Identity Politics in 2 States
Contradiction between Tamils as the ‘Other’ and ‘We are one India’
2 States’ simple title concisely describes the film’s central conflict –– the clash between two Indian states. Released in 2014, this classic Bollywood modern-day love story of Ananya, a south Indian girl from the state of Tamil Nadu, and Krish, a north Indian boy from Punjab. Not only are these states geographically separated, but their cultures, traditions, and languages are as well. In India, it is commonly said that marriage is not only between two people, but between two families. Thus, Ananya and Krish decide to seek parental approval before getting married. Although this sounds like a straightforward task, the vastly different cultures make a marital union of individuals from these two states almost a miracle.
In my paper, I argue that the film’s ending of a ‘single Indian identity’ contradicts the film’s treatment of the Tamils as the lesser ‘other.’ At the same time, the happy ending can potentially be attributed to the rising Indian nationalist political environment during the 2014 national elections. I begin by examining how Bollywood treats Tamilians negatively in other films, and proceed to talk about how their “otherness” comes through in this film. 2 States portrays the Tamils as the ‘Other’ through its dialogues in the narrative, and also with Ananya and her family’s constant compliance with Punjabi traditions and values. As an industry, Bollywood has strong north Indian roots, which may have further contributed to the otherness depicted in its films. This otherness is most prominent in the song “Iski Uski” (His Hers), where Ananya has to integrate into Krish’s identity at the expense of her Tamilian one, to be accepted by the Punjabis. However, there is a contradiction. Despite this construction of otherness, the overall message of the film is of unification and creation of a single Indian identity. The rising Indian nationalistic movement and the search for a single Indian identity during the elections in 2014 may provide a possible explanation for the film’s overall message.
Tamils as the ‘Other’
2 States portrays the Tamils as the ‘other’ through its narrative dialogues, casting, and song-dance sequence. This seems to be used to socialize Ananya in the Punjabi ways. For context, Tamils are from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Most Tamils are Hindus from the Brahmin caste, which is the highest caste. Tamil Nadu is one of the most literate states, as Tamils tend to value education highly, especially in medicine and engineering. However, their depiction in Bollywood films has been less than stellar. Due to their southern geographical location, most Tamilians, particularly the men, tend to have darker skin tone. The Bollywood’s obsession with whiteness often causes the films to ridicule Tamilians for their dark skin (Gehlawat 67). For example, in Chennai Express, Shah Rukh Khan plays a relatively fair-skinned modern Punjabi man who fights darker-skinned, “savagely” portrayed south Indian men. Moreover, Bollywood films often exaggerate Tamilians’ Hindi and English accent for comic effects. For instance, in Chennai Express, the female lead, Deepika Padukone, plays a Tamilian, but she speaks in a highly exaggerated Malayalam accent, a language from the south Indian state of Kerala. These elements are also present in 2 States to construct the Tamilian identity as the ‘Other,’ and to allow Ananya to integrate into the Punjabi lifestyle by shedding her Tamilian identity.
The film is most explicit in isolating Ananya and her parents’ distinct Tamilian identity through the term Madrasi in the narrative. Madrasi is a derogatory term, commonly used to refer to linguistically and culturally diverse people from south India, not exclusive those from Chennai city, formerly called Madras. The film uses “madrasi” repeatedly to remind viewers of Ananya’s distinct identity, and how this identity poses a threat to the couples’ relationship. For example, during the graduation scene, the first thing Krish’s mom says when she sees Ananya’s parents is “Oh, they are Madrasi?” Krish corrects her and says “Tamilian,” to which she responds, “It’s the same thing.” The use of the term shows Krish’s mom’s ignorance about the ethnically and linguistically diverse south Indian region. Despite the fact that Krish tries to correct her, she continues to refer to them as “madrasi” later in the film. At this point, the use of the term goes beyond simple ignorance, and shows his mother’s disregard in acknowledging and respectfully identifying Ananya’s family as Tamilian. Her continuous use of the term also shows her displeasure with the relationship, and how she does not care enough to correct herself. In contrast, Ananya’s family do not have as clear and short a phrase to express their annoyance with the Punjabis. They are restricted to some facial expressions and dialogues in Tamil, often not audible or subtitled. Their exchanges in Tamil almost become part of the ambient sound, further emphasizing both their difference, and their lack of relevance or assertiveness. Hence, the term “madrasi” is used often to highlight Ananya’s Tamilian family’s otherness, especially because there is no parallel term for Krish’s Punjabi’s family.
Ananya is also judged by Krish’s Punjabi family, which both diminishes her identity, and dehumanizes her to some degree. Right before the beginning of the song “Iski Uski,” Ananya is sitting next to elderly Punjabi women. Ananya is visibly uncomfortable and annoyed as the woman tell her “How can a Madrasi be so fair?” When the woman is corrected about the ‘Madrasi’ term use, she exclaims, “It’s the same thing.” She reacts the same as Krish’s mom in disregarding Ananya’s Tamilian identity. She then questions Ananya’s right to be pretty. For this Punjabi woman, the right to be beautiful belongs only to the north Indians, and Ananya does not fit her stereotype of a south Indian. Hence, she is baffled, and tries to diminish Ananya’s rights as a Tamilian. Later on, the Punjabi woman also says “For Madrasi standard, she is very pretty.” This again is problematic, as it is a back-handed compliment. Although she admits that Ananya is pretty, she also makes it clear that Ananya can never compete with Punjabi girls. Lastly, the woman makes fun of Ananya’s name and mispronounces it as if it is too exotic, further highlighting Ananya’s foreignness. Ananya and her Tamilian roots are a source of amusement for Punjabis, as they judge her from an ethnocentric point of view.
Throughout the film, Ananya’s family was more compliant in adapting to the Punjabi needs. For the sake of their daughter, the family was more willing to adhere to Punjabi traditions of gift-giving, even offering a dowry, which is taboo among educated Tamilians. During a lunch in Mumbai, Ananya’s family brings two bags full of gifts for Krish’s mom. Krish’s mom had complained that it was culturally inappropriate that Ananya’s family did not bring a gift for her. In the same scene, an intense fight between Krish’s mom and Ananya’s parents is initiated by Krish’s mom. Even after angrily leaving the hotel, Ananya’s parents come back to sort out the problem, for their daughter’s sake. Despite the effort, Krish’s mom is still rude to them and is unwilling to compromise. Thus, Ananya’s family seems much more willing to sacrifice their Tamilian traditions and values for the Punjabi family’s satisfaction. The Punjabis make no attempt at adjusting to respect Tamilian culture, until the end of the film. This final, quiet compliance links to the patriarchal culture of north Indians, where the bride’s family is supposed to be submissive to the groom. Although south Indians have a relatively more equal power balance in their weddings, Ananya’s parents are willing to comply with Punjabi ways for Ananya’s happiness.
As an industry, Bollywood productions represent north Indian customs more so than India as whole. In 2 States, Krish is played by Arjun Kapoor. His mother is played by Amrita Singh. Both are of Punjabi heritage. Even the producer, Karan Johar, has Punjabi heritage. Alia Bhatt was cast as Ananya. Bhatt is of Gujarati origins and had expressed how hard it was for her to speak Tamil, and to accurately portray a Tamilian character. Earlier, there had been news that Tamilian actress Asin Thottumkal, who understands the south Indian culture, would play Ananya. She was also more experienced, with several hit films in the south Indian film industry. Furthermore, the chosen actors belong to some of the most powerful family dynasties in north India: the Kapoors, Bhatts, and Khans. Therefore, even the production team and casting came to the story with a Punjabi focus, due to their respective cultural heritage.
Throughout the film, the Tamils are constructed as the “other.” Although the film attempts to break stereotypes about Tamilians, it reinforces several stereotypes through its use of terms like “Madrasi,” and its commentary on beauty. The heavily Punjabi production team is reflected in the Punjabi-centric narrative of the film. The cultural clash between Tamilians and Punjabis is also portrayed in a song-dance sequence called “Iski Uski.” The song showcases how Ananya has to integrate completely into the Punjabi culture by shedding her Tamilian identity. Thus, the film constructs the Tamils as the ‘Other.’
Analysis of ‘Iski Uski’ – Integration of Ananya into the Punjabi culture
In my analysis of the song-dance sequence, I argue that the song functions to integrate Ananya into Krish’s Punjabi cultural identity, at the cost of her Tamilian identity. This supports the overall argument of Tamils as the “other.” Furthermore, the central clash of the film is directly addressed in this song-dance sequence, and predicts their later split due to Krish’s attempts to impose Punjabi customs over Ananya and her family. This claim can be supported by examining the mise-en-scene, song lyrics, dance styles, and the narrative space of this song-dance sequence.
Ananya’s distinct Tamilian identity in an overwhelmingly Punjabi atmosphere is established through the mise-en-scene –– particularly the costumes and setting –– of the song-dance sequence. The costume choices of both leads showcase their different regional identities. Ananya is wearing a konrad saree, an east Tamil Nadu specialty saree for marriages and other occasions, with simple jewelry. On the other hand, Krish is wearing a kurta and patiala pants, a traditional attire for Punjabi men. Ananya is not only differentiated from Krish, but also from other young Punjabi girls in the song-dance sequence, who are all wearing elaborately sequined lehengas or salwar-suit with heavy jewelry. The setting further highlights the overwhelming Punjabi influence and their custom of lavishness. For instance, when Ananya is introduced alone in a long-shot in her distinctively yellow saree surrounded by many people, there is a mansion with fountain behind her, and elaborate flower chandeliers over her. She looks at the exaggerated portraits of the groom and bride as emperor and empress respectively, and is visibly confused and amused. There are professional bhangra dancers in costumes, large decorative pieces, such as elephants, and even a dance floor. This elaborate set embodies the custom of extravagance and excess in Punjabi culture, which contrasts to the relatively simplistic ways of Tamilians. In Tamilian weddings, women normally wear white- and gold-bordered sarees, rather than the many-colored sarees common to Punjabi weddings. Moreover, Tamilian weddings generally do not serve alcohol, whereas Punjabi weddings are considered incomplete without it. Thus, costumes and setting work together to showcase Ananya’s distinct regional identity, and the immense Punjabi influence around her.
The song itself plays an integral role in showcasing Krish’s Punjabi masculinity and his openly vocal attempt at telling Ananya to completely become a part of his Punjabi culture. The lyrics sung by Krish describe a Punjabi man, who only wants “whisky, chicken, pretty faces,” and how he wants her to follow his way or get on the highway. Ananya’s lyrics include telling Krish not to show off his Punjabi heritage and questioning his commitment. Thus, through the Krish’s lyrics, there is a clear attempt to socialize Ananya with the ways of the manly Punjabi man, who is interested in only three things, and wants quiet, submissive compliance from women. The inclusion of lyrics such as “He’s king-like,” “lives carefreely,” and “chills out in the farms” seems to socialize Ananya with Punjabi ways. On the contrary, Ananya vocally acknowledges the overwhelming Punjabi influence around her, and questions Krish’s commitment to their relationship. In addition, Ananya sings her part of the song in Punjabi as well. This may show that Ananya does not have the freedom to emote in her own language due to the Punjabi surrounding. Hence, the song, specifically the lyrics, glorify Krish’s Punjabi masculinity.
The dance style in the song-dance sequence showcases two critical elements. The regional difference in dance styles between Ananya’s feminine moves, and Krish’s overtly masculine moves and then Ananya’s eventual adoption of Krish’s dance styles. As Krish starts off the song, he pushes Ananya aside and performs Bhangra, a Punjabi dance form. Krish’s dance moves included several leg movements and “fist clenched” arm and chest movements. Moving on to Ananya, she initially tries to replicate Krish’s dance move but she stops and starts dancing Bharatanatyam alone, a dance originating in Tamil Nadu temples. By the end, she does the same dance-moves as Krish but is never framed as prominently or centrally as Krish is when he does the masculine dance moves. Eventually, as per the song’s lyrics, Krish is able to mold her into a Punjabi dame as she gets on “his highway” and starts to replicate his dance-moves.
The song-dance sequence also contains a dowry related narrative sequence, which in addition to showing their contrasting reaction to a debatable social practice. In this narrative sequence, the bride’s side of the family hands a car key to the groom side as dowry and this ‘happy’ moment is ‘photographed,’ i.e., the frame is reduced into the borders of photo-paper on a black background. On one level, the woman is equated with the car and in this instance the groom is given the keys to the car so he can put it in the “ignition.” On another level, the rigid boundaries of this photograph represents the obstructiveness and the confinement of the bride and her family to these centuries-old north Indian patriarchal traditions. Due to Ananya’s cultural background, she reacts negatively to this, as dowries are a socially condemned practice in the south. Krish, in contrast, is dismissive and casually accepts dowries as a common element in Punjabi weddings. Again, this contrasting reactions relate to their different cultural and regional backgrounds and upbringings.
But the “photographed” aspect adds more, as it may highlight that this moment is not unique to this wedding. This moment is a common occurrence and will probably also occur in Ananya and Krish’s wedding, as Krish’s calm demeanor hints that it is unlikely that he will stop his family from demanding dowry, as well as it is a common cultural practice for him. This proves true, as later in the film, Ananya’s parents take Krish’s mom and aunt aside, and ask if they have any dowry demands. Although Krish sees this happening, he does not actively try to stop his mother but sarcastically ask “What did you ask for? Fridge? TV?” when his mother and aunt walk back to him. He may be against dowry, but did not take any active measures to stop his family. Hence, despite dowry being culturally uncommon for educated Tamilians, Ananya and her family have to comply with north Indian patriarchal tradition of dowry. There is some social commentary as this happy “photographed” moment is an unfortunate reality for a lot of Indian girls, and Krish’s nonchalant attitude is also common among North Indian men.
The song-dance sequence visually depicts the central conflict of cultural and regional differences between Ananya and Krish. Most of the other songs document Ananya and Krish’s falling-in-love, or their separation. Although the cultural clash is present throughout the film, this is the only song-dance sequence where their cultural clash is depicted. In most instances in the narrative, the Krish’s Punjabi mom instigates a fight about culture, which is similar to this song, where the Punjabi forces are isolating and suppressing Ananya’s Tamilian identity. Furthermore, this song-dance sequence predicts their future separation, because Krish attempts to impose his Punjabi cultural identity on Ananya, as he does in this song-dance sequence. Thus, this song-dance sequence is integral, as it performs the function of repressing Ananya’s Tamilian identity by integrating her into Krish’s cultural identity, as well as indicating their later split due to the same cultural clash.
Abrupt happy ending?
After an intense fight between the families in Mumbai, Ananya and Krish decide to split up. Ananya overhears Krish pacifying his mother by saying that they can control Ananya after marriage and mold her into a Punjabi dame. Previously, in the song “Iski Uski,” there is a musical depiction of how Ananya has to get on Krish’s and his family’s highway to be accepted by the Punjabis. During this fight, there is a direct assertion through dialogue by Krish and his mother about how they want Ananya to adapt to the Punjabi culture. Ananya is outraged and breaks up with Krish over this.
Later on, Krish’s estranged father goes to Tamil Nadu to apologize to Ananya’s parents and to arrange Krish and Ananya’s wedding. This seems abrupt because up until this point, Krish’s father was portrayed as an abuser and drunkard, who takes out his anger on his wife. During the wedding scene, there are cuts between the wedding and Krish in the future in a therapist’s office with his kids. Here, it is indicated that the kids will be known as Indian rather than north or south Indian. This seems to provide an overall message that Indian identity is more important than regional identities –– that is, to be Indian is an easy fix to any other cultural clash. This unifying and collectivist, almost abrupt, happy ending contradicts the film’s overall treatment of the Tamils.
Indian political climate in 2014
There is evidence that the political environment of India influences the kind of films being created in the country. During the Nehruvian socialism era, one of the central conflicts in films was between the rich and the poor, and the poor’s struggle in a corrupt world (Raghavendra 29). Furthermore, during India’s Kargil War with Pakistan, there was a rise in the jingoistic nationalism and anti-Pakistan sentiment, reflected in war films of the era (Raghavendra 29). Similarly, economic liberalization policies, which led to an influx of foreign products, created a culture of self-care and metro-sexuality in India (Nitin 61). Thus, films made in Bollywood draw from the political climate of the country.
In 2014, India was conducting its national elections. During this election cycle, Bharatiya Janata Party or Indian People’s Party (BJP) was extremely popular. Their nationalist ideology of a single Indian identity resonated with the people (Jaffrelot 152). The previously ruling government, and BJP’s main opponent, Indian National Congress (INC), was known for using dividing tactics to win elections. INC was viewed unfavorably because of corruption scandals, and thus their policies were also viewed negatively (Chadha & Guha 4397). However, BJP focused on creating a single Indian national identity through establishing policies like a uniform civil code, removing regional- and religious-specific laws, and making a common set of rules for every citizen (Habibullah 95). Thus, the political atmosphere centered on the notion of one Indian identity, and one India.
The happy ending of a single Indian identity winning over regional differences seems to reconcile the nationalist environment of the country at the time. Initially, the film presents the cultural clash as the most significant barrier in Krish and Ananya’s relationship. However, in the last 30 minutes of the film, the cultural conflicts abruptly disappear. The film’s message indicates that it is relatively easy to form a single Indian identity, without accounting for difficult cultural differences. The film seems to promote, or at least hint at, the BJP’s message of Indian nationalism and unification, despite the challenges posed to achieving this goal by India’s extremely diverse cultural and ethnic population. This message also resonates with the mood of the majority of Indian audiences, who were tired of the INC’s divisive politics. Although the happy ending may feel unexpected, it coheres with the political norms and emotional needs of the people at the time of its release.
Consistent with Bollywood’s trends, 2 States portrays Tamils as the “other.” The film’s happy ending, featuring a “single Indian identity” contradicts the film’s unfair treatment of the Tamils. The rising Indian nationalist political environment during the 2014 Indian national elections possibly explains the abrupt happy ending. This otherness is portrayed both in the narrative, and in the “Iski Uski” song-dance sequence. However, there is a contradiction in the film. Despite constructing Tamils’ otherness, the overall message is one of unification and the creation of a single Indian identity. The creation of a unified identity is extremely complicated, due to India’s diverse population. The illusion of nation unification is as brittle as the film’s abrupt happy ending.
Ibtesaam is a senior majoring in Communication and pursuing a certificate in Strategic Marketing and Communication. During her three years at NU-Q, she has been part of several student clubs and organizations such as the Student Union as Vice-President and the NU-Q Ambassador program. She is a grant recipient of the Academic Year Undergraduate Research Grant where she went to Malaysia to look at the integration of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. After graduation, she is planning to stay in academia by pursuing a Phd degree in communication research.
2 States. Directed by Abhishek Verma, performances by Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, and Amrita Singh, 2014.
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T-Series. “Iski Uski FULL Video Song | 2 States | Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt.” YouTube, 16 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQMMBANbcdQ