After finishing Season 2 of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, I begin the wonder why Tamil movies have unidimensional typecast the Non-Resident Indian in its movies. Twitter handles such as @America_Maaplai showcase how popular the stereotyped US-character has become. The yesteryear concepts of an alliance with an American Mappillai being the epitome of success and bliss are outdated with audiences being more familiar with the character sketch of a pitiful and comical man who enters in the second half. The America Mappillai characterisation remains largely the same – good looking, tall, fair, in ownership of a great car and somewhat better versed in English than our locally bred Tamil hero. The stereotyped ‘London Ponnu’ is no different in character portrayal. Often typecast as a character with modern outfits (at least in the first half), then changing tones from stubborn to submissive in the later half.
An estimated 80 million Tamil speakers live in and outside of India and a large fraction of those overseas consume Tamil movies regularly and religiously – which begs the question – why has the NRI’s character never grown out of its clichéd image? Is there scope to move beyond the singular America Mappillai formula or his acquaintances; the Delhi-, Dubai-, London- and Bangalore Mappillais; who are carelessly conceptualised and ingrained in the common viewers mind.
In November 2016, stand-up comedian Karthik Kumar’s ‘Confessions of a Failed Actor’ made more than a few headlines. It stood as the first honest letter to us viewers describing an actor’s regretful casting choice and subsequent typecasting as Tamil cinema’s America Mappillai of choice in Alaipayuthey (2000), Kanda Naal Mudhal (2005) and a series of projects to follow. Karthik’s role was a more serious contrast to Arya’s comical take on the character in Siva Manasule Sakthi(2009) wherein both heroes come to friendly terms on how the plot will/should end and who will walk away with the girl. It came nearly a decade past the major tech wave, at a time when the US no longer reigned as the only country where money and H1B grow on trees.
The theme of superior NRI vs. inferior local hero in fact reaches back in cinema chronology and was explored in more ways (albeit not better ways) in other regional cinema. Malayalam cinema, for example, had already discovered the richness of parody and secured a few hit movies by making a mockery of NRI worship. In the mid 1980’s Mohanlal and Srinivasan take on the ‘imported hero’ and the iconic question posed by “M.A. Master of Arts” Davan Madhavan, “How many kilometres from Washington DC to Miami beach?” in Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu remains etched as Malayalam cinemas greatest comedy sketch till date. Years later, none other than prodigy son, Vineeth Sreenivasan’s take on the caricature (this time a retro-Gulf Mappillai) of the early 80s brought down the roof in Kunjiramayanam (2015). Both characterisations stood in direct contrast of the desirable rich groom – they were short, wore ill-fitting bell bottoms, hardly received the girls attention and were in desperate need to be esteemed by Indians in India at all expense and fanfare.
There have been handful of niche movies that have attempted to portray life of Indians overseas (Nala Damayanthi 2003, Achchamundu Achchamundu 2009, Leelai 2012, Pooda Podi 2012) but despite the noble idea the latter were movies primarily about Indians, perhaps more a pretext for filming overseas rather than about the NRI visiting India. Tamil movies have rarely offered a realistic take on the life of an overseas person whose sole tie remain in his/her parental roots with homeland India. Jacobinte Swargarajyam (2016) and Ustad Hotel (2013) inch nearer in portraying the difficulties of the Middle Eastern NRI and could perhaps be considered a refreshing new take of NRI character execution in southern cinema, but there’s scope for more.
In many ways, Master of None successfully plunges into the cold water and into this foreign terrain - the US Tamil immigrant’s world in New York City and Italy. It wakes us to the reality of life overseas and a brown person’s status as a minority group. It introduces us, through great characterisation, to a Muslim Netflix hero who will sneak out with his cousin to eat pork at a New York food fest, who will bring an American girlfriend home and later part from her (mind you not the other way round), a person who has straight as well as gay friends from all and walks of life and who will dismiss the income-generating professions (Medicine, IT, IT and IT) to escape to Italy to learn the culinary skills of pasta making instead. This particular Mappillai will try app-enabled blind dates with girls of his own ethnicity but won’t tolerate the excruciatingly painful small-talk about still versus sparkling water. His role is not limited in solely flying to India to steal our Tamil hero’s heroine. He has character, weaknesses, a past, a job (of his choice) coupled with a ‘mind voice’ of his own. Could we possible introduce such an American Mappillai to Tamil cinema? Could we? I eagerly await the moment.
Tamil film makers, go ahead; watch Master of None, steal good concepts with smug pride, if only in a humble attempt to portray the suitable overseas boys with a little empathy and a pinch of authenticity.
Written by - D. Arachi