The Rachel Papers

The Twain Shall Meet, But...

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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When Indian films celebrate the West for all the wrong reasons

EDWARD SAID’S TERM ‘Orientalism’, a view of the East that makes it essentially different from the West, is well known. The reverse gaze, Occidentalism, of the East at the West, has received far less attention, perhaps because of the focus on power, not least through colonialism and its acquisition of knowledge about the ‘East’. However, as global power structures change, multiple views emerge and the East and the West, never true binaries, become more complex.

The colonial view has shaped the way India sees itself as well as the way it sees the West. The way one sees oneself and one’s own history are the standpoint from where one sees other cultures.

Western scholarship, both in the West and also within the Indian academy, has shaped contemporary understanding of Indian history, while Hindu nationalism is giving voice to views which have long been disregarded as peripheral (till now) and decidedly non-academic.

India’s contested history may be polarised, almost as a caricature of binaries: academic history from the West versus understandings of non-linear time, of sacred time, and of a sacred nation. The so-called ‘Muslim period’ may be either viewed as a golden age of Indian culture or seen as the brutal rule of ‘foreign invaders’. The British period is perhaps less divisive; although both sides find much to condemn in it, one might see it as bringing the benefits of modernity, including the establishment of the nation- state, while another may see it as a second attack on Indian pride. The 70 years post-Independence saw the establishment of the world’s greatest democracy, but many reject the secular state and now desire a Hindu rashtra.

There are other histories of India that are barely studied. Visual history may give us different stories. A good example is Bhagat Singh, who was largely ignored by academic narrative histories but revived by popular history—stories, songs and chromolithographs, themselves retold in films and television series.

Indian popular culture also shows different understandings of the modern West. While the 1857 uprisings are celebrated as the beginning of modern Indian nationalism or the ‘First War of Independence’, films about the freedom movement focus on different nationalist leaders struggling against the Brits, who are nearly all villainous, apart from one or two righteous characters.

There are of course films that engage seriously with the struggle against colonialism, such as Gandhi (1982), but my favourite depiction of unfettered colonialism is the opening sequence of Manmohan Desai’s Mard (1985) which has Curzon and Simon looting India, taking treasure straight to the airport in armoured cars and tanks, accompanied by much pantomime villainy and loud cackling.

THE ANGLOPHILE ELITES, often called ‘brown sahibs’, who ruled India were figures of derision in cinema, such as Sir BB Mehta in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), while ordinary people who aspired to be Western were comic figures, such as Dilip Kumar and Om Prakash singing, ‘Saala main to sahib ban gaya’. Even today the inhabitants of Lutyens’ Delhi are portrayed as out of touch with the ‘real India’, though many of these attacks appear to come from among the ranks of those who grew up in this hallowed area itself.

In Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), the girl becomes a hippie and drug-taker, while her brother remains true to his traditional upbringing

While the supposed sexual availability of the White woman was best embodied by Helen in a blonde wig and green contact lenses, the Indians who went to live in the West were open to many temptations. Purab Aur Pachhim (1970) showed how Indians living abroad would forget their values and had to be rescued by a ‘pure’ Indian. In Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), the girl becomes a hippie and drug-taker, while her brother remains true to his traditional upbringing. Even more recent films, such as Namastey London (2007), had this same trope, with the simple Indian man teaching Brits and Westernised Indians what true Indian values mean.

The diasporic films of the 1990s, typified by Shah Rukh Khan-starrers produced by Yash Chopra and Karan Johar, showed how true Indian values would always prevail, even if the young had to remind their elders of their obligations. DDLJ (1995) remains the outstanding example while in later films, the interactions become more complex. In My Name Is Khan (2010), Rizwan played by Shah Rukh mobilises American Muslims to save African Americans from a natural disaster not unlike the floods of New Orleans, while in Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), the intermingling of Westernisation and even fraternising with Pakistanis is more benign.

All these films have limited roles for non-Indians, mostly as backup dancers or guests at weddings or public events. Perhaps the safest option is to cast someone of a more complex ethnicity, such as Katrina Kaif, who can pass as either Indian or European.

The diasporic film no longer dominates the Indian box office as, although foreign locations remain popular, they are typically where Indians go to holiday or work rather than settle. These Indians rarely mix with non-Indians and non-Indians seem boring and hardly merit any attention. The West seems to be just a tourist destination, with Yash Chopra’s Switzerland now replaced by films set in France (Befikre; 2016), Spain (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara; 2011), Germany (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil; 2016).

The West is a consumerist paradise, a holiday destination, somewhere to work but not interesting per se. It is easy to live in, spectacular, glamorous, and has fewer poor people getting in the way. In other words, it seems little different from the Indian metropolitan bubbles where the super-rich live.

These films are made by and consumed by Indians who don’t care about the West or what the West thinks of them. They are interested in creating a new vision of India, one which is hostile to Western values and culture but which enjoys the consumerist lifestyle it offers.

Many have scoffed at Crazy Rich Asians, saying Bollywood has been doing it better for years, but perhaps Indians themselves are surprised at the way the West has changed the way it sees India. Yoga is de rigueur as part of an elite lifestyle, and upmarket Indian restaurants are hugely popular.

There is no East and no West for rich Indians in these films and beyond. Perhaps we could replace ‘strong’ with ‘rich’ in Rugyard Kipling’s famous poem, The Ballad of East and West:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!