Imagine a situation: some goons forcibly whisk away a young girl engrossed in a romantic chat with her boyfriend. The poor boy has no vehicle to chase the miscreants. Suddenly, a sardarji appears with his truck and offers to help the young man.
By now you have realised this is a typical Hindi film scene. You have been watching the sardarji in his good Samaritan role since time immemorial. There are, however, some other portrayals of sardarji in Hindi movies, for instance, as the funny man.
A decade ago, one could hardly point out a Hindi feature film where the lead character was a sardarji. Today, however they are hogging the limelight everywhere, be it in Bollywood or ad world.
Almost all big brands, which have resorted to ad campaign involving Sikhs have made a huge impact on viewers. Remember the Maruti ad involving the father-son duo. The punch line of the campaign "petrol khatam hi nahi hoonda" became a national slogan. Nokia, while introducing its 1100 model specially made for Indian environment resorted to a sardarji in a truck driver's role. The ad became an instant hit. Same is the case with a Castrol ad, where contrary to the popular image; the sardarji is shown as someone who is smart.
So why have Sikhs become the flavour of the season? Is it because they are easily associated with humour, which has eternal entertainment value? Though humour forms part of the answer, deep down remains a serious business angle.
Sikhs are most upwardly mobile and are spread across the world. The community believes in joie de vivre and lavish spendings. They are also fond of festivities. These make them a favourite catch for advertisers.
"Consider the Delhi market. The latest cars or the latest gizmos are to be found mostly in Sikh households. They have the money and they love to spend. So ads involving them make business sense. It appeals to them and with the funny angle it appeals to other communities as well," says an industry expert.
The same logic applies in other cities as well. Though the percentage of Sikhs living in other cities is far less, by and large they still have higher purchasing power.
However Nikhil Nehru, managing director, On Track Corporate Services Private Ltd, does not buy any of these arguments. “I do not think there has been any deliberate attempt to utilise Sikh-power in the ad world. It just clicked in one or two ads and now we are trying to rationalise the usage,” he says.
If the advertising world is waking up to the potential of sardarjis, can Bollywood be far behind?
If one has to pick up one person for upgrading Sikhs from minor roles and cameos to the lead role in Hindi films, the credit must go to Sunny Deol. With Gadar he broke the myth that Sikhs, who form a minority community, will not be accepted in the lead role through out the country. He tried to repeat the same feat in Jo Bole So Nihal. However, the latter was given a controversial box office burial. Recently, Amitabh Bachchan performed the role of a Sikh army officer in Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo. He did the same in two other films earlier, Major Saab and Kohram. However, all three failed miserably at the box office.
“These movies failed not because the hero was a Sikh. They were simply bad movies. Of Gadar and Jo Bole So Nihal, one became super hit, while the other one sank without a trace,” says Utpal Borpujari, national award winning film critic.
There was a time when Hindi films followed a standard formula: the hero is usually a Hindu, the prominence is given to his name, not to his surname, so that people from every region of the country can identify with him. Bachchan made “Vijay” famous as did Shah Rukh Khan to screen names such as Raj and Rahul. But what about surnames?
“The basic reason behind Sikhs getting meaty roles is the segmentation of the market. Earlier, a Bollywood film targeted the entire country. Now, it targets specific territories. Films like Jo Bole So Nihal hoped to do business on the strength of northern belt, which boasts of strong Punjabi population. So the focus on turban was quite obvious,” says film critic Saibal Chatterjee.
The latest hit of this year Salaam Namaste has sketched a cool avatar for Punjabi surnames. In this film all lead characters are Punjabi, be it Saif Ali Khan or Arshad Warsi. On the other hand, the buffoons in the movie are Biharis and Bangladesis.
“It's not that only Sikhs are in focus. Biharis and other communities are also getting equal attention. Films like Ramjhi Londonwale, Parineeta, Gangajal are classic examples of this trend. Indian audience have finally come to accept their cosmopolitan nature,” sums up Chatterjee.
In fact films, which have sardarjis in lead roles, have not done away with stereotypes. In Gadar Deol is a truck driver and in Jo Bole So Nihal he is a constable. In all the three films where Bachchan essayed the role of a Sikh, he was an army officer.
Considering the country's prime minister is a Sikh, popular media has not been able to break away from stereotypical shackles. Both the advertising world and Bollywood have a long way to go. But a beginning has been made. And that's a step in the right direction.