Hollywood's Great Indian Picture of Clichés

Vinayak Chakravorty

Jun 09, 2019 23:45:32 IST

A Canadian director has made a movie based on a French bestseller’s novel, and the project is bankrolled by producers across the world — including France, Italy, Russia, and the Netherlands — and distributed by a Hollywood studio. Point of interest being the film, titled The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir, has an Indian protagonist and marks the international debut of Tamil star Dhanush.

Typically, Dhanush plays a poor trickster and thief in Mumbai, who ends up touring half the world in search of his father, in the Ken Scott-directed film slated to open later this month. The film is based on Romain Puertolas’ novel, The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir Who Got Trapped In An Ikea Wardrobe, and an early watch reveals the film is an all-out entertaining comedy.

Yet, you don’t miss the random familiar clichés that mainstream cinema of the West has habitually associated with India and Indianness — from Peter Sellers’ The Party to Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, and beyond.

Hollywoods Great Indian Picture of Clichés

The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir

Dhanush’s protagonist Ajatshatru Patel, in flashback as a child, cons and thieves people, darting through the narrow dingy slum lanes of Mumbai. As a grownup illegal immigrant, he travels continents in oversized Louise Vuitton cases of a film actress. Typically, he is the bumpkin who gets swindled by the smart-alec white man on landing in a foreign city. The cliché roster, of course, would remain incomplete without the film’s Oscar-winning heroine Berenice Bejo joining Dhanush for the Bollywoodised naach-gaana drill.

Stereotyping India, incidentally, goes beyond the roles that Hollywood continues to write for actors from this country. It is evident in casting patterns, too. Hollywood often casts actors from various parts of the world to expand the market of its films to those nations.

Reports of Hollywood bigwig Zack Snyder signing Huma Qureshi as part of his multistarring next, the Netflix zombie flick Army Of The Dead, has been doing the rounds over the past week. Qureshi’s much-vaunted Hollywood debut toplines Dave Bautista along with Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera and Theo Rossi.

The film’s casting seems to be in sync with Hollywood’s formula of market expansion — assort a multinational cast with actors from several countries, notably the developing world, for a wider market. So, while Bautista is of Filipino-Greek origin and Purnell is English, de la Reguera is of Mexican origin. Rossi boasts of Italian, Spanish, Syrian and North African blood.

While such mixed casting works wonders at scoring points of political correctness in this era of inclusion, producers sit back and gleefully watch their films make big bucks across so many different international markets, beyond the US.

The idea is especially noticeable in mass market entertainers such as the Vin Diesel-starrer xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, which marked the Hollywood entry of Deepika Padukone. It also starred Chinese actors Donnie Yen and Kris Wu, Australian actress Rubie Rose, Canadian actress Nina Dobrev, Colombian actress Ariadna Gutiérrez, and Thai star Tony Jaa.

Padukone, like other new-age Indian actors including Priyanka Chopra, Dhanush and Huma Qureshi, have only lately joined Hollywood’s inclusion party, after Irrfan and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan made forays last decade. India, after all, has been on Hollywood’s radar only lately, just as China and Hong Kong were in the nineties.

Qureshi’s all-out horror thriller Army Of The Dead would seem like the right film to accommodate an Indian star, at a time Indians are increasingly watching Hollywood films as never before.

On the screen, Hollywood stereotypes defining Indian characters continue to be of two types. If the story is about an Indian in India, he most likely hails from the slums. If the character is an NRI in the US, he could be a doctor, a cabbie or a store owner — but he must invariably roll his words with thick accent and, if the character is a male and a comic one, he is most likely a gullible fool and sexually repressed.

More than the NRI, though, Hollywood loves the slumdog. Ghetto swagger gets the box-office cash rolling as few other formulae do. Add foreign exotica, and the genre seems foolproof. It is a reason Hollywood keeps revisiting the genre not just in the context of the Indian underbelly, but also across developing societies in Latin America and Africa.

International box-office traits would show slum-side stories have been the most popular of India-centric films in the West, since Mira Nair made Salaam Bombay in 1988. Danny Boyle’s global blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, won multiple Oscars. Garth Davis’ Dev Patel-starrer Lion, narrating a true story, went onto become a worldwide hit after garnering multiple Oscar nominations.

Yet, poverty porn grossly overlooks India’s pluralistic nature, which makes it too complex as a society to be defined merely by its underbelly.

The West’s growing slant at political correctness ensures their cinema has lately packaged misery of foreign cultures in a way it doesn’t seem outright obvious. You wouldn’t, perhaps, spot what’s offensive unless you belong to the particular racial background. You would have to be an Indian, for instance, to spot why the funniest bits about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian immigrant convenience store owner in The Simpsons, is all about stereotyping.

Apu in The Simpsons is voiced by American actor Hank Azaria, just as the struggling Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party (1968) was played by Peter Sellers. As Apu utters “thank you, come again” in the thick accent America loves to laugh out loud at, you recall the absurdly-named Hrundi Bakshi and donning brown paint to look Indian. Sellers’ act remained a template for the prototype Indian in western films for long, till Indian actors started stepping in to do the job.

Characters such as Apu, Hrundi Bakshi, and even Dhanush’s Ajatshatru Patel, dangerously etch a flat, uniform image of who the real Indian is. Considering cinema’s widespread impact, they only underline the stereotypes.

Indian actors in a rush to play such characters on the Hollywood screen for global fame are only adding to the tropes.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 23:45:32 IST