Bollywood remains cluttered with stereotypical depictions of the Christian community, with hardly any room for innovation, let alone for a groundbreaking character-study like Violet Stoneham in Aparna Sen’s evocative film on the desolation of the Christian community in 36 Chowringhee Lane. One must say though, that there were several eminently memorable Christian characters in the past. For instance, Lalita Pawar’s Mrs D’Sa in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anari and of course Amitabh Bachchan’s Anthony in Manmohan Desai’s (Manji as he was called) Amar Akbar Anthony.
Big B says about the experience, “It was a pleasant departure. The very name Amar Akbar Anthony for a film came at a time where there were more sober and domestic titles, so it was surprise to me, particularly because Manji was starting his home production with this film and I felt he was making a grave mistake. But he was right as always. The attitude of Anthony, his lingo, style, and clothing were all Manji’s brainchild.” He continues, “I merely followed what he demanded. The character detailing all came from Manji and I think it came from his keen observation of the Christian community, living mostly out of Bandra. One of his most important sequences was shot in the backyard of this very unique suburb. He himself was very conversant with the language of this community. Yes, it was a language style that was alien to me, but if you have lived long enough in Mumbai, it is unlikely that you can miss it.”
Katrina Kaif got a chance to play a Catholic girl in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, she did her research, bought her own clothes from the pavements of Bandra, studied how the Catholic girls behaved, what clothes they wore to parties and to church. Katrina recalls, “At that point of time, I had been working very hard to get rid of my accented Hindi. But for Jenny’s character both Rajji and I felt my Hindi was just fine. I wanted to dress and talk like a typical Catholic Bandra girl. I didn’t want her to come across as stereotypical, but still typical. ”
But these stabs at secularism did not really translate into genuine insights into the psyche and workings of a community until Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane focused on the desolation of a Catholic single woman. The film’s fabulous authentic detailing of Jennifer Kapoor’s character, her inner and outer lives served to mirror the community’s ethos with unparalleled integrity. One Bollywood filmmaker who has spent a very large part of his creative time in the Christian-Catholic community is Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The epic filmmaker’s first directorial venture, Khamoshi: The Musical was set in a Goan Christian family. Manisha Koirala played Annie the beautiful daughter to a deaf and mute couple Joseph (Nana Patekar) and Flavia Braganza (Seema Biswas).
The attention to getting the cultural and religious details right was amazing. Again, in the highly acclaimed Black and Guzaarish, Bhansali returned to the Catholic community. He says, “My fascination for the Christian religion and the community go back to my childhood. We lived in a chawl. For me, my school and my teachers and the whole quiet, spacious environment of my Christian school was symbolic of a life I couldn’t live at home. My love for churches and the religion is unconditional. In Black, I actually paid homage to my Anglo-Indian teacher in school.” Bhansali lights candles at a church in Bandra every Wednesday. His latest production, My Friend Pinto (which he did not direct) again featured Catholic protagonists played by Prateik and Kalki Koechlin. Prateik as Michael Pinto paid a tribute to Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai. At some point in the film, Prateik referred to Albert as his uncle. Mirza’s film is the uncle of all Hindi films on the Catholic community. It was a rare attempt to look at the problems faced by the community with candour and conviction.
Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of Albert Pinto remains an exemplary effort to play a Catholic character stripped of caricatural characteristics. Naseer was believable because he wasn’t bothered about getting the accent right. Neither was the talented Lilette Dubey who gave a sterling performance as a hyper-strung Anglo-Indian woman Emily Lobo in Anjan Dutta’s Bow Barracks Forever. Lilette shares, “As a rule in the earlier films specially, the Christian community was pretty much stereotypical. They were portrayed as goodhearted people who spoke funny Hindi, like Lalita Pawar in Anari or Premnath in Bobby. But the characters in films about the Anglo-Indian community have become more nuanced. Emily in Bow Barracks Forever, was a layered character with a range of emotions. I even won the best actress award at the Madrid International Film Festival for my performance.”
Filmmaker Ken Ghosh voices the malaise that afflicts portrayals of minority communities, “It used to be very caricatural. In recent times I can only think of Arjun Rampal and Shahana Goswami’s characters in Rock On. These were done effectively and without exaggeration.” Going by the recent track-record it is easy to see why Albert Pinto would have smiled had he seen the way his imaginary nephew Michael Pinto portrayed their community in My Friend Pinto.” In K S Sethumadhavan’s 1975 blockbuster Julie, Laxmi played a Catholic girl who is impregnated by the boy next door. The father (Om Prakash) and the mother Nadira were applauded for their performances. But the Anglo-Indian community was far from flattered by their portrayal as a persecuted, isolated community. Things have changed since then, but even now, the community, awaits a film that would portray their lives as normal rather than quirky and the characters more realistic and fleshed out.
Mira Nair in The Namesake used the festive weekend in New York to shoot anything but a festive occasion. It was during Christmas that Tabu’s character gets a phone call informing her that her husband has died of a heart attack. Tabu rushes out in choked bereavement to catch a breath of fresh air. And we see the deserted suburban streets of New York all lit up, but deserted. In one way or the other. Christmas has been a part of our cinema. Who can forget Lata Mangeshkar’s dulcet voice lighting up a church in an old film Bachpan (1970) as Tanuja lipsynced Mother Mary maa hum tere dularehain. And Sanjeev Kumar and Sharmila Tagore had a whale of a time singing ‘Jingle Bells’ in Shandaar (1974). Decades later, Tanuja’s daughter Kajol had a beautiful church sequence in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
Many of Bollywood’s most prominent denizens are regular church-goers. Kareena Kapoor’s mom practices Christianity and the young actress is very fond of visiting the church. Bhansali makes it a point to visit his favourite church in Bandra every Wednesday to light candles. His love for all Church related activities was manifested in two of his best works Khamoshi: The Musical and Black both of which were set in the Catholic community. And yes, there were Christmas celebrations in both his films.
The anglo-Indian community has been a poignant source of creative sustenance. But the family we saw in Julie comprising Om Prakash, Nadira, Laxmi and Sridevi was happy, in spite of the ups and downs. And Sridevi, then just 12-years old lit up along with the Christmas tree when Christmas was celebrated in the film. Bengali director Anjan Dutta’s first and only Hindi film Bada Din was set in Kolkata on Christmas day. Shabana Azmi played an eccentric landlady Lilian to the tenant, Marc Robinson. There are many memorable Christmas moments scattered across our films.
Perhaps, the most memorable god-fearing Christian in Indian films was Violet Stoneham, played with brilliant sensitivity by Jennifer Kapoor in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane. The sound of ‘Silent Night’ as Violet sat serenely staring into a space that only the pure-heart can see, remains with us. The spirit of Christmas was best typified in the way Jennifer Kapoor welcomed those young guests into her house in 36, Chowringhee Lane. And so, what if she finally ended up being exploited? If Violet was alive, she’d be baking those Christmas cakes and puddings for all her friends.