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The Empire strikes back

Bollywood, as a phenomenon of popular culture, is now predominant across many terrains. But as the passion for Indian cinema now stretches way beyond NRI audiences, has its narratives, music and stars, and its brand really captured the imagination of the metropolitan West? AJIT DUARA examines this issue of cultural opinion.


WHEN the Queen Mother passed away at the age of 101, the Empire paused for a moment. The British were in India for less than 200 years and those two centuries profoundly affected both civilisations. Now that the Indian generation that knew and resented English rule, and their British contemporaries who thought nostalgically of the Raj have vanished from our globalised American Empire, it is time to ponder on the remains of the day.

In England it is called multi-culturalism and it includes eating curry and being polite to Asians. But the country has been changed irrevokably in terms of its "Englishness". Inspite of being across the channel to Continental Europe, England has always been a remarkably insular nation. European food, manners, films, money (the Euro) have left it unaffected, even disdainful of people who speak in foreign tongues and sleep with partners instead of with hot water bottles. Yet this nation cannot get away from India and Indians. These people speak in many foreign tongues, some of which have "gheraoed" the English language, they have a cuisine which has all but replaced the English standard of "fish and chips", and when Napoleon Bonaparte once referred to the English as a nation of shopkeepers, little did he know that those shopkeepers would one day be largely Asian. The only important English preoccupation in which Indians are largely absent is in their football team, now at the World Cup. According to the English, the reason why David Beckham did not want an Indian in his team is the apprehension that every time he got a corner, the Indian would want to set up a shop.

Thus, it is of no surprise that the cinema going public in England has been ambushed by Indian cinema. Of course, the British film industry has traditionally been weak, most of their best technicians and actors working in Hollywood for the money and the considerable fame. In fact it has once been famously said by an American film critic that the French make cinema, the Italians make film, the Americans make movies and the British make do. In other words, it has been suggested that Indian films may just be the alternative to the standard big budget Hollywood action film. Films like "Lagaan" and "Monsoon Wedding" might well fill in a slot in the British entertainment market.

The difference between an American (read "international") audience and an English one watching these two recent Indian films, would be considerable. In "Lagaan" they would know the rules of the game, both in cricket and colonial terms, and in "Monsoon Wedding" they would be familiar with the more vulgar aspects of North Indian culture, the general ambience of which infuses this Mira Nair film.

In fact, an English audience is in a much better position to see through publicity hype and cant. They would not attribute a Robert Altman influence on "Monsoon Wedding", as have some American critics. This is because the Americans cannot see the film for what it is — a low budget wedding video, a sort of tacky "made for TV" film. But a lot of the English can, and one guesses that they enjoy the movie because it accurately portrays a lot of their neighbours, Asian immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s who are now well to do in England and are struggling with cross cultural problems with the next generation. Also film critics in America do not place the film in the context of the director's filmography and cannot see how Nair has not lived upto the promise of "Salaam Bombay" and that her last major release was the equally tacky "Kamasutra".

Mention needs to be made at this point that the general decline of film criticism in the West and in India is directly connected to the entertainment industry tying up with the media, and the use of the film critics space in newspapers and magazines as indirect advertising. In fact there is enormous pressure on critics from their publishers to write favourable reviews or, if the false notion of "integrity" prevents them from doing so, opting out of their columns. This is a reality and a lot of the hype that we read about the response to Indian cinema in the West is a result of this cohabitation. A case in point is the recent screening of "Devdas" at Cannes. Without taking anything away from the merit of this film, it would be a fascinating exercise to check out how many of the Indian reporters and critics who sent glowing reports of the French response to the film have had their tickets paid for either by the film industry or by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which is projecting the film as a fair reflection of Indian cinema.

The point is simply that we live in a consumerist universe and if enough reporters and critics say that a film is brilliant, a viewer whose gut instinct tells him that the film is mediocre, will gradually veer around to the position of the mainstream media. This is the process by which we are co-opted into a cultural opinion.

Unfortunately, publishers and editors do not take this issue seriously because they see entertainment as something "trivial", and see no harm in the hype of a particular kind of cinema.

"Monsoon Wedding"

It is in this context that we need to be wary about what we read about the response to Indian movies in the West and particularly in England. While it is true that "Lagaan" is a tremendously well made film with cross-over appeal to the English, it has to be remembered that the film crosses over because it has British characters who are portrayed at length and even a potential love interest between a beautiful English girl and the Indian protagonist. Surely the existence of the Western characters, shown with a fair amount of integrity, has a lot to do with the Oscar nomination. Reality tells us that even an excellent film like "Dil Chahta Hai" will never make the cross over because it has no Western characters, apart from a tourist in Goa who seduces and robs the Saif Ali Khan character.

Had Mira Nair selected more ethnic characters in "Monsoon Wedding" instead of the Punjabi diaspora that is immediately identifiable in Indian immigrant communities all over the West, particularly in England, the film may not have had that appeal. It needs to be emphasised that "Monsoon Wedding" is successful not for excellence of cinema but for excellence in the selection of the stereotypical North Indian prototype — exuberant, singing and dancing to Hindi music and throwing money around on weddings.

In the meantime, a lot of good cinema made in India is not shown in a country like England. Yes, it is true that a retrospective on Satyajit Ray is being shown in London this summer, but what about smaller budget contemporary film makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, (Kerala), Buddhadev Dasgupta (West Bengal) and Jahnu Barua (Assam)? Their films do not get a distribution in London like similar smaller budget Iranian films, made by Abbas Kiriostami and Majid Majidi, appreciated all over the world; film makers who make no conscious cross over but whose national media and whose (Iranian) Government projects them honestly and adequately as representatives of Iranian culture abroad. In India, of course, we look at the huge expatriate Indian community watching Hindi films in the West for reasons of nostalgia, and mistake it for the "success" of Indian films in the West.

The writer is a film critic based in Mumbai.

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