Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beliefs, Blackness and Hollywood

So yesterday, I (despite voicing vociferous protests favoring clubbing) watched “The Perfect Holiday”. The movie was as unremarkable a chick-flick as any. With nary a story nor strong characters, it’s only saving grace was that it ended. Thought it boasted a cast starring Queen Latifah, Terrence Howard, Kat Williams and Charlie Murphy, it felt insipid and deprived of star power and substance.

But were the minutes and dollars another fruitless offering to the Gods of Lost Causes? In the words of Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister (in Home Alone), “I don’t think so.”

The male protagonist in the movie, played by Morris Chestnut, works as a part-time Santa in a New Jersey mall. When he first came up on screen, I was a little surprised, which instantly caused me to be shocked, chagrined and curious at my own surprise. Much as I am ashamed to admit it, I was surprised to see a non-Caucasian Santa. I am not a Christian and as such couldn’t care less about a Pagan icon usurped by a religion and subsequently, exploited to be (allegedly) the most successful Coke commercial ever, a.k.a, the judgmental, elf-sweatshop-running, north-pole-dwelling, non-tax-paying, creepy-privacy-invading Santa Claus. St. Nicholas, God bless his soul, would surely be just as repulsed by his current, pop-commercial avatar.

However, I was now curious to know why I was surprised to see St. Nicholas be represented by a person of color. I thought back to the times when I was a kid and seated myself on the lap of a stranger, dressed in red-overalls and white facial hair as fake as his concern. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a St. Nick without white gloves. All the Santas I remember were definitely played by brown-skinned Indians (most happened to be Malayali Christians, if I recall my impressions correctly), yet, they had ample makeup on their skin to make them look more like the Russian/European version of a Caucasian Santa.

I don’t know how Santa is represented in other parts of the world including primarily non-Caucasian neighborhoods in the US, but it got me thinking as to why the idea of a benevolent, caring, human spirit should be limited to a specific pigmentation level. I can’t see any valid reason except brainwashing, xenophobia and insensitivity inspired by cultural ignorance.

If the argument is made that the original St. Nick is perhaps from Western Europe and is consequently Caucasian, then it would offer a weak, albeit acceptable justification for the “whitening” of Santa. However, wouldn’t the same logic apply then to Christ? Christ was a Jew in the Middle East and consequently probably looked more like Usama Laden than Jerry Fallwell. Am I well ensconced in blasphemy already or do I have room for more? If I am blasphemous, why is this logic incorrect? By way of contradiction, since logic is consistent, there is no justification to whiten Santa Claus if Christ can’t be browned. The next thing you know, God can’t be a woman or black.

My main thrust is that human ideals, spirit and concepts are colorless. They are defined by action, not by color, birth, gender, race, religion, class or caste. Anything that leads us to believe otherwise is heresy.

P.S.: T, the title is a unabashed play on your blog. Thanks! So you must comment ;)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Language is pointless only

I recently read a very interesting piece about how the common language in India is changing. Perhaps for the worse, or perhaps for the better.

[ quote ]
To me, the language being employed is, at best, a strange cocktail of Hindi, Urdu, English and Bombaiya and some extra-terrestial tongue. The grammar has been done away with.


1. Head lines are plain crazy or idiotic. Take this as an example

"Nahin Zamanat Milegi Sunjay Dutt ko". I fail to understand the syntax. A lot of racking of my small brain has resulted in a conjecture that the headlines are first composed in English( "No bail for Sanjay Dutt") and then translated verbatim to the cocktailish language hypothesized earlier.

Take another one "Mobile ab ban gaya Rupaiya". You can not ( I could not) make out as to which has become what. Subject and object are entirely interchangeable.


This misuse / abuse is not restricted to speech alone, it is endemic and has found its way into writing too. Even in film titles this grave error is regularly committed with impunity. 'Kitne Cool Hai Hum' is one example.

[ /quote ]

Naturally, I had something to say in return... my comments are listed below

---- begin comments ---
A very eloquent and thought-provoking piece. I do agree with you that current trend in the evolution of India's lingua franca is startling if not disturbing. I agree and understand most of the examples listed, and also truly enjoyed the mondegreen of "fees di".

However, and here is where I play the Devil's advocate, I do not think that these are all bad in of themselves. I do see certain positives here, mixed with a touch of inevitability.


1. The evolution of language is but a side effect of a larger section of the population getting a voice

2. With the barriers on correctness going down, a greater section of the population feels empowered to speak up and participate. I believe the artificial hesitation that goes with not knowing the "correct way" to vocalize thoughts and ideas is melting away, and that can only be a good thing.

3. for the longest time our nation has not spoken the same language. If it takes a mash up language to unite across the country, then so be it. it is high time the DMK progeny realized that the North isn't evil and likewise the North make efforts to achieve common ground. Ironically, Bollywood with its populist, psuedointellectual fare offers the most palatable mechanism of unification.


1. The "bad" language is and has been for the longest time the language of the masses. The intellectuals with concern for the propriety of language (or anything for that matter) have always been in the minority (influential or otherwise). Since trends are always determined by the masses, it is no surprise (at least to me) that the "devolution" of lingua franca is along this trajectory. Had this not been the case, we might still be using Sanskrit instead of the easier Prakrit derived Hindi or Latin instead of the robust, modern day bastard language that is English.

2. For the very same reasons that English is a bastard language, it is robust, virile, popular and alive. Unfortunately, Hindi (like other Indian languages) has for the longest time been in the slow throes of death. I believe it is finally giving way to a more amalgamated, stronger, popular "Indian" tongue. We are perhaps now truly beginning to speak "Indian".

3. From a more theoretical, philosophical perspective, this is the Second Law of Thermodynamics in action. Things progress in the direction of increasing Entropy. Often this is misinterpreted as "disorder always increases". I believe a better misinterpretation is "to maintain order, a greater effort (or equivalent forms of energy) must be expended".
4. Taking a statistical interpretation: even if we assume that the number of language infractions each person makes is a small proportion of the total sentences they create/ speak in their lifetime (or without loss of generality in any finite period of time), the probability of at least one infraction being heard across the population (assuming a densely connected population by virtue of ubiquitous mass communication media) is a simple union of individual probabilities. For an increasingly huge population such as India's this number would fairly quickly begin to approach unity, implying that at any point in time, almost all communication sampled would be erroneous.

Bottom line: To me this means that short of Herculean efforts and irresistible incentives towards maintaining language propriety, the language evolution juggernaut will gather steam unabated. It is best to recognize this change as natural, understand it and channel it.

Put another way, “If we will khaali-peeli keep khujaoing our dimaag, nothing will happen. Jisko jo bolneka hai, they will keep saying that. All we care is apne ko samjhta hai ki nahin and if saamne wala understands us or not? Right? Thanda lene ka and fokat ka fight nahin maarne ka!”
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