‘Basmati Blues’ unsurprisingly does what Hollywood has always done – exoticise India’s ‘otherness’

Published: November 13, 2017
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Beyond the clichés around spicy food, wedding dances, and white woman coming to the rescue of a hapless village, some of the visuals in the trailer seem to be from another era. PHOTO: IMDB

In case you were wondering, the white man’s burden is still alive and well! Even though it is the 21st century, while India is launching US satellites into space and is the world’s fastest growing major economy, the country’s poverty and social ills continue be alluring for moviemakers in the West.

Falling back on clichés is a remarkably effortless way to create content for mass entertainment. Every culture offers ready stereotypes, and there are a large number of people in other parts of the world who readily lap up the concocted and twisted narratives.

It is not surprising then, that mainstream entertainment around the world frequently leverages cultural caricatures. After all, thinking things through and reflecting on a complex reality is hard work, and is quite often not rewarded commensurately in the box office.

Prolific as Hollywood is, it needs a steady stream of diverse subjects to portray on celluloid, and every now and then, it zeroes in on India as the canvas on which to paint its offerings.

However, the only stories it finds worth telling are usually the ones that showcase India through a lens of poverty, colonialism, exotic ‘otherness’, or spiritualism. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Eat Love Pray, A Passage to India, or Million Dollar Arm have all played on such themes.

The latest movie to walk down this stereotypical path is Brie Larson’s new movie Basmati Blues – even before its release, it’s getting its fair share of flak.

Some of it seems justified, though a bit of it may be harsh and undeserved.

Beyond the clichés around spicy food, wedding dances and white woman coming to the rescue of a hapless village, some of the visuals in the trailer seem to be from another era.

The protagonist is shown getting into an old Ambassador taxi and traveling in a second-class train compartment. Now, Ambassadors have become virtually extinct in India, whereas most corporate visitors to India get the fanciest of cars driving them around. It is very highly unlikely that an American scientist would travel in such a compartment on a train in India.

The filmmakers could have, and should have, avoided pandering to such obvious stereotypes. Attention to such minor details would have allowed the movie to be taken more seriously and could have kept some critics at bay, at least until the movie released. One normally expects such immature caricatures from Bollywood, but it seems as if Hollywood is not immune either. Let’s just say Hollywood needs to grow up.

With that said, while Basmati Blues may be ignorant, it certainly does not seem evil. There are elements of comedy and romance, and there is a certain activism against corporate greed that it tries to showcase. Unfortunately, the film pressed a few wrong buttons, and not just for Indians who tend to be a little extra sensitive about such things.

Beyond Hollywood, if you ever watch a BBC documentary or news show about India, you’ll notice how they almost always manage to show it as essentially squalid, even if they are showcasing its IT industry or its rapid economic growth. There’s something about the camera angles and the light filters that seems to convey an underlying air of inherent backwardness.

There’s no denying that all these elements hold true, even in modern India. The country offers a sensory experience like no other land on this planet. It is chaotic and dirty, and its sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming at times.

Yet, it is so much more. It is a land that tells a story of hope, of millions lifted out of poverty and hundreds of millions empowered and enfranchised. It is a country competing with the best in the world, and at times, even winning.

And all of this is not happening because of the West’s charity – it is happening despite centuries of western exploitation.

It’s time for Hollywood to come to terms with the changing times and get over its condescending attitude of seeing Indians and India as blighted people of a blighted land.

People in India, on the other hand, need to lighten up about such portrayals. A confident and self-assured nation does not worry about how it is portrayed by others. My Name is Khan had a shockingly inaccurate depiction of how rural America got cut off in a natural calamity. Yet, no one in the US howled in protest – it was inconsequential to them.

There’s a lesson for Indians here. The country has some real problems it is grappling with, issues that it needs to direct its focus towards. If someone makes an escapist movie in the West that allows them and their audiences to forget their troubles and makes them feel good about their supposed “superiority”, there’s no use rising up in arms over it. Let them be, and focus instead on creating a better country – that is perhaps the only way for India to separate itself from these old clichés once and for all.

All Photos: Screenshots

Amit Nangia

Amit Nangia

The author is a learning and development professional with a background in finance and human resources that informs his commentaries on geopolitical and socioeconomic trends. He tweets as @amitnangia06 (twitter.com/amitnangia06)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.