Through The Lens Of Western Cinema: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Depiction of India or Indians in films produced in the west has mostly not only been inaccurate but to an extent has been outrageous. With the advent of social media, globalisation and lot of ease made in traveling, one would expect to get to know about each other better than ever. This probably might be why such bigotries among the west and its film makers are reduced, if not completely among the new age cinemas. But shouldn’t the Indians themselves be blamed for this by doing very little to show their might by not speaking enough to the world through the medium of cinema? Let’s take a look at some of the movies that were completely harsh, some a little with its own share of imprecisions and some, kind enough to show India and its countrymen in good light.

Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom (1984) perhaps the most despicable of all had the Indian maharajas and ministers during the British era munching on snakes and beetles for dinner and chilled monkey brains for dessert. The movie went on to show an antagonist (played by Amrish Puri) who worships Goddess Kali in a way that could shame the Satanists for their rituals couldn’t be this gory. It isn’t a surprise that the film directed by Steven Spielberg was denied to be shot in India by authorities. Some would even wonder if the errors made in the movie was intentional to cause an insult to the country as they get the geography completely wrong and even a spelling of an Indian cast during the end credits is misspelt from Roshan Seth to Rushan!

Amrish PURI
Amrish Puri in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984)

The ridiculing of Indians in Hollywood doesn’t end with India Jones. Many of the movie makers went on to make films either around or by passing references of Indians in gruesome light. And the recent movies like Avengers (2012) and Million dollar arm (2014) weren’t devoid of the filth when it displayed the country. It’s almost like the movie can be written only with squalor when scenes from India needs to be shot. This is in spite of taking heavy inspirations from ancient and medieval eastern philosophies.

Several major motion pictures made in a grand scale have got their inspiration from the east. Have they acknowledged them or not is something else. But those who are familiar with ancient yogic practises like yoga-nidra would have been able to grasp the concept of the movie ‘Inception’ (2010) and also Star Wars movies could be well inspired from Hindu itihasas. This is explained in Steven J. Rosen’s book ‘The Jedi in the Lotus: An Eastern look at Star Wars’ []. Another popular movie with roots of eastern inspiration and even went on to adopt a Sanskrit title was ‘Avatar’ (2009). Avatar takes place in an Alien planet with blue skinned (some of the Avatars of Lord Mahavishnu are known to be blue skinned) spiritual beings (Na’avi) who implores the idea of reincarnation and ecological consciousness. Apart from drawing parallels to Hinduism, this movie can also be a depiction of how the west had invaded and denigrated the values of east from a very long time and also their reluctance in accepting anything that roots from India and other Asian civilisations. Director James Cameron could have struck a chord with the east there.

When it comes to exploitation and vilification of east by the west in cinema, the British film makers and writers had far better sensibilities, though not all in understanding the eastern side of things. Number of film makers has been able to show this from an Indian perspective. A great example would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Attenborough had done justice to the well-researched movie and in fact went on to get funding from India’s NFDC during Indira Gandhi’s reign []. However, some of the critics and movie goers in India couldn’t digest the fact that the protagonist’s role was played by Ben Kingsley, a British actor of ‘half-Indian’ descendent despite Naseerudin Shah was considered for doing that role till a last minute change slashed his hope.

Couple of years later came ‘The Passage to India’ (1984) directed by David Lean set in British India of 1920’s. David Lean’s film adaptation from the book written by E.R.Forester with same title had also portrayed through lens of struggling Indian class of the Raj. Victor Banerjee played the lead role of Dr.Aziz in the film with much hesitation from the director Lean who had to overcome certain legalities in making an Indian play the role under a British banner. An elated Banerjee observed that it was a matter of national pride that they had cast an Indian and not an Asian from England. However, the portrayal of a Hindu Brahmin by the British actor Alec Guiness would be something that is hard to digest for the Indian audience. Guiness’s Brahmin a head shaking, feeble Indian accented superstitious man looked more like an English stand-up comedian who makes funny stereotyped mimics of Indian taxi drivers they met on their roads.

Some of the recent Hollywood productions have almost come in terms with the eastern ideologues. Life of Pi (2012) had pictured a multi-religious and a divine India surprisingly in a good way whose spirituality imbibed by Pi cements his faith and hope of staying alive when stranded in middle of the ocean with a tiger.  Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the book with the same title went on to win a booker prize had spent his time in India for building this masterpiece. Director Ang Lee being an easterner himself could have been able to grasp the book and the sentiments of the country much better than his peers in Hollywood. Also one must appreciate the director Lee for capturing the immensely beautiful Pondicherry without demeaning it and also made the colourful small town with its French charm an important character that shapes up life of Pi. The movie in fact is believed to have given a push to the tourism of Pondicherry and Munnar [].

Screen grab from the movie Life of Pi (2012)
Screen grab from the movie Life of Pi (2012)

The recently released ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ (2016) is another film made largely keeping in mind of Mathematical genius Ramanujan’s perspective. When Ramanujan reveals that his findings is credited to Lakshmi devi of Namagiri who appears in his dreams to professor Hardy, the director has made sure that the sequence be bought in a way that the audience will lend their heart to the Indian maestro and not the rational English professor for such a talent is difficult to come by without a divine intervention.

I-origins, a little known American movie produced by independent director Mike Cahill went on to make his film under a  plot that revolved around a much ridiculed eastern thought of reincarnation.  The movie had a molecular biologist, an atheist in the lead who finds any spiritual thought that his girlfriend imparts on him to be preposterous. This predisposition on the mystical ideas comes to a clash with his scientific world of data and figures when he finds something about reincarnation that makes him almost believe in it and ultimately the movie brings him to the capital of spirituality – India. There is an interesting conversation that happens between the protagonist (Ian) and one of the Indian characters (Priya Verma) of the movie, which goes on like this:

Priya: You know a scientist once asked the Dalai Lama, “What would you do if something disproved your religious beliefs?” And he said after much thought, “I would look at all the papers. I’d take a look at all the research and try to understand things. And in the end, if it was clear that the scientific evidence disproved my spiritual beliefs, I would change my beliefs.”

Ian: That’s a good answer.

Priya Varma: Ian…what would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?

I-Origins (2014)
Screen grab from the movie I-Origins (2014)

Ian doesn’t have an answer for that. I-origins, which has its end sequences and a significant part of the screenplay shot in India isn’t devoid of the stereotyped crowded, slum populace of the country which the Hollywood is much fond of to shoot.  However, it’s evident that Cahill has indeed made a good research to make the movie when we get to see the UID (unique identification) programme which is indigenous to India being narrated explicitly. This also forms an important part of the plot without which the story wouldn’t have got a stronger reason to make the protagonist visit India.

So why does even a well-researched independent movie from the west hailing the eastern philosophy still resort to a typecast India which fails to make us comfortable? And why does an ‘I-origins’ or an ‘Avatar’ idea not get in to the minds and paper of Indian filmmakers? We ourselves need to be blamed for it. A mighty part of the Indian intelligentsia loves to blame the country for all the wrong reasons. This includes a large fraternity from the Indian film industry as well who are looking else where across the world for inspiration and not right in their backyards.

The studios when making a movie will have a target of 100 crore or 200 crore rupees and a star actor in their mind before even a plot is decided. If the film industry is capable of spending such a large amount of money for ludicrous story lines, why can’t it be spent on subjects from ancient Indian texts that contain a plethora of ideas? And why not market them in the west without the compromises they make in the name of Indian audiences taste? In this case west has been successful in getting the philosophies from east and converting them to jaw dropping plot points often not acknowledging the source of it and market them back to the countries like India.

Most of our itihasas are reduced to 8 pm television serials which are grossly misinterpreted and twisted in the name satiating the tastes of audiences. And one feels sad when the mother of all martial arts – Kalaripayatu is represented only in the regional film industry of Kerala who wouldn’t be able to afford to show the real extravagance of this art and meanwhile the descendent of Kalaripayatu like Kung Fu and Karate are highly popular among the western audience. All these could have been well researched and made into epic multi part movies with technology and CGI, but unfortunately not even a try has gone to make this a success.

Instead of copying the movies right out from a Hollywood or a South Korean film, when there is a dearth of ideas among the Indian film makers they could have always route to some of the contemporary writers who never failed to awe their readers. Writers like Amitav Gosh’s extravagant novels are yet to be explored by any Indian film maker. Amish Tripathi’s engrossing versions of the puranas and Ashwin Sanghi’s contemporary take on ancient Indian wisdoms made in to thrillers are also among some of the books that Indian film industry can adapt and challenge its western counterparts. Even many stories and biographies of our Yogis in Himalayas if taken with a gripping story line and a tight screenplay can be transcribed in to top notch films.

Though we indeed had gems like Lagaan (2001),  the simple Lunchbox (2013), some of Satyajit Ray’s classics of the past or the recent Telugu epic Baahubali (2015) which did manage to garner some attention internationally, Indian film industry however couldn’t get to make itself a space among the world cinema or had very rare representation in prestegious film festivels like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance or the most popular Academy awards when compared to their Japanese or South Korean or even the very brilliant Iranian counterparts.

First thing the Indian film industry needs to do is to scrap the idea of calling themselves ‘Bollywood’. There is no bigger shame in showing oneselves as an inferior version of its western peer. If the Indian film makers can shift their thought processes to the eastern scheme of things that lies right under their nose, then the day will not be far where Indian film industry can produce their versions of a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings and be in par with Hollywood both in terms of quality and viewership across the world. This also could wipe off the prejudiced notion that the western film industry has got towards India and its citizens.

Aswin Ramachandran

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.