Who Gets to Tell Stories About India and Its People?
India for white filmmakers is a place in their imagination.
You would think that sixteen would be old enough to shake off school-hallway taunts. But when Slumdog Millionaire came out in 2008, this megahit reignited the post-Apu-thank-you-come-again, post-9/11 terrorizing slump and refueled the tanks of uncreative schoolkids. It was like something had exploded in the culture––it played on every cinema screen in America. Its Hindi-Spanish-fusion title song “Jai Ho,” which was composed by Indian music legend A. R. Rahman, received a “reinterpretation” by the Pussycat Dolls. The film gave up-and-coming British Asian star Dev Patel the path to step out of his iconic role as Anwar on the teen show Skins to lead international blockbusters. And it swept the Academy Awards and won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was even parodied at length on The Office.
When kids in the hall called me Slumdog, I can’t be sure it was meant as a cruelty. Slumdog Millionaire, after all, was a much-beloved hit. In the way of typical representation for underserved communities, the film both shrinks and expands the global view of the majority by giving insight but never showing a complete, unblemished image. I will never know the intentions of the kids who called me names, but my guess is they were somewhere between affection and derision, leaning harder on the latter.
Despite depicting the grizzly reality of children born into poverty, Slumdog’s song and dance, its colors, and its romantic core made it a frothy watch. It gave the people what they wanted––their worst ideas about India confirmed and set to music. But most notably, it reintroduced India as a place for Western projection, either through its milieus, its food, or, occasionally, its people. In the decade after Slumdog’s release, there was a flurry of similar movies: we got The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in 2011, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Million Dollar Arm in 2014, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in 2015, Lion in 2016, Basmati Blues in 2017, and Hotel Mumbai in 2018. The year before Slumdog came out, director Wes Anderson had given us his own version of India in The Darjeeling Limited.
Often as viewers of these movies, we ride on the backs of white outsiders visiting India or interacting with Indians for the first time. They’re befuddled by the barrage of humanity at the train station, the colors, the sounds, the smells. Everything to them is shocking. It’s meant to drive them out of their comfort zones because we understand them as characters that have grown complacent somehow in their Western lives. India as a location becomes more incidental as the stories go on, since they’re not primarily interested in local culture except as a driver of conflict.
Films like these have a deep impact on diaspora filmmaking. They often become the goalposts by which majority-white audiences and production houses determine success for a film. South Asian filmmakers in the West creating stories for people like them might range in feelings toward these films by white filmmakers––they may be deeply affectionate for some, as I have written about previously, and apathetic toward others. What is available to us shapes South Asian filmmakers and viewers’ expectations. And much of the institutional machine interested in South Asians is dedicated to a certain kind of story.
What is available to us shapes South Asian filmmakers and viewers’ expectations.
As Edward Said said on the first page of Orientalism, “the Orient is almost a European invention.” The East is a part of the European imagination, a place of conquest, romantic landscapes, and capitalist production. In many ways it serves as a collection of concepts by which the West can view itself in contrast to, thereby positively highlighting the West’s own ideals.
The “almost” of Said’s statement is important, though. It provides the space in which those being orientalized have a part to play in their subjugation under the Western gaze. Whether we are buying the Orientalist product or being conscripted in its production, we can’t avoid participating in its continuation.
In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, half a dozen senior British citizens move to Jaipur to live out their retirements in a converted palace with the “sophistication of an English country manor.” It’s a cheap alternative to the dreary offerings of their home country. Each member of the cast is defined by what they’re leaving behind––their careers, their relationships. There’s a broke married couple, a tech-phobic widow, a former High Court judge who used to live in India as a boy, a man and a woman both looking for companionship, and one racist. It’s almost as if going to India gives them a chance to be reincarnated. It’s a place for romance and a rehabilitation center for the worst of British nativism.
The racism of Muriel Donnelly, played by Maggie Smith, is cartoonish. “Brown faces and black hearts. Reeking of curry . . . They move in packs. Makes it easier to rob you blind, cut your throat,” she says as the EMT pushes her home in her wheelchair. He promptly leaves her down the drive from her building. His wife is from Mumbai, he says, as he throws his hands up and leaves.
Where her prejudice is easy to recognize, spread so copiously over the film it’s more a part of her character than her backstory as a domestic worker, the racism of the other characters is more subtle. Upon their arrival in a clean airport, Jean Ainslie, played by Penelope Wilton, tells her husband, “This country seems rather more civilized than one originally thought.” Then they move into the traffic outside where the cacophony of horns blaring and people yelling is practically operatic.
It’s unclear what is out-and-out racism and what is gentle postcolonial ribbing or whether there is even a difference. Even if the film were putting both forms of racism on the chopping block, it is also providing a place to spread these ideas.
This is what I find so frustrating about these sorts of films—they give too much space in the script to the visitors’ glaring prejudice. It’s seen as something to be wrestled with, yes, but it happens in front of those who are harmed by it? How do you come to India and continue to be racist against Indians in their home country?
My family and I went to the theater to see Slumdog Millionaire when it came out. We took my mother for her birthday, actually, because it was a film about India and because we had heard good things. In my immediate family, my mother is the only one truly from India. In some strange way, we thought she might like this film because it shared something with her.
I watched her watch this film. When I laughed, I turned to see if she was laughing. For much of the running time she sat with a stony, unreadable expression. And when we asked after if she liked it, she couldn’t pretend, not even to indulge us. “I didn’t need to see that,” she said. “I grew up seeing stuff like that. I don’t want to watch it in a movie.”
The stuff she was referring to were the almost-gratuitous acts of violence perpetrated on poor orphaned children. Jamal, the main character, witnesses his friends be kidnapped and blinded by men who use them to beg for money on the street. His struggle—from losing his mother to interreligious violence in the slums to trying and failing to protect his friend Latika who becomes a sex worker as a child to ultimately becoming a lucky tea seller at a call center—isn’t an easy one to witness when you strip away the entertainment value. Even when he’s an adult, we watch Jamal get tortured by corrupt policemen.
But it wasn’t until I saw my mother’s reaction that the shiny veneer of the movie’s color palette and fast-moving, energetic storyline fell away for me. For her, the movie wasn’t a form of escapism; it was a confrontation. To pretend that the film was some unquestionably bright, beautiful thing felt wrong. Movies like this, that depict some form of authentic lived experience, that illustrate the realities of living under poverty and corrupt governments, offer a passive learning to viewers, especially those who don’t read further. They cannot be taken simply at face value. That would be saying a story as brutal as this one is simply entertainment. It was made by a white British filmmaker, scripted for screen by a white British writer, and loosely based off of an anglophonic Indian book called Q & A. By those facts alone, its biases are clearer.
When the British colonized South Asia, one of their main tactics of enterprise was to create a market for British-made goods. Here’s the historical summation: Indian cotton, monopolized by British colonization, was sent to British factories without tariffs to be turned into manufactured textiles. These textiles were then sold back to India. This captive market, and India’s own stolen resources, allowed Britain to surpass India as the world’s leading cotton textile manufacturer.
In the same way, it feels as though South Asians are the captive market for Western projections of South Asia. It’s often all we get. And when it’s much lauded, as Slumdog was, the feeling becomes “shut up and be happy about it.” The way is lit with a million choreographed dances to “Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny)” for all the family weddings.
There is something I have noticed in much of British and American media: the softening of colonialism. Often colonialism or imperialism is completely missing from the conversation, or it is handwaved away. Colonialism is also the backdrop of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Retired-judgeGraham says he lived in India as a boy and only left when he went to college. It’s not explicit, but you could hazard that his family lived in India as a result of the British Raj. His storyline focuses on seeking out an old friend and lover from his teenhood. Along the way we see him play cricket with boys on the street, giving them advice on how to hold the bat for better control. It’s a scene played as heartwarming, but it indicates the film’s own awareness of colonial legacy. Cricket was of course a symptom of colonialism in India. In this scene, we see an innocent cultural exchange. But it also asks us to pretend that colonialism was just that: cultural exchange. Just like what occurs in the film. At a certain point it’s impossible to divest the film from its own storytelling. Colonialism is one of the ways white British people relate to India.
In the same way, it feels as though South Asians are the captive market for Western projections of South Asia.
And of course, one of the largest justifications for British colonialism is the need to civilize the Eastern other. It’s critical to subjugation to imagine Indians as vile, heartless people. Civilization comes in the form of railroads and banning uncouth practices. About halfway through the film, Mrs. Donnelly learns that Anokhi, the maid that waits on her, is Dalit. Though of course the film doesn’t call Anokhi Dalit. That would be too sensitive and genuine an awareness of caste politics. It does, though, take the time to explain that she is “what they used to call an untouchable. To a good Hindu, even her shadow is polluted.”
This is a horrifying description of a horrifying practice. Caste is worthy of explanation and condemnation in Western and South Asian media, but it has to be done with sensitivity and with the right language. Here it gets deployed as means for Mrs. Donnelly to be compassionate where others are not, though her “kindness” is simply acknowledgement. And Mrs. Donnelly is shocked that the bar is so low for people like Anokhi, who are incredibly marginalized by Indian society.
The irony is that Anokhi is written as a way for Mrs. Donnelly to realize that how others treat this kind and thoughtful person is how she treats all people of color. It is, in a word, difficult. And underwritten. And dehumanizing. Anokhi’s only role in the storyline is to prop up Mrs. Donnelly’s conversion into a better person. She is a tool to comment on both Indian bigotry and Mrs. Donnelly’s racism.
How white screenwriters have their white characters treat people of color in their stories is more of an indictment of the writers than anything else. In many ways their characters are objects of contrivance. They do not exist in some special space of fiction or fantasy. Anokhi is written to be saved, doing her and her story an injustice.
India for white filmmakers is a place in their imagination. It is for projecting white goodness onto. A mirror in which they can preen themselves and their Western ideals. When white people come to India, they come with a benevolent spirit, or else with a character arc that takes them from bad to good.
We see this in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited,which positioned its three main characters, brothers, on the outside of Indian culture looking in, as they journey through the country via the eponymous train. There is only one named Indian character, Rita, played by Amara Karan, who has a brief and hurried affair with one of the brothers. The other two Indian characters, played by Waris Ahluwalia and Irrfan Khan, are referred to in the credits as The Chief Steward and The Father, respectively. As such, the film is preoccupied with the white gaze on India. We see rolling landscapes out the train windows. We see the poverty that the characters see. Their whole trip is about playacting at closeness and heroism. They save children from drowning. They engage in a made-up ceremony where they bury peacock feathers in the dirt at the top of a hill. The white imagination is in overdrive here.
I know all this, but I still enjoy much of The Darjeeling Limited. It could be because Anderson’s films are extremely moreish. The clarity of vision he has for his style, which basks in vintage, decaying romance, is refreshing and sometimes makes up for the failings of his characterizations. When I watch Darjeeling, I too fall in love with Rita, with her large, kohl-lined eyes and the way she leans out of the train to smoke. The Indian landscape is beautiful and sweeping through the film’s lens. It’s amber-colored and crispy. I too can objectify the country, turn it into consumable parts and pieces of my own making when I watch this film. That’s the appeal, I think.
Films like The Darjeeling Limited train us to think of their stories as escapist fantasy, with little or no basis in reality. Or if they are based in reality, the edges are sanded down by white saviorism, absurdity, or Bollywood-esque send-ups. We are taught to take the good with the bad. We learn to appreciate any representation at all in white stories. Over and over again, I realize I am a captive market for these films. And I’m stuck in the strange fun house–mirror experience of both enjoying the stories and participating in my own subjugation.
The Western gaze lacks curiosity about people outside of the West. It is particularly unfeeling in considering their humanity. It is much more comfortable to borrow their lands and set stories there, use their food and cultures as backdrops or punchlines, and turn their children into pitiable creatures.
As white filmmakers use South Asia in their stories, they force us out of them. Even as they cast us, they exclude us. What they’ve done is exceedingly clever––they’ve turned South Asia once again into a playground for Orientalist fantasy. Instead of seizing goods and capital, white filmmaking steals the imagery of the country and forces it into shape for Western consumption.
Sometimes I wonder if I recognize something in these sorts of films, if that’s what I’m responding to when I sit and watch them. But it’s more like going to a restaurant because they make a dish sort of like how your mother used to, only to find that they’re using the same ingredients to make something completely different. It’s like being shoved out of that restaurant just as you’re about to sit down and make do. It’s standing outside the restaurant and watching people inside eat the most delicious thing, and by watching their faces you can almost imagine what it must taste like. That’s what these movies feel like.
With movies like these, it’s South Asians who are forced to the outside so that all we can do is look in through the windows.