Why don't writers/film makers realise that we don't need to showcase either India's heritage and diversity or its squalor and poverty as something exotic, writes VATSALA VEDANTAM.
India is more than the land of maharajas, palaces and caparisoned elephants: A scene from "Vanity Fair".
GOING by the abundance of books and films on Indian themes, one is left wondering why our authors and filmmakers feel compelled to present their country's exotica in order to make sure of their readers and viewers.
The latest in this genre is the highly praised remake of Thackeray's masterpiece, Vanity Fair. It has received rave reviews in the American press. Even the criticism of its departure from the text is seen as a stroke of genius.
Unfaithful to India
The film may go on to win an Oscar. Yet, that will not take away the fact that it is unfaithful not only to the original story, but to India as well. I saw the film in a multiplex in Chicago last month with just nine others in the audience. They were all white American senior citizens, and I felt the same indignation as I do when I see the selective and exaggerated depiction of life in India by expatriate South Asian writers settled abroad.
Maybe, the very fact that these offerings are lapped up by western readers and audiences as authentic descriptions of the Indian subcontinent encourages our authors and filmmakers to showcase India as a land of maharajas, palaces and caparisoned elephants as Mira Nair has done if not one of street children, beggars and prostitutes. Perhaps they feel that that is what will sell. An embellished picture presented with a western audience in mind.
It's a great pity that Americans should learn about another country and its people through these distorted and selective images. An observation made by the editor of an American newspaper during a seminar about how his countrymen now understand India at last after seeing the film "Monsoon Wedding" just proves my point.
In her interviews, Mira Nair has said that she was enamoured of this great classic from her schooldays, and especially its daring heroine, Becky Sharp. But, both Thackeray's story and protagonist have undergone a sea change into something truly strange in the film.
Perhaps Nair wanted to take advantage of the book's references to India to make a movie capturing oriental splendour and the magnificence of a bygone era.
But, all that she has achieved is a recap of an arrogant colonial regime, with a British imposter riding a decorated elephant like royalty in the last scene while the "native" dancers and musicians entertain her.
Considering the film was made for modern audiences in the year 2004 long after the last white "Tommy" left the shores of this country, it looks incongruous to portray India as an exotic land with exotic customs.
The picture of a Victorian drawing room where a demure Becky is escorted to the dining table to eat a green chilli while being attended by dark skinned turbaned waiters is replete with colonial hang ups.
If Thackeray, writing in Victorian England, chose to portray India as a colony where slaves could be transported to the genteel homes of British stockbrokers, that's one thing.
But, if Mira Nair chooses, two centuries later, to depict India cinematically as a land of coloured slaves and nautch girls serving their white masters, it's quite another.
The average American viewer at whom the film is aimed could very easily imagine that this is what India is like today given his erudition in such matters.
The other side
For heaven's sake, we are not aliens from another planet. We are an ordinary country with ordinary citizens like any other. We may have our share of religious fanatics, bumbling politicians and corrupt ministers.
But we can also boast of artists, thinkers, scientists and industrialists who have even put India on the world map.
Why, our very own laid back city of Bangalore has made waves with its new generation of computer savvy professionals who have swept away thousands of jobs from other countries. Why not project them to the world?
Why don't Indian writers and filmmakers showcase these along with social activists like Bunker Roy who brought water and literacy to the parched villages of Rajasthan, or, Magsaysay award winner Kurien who caused a milk revolution in the country?
No need to sell
There are any number of people out there who have done this country proud with their vision and determination. Then, why talk and write only about brides who are burnt, female foetuses that are aborted, girl children who are neglected? Or, conversely, why portray India in "filmy" style as a land of palaces, peacocks and dancing girls?
It's high time our writers/film makers realised that we don't need to peddle India by showcasing either it's heritage and diversity, or it's squalor and poverty, as something exotic. On the other hand, where is the need to sell India at all?
E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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