Flying to India last week, I got a chance to view a recent Bollywood film called "2 States," the story of a young man and woman (surprise) from different states in India who meet at school. She is Tamil (South India), he is Punjabi (North India). Outsiders have all heard of the divides that cast causes in India, but we don't pay much attention to regional differences in India. If you want to gain some insight into this, check out the film. It should be on Netflix soon.
The plot was your boy meets girl, families disapprove, love triumphs Bollywood or Hollywood pulp. The Punjabi family makes a number of cracks about vegetarianism and sambar. Sambar is a lentil and tamarind based stew that is a staple of Tamil cuisine. The northerners clearly can't understand how Tamils can eat so much of it.
When non-Indians speak of Indian food, they generally have North Indian in mind. South Indian is much different, and has a much richer vegetarian tradition. When we meet the Tamilian girl for the first time, she is in her northern university's cafeteria complaining about the sambar.
Another theme that comes back on numerous occasions is the fact that Tamils are darker than Punjabis. In general, this is true. The northerners clearly have issues with skin color. The boy assures his mother that the girl is light skinned. And it's true, the actress was your typical light-skinned Bollywood type. I guess it would have been too controversial to have a dark-skinned Tamil in the role. She also is not a strict vegetarian. So although the movie brings up these issues, the girl doesn't fit the stereotype, and won't trouble audiences.
Another regional difference that is pointed out is the less agressive nature of Tamils. They boy describes the Tamil parents as passive. Traveling in India, you will notice the clear difference between the more aggressive north and the more demeure character of southerners.
I didn't watch the movie carefully enough to remember other stereotypes that might have been there (hard to concentrate on a 9 1/2 hour flight!). If I get the chance to see it on DVD, perhaps I'll be able to add more to this post. In the meantime here is a South Indian review of the film See Review (they bristle at some of the stereotypes). And here is a North Indian review that disagrees with the stereotype of Punjabis - hmmm. See Review
See my previous post on vegetarian India "Hey Vegetarians"
By Kevin O'Neill