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Bollywood needs an inclusion rider, so that Sikhs can have more than just one Diljit Dosanjh

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The kind of impact that Diljit Dosanjh has made on the Sikh psyche will show its true reach in a few years, but it begs the question: what if such representation was afforded in larger amounts to more minorities?

“…I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: Inclusion rider.”

When Frances McDormand wrapped up her Oscar speech with this sentence, she knew exactly what she was doing. The internet went into a tizzy, with searches for ‘inclusion rider’ spiking and Merriam-Webster claiming ‘inclusion’ was its top-searched word for the night. People scrambled to understand what it means. It was a moment Stacy Smith, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, had probably been waiting for since she conceptualised the idea.

The premise of an inclusion rider is very simple. If a big-ticket actor signs a movie, they’re usually given substantial amounts of negotiation room. They’re allowed to make demands and create an environment that’s conducive to their work. An inclusion rider, if asked for by the said actor, demands that the cast and crew of the film include a proportionate, representative number of women, LGBTQ individuals, minorities, people with disabilities, and every other demographic that’s underrepresented and shunned by the media.

It’s a real, tangible way powerful people can create space for, and cede platforms to, people who deserve the same. It’s also a concept Bollywood desperately needs to think about, especially in the case of minority representation.

Bollywood serves as the cultural ambassador of one of the largest populations in the world. Despite the incredible cinema regional industries are producing and creating history at film fests with, it is Bollywood that sets down the paradigms of media representations of Indians across the globe.

Bollywood made the Punjabi wedding the image of what ‘Indian weddings’ look like. Bollywood (looking at you, Karan Johar) projected karva chauth, a traditionally north Indian concept, as something all Indian wives do. Bollywood created an Indian identity that became a template every American sitcom harks to.

Bollywood, unfortunately, also did large swathes of its viewers and lovers an immense disservice.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bollywood. It’s my favourite Saturday night plan, and it’s been my best friend on many occasions. But as a person from a Sikh family, I did not grow up seeing my realities anywhere on screen.

The Sikhs on screen were country bumpkins, punch lines, court jesters, sources of comic relief — nothing like how my family looked to me. It created an immense dissonance in how people perceived me when I told them I was Sikh. As someone who doesn’t wear any obvious religious markers (no long hair, no kada, no kirpan), I had the distinct (dis)pleasure of seeing people’s reaction to me change almost visibly at this revelation. Suddenly, they found in me every media stereotype they were ever fed, and my personhood found itself reduced to a patchwork of terrible characterisations that I never could relate to.

If I made a Venn diagram of the movies I truly enjoyed and those I found holistic Sikh representation in, I’d have few names in hand. If I tried to find movies in which a Sikh person played a fleshed-out Sikh character as well as had a decent storyline — nothing before Diljit Dosanjh’s excellent Sartaj Singh in Udta Punjab comes to mind.

Dosanjh, as an actor, is a brand new paradigm. He is the game-changer. He’s the first example of a Sikh man being quintessentially cool in the media. The man’s a triple threat — he acts, he sings, he dances. He knows how to laugh at himself, and has excellent comic timing. He’s also a Sikh man playing roles that could have been played by any other actor in mainstream media because he’s just that good. He’s the kind of representation that thousands of little Sikh boys with their judis and patkas look at and feel less other-ed, less different. The kind of impact that one single man has made on the Sikh psyche will show its true reach in a few years, but it begs the question: What if such representation was afforded in larger amounts to more minorities?

Imagine a world where ‘a character from the northeast’ is not just a token person with mongoloid features and a guitar in hand, but a well-rounded character with emotions informed by the cultural context to where they belong. Imagine a queer couple on screen that was not a blank template to underline tragedy on, but, well, a couple with dreams and hopes and pain. Think of a person from a demographic that has been persecuted and side-lined existing as a human being on screen. Imagine normalisation, and eventually celebration, of things that move away from a stratified status quo and challenge what we think of as ‘correct’.

US-based author Cesar A. Cruz once said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Bollywood, with its ability to reinforce paradigms, has the potential to create them too.

But one can hope, right? One must. Maybe, one day, one of our own will be on stage and say ‘inclusion rider’ and the rest of the industry will agree. We’ll get there, eventually.

Maybe to expect contractual, structural changes to an industry that’s still incredibly sexist, bigoted and offensive in many ways is too much to ask for. But inclusion doesn’t always start with legislation. Bollywood needs to start with simply respecting the fact that its viewers are growing up and demanding better. If it doesn’t wish to lose the next generation of cinema-goers to its smarter, better informed counterparts, it has to grow up too. Quickly, inclusively, and immediately — riders or not.

Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.

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  1. Realy very nice written article. Diljit Dosanjh is doing all punjabi and specialy sikhs feel proud. But we all punjabi need to support the movie that realy good. If his films not doing good business that is it. In Bollywood bussines is the main thing. Love you Diljit Dosanjh and love you punjab

  2. Nice article. Really the image of a sikh, shown by bollywood in recent times was not a true picture. Just a punch liner or a laugh pause in any movie, Johnny lever and some other characters played that too. No doubt Mr Diljit Singh Dosanjh has really changed the image or we can say shown a true picture of a sikh, not only limited to comics. Sikh Charecters In bollywood hv come into existence after the upsurge of Punjabi Cinema. Some of the nice characters played, started with diljit Dosanjh, he grew strong and convincing after every movie, much improved from previous. Punjab 1984 etc. Few other good roles by Amy virk also grabbed the audience for some change. Bambukat, angrej to name a few. Punjabi cinema really grabbed a massive audience not only punjabis or Sikhs but worldwide living Indians and punjabis. I suppose somewhere the effect of punjabi cinema and its much famous punjabi numbers lured bollywood to use some. Punjabi songs and some good punjabi or sikh characters started becoming a part of it and giving good business too, no doubt about that. Upcoming projects of Mr Diljit Dosanjh is a proof of that. Upcoming, welcome to new York, One with Tapsi pannu and one with Kriti Menon. In One of these playing a hockey biopic. Hope to see some more interesting sikh characters in near future in bollywood, no more fakes N funnies…. Kp Singh (Architect by profession) but a close follower of music bollywood and punjabi cinema.

  3. Very well said…You literally wrote something which I always thought of…
    Diljit is showing the world what Sikhs actually are and not merely a source of SantaBanta jokes…kudos to this article

  4. Karan Johar is not Bollywood & Bollywood is not Karan Johar. Bollywood is a cut-throat industry of materially derived. Here you get box-office his only when the typical characters are repeated. A paan-chewing qawwal as Muslims and a Zombie type turbaned man as Sikh. And those who dare try otherwise get bankrupt. It’s a reality. Indian cinema goers have a long way to go.

  5. Very thoughtful and excellent writing style. You point is valid, Bollywood has the power to create the impression, positive or negative. We need more Diljit Dosanjh!

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