing again on stage, there were a few voices in the crowd that went like this “Raghu, BOLLYWOOOD!” “Raghu, Jhalak Diklaja!” (http://colors.in.com/rotw/jhalak-dikhhla-jaa/) they were loud and clear. After ignoring it for a while, Raghu retorted “I’m sure SRK and Madhuri would show you Bollywood, we’re not here to do that” he even joked about it saying, “Madhuri will surely show you a better Jhalak “, “We haven’t shaved our chests today” he chuckled. While the conversation went on, Gaurav Vaz the manager of the band and the Bass Guitarist had to intervene and say, “this seems like a long conversation, why don’t you email Raghu later?” “SRK is here for Bollywood, you can PAY and watch that, haha” He smiled as he said this.

I was so embarrassed! Australia is not as culturally vibrant as say, the UK or The USA. Indian artists, musician and actors don’t really think of Australia as the greatest destination to perform and very rarely do we see (independent artists/bands) musician’s like Raghu Dixit perform in Sydney, that too for free! I thought to myself, that he might never want to come back here after this!

I met Raghu and asked him about what he felt about these incidents, he just said that a disruptive audience prevents genuine fans from enjoying the show. There was no bitterness, just concern that he had expressed in response to my question. Raghu Dixit is not new to the music industry; He has performed over 250 concerts across India. Performed at various well-known venues, festivals and radio stations across the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raghu_Dixit). His album was the biggest non -“Bollywood” album in India. He has collaborated with several musicians, even made film music (yes, that includes “Bollywood”). It’s a bit unlikely for an Indian to not have heard of this man. However the fact that he was a South Indian and wore a lungi suddenly made it ‘okay’ for the crowd to behave badly and make uncouth remarks.

Now if that’s the plight of a well-known popular artist/celebrity, what hope does an ordinary Tamil speaking South Indian like me have? I am forced to believe that a North Indian will be racist and loud, I am meant to grind my teeth and swallow my anger and pride and smile in silence, in response. That’s the only solution to this I suppose. As the popular saying goes…“If you argue with an idiot, there are two idiots”.  Not pointing a finger at anyone…just saying  🙂

My brush with reality

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As a radio broadcaster, I tend to hear from different kinds of people. I don’t really get to pick and choose my listeners. I don’t get to choose when and where they  listen to my show, I don’t get to choose who calls me to contribute to my show , I don’t get to choose what they say or are about to state to the world at my show’s expense (maybe I do get to cut someone off and make it look like a technical lapse, but there’s really not much that I can actually control during a live broadcast)

That is the context of my rant/blog/observation! And yes, I did forget to tell you that I work for an Indian radio station in Sydney.

Immigrants are a confused lot.

The newer ones are trying to cope with the culture shock, at the same time trying hard to look like they fit in. You can spot them quite easily in a crowd, even on the radio when they call. You hear their angst and loneliness straight away!

Then there’s the newly rich types, who have made a fortune following the Aussie way, who believe that they are now suddenly opinion leaders for the world and have an opinion (which is always the ‘right’ opinion) about everything and anything! (the most annoying kinds, especially on the radio)

The funniest ones are those immigrants who are so desi at heart that their attempts at putting on a fake accent and the “Aussie” attitude are a big fail. Loud and clear for the world to hear on the radio!

How can one forget the desi aunties and uncles, who regularly call and act as the moral police , correcting grammar, ethos and choice of topics, words…even sounds/songs on my show. These are the scary ones. Not only are they unhappy with the western way of life they have been forced to accept (thanks to their children/ husband) they want to vent and they find the radio the best place to express themselves.

What is common with all these people? (yes, they’re all desi and confused- obviously!) This might sound confusing, these people are happy to remain unidentified/anonymous , (no one can see them) and yet they want to be heard and they want their opinion to be acknowledged even accepted (sometimes imposed on) by everyone who’s listening. They are not inhibited in any way and they let their unfiltered thoughts and words ,come out and reach millions through the radio.

Would I do this, would you? I know that I’m not infallible, at some stage in our lives we’ve all called a radio station. Well I’m sure that you’ve at least requested for a song and dedicated it to someone? Yes, guilty as charged!

However only few of us have the special knack of creating a controversy , anger even distress through our comments. This my love, is always done intentionally (you may deny it, it’s a free world, lol !) This is the sinister kind. I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard this individual call and state their opinion and thought to yourself “OMG! did the guy/girl actually say this on the radio?” “How silly?” (“psychopath?” ).

It usually starts with a innocent little “hello/good morning”  (read: let me spoil your day/show…). I have done a talk back show for 4 years now and I’ve got to say it’s easy to catch the repeat offender. However it’s not easy to catch them on their first call, sometimes even on their 3rd call.

It’s called building a rapport with the presenter. Say some really nice things about the show, maybe request a song or even wish someone a Happy Birthday. Then it moves on to some celebrity bashing. This is a sign… People find it too easy to speak about celebrities, who have no way to defend themselves on the radio. This gives them a sense of accomplishment. To a great extent this seems to be the content of most talk back shows/ shows. “Call up and scream your hate for a celebrity/ celebrity faux pas” type of show have high TRPs / listenership for a reason! It becomes a bit unreasonable and irrelevant though when one brings it up out of context. That is a clear sign…

What happens next ? I am always confused if this is like a one-off thing or if it’s the worst it can get OR if this is going get crazy and spiral  out of control…

Should I name and shame? No, not going to give these people more attention than they already get by their unusual bordering on mental behaviour. I can tell you the story though ( maybe 2, lol?) , these people are always looking for attention and you’ve heard them , you know their names (not confined to my show alone, that is…)

So, one of my ‘clever’ or should I say ‘noble’ ideas one day was to talk about the much debated issue of ‘burqa ban’ . This was like asking for trouble. I knew I was going get some really passionate opinions from people. However, I was thoughtful enough to pose a question steering clear of the debate about religion, and making it a debate about the freedom of choice. The question went something like this- “And the controversial Burqa debate continues… Shouldn’t the Girls/Women who wear it decide rather than others debating the issue, to decide what is appropriate for a woman to wear? Aap ka kya khayal hai? (what’s your take?)” . I made it amply clear that we’re not debating religion here.

Can you guess what happened next? A contentious debate on Islam – NO, it wasn’t (and thank God for that!) . There were some feminist comments, some progressive ideas and thoughts expressed. And then there was a call by this man who used to call me for sweet little song requests,  who suddenly lost his mind. So he stated on the show live, that he believed, that women wear make-up and dress up fashionably to get attention and are inviting trouble from men on purpose. He went on to say that he would himself be driven to misbehave or at least have malicious thoughts in his mind if women dressed in a certain manner. ( yes, I did not see this coming, well at least not a confession about himself on the radio for the world to hear), I exclaimed ” are you actually saying this on the radio about yourself ?” followed by some fake laughter. He was undeterred by my comment and went on to say that I was somehow bored with this response. I was quick to respond “I am definitely not Bored”. I then did something that I am rather proud of to this day. (will tell you why in a second) I said “thank you for your participation, you’ve stated YOUR opinion”. He wasn’t expecting me to close him off like this, he wanted to agitate me further , he was doing his best. He went on say ,” you don’t agree with me” (sounded more like , “you don’t like me or what I said”) I was quick to reply “I am a presenter and I’m not here to judge you or your opinion, that is not my job, so thanks and have a good day Sir”.

I wasn’t screaming, I wasn’t showing my anger, didn’t encourage further conversation or debate. I said these words in the sweetest intonation, in the most non-committal way possible. He had nothing to say after that, except’ “have a good day maite!” (this is him desperately trying to sound Aussie)

Thankfully he happened to be the last caller and the show ended in a couple of minutes after that conversation ended. His words though resonated in my head. Having come this far , out of India, this man has spent enough number of years to make a living here. One would think that exposure to a less oppressive society where women are free to wear what they like, date before marriage, work for a living and even hold positions of great power and authority, would have affected his sensibilities.

But his misguided values, his opinions were still the same. This I believe had nothing to do with where he lived or where he was originally from. This was an incurable mentality. I breathed a sigh of relief that my brush with reality happened on the radio and not in person! I went back to do my show and carried on business the next day as usual (offcourse , this guy never called me back or maybe somehow keeps getting disconnected while trying to do so?)

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