Opinion

FOREIGN FILMMAKERS AND ORIENTALISM, IT IS TIME TO GO BEYOND INDIAN STEREOTYPES

India is all about slums, poverty, snake charmers, dirt and colours. At least this is what foreigners think of India through colonial literature and films.  They cannot be blamed because the popular cinema made by western filmmakers have portrayed India this way. These seem to be the only few features that the international filmmakers’ guild seems to  know of and this is all that foreign movies harp about, when depicting India.

Though India has moved on to be one of the biggest economies, international filmmakers continue to stick to their narrow perception of showing the country as the land of child widows, snake charmers and elephants.

From Simpson, to Big Bang Theory to Slumdog Millionaire -each one of these popular forms of entertainment have relied on the easiest way to portray India with its miseries for their benefits.

Milking Indian-ness is best possible only when the country’s diversity is exploited by the cameras to its fullest. So what can be better than using India’s poverty porn to earn quick attention from the world audience.

Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Tong is the latest to blatantly show Indian stereotypes in the recently released movie KungFu Panda, starring Jackie Chan along with a bunch of star struck Indian actors such Sonu Sood, Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur.

The movie which is making waves in China and reaping gold at the box office, has been scoffed at by the Indian audience, because the makers’ served every cliche they could possibly sell as standardized feature of India. The total lack of imagination is the biggest culprit and should be blamed for this lazy orientalist approach.

Tong has simply set the camera in the local market, which looks a more of an orientalism museum. The movie which takes the audience from China, Dubai and India feasts on highlighting India as a messy and chaotic country.

India’s diversity is reduced to only depicting it as snake charmers, magicians, men in turbans, gulaal and colourful vehicles on the roads.

Chinese audience delight in sharing articles showing the poverty and dangers of India, a perspective which the movies have added to. While watching KungFu Panda, one cannot deny the rivalry between overpopulated China with equally densely populated and relatively underdeveloped India.

When British rock band Coldplay decided to shoot its new video ‘Hymn For the Weekend’ in Mumbai, it wanted to go high on Indian diversity.  The Indian aspect of the video was Sonam  Kapoor, dressed in colourful lehariya scarf with mirror work top and a huge nosepin to confirm her Indian look. This depiction of India was yet another unimaginative attempt to compile celebration of Holi, street urchins and slums.

Coldplay got a flak for the poor presentation of India, but that did not deter his popularity in anyway as the band’s frontman Chris Martin performed to full house recently in Mumbai, at Global Citizen Concert.

India is on the global forefront in many sectors, but for a large number of celebrated international filmmakers, no other aspect of India is as exciting as the hackneyed portrayal of its poverty.

Mira Nair’ Salaam Bombay based on the lives of street urchins living on the railway platforms, was a heart melting narration of  the lives of the poor. This is perhaps the only movie based on Indian backdrop which has made it to the New York Times list of top 1000 movies ever made.

British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s multi- Academy award winning movie Slumdog Millionaire gave an extensive glimpse on India’s shocking poverty and terrible living conditions in the slums. The movie was also a comment on the link between poverty and crime in India. The movie also highlighted India’s increasing obsession for reality quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati, which emerged as an ultimate dream for the middleclass to become rich overnight.  Indian actor Anil Kapoor played the role of a superstar turned show host in the movie, along with Irrfan Khan.

The movie was celebrated internationally as the world saw what they enjoyed watching the most -India’s poverty. Based on the book Q&A by an Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, Slumdog Millionaire found itself in the middle of several controversies soon after it was released. India’s mega star Amitabh Bachchan who was reportedly approached by Boyle to play the role which was eventually played by Anil,  blasted at the filmmaker. Bachchan called it something which caused ‘pain and disgust among nationalists.’

‘If Slumdog Millionaire projects India as a third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nation’ Bachchan had famously written in his blog soon after the release of the movie in 2008.

In fact, the idea of a white man ‘exposing’ India’s poverty through the movie was not appreciated by the nationalists. The makers of Slumdog Millionaire were also blamed for paying measly sum to the child actors Azharuddin Ismail and Ayush Khedekar, as remuneration. However, it was later clarified by Boyle that a trust was set up, which looked after the education and upkeep of the child actors.

Since India has upstaged itself at many levels, it’s high time that the west change their constricted orientalist approach while shooting in India. The hackneyed description about India needs to be given a break now.

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