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Hollywood Should Feel Offended By Bollywood

Hollywood Should Feel Offended By Bollywood

January 23, 2013
Reverse snobbery is rampant in Hindi films. Should the West object?

Be prepared for some verbal warfare in the next few weeks. Life Of Pi has been nominated in 11 categories at the Oscars. Should it win, there will be familiar outpourings of ecstasy and cynicism. One side will be thrilled at “India’s victory” at the big O while cynics will remind you how the movie is actually a Hollywood product for an essentially Hollywood audience. A few brown actors, a south Indian location and a desi lullaby doth not an Indian film make. The arguments were similar during the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ brouhaha.

We Indians are a sensitive lot. It doesn’t take too much to hurt our sentiments, especially if the object of our offence is some element of popular culture – a movie, song, book or a piece of art. Hyper nationalism and hyper sensitivity make for an angry combination so every time India is depicted in a stereotypical (read negative) manner in a book or a movie (especially a movie), our culture vultures are up in arms, ready to defend national honour. How dare the West portray us as poor / backward / superstitious / regressive / whatever? When will Hollywood get rid of the clichés? Why don’t their movies look beyond the exotica, poverty and colours of India? Why can’t they show our modern, vibrant face? So on and so forth.

Fine, they are valid points. But what about OUR cinema and its portrayal of Western society? The West, I feel, has equal, if not more, reasons to feel offended by the depiction of THEIR culture in Indian cinema, especially Bollywood. We too take a uni-dimensional, clichéd and downright offensive view of Western society. If Hollywood does not make a song and dance about it, it’s probably because

a) they don’t sing and dance at the drop of a hat

b) they don’t watch Hindi films or

c) they are too chilled out to care.

Let’s take the example of mainstream Bollywood simply because of the impact and following it commands. In the past you had people like Manoj Kumar who built their career on the premise of the superiority of bharatiya sanskriti over the wicked West. In the ghastly 80s, there was poor Bob Christo whose only job was to play the bad white man who gets beaten to pulp by sons-of-the-soil heroes like Govinda and Mithun. The ‘90s saw Bollywood led by Yashraj and their clones shift to Switzerland and the US for shoots; the stories, dances, sentiments etc were hardcore Indian (Eg: DDLJ, Pardes).

In the last decade or so, we have thankfully started experimenting with our themes. But when it comes to the West, our sensibilities are still very, very stereotypical despite the glossy packaging.

A random example:

‘Namaste London’
: Akshay Kumar’s namaste to Manoj Kumar’s ‘Purab Aur Paschim’ is entirely based on the East is better than West theme. The film, shot extensively in Britain, makes full use of the Tourism Britain facilities yet spares no opportunity to bash Brits. The most famous scene being Akshay’s dialogue-baazi to quieten an Englishman who has an archaic view of India. In the end, the perfectly nice white guy (Katrina’s lover who, we are told is not a good choice for her, because he is twice-divorced) is left at the altar for the Punjab da puttar. Yaay, desi boy wins!

These prejudices, as always, are most evident in the portrayal of women. In the last few weeks post the Delhi gang rape, there have been debates galore about Bollywood’s ‘objectification’ of women. But if our films are guilty of ‘itemising’ and objectifying Indian women, their score card in the characterisation of white women is far worse!

I know it’s too much to expect sense and sensibility out of an Akshay Kumar film but the actor has been a repeat offender. The monstrosity called ‘Heyy Baby’ had three womanisers bed hopping from one girl to another. Later, when they mend their ways, they are only shown apologizing to their desi girlfriends.

Similarly, Akshay’s ‘Kambakkth Ishq’ was extensively shot in Hollywood and even had cameos by Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards. But the film treated every white girl as a bimbette waiting to sleep with Rambo Akki.

I haven’t travelled extensively in the US or Europe to comment but definitely know that every woman out there isn’t waiting to jump into bed with a man. Or that women there don’t exactly roam on the streets in bikinis. But isn’t that the impression you get watching our popular films?

If women are shown as bimbos, the men do no better. They are always secondary to the desi hero (‘Namaste London’), are mostly shown as bouncers or an excuse for our dudes to flex their muscles.

Even so-called sensitive, intelligent filmmakers haven’t covered themselves in glory in this regard. In Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Love Aaj Kal’, Saif Ali Khan packs his white girlfriend into a sight-seeing bus before sprinting off to meet his ex girlfriend Deepika Padukone. The blonde hardly gets a few words in the film though it had taken just a song (‘And We twist’) for her to hook up with him.

Karan Johar, who flies off to London or New York to write his scripts, is no better than his counterparts. In ‘Kabhie Alvida Naa Kehna’, old man Amitabh is shown getting naughty at 70 with young buxom girls who he sweetly refers to by the days of the week (“it’s easier to remember them,” he says with a supposed-to-be-cute glint in his eyes). In any other part of the world he’d be called a dirty old man but since it’s Amitabh Bachchan, it’s supposed to be funny. Why doesn’t he flirt with any desi girl? After all, America (where the film is set) has plenty of Asian PYTs too, hasn’t it?

Another common thread is the way our heroes rarely remember the names of the girls they sleep with, especially if they are foreigners. In ‘Salaam Namaste’, Saif Ali Khan brings an Australian girl home during his split with live-in girlfriend Preity Zinta but is shown to not remember her name the next morning. The good hero, we are told, didn’t ‘do’ anything with the girl. Cho chweet!

Ditto with Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Bachna Ae Haseeno’. A Casanova, he picks up girls in bars then gets rightly dumped by them simply because he doesn’t have the courtesy to remember their name. The scene is repeated in ‘Dostana’, where the two hunky heroes Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham are shown to score with blondes galore before they discover Priyanka Chopra and each other.

The examples are endless, especially in the glossy, commercial Bollywood. The only two positive recent examples I can think of where a foreigner had a sensible role was in ‘Rang De Basanti’ and ‘Salaam-e-Ishq’. Alice Patten’s regularly dressed, smart documentary filmmaker, Sue, played an important role in taking the story forward in ‘RDB’. Similarly, in Nikhil Advani’s ‘Salam-e-Ishq’, a tourist played by Shannon Esra had a substantial role as Govinda’s ‘gori’ love interest.

It makes me wonder. Why do mainstream Hindi films show practically every white girl as ‘easily available’ and most men are dorks? Bollywood is given a red carpet welcome in most foreign countries. Most filmmakers actually set their films abroad to take advantage of the subsidies and other facilities. In fact, the West fetes Bollywood and even uses these very films to popularise their tourist destinations despite showing most western characters as ‘immoral’, easy and at times, stupid!

If I was a foreigner and watched my culture and women portrayed the way they are in Hindi films, I would surely feel offended. A lot has been written about how Western tourists are routinely harassed, stared at and molested in India. When some of our most popular films – even the polished, made for multiplex audiences ones – show women as nothing but a piece of meat, is it surprising that the average Jeetender-on-the-street looks at them as fair game? And they say Hollywood is biased!


  • Gautham sevar
    Gautham sevar
    01.03.15 12:43 PM
    A truth which cannot be avoided, yet most of literate people(includes men and women), know about these facts still they visit Multiplex cinema halls or Malls, without any sense.

    This effect is not alone in the bollywood, it is being spreading like a parasite all over the south-indian flim associations.

    In India there are more Educated buffaloes are being produced.
  • venusjohn
    17.02.15 04:01 PM
    thanks Lekha for saying it as it is..I thnkits a case of severe inferiority complex that is giving rise to these tribal feels of superiority among Indians..
  • Cyn
    01.06.13 12:45 PM
    Being a Swiss woman married to an Indian who has been living in India for the past 10 years I totally agree with you. And yes I am offended by how Western women are portrayed in Bollywood movies, if they have a role at all, there are many instance of item numbers where the backdrop dancers are even more outrageously dressed than the item girl featured in the song, whcih seems to send the strong message that even if there is a desi woman in an item song that doesn't compare to what the evil West has to offer because look we got blonde bimbos wearing gogo dancer trashy bikini's in the song too.

    There is the IPL and the cheerleaders...oh boy oh boy, I still remember the outfits of the all white squad of cheerleaders for the Royal Challengers in the first Season of the IPL in 2008.
    When you are living as a white woman in India these stereotypes do nothing to help you, you could be married with child and have men still try to hit on you openly, because well you know, we western women have no values, we don't even respect family so obviously that means that we will hop in the bed of any guy on demand...good grief!
  • Lekha
    23.05.13 06:41 PM
    Thanks Rajeev:)
  • Rajeev Kumar
    Rajeev Kumar
    22.05.13 07:47 AM
    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece, Lekha! You took all of the words right out of my mouth! I live in the US and I find all of the dehumanising portrayals of the caucasians who were kind enough to let us immigrate into their lands to be shameful and disgusting. I first noticed that something was amiss when I watched Kabhie Alvida Na Kehnaa, and I've noticed it in Bollywood films ever since. I cannot even watch them anymore if they involve Westerners at all.

    Yes I found Slumdog to be offensive. It portrayed Muslims as peaceful victims and Hindus as violent terrorists and that is enough to offend any civilized human being. But it pales in comparison to the suggestions that an entire half of another race consists of easy pieces of meat who scarcely deserve the right to say "no."
  • Abhi
    18.04.13 09:14 PM
    true that...i'm ardent watcher of English tv shows and films as well as Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil films n shows...bollywood does stereotype western folks...
    however i want to say that a lot of our indian films stereotype NRIs as well...there r plenty of movies where nri youngsters r shown to be arrogant, shallow and infinitely wealthy... and they usually play the villain...
    i dont think the movies understand how much "Indian" an NRI is...espescially if the said NRI is from Gulf, say.

    Sadly, we Indians have a tendency to stereotype and compartmentalise anything we do not understand fully.

    i'm an nri who was born-brought up in Gulf and frankly speaking i feel that NRIs have a better understanding of the West, as much as India, than our Resident counterparts...
  • terrain dweller
    terrain dweller
    30.03.13 06:07 PM
    There is a simple explaination as to why director sahab tends to choose gori over decent indian. The whites dont hesitate to do a bikini scene in a typicel dance sequence. After all, most indian men are sexually suppressed and their only way of "watching some porn" in a place where porn is illegel is through these movies. They are cheap, easily avalable and U/A rated, so its a win-win siituation. For the men as well as the directors, who earn more and the goris , as they earn too. The lesser the clothes ahe wears, the more number of men watch it.

    And besides, most western women dont wait till marriage to sleep with a man. Their western freedom is mistaken for promiscuity and loose moral character. As one becomes more and more free, one tends to give family, traditions and culture a miss and go for what is new and cool.

    I dont blame western freedom for this, but following some of your traditions and spending more time with family and extended families wont really hurt u in any way and will bring some more happiness in your couldnt-care-less attitude filled life.
    28.01.13 04:49 AM
    @ JS

    This is my final post to you and I'm not getting in to mud slinging match with you. You or anyone else not going to change my mind in what I'm saying and that's final.

    You called me misogynist, I don't care. To me men and women are same, I don't differentiate. You can believe what you like. I never said that I'm a young person in Manchester. I'm not only talking about Jeremy Kyle to support my argument either. There are lots of examples I can you but I guess you don't live in UK and even if you do I do not care.

    I do not despise inhabitants of this country. I just do not care about other people who I have nothing to do with.

    I do have friends who are blacks as well as whites. These are not just two simple words to describe the races of people but to indicate to you that I do know variety of people from all races. I also know the difference between the racist kinds and those who are not because I have faced a lot of them in my life where I have lived. I guess if it was someone else they would have left long time a go.

    I have chosen to live here because I don't need to tell you why, but it's not dependent on the inhabitants of this country or any other people.

    There are loads of writers who can write about people or events or the place they want to write about but don't forget you can't write something and tell everybody to agree with you because it's what you think it should be.

    I have read loads of blogs and write ups who's writers lives somewhere else and write about beautiful things somewhere else and then they ask who ever lives there to agree with them. Well one thing I will tell you, you can't polish sh*t and tell everybody who lives there it's gold because those who lives there in the middle know it's not gold.

    BTW there were variety of other white individuals there where Anuj Bidve was killed. The question is why weren't they attacked or killed. Now you are going to tell me that he was psychopath and violent thug. Aren't all the killers exactly that? And you point being what? Next you are going to tell me that all the BNP members hate me because I have take their job and lively hood and it's nothing to do with race. Anybody who has lived in this country longer then two / three decades know what I'm talking about when it comes to race attacks and race crimes.
  • JS
    26.01.13 09:22 PM
    "Lets not forget that Anuj Bidve who was killed in manchester because he was wrong colour not because of money or any other reason which we are lead to believe."

    And your evidence for this is...? I think you want to believe it was a racist murder when all evidence points to the unfortunate young man tragically being in the wrong place at the wrong time and encountering a violent thuggish psychopath who wanted to kill - kill anyone.

    I'm a young person in Manchester, and thus I know from personal experience that your comment 'most young people do do these things' is nonsense. Talking about Jeremy Kyle to support your argument is laughable. Yes, there are people who behave in these ways, I've never denied it. I'm disagreeing that 'most' people do. And I wonder why you continue to live in a country whose inhabitants you seem to despise and sneer at every opportunity.
  • Lekha
    26.01.13 02:09 AM
    @ Shai, yes, I totally agree with you about the portrayal of black characters. It's plain offensive. Frankly, being fed on a constant diet of Bollywood, I honestly, give it a long rope. But why make fun of some community even if you can't portray it realistically. One example I missed in the article is that of 'Fashion' where Priyanka Chopra's character is shown to find her moment of epiphany and shame only when she sleeps with a random black guy. Personally, I thought that was very racist. But then don't forget this is an industry and culture that even doesn't even acknowledge most of their own community and culture. When was the last time you found a Manipuri or Assamese or Keralite character in a mainstream Bollywood film?
  • Rajpriya
    25.01.13 11:08 AM

    I admire the high quality of your post. Racial contempt requires an effective antidote.

    Getting away from being religious may be one reason we gradually deviate from the fact that in God’s creation no one is superior to another. All are born with an average common sense that widens through good up bringing and education. It is alarming that the spread of hatred is growing through popular media and in public discourse and it is vital to be socially acceptable to condemn such behavior.

    Opinions at their best were previously expressed in small circles until it widened through electronic communication to a larger public. We are now conscious of the fact that the possibility of anonymous comments on the Internet has created a special greenhouse climate for scornful language against race, religion, and the like.

    Aggressive irreverence is not limited to the virtual environment. When it comes to outsiders, the scornful tones is more often heard with defiant emphasis that is legitimized by the majority of the hate, but feel censored by a minority in real political agitations. On the other hand, it is difficult to differentiate where legitimate criticism should end and where contempt begins.

    Devastating consequences of collective contempt of the 20th century is becoming a distant and fading memory. The great achievements of outlawing contemptuous talking in public discourse, earned in the post-war period in countries like Germany, is fast losing its strength. I feel this is due to uncertainty and loss of sovereignty due the fast growing economic crisis in the west and mass migration.
    However, these cannot be the main reason for such contempt in India.
    25.01.13 01:14 AM
    @ JS

    Thanks for that. Yes, I am all that. That is what you call being human, not perfect. None of us are. Sorry Maybe you are, I don't know. I only write on what I see, and you want me to apologise for that? Like I said, we only talk about Disney when we have been there and seen it all.

    May be you need to see this on TV if you don't live here. Let me suggest few shows: What happens in Kavos, Brit abroad, Club reps, Jeremy Kyle and there are load more I can tell you if want to know.

    I do have six people working for me and, yes, they all go to clubs and pubs and bars, and Yes most young people do do those things. What the writter of the article suggest as a stereotype but most them are true when it comes to people who work for me, Maybe not everything but most things. So there you go.

    People talk about Indians having chip on their shoulder and being racist and having steretypes but the question is have you walked home with busted nose broken ribs, beaten to pulp and covered in blood top to bottom and no shoes because they threw it away and all because your colour is wrong. Because I have. Yes, we are racist and we joke about it, but we will never go out and try to kill someone for it because they are wrong colour.
    Lets not forget that Anuj Bidve who was killed in manchester because he was wrong colour not because of money or any other reason which we are lead to believe.

    JS, you may think my comments are nonsense, and yes, you are right to your opinion, but atleast one thing I can say is, I will never swear to you or kill you for it. Truth hurts but it's truth and that's the way things are.
  • Julia
    25.01.13 12:12 AM
    I love Indian films but I only manage to do that by completely ignoring the fact that they hate me cause I'm a bad Western girl. In a 60s/70s movie I'd be the one getting shot. I know that. And while I can see that Western portrayal of India is clichéd that is still a lot better than any white girl in an Akshay Kumar film. It's still better to be a snakecharmer than a whore, really now.
    Also Bollywood is bad to white women it's even worse to people of colour...
  • JS
    24.01.13 10:50 PM
    Harry - so what percentage of the population of Manchester goes to bars to drink and find sexual partners? Some do, certainly. The overwhelming majority don't. You're perpetuating stereotypes based on the behaviour of a small minority and pretending this is common behaviour for all or most people - yet you have the nerve to complain about stereotypes about Indians! As you said yourself, you do indeed sound very shallow, as do most of your comments here. You also sound like a misogynist - you've seen some people, women AND men presumably, in bars (what were you doing there anyway?) and in your mind this justifies the stereotypes of white WOMEN? It's OK for men to behave that way then, but not women?

    I thought this was a fantastic piece, and the comments were great too till Harry popped up with his usual nonsense!
  • Shai
    24.01.13 07:43 PM
    Great work Lekha! This opinion is well-overdue on being published. Just to bring in my other 2 gripes on Bollywood portrayals - why white characters often tend to have Scandinavian accents and near-to-no acting talent, and why black characters are NEVER shown to be even 'potential' love interests. Actually, Bollywood probably needs black characters first. Matru Ki Bijlee - no comment.
  • Priyanka
    24.01.13 06:03 PM
    To a reasonable extent,this is due to feelings of inferiority. Sometimes it seems like desis have the biggest chip on their shoulder for various reasons and will not miss an opportunity to brag about how awesome indian culture is and how terrible white folks are. My partner is white and i personally take massive offence to such discrimination. 90% of indians are rascist in someway or the other. They just dont realise it.
  • Lekha
    24.01.13 02:09 PM
    @ vince, thanks:). Yes, I did feel strongly about it. Stereotyping in popular culture is natural but the way Bollywood does it is quite sickening.
  • Vince Mon
    Vince Mon
    24.01.13 01:42 AM
    Great food for thought piece. Very impressive, Lekha! You put across the points brilliantly and I'm sure there are many people out there who haven't given a thought as to why foreigners are portrayed in such a way in Indian movies.

    I'm sincerely hoping this article finds its way to one of the leading Indian national dailies.
    24.01.13 12:43 AM
    And BTW most of those stereotypes are some what true if you live in manchester and I'm sure my white friends will agree too. You only pointed it out because you are an Indian and you said it your self that we are sentiment lots that's why you feel offended by this.

    I think you need to spend few weekends in the bars and clubs in manchester and soon you will change your tune, and if you don't I will eat my shoes. I know, I sound very shallow at this time. I will only talk about disney because I've been there and seen it, if you see my point.
    23.01.13 11:46 PM
    Isn't this stereotypes in both of the cultures because last time I watched TV (Program made in USA) it showed that we all (Indians) are belly dancer and snake charmers. All tho some are true but not all. I don't see any difference from what you have written. Doesn't every culture have this stereotypes against each other. BTW I'm not defending the Indian cinema.
  • feluda
    23.01.13 11:03 PM
    cool piece.

    i would say that the real elephant in the room is indian sexuality (both female and male too, to some extent). white women are basically projected onto as being everything that 'good' indian women arent/shouldnt be, i.e. sexual. so i would like to see indian cinema present more 'normal' sexuality in some sort of realistic context, one that can exist outside just supposed indianness vs westernness.

    but projecting a culture's fears/unpleasant attributes onto 'the other' to back up its notions of superiority isnt exactly a bolly-only thing. nor is poor female characterisation, thats a standard complaint about uk/us movies too.

    i know this piece is half tongue in cheek, so maybe im going overboard, but the other difference is that hollywood movies have a much bigger reach than bolly movies. one is seen by half the globe, the other is seen pretty much only by indians/NRIs. im not condoning the examples you mention in the piece (or going back a bit, hare krisha hare ram), but i cant help but see them as kind of a response to years of seeing india in western movies. its a way of trying to redress the balance.
  • dianne sharma wintter
    dianne sharma wintter
    23.01.13 08:50 PM
    Pranaamms to you Lekha from the bottom of my desi heart!! Bollywood movies are racist to the core and misogynistic in nature. White women are whores or bimbos and any ballsy Indian womman will be subdued or killed off....I have been waiting for a decent feminist analysis of Bollywoods influence for years!! Bring it on
  • Mind Shag
    Mind Shag
    23.01.13 03:40 PM
    Brilliant! And suitably apt for the current setting.

    If Honey Singh is not the problem behind the rapes committed by Indians on Indians, then certainly the portrayal of "gori" women in Bollywood and B-grade-wood, may have a correlation to the number of incidents involving foreign female tourists.

    Although that doesn't mean that it is fair and square for each of the "woods", holly or bolly to continue coming up with stereotypes, but it is important to make avant-gardé cinema, that doesn't look towards consolidating the false notions of the masses, but in fact gives a glimpse to the reality.

    Why in hell an Indian woman portrayed as a more respectable being than her foreign counterpart, is well ludicrous and shameful for our society. When in fact we continue to see goris from a lecherous lens.
  • SRD
    23.01.13 11:11 AM
    Impressive and bang on!
  • Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    23.01.13 11:09 AM
    Amitabh Bachan remembering young lovers' names by the days of the week? That's going to give me nightmares for a month.
  • Anju
    23.01.13 05:53 AM
    Very well written, agree 100% with the writer!
  • Bee
    23.01.13 02:46 AM
    Seriously... WOW! some1 had to bring that up!!!

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