The story of Black Narcissus, 1947, is set in India. But it's a film about white people and their feelings

Kuzhali Manickavel

Feb 11, 2020 09:32:53 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.


Read part 1 of this column.

Welcome fam to the minty-fresh, sparkling and brand spanking new second instalment of our column. Previously, we somewhat boldly stated that we would watch a movie called Black Narcissus and report back. The good news first. Unlike the previous movie, I actually watched this one till the end. It will now be purely bad news from now on.

What can we say about Black Narcissus? I hate to talk about me all the time but I want to say that as a writer, I am usually criticised for being weird. I feel the people who say that have not seen this movie. There are so very many odd things going on that one hardly knows where to begin. There are nuns, a palace which apparently housed courtesans long ago (complete with naked lady graffiti, to really drive that point home), “natives” who do little except smile, tiny white ponies, a sexy Indian maid who doesn’t speak at all (she does scream a couple of times though. And she dances of course), an ayah who sounds a lot like Mrs Gamp, mental illness, flashbacks, an Englishman called Dean who wears small shorts and has a monkey, a Holy Man with four vertical marks on his forehead and unrequited love.

 The story of Black Narcissus, 1947, is set in India. But its a film about white people and their feelings

Still from Black Narcissus

Because we want to live, we will not whine about all these things, even though they are certainly worth whining about. So in the interest of time, we will forego complaining about the obvious brownface, weird accents, frightening exoticism and all that fun stuff. Let us instead focus on two things which really struck me.

1. The use of language.

So, try to follow me here. The nuns speak English. The ayah speaks English, without even trying to put on an accent of any kind. But they call in a little boy called Joseph to be an interpreter because I’m not sure why. And there is Dean the Englishman who can speak everything because he is a white dude in a foreign land. The locals apparently don’t speak Hindustani or English (the horror!) but they do speak something that sounded a lot like French to me because what do I know.

There is the Holy Man, who doesn’t talk but apparently is fluent in English and several European languages, which I guess is an amazing thing for an Indian to be. And of course there is the sexy Indian maid, who doesn’t speak at all because she is a woman and she is Indian and she is sexy. On the whole, it felt like a lot of emphasis and importance was placed on language use in the movie and also, at the very same time, absolutely no emphasis or importance was placed on language use in the movie at all. It was very confusing.

2. The “natives”.

I remember reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus and while that whole rigmarole of the protagonist having various white dude feelings was being played out I was like, um what about the dude he shot though? The natives in this movie are similar to that dude who got shot.

This story is really only about the white people and how they feel and all about their feelings. Everything is hard and different. They get weird rashes, they forget to plant vegetables, the atmosphere of this strange place is just so strange and as a result, so many feelings. In fact, it causes one nun to completely lose her marbles.

While all these things are happening, the natives just smile. That’s it. When the white people talk about them, they say the natives are primitive people, like unreasonable children. They all look the same. They smell. They have never seen medicine before. I guess when you want to make a movie which is just about white people and their feelings, the other human beings have to be relegated to “natives” status.

So maybe we shouldn’t complain about this because God forbid that white people shouldn’t be able to talk about their feelings, especially when it’s at the expense of others.

So fam? Is this movie problematic? I think it is, but it’s also really weird and apparently it’s silly to whine about old, weird things. And so, because we do not want to be unreasonable children, we say what a great movie, thank you for setting it in India which is a great country and which in this instance, you actually made in England.

Next month, we will continue to be patriotic and defend the country from the offensiveness of a movie that wasn’t made 50 years ago! It’s something called Basmati Blues! No, really! That’s what it’s called! Wow!

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: Feb 13, 2020 09:39:10 IST