|The scene from Slumdog Millionaire, where the protagonist jumps into a pile of faeces to get his favourite star Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph, upset many Indians
Rishi Kapoor was livid. Earlier this week Kapoor and I met for drinks at the W Hotel in mid-Manhattan. He had just seen the late-afternoon show of The Avengers. And while he loved the film, he was very mad about the couple of scenes in the film set in Kolkata.
Kapoor blamed Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire for starting the trend of showing the ugly side of India. “Why is it that they only show the dirt and the filth of India?” he asked.
I know that Kapoor is not alone in this thinking and this is not the first time this question has been raised. Many people in India were extremely critical of Slumdog — from Amitabh Bachchan to film critics, bloggers and regular filmgoers.
In fact, there has been a long history of how the West sees India, especially in films — the land of heat and dust, filth, poverty, and people with strange food habits (as in Steven Spielberg’s 1984 hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). And many Indians just do not like it.
We live on the same planet, but it is like two different worlds. Hollywood films sometimes touch upon elements of India (and at rare times treat India as the backdrop for the entire film) that are superficial, reflecting a lack of broader understanding of the complexities of the country. Many Indians would like their country to be represented only in a positive light.
I do not think all Western filmmakers deliberately set out to show the ugly side of India. They just see India differently. When a Western tourist visits Mumbai, he or she is not necessarily blown away by the city’s wealth, and its lavish five-star hotels. They see that in their own countries. But the site of Dharavi is an eye-opener for them, a unique experience, even if they have a limited view of the elaborately functioning and organised slum.
I understand Kapoor’s anger over Slumdog. But I have talked to Boyle a few times and he is very earnest in his respect for India and Indians. Many people have told me that they were upset by the Slumdog scene with the pool of faeces. But that was quintessential Danny Boyle, an extension of the equally sickening scene from his second film Trainspotting.
Films like The Avengers do real good business in India. That is the only message Hollywood studios get. And that explains why The Avengers opened in India a week before it did in the US. If filmgoers in India were really upset with the unpleasant Kolkata scenes (reportedly shot in New Mexico) in The Avengers, they would not have flocked to the film playing in 800 theatres.
My own views on this issue are not so strong. I liked Slumdog, although at times the film was excessive. But I can see where its critics are coming from. I am waiting to see how people in India will react to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the British characters are mostly treated with empathy and compassion, while the one solid Indian character — Dev Patel’s Sunny, is a clown, a ridiculously played role of a brown man who seems to be prancing around to charm the white folks in the film.
If I recall correctly, Blake Edwards’ The Party was banned in India for a while following protests by political groups. But I find the film very funny. And being a fan of Peter Sellers, I can overlook what some may consider racist humour.
Will things change? Will Hollywood show more sensitivity to how it looks at India? Only time will tell, although right now that is not an urgent agenda for Hollywood filmmakers.
In the next couple of months Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna should open in India. Trishna shows a lot of India in a fairly balanced way — the inner workings of five star hotels that were previously royal palaces, the lives of the poor, and Mumbai’s trendy filmmakers and struggling artists. But I can take a bet Trishna will also find its set of critics and many will dismiss it as a depiction of India as an exotic country.
• No surprises
I was disappointed with Aseem Chhabra’s review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PM, May 6). I read the book a while ago and completely loved it. I was really looking forward to the movie, especially since it has stalwarts like Maggie Smith and Dame Judy Dench. Chhabra writes that he enjoyed the movie, but didn’t find any ‘surprises’ in it. If it has stayed true to the book, I wouldn't expect any either. Marigold is a sweetly old-fashioned story of growing old in England and then suddenly being transplanted to India. A culture shock for the characters, but no ‘surprises’ for the audience.
- Rupali S
• It’s Hollywood!
Aseem Chhabra needs to stop trying to bring the ‘Western vision of India' into all his articles. Hollywood remains largely American and Americanised and it has a blinkered outlook on anything outside its cultural boundaries. Anything British will remain ‘quaint’, anything Asian will be ‘exotic’. I don’t see it changing despite the slew of non-American films coming into the mainstream market. Chhabra’s constant harping on a tired topic will probably not bring about a revolution, so can we please move on?
- Ashish Patnaik