There was a time when the only people who watched Malayalam commercial films outside Kerala were members of the Keralite Diaspora.
In the 1980s and 90s Keralites abroad used to rent pirated VHS video cassettes of the latest Malayalam films.
It was highly unlikely that a non-Malayali would have made such an effort to watch the latest Mammooty or Mohanlal film.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist when Mohanlal and Sreenivasan put on makeup to look like African-Americans in the film ‘Akkare Akkare Akkare.’
As a child growing up in the United States, I watched in horror as the actors in their roles as CID officers told K P A C Lalitha that they were “original Black Negroes!”
As someone who was at the receiving end of racist abuse in the U.S., thanks in part to the stereotypes of Indians on TV shows and films, it was deeply disturbing to watch an Indian film making fun of African-Americans.
(I grew up in Queens, New York and have kept in touch with many of my childhood African-American friends).
Even in the early 1990s, the makeup and the dialogues were highly inappropriate and racist.
It’s never ‘harmless fun’ if an entire set of people can find something offensive.
So what makes me bring up this film from another era? This week, I was among a small audience in Mumbai that watched the Mohanlal-starrer ‘Ittymaani: Made in China.’
Whatever critics have said about the film, I enjoyed the Malayalam film icon’s acting as well as the strong and relevant social message conveyed. There was also a glimpse into the lives of a small Catholic community in a Kerala village.
The jokes in the film about China’s duplicate goods industry were mostly within limits and weaved into the dialogues.
At the same time, it was nice to hear Chinese being spoken regularly. As someone who has been learning the language for the last few months, I enjoyed the dialogues in accented Mandarin.
But a song at the beginning of the film titled ‘Bomma Bomma’ had words like “Ching Ching, Ching Chang, Ping Pong.” This is considered racist in most parts of the world and mocks not only the Chinese language and people but even those with features that can be mistaken for Chinese.
Many restaurants in Kerala employ people from India’s northeast. In my brief interactions with them, I have come to understand that they are mostly happy in the state and face far less harassment than they do in Delhi or other parts of India.
The word ‘Chinky’ is thankfully not common in Kerala. In 2012, the Indian Home Ministry made it a criminal offence to use that slur against people from the North East. It should have, by default, been extended to anyone of East Asian or South-east Asian appearance.
Since commercial cinema is such a powerful medium, it is important to ensure that racist stereotypes are not promoted in movies.
Malayalam cinema is well ahead of the pack when it comes to showing a mirror to the society.
The discerning audience rejects poorly-made films and poorly-written scripts. What I personally enjoy the most about commercial Malayalam films is that they showcase the cultural and religious diversity of the state.
They also spare no attempt to be critical of practices within each community.
In ‘Ittymaani: Made in China,’ there are several attempts to promote Kerala’s communal harmony such as the depiction of an inter-faith football match, and by deploying Puikali (Tiger Dance) dancers during a Christmas procession. However, the world is much more than Kerala.
In a globalized world, there is no “us and them.”
With Kerala growing in popularity as a global tourist destination, there is also a newfound interest in the state’s traditions, culture, arts and cinema. Now, with Malayalam films being screened abroad with English subtitles, there are more takers.
It’s essential that our films be mindful of this and not be careless when it comes to the feelings of non-Malayalis and foreigners.
A well-made commercial Malayalam film can find takers in foreign markets.
The success of films like ‘3 Idiots’ and ‘Dangal’ in China should be an eye-opener for filmmakers in Kerala.
They don’t necessarily need themes that are tailor-made for foreign audiences, but their sensitivities need to be respected.
(Views expressed are personal)