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How Hollywood invented the ‘exotic Indian’

  • Published at 05:20 pm September 8th, 2018
how hollywood invented the exotic Indian

How do we know the Indian subcontinent is exotic?

When a Caucasian watches Indian Summers, The Man who Knew Infinity or Victoria & Abdul and builds an image of “India” in his/her mind almost wholly depending on those films and TV shows, what are the defining characteristics of an Indian for the said Caucasian? Would those traits differ if the viewer was an “Indian”? 

The frame of reference for "the other" is not the real other, but their representation in different media. Films and TV are such media that communicate the image of one culture to another. As Winfried Noth explains in his article "Towards a semiotics of the cultural other,” it not only constructs one's idea of another culture, it also constructs one's idea of self, of one's own culture. 

Is it sheer coincidence that all film/TV productions based on colonial India assume Indians (now Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis) as tradition-hugging exotic creatures of the tropic, a stark contrast to the sophisticated, modern and enlightened British or is it rather a colonial discourse that serves to perpetuate the colonization of the mind?

Prem Chowdhry in his book Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity (2000) argues that Hollywood “Empire Films” emphasize the unique imperial status, cultural and racial superiority and patriotic pride not only of the British, but of the entire white western world. These were Hollywood's first attempts in “understanding” and representing India, which worked as foundations for today's Global Hollywood Gaze toward India. 

After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British tried particularly hard to distinguish themselves in India from Indians. Edward Said aptly pointed out in his book Orientalism (1978) that knowledge about the Orient, as it was produced and circulated in Europe, was an ideological accompaniment of colonial power.  

The apparent humanitarianism increasingly depended upon a radical discourse of racial difference. According to one of William Mazzarella’s articles in 2009 about cinema in the late colonial India, cinema, which emerged almost simultaneously in Europe and in India in the middle of the 1890s, became an unprecedented instrument of propaganda, unlike print, whose impact was constrained by limited literacy. 

As for Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, colonial power was maintained and reproduced through different disciplines, discourses and texts to establish superiority of British culture to its colonized subjects. 

Hollywood eagerly played a major role in spreading cultural imperialism. As Chowdhry points out, during the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood was churning out empire films that were so blatantly racist that the British Raj itself had to request restraint from American producers. 

Television series like The Far Pavilions (1984) and Jewel in the Crown (1984) were fictions based on British colonial rule in India and the Indian freedom struggle emphasizing the predicaments of the colonizers. Indian characters there were mere supporting roles constructing an “absolutely different and unchanging” India for the western audience to indulge in a nostalgic gaze. 

Jaikumar shows in his book Cinema at the End of Empire (2006), films like Sanders of the River and Elephant Bay use documentary footage to naturalistically portray colonial subjects in a state of savagery and in need of assistance from the "enlightened" colonizers.

As the western film industry sought to limit the struggle for Indian Independence to Gandhi and some romantic and imaginary plots on colonial India, Indian films and TV shows (like The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Jhansi Ki Raani and Chandragupta Maurya) valorized the uncelebrated heroes of Indian freedom struggles, as the Indian struggle against colonial power was hardly linear, but a complex web of uprisings at regional and national levels by rulers and civilians. This aspect has been more elaborately dealt with in a 2013 article (“Colonial Rebels in Indian Cinema Narratives, Ideology and Popular Culture”) written by Sony Jalarajan Raj and Rohini Sreekumar. 

What is particularly perplexing is that over seventy years after independence from the British, it looks as though we are still confined in that identity prescribed by those colonial narratives. In the course of decades of conditioning by film/TV, we continue to look at ourselves and our colonizers through a tainted lens. 

Sadia Khalid is editor, Showtime, Dhaka Tribune.

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