5 turning points in the portrayal of the turbaned Sikh protagonist in Hindi films
We list five major turns in portrayal of the turbaned Sikh protagonist in Hindi films.
In a recent interview, Manjot Singh of Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye-fame revealed how the tinsel town still sees the actor in Turban. He said, “though it is changing slowly, but the stereotype of funny Sardar character is everywhere. I have to be conscious with my choices, just because I am a Sardar, doesn’t mean I am always funny”. Earlier this year, Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh also voiced similar sentiments. But what are they talking about?
Imtiaz Ali, the director of Jab We Met & Love Aaj Kal, has an interesting story to share. When asked about why he chose a Sikh protagonist for his 2009 hit Love Aaj Kal, Ali said, "I come from Jamshedpur and there is a sardar in my close group of friends. Whenever we would think of going to a movie, he would say, "What's the point? It's not as if by watching films I can get into the industry. Sardars don't make it in films." That got me wondering why a sardar can't be a hero?"
But Ali is wrong, Sardars have been heroes. Just not as much as their non-turbaned compatriots. Sikhs have been conventionally represented in popular Hindi cinema either as brave warriors or as uncouth rustics. And Canadian citizen Akshay Kumar has successfully been at both ends of the spectrum. From playing a brave and bumbling fool in Singh is Kinng (2009) to playing a brave in Kesari (2019), Kumar is often indetifed as someone who has donned the turban in several films . But between that, the portrayal of the turbaned Sikh has seen a lot of twists and turns.
In this list we look at the 5 important junctures of the Sikh portrayal in Hindi films
5. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001)
Although 1990s films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) included attractive images of Sikhs, Hindi cinema could introduce a Sikh protagonist only in the new millennium in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001). The success of this film led to a profusion of Sikh heroes in Bollywood, which is in stark contrast to the Bollywood of 1960s and 1970s when a hero had to be clean-shaven, fair and Hindu. The Sikh, earlier was consigned and confined to character roles. "It was assumed that a turbaned Sikh with a beard didn't have pan-India mass appeal. Also, they were viewed as representatives of a particular community with a distinct style of speaking," says Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla citing examples of Dharmendra in Tarachand Barjatya's Jeevan Mrityu (1970) and Prem Nath in Manmohan Desai's Desh Premee (1982). "At best, a sardar played a good friend to the hero or was relegated to being a side character/comedian," he says.
4. Singh is Kingg (2009)
The next turning point for a turbaned Sikh protagonist came with Akshay Kumar’s 2009 Superhit Singh in Kingg. Though India saw a star of Kumar’s stature donning the turban and headlining a film apparently celebrating the ’Singh’ (a common Sikh surname) for the first time, but it was the culmination of the Punjabi characters slowly becoming the protagonists of most of the ‘multiplex films’. Film scholars are of then opinion that the urban, multiplex films had hitherto alienated the cinema-going middle-class audience of north Indian heartland. To target them, the producers turned their focus on characters who look and speak like them. So this was a business-oriented action taken to cater to the ethos of that territory. But with its chartbuster soundtrack and mass appeal, Singh is Kingg paved the way for a host of films which would have the turbaned Sikh as the protagonist.
3. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)
A brave portrayal of a turbaned Sikh hero came about in Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, where the scion of the Kapoor family donned the turban to give the audience a taste of a non-stereotypical Sikh. Writer Jaideep Sahni said that he was naturally disinclined towards the 6'2" kind of hunk imagery, and maybe as a result of that came about Bollywood’s first working-class, non-jacked Sikh protagonist- free from ‘brave warrior or uncouth rustic’ dichotomy. Ranbir Kapoor’s Harpreet Singh Bedi was a common man with a bright idea to start a business. He didn’t have be unnaturally funny or a warrior to be Sikh protagonist, which was a breath of fresh air. However, in retrospect, this sticks out as the exception, not the rule.
2. Udta Punjab (2016)
While Bollywood displaced the Sikh in its portrayal, and exoticised the Sikh-Punjabi culture as a site of non-technologized rusticity; the Punjabi film industry was going through a revival, which coincided with the Sikh’s attempt at finding authentic self-representation on the silver screen. And out came a superstar called Diljit Dosanjh. A ‘desi Munda’, who carried an affable, real personality while showing the economic blossoming of the Sikh diaspora in his clothes and cars. Also the fact that both his acting and singing could make people swoon, did not hurt his case. This Punjabi film sensation debuted in Abhishek Chaubey’s critical and commercial success Udta Punjab. The film dealt with a very real problem Punjab is facing- the drug problem, and Diljit played the character of junior policeman whose brother overdoses on drugs. Diljit’s portrayal of Sartaj Singh was devoid of the exoticisation, or unnecessary valorisation that Sikh protagonists faced till then. It felt like just another etched out character facing the problems of the narrative, which was definitely refreshing. Also, Finally a Sikh protagonist was being played by a Sikh.
1. Sacred Games (2018-19)
When Sacred Games (directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane) came out, it changed the way one expected from Indian content. Not only did it help revolutionise the Indian small screen, but it also showed Bollywood, the stuff it hadn’t done in so many years. And one of them was a Sikh cop in Mumbai, who becomes a part of the titular Sacred Games. In a world full of gangsters, corrupt politicians and dirty cops, Sartaj Singh became our gateway into that land. Not only does Sartaj wear a Kada & the turban, but he feels emotions like longing, has ambition, inquisitiveness and a human touch. Sartaj being Sikh is extremely important to the plot of the series, but it never becomes a hindrance or a stereotype, which is a long way from lets say how Sikhs were portrayed in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.