Can a cinematic masterpiece also be racist to Indians? 1947's Black Narcissus proves, yes it can

Kuzhali Manickavel

Feb 10, 2020 09:50:37 IST

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


It’s that time again fam! Time to courageously whine about how something made many years ago is offensive and must be… written about? I guess? Anyway, in an effort to show that in the current climate I am a good Indian and patriotic as heck, I thought I would focus on things which offend India or Indian things specifically. And so, I am going to watch something called Black Narcissus, which came out in 1947. It’s about nuns in the Himalayas and local people who don’t know anything because they are brown. And I think one of the nuns goes crazy. And there’s an English guy. I don’t know very much about the movie actually.

I know what you’re thinking — it’s going to be The Tiger of Eschnapur all over again except with nuns. Wait though! This is supposed to be a good movie! Some people have called it a masterpiece! Which behooves the question, can you make a masterpiece and be racist to Indians at the same time? Since it is just Indians, I think the answer to that question is yes. So here I am, mediocre words in hand, ready to combat the dickens out of this allegedly problematic movie.

I have already stated that I don’t know much about this movie. Now we will talk about the things that I do know. First of all, I know that the India in this movie is a man-made construction.

 Can a cinematic masterpiece also be racist to Indians? 1947s Black Narcissus proves, yes it can

Jean Simmons in a still from Black Narcissus | Image via

Now maybe you will say, pffft that’s what India is like in most English movies anyway. But this India was actually constructed. Like, they literally made it. In the exotic wilds of a studio at Pinewood. And Horsham, Sussex. Movies like The Tiger of Eschnapur may have been shot in the actual India but the India they created was a magical fairyland of brownface, odd temples and weird dancing. With Black Narcissus, it feels as if peeps were like, well, we’re making everything else up anyway. Might as well make up the actual landscape too. Which kind of makes sense, when you think about it.

I would like to say that what follows is a robust yet succinct summary which eloquently conveys the fruit of my in-depth research on this movie. My in-depth research however, consisted of pretending to read things three things on the internet while watching YouTube videos where this guy puts random things in a washing machine. As a result of this, I have an enviable knowledge of what happens when you put paint, bananas, ice-cream, school supplies or Christmas lights in a washing machine. I also noted down the following things.

— ‘Jean Simmons plays the sexy Indian maid.’

So here’s what I learned: Jean Simmons was a white lady. And there is a sexy Indian maid in this
movie. I don’t know why I wrote this down actually.

— ‘The nuns stay in the Palace of Mopu, near Darjeeling and it is owned by General Toda Rai,
Rajput ruler of a princely state.’

Ok, that just made me really tired.

— There is one actual Indian person in the cast named Sabu Dastagir. His son, Paul Sabu, formed a band called Sabu in the '80s and they had a song called 'Loose Lucy is on the Loose'.

This is what is known as irrelevant information.

I will now endeavour to watch this movie, after which I will revert back with another instalment of this crunchy column!

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Mar 06, 2020 13:57:52 IST