The Indian in the Hollywood soup

The ‘Indian’ in the Hollywood soup!

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The Indian in the Hollywood soupHindi cinema, or Bollywood—seem to be increasingly finding mainstream roles in Hollywood. And the way Indians, and India itself, (territory extended to all other countries of the subcontinent), are depicted in mainstream Western movies. And not surprisingly, the TV shows remain another story altogether – and a largely, a problematic one.

By Nazarul Islam

What’s more, while actors from India —mainly Hindi cinema, or Bollywood—seem to be increasingly finding mainstream roles in Hollywood. And the way Indians, and India itself, (territory extended to all other countries of the subcontinent), are depicted in mainstream Western movies. And not surprisingly, the TV shows remain another story altogether – and a largely, a problematic one.

While the Simpsons character Apu – with his grating “Indian” accent voiced by white actor Hank Azaria – has come under great criticism, leading Azaria to stand down from the role last year, the more recent sitcom The Big Bang Theory had nerd Raj Koothrappali speaking in the same heavy, whiney tone that purports to be authentic Indian.

And if that wasn’t enough, there are all the show’s throwaway references to arranged marriages and households with dozens of servants, in humor as subtle as a blow to the head.

All of this is one reason why the 70’s movie “The Party” was so enjoyable. Sellers had always worked, to draw audiences. In this hilarious movie, he develops a character and plays it, for better or worse, for the whole movie. No costume changes. No Napoleon suits. ‘Sellers’ is Hrundi V. Bakshi, a painfully polite actor from India who courteously and delicately sabotages the evening of several dozen guests and an elephant. He is assisted by a hilariously drunken butler….

The story has to do with a party in the home of a Hollywood studio chief. Director Blake Edwards begins in low key, with cocktail music tinkling in the background while everyone nods politely and Sellers’ shoe floats over the waterfall in the living room. The insanity gradually escalates, but for the first two-thirds of the movie the events remain painfully close to life. Who among us, for example, has not waited politely outside the bathroom door at a party, a glassy smile concealing our agony?

“Hollywood has always approached the outside world as something strange,” said a reporter, adding that when there is a story on or from India at all, then it tends to lean towards exotica. “Like Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom (1984) – supposed to be set in India, but actually shot in Sri Lanka – showing our savage culture with people eating snakes and monkey brains,” he laughs.

We may also cite the examples of Eat, Pray, Love (2010), where India equals spirituality, and the very cringey The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), about a retirement home for British ex-pats in Jaipur, “which seems like Indian kitsch to us here, but perhaps to a British audience, it seems like their India dream come true…”

There is of course one film about India that has had a seismic worldwide impact in recent decades: the Oscar-winning, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Rangan who covered the movie believed that its success was due to the fact that it is a universal feel-good story about a poor man who made it big.

The message: All of us cheer the underdog who wins against all odds.

If it had been set in the heart of Africa or the US’s rust belt, as long as it was a poor milieu, it would have received the same positive response!

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About the Author

Nazarul-Islam-1The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier, and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.

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