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!