For reasons too involved to enter into here, my friend and I have been researching the Romani people for a while now.
You might know them better as “gypsies”, a term that is today considered politically incorrect thanks to the historically negative connotations attached to the word – thieving, lying, dirty, lazy, etc. You might also know that the Roma are of Indian descent – Punjabi and Rajasthani to be precise.
And if you’re a student of history, especially the Second World War, then perhaps you’re also aware of the fact that the Roma were also victims of the Holocaust. The Nazi persecution, however, was only one of many.
But unless you went specifically looking for information, this is probably the most you know. The majority of modern Roma bear no resemblance to the gypsies of folklore. There are no dilapidated caravans making their slow way through the picturesque countryside, playing haunting music and setting up fairs where fortunetellers ask people to cross their palms with silver for the pleasure of having their fortunes told.
And yet, they are a people on whom very little information exists. Most first hand accounts stress that the Roma seem to prefer it that way. And when you think about how the world has treated them for the past 1000 years, can you blame them?
But yesterday something interesting happened. No, I didn’t receive a blinding insight of any kind, but we were combing through the net, looking for examples of Romani music (try a sample here) and suddenly I remembered the Bollywood gypsy songs.
These appear to have been primarily a big 70s phenomenon. There’s the odd exception – Kishore Kumar, for example, seems to have been very fond of using them as a device. He even made a movie with Madhubala in which the gypsies had a central role: Jhumroo (1961).
You’ll notice that I refer to the Bollywood version as “gypsies”. That is because that is who they are. They are an Indianized Western stereotype of a people who were once Indian! They have very little to do with the Roma – when gypsies show up in Bollywood movies, they’re simply devices thrown in for color or convenience. And as devices, they’re about as flexible as you can get. They can be sexy, venal, violent, passionate, beautiful, poor – whatever you want, they’ve got it all, no problem.
You’ll see it done with tribals too. Have you noticed how Bollywood portrays its “tribals” with a distinctly (stereotypical) African flavor? The most famous example, of course, is that weird group of “tribals”, people in blackface no less, marching through the forest in the middle of the night in Shalimar chanting “Oo la la la hoo, oo la la la hoo, phurr phurr” (man, that never fails to crack me up!) while Dharmendra sings, “Hum bewafa hargiz na the…”
There are still actual nomadic people in India, of course. But none I ever saw behaved like the ones below:
Dharmatma: The Afghani-Madrasi Gypsy
Sholay: The Shake That Booty Gypsy
Caravan: The I Love Jeetendra Gypsy