Elephant weddings and the Call-Centre-Country

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The other day, I was engrossed in one of my all time favourite TV dramas – Dexter. There was this scene, where Dexter is in bed with his wife, and they get disturbed by a phone call. It’s a tele-marketing call from India. His wife is puzzled at the timing and  says that they should know better than to disturb them in the middle of the night, to which Dexter replies that it’s day-time in India. It was an innocent enough remark, although for some reason it disturbed me.

And then there I was again, watching yet another show from the same stable – The Big Bang Theory is a story about a group of ‘nerd-friends’ and their ever-entangled love life. One of the characters- Raj Koothrapaali is an Indian. In one particular episode, Raj says “And I am Indian, so I know how to beg”. Another remark that pricked me. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what upset me. Maybe I was just being thin-skinned with this faux-patriotic nonsense.

In fact, I’m all for laughing at myself and ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ and all that, but then again, my problem was not with what was being said, anyway. In fact, I’m a big fan of Chuck Lorre, and make it a point of reading the index cards that flash for a few seconds at the end of every episode, in the BBT.

Like a bad habit, dismissive references to India kept surfacing in every major TV show I watched. I recollected  a Sopranos episode where Tony Soprano’s daughter, ready to leave the nest, talks about wanting to complete her education in India. Pat came the reply from the mob-man “what do you want to learn, how to catch malaria?” The daughter dismisses his concerns with a laugh, although I don’t recall exactly what her arguments for going to India were.

Was there a pattern here, or was I reading too much into a non-issue?

Pop-cultural references generally paint a picture that reflects and reaffirms the views of the intended audience. For instance, communism – like the cross to the vampire –  obviously gets a lot of bad rep in mainstream Hollywood movies. Very few films/shows, actually challenge the audience, or attempt to shake them off their comfort zones. In that case, was this actually how the west perceives India – a disease infested jungle with a smattering of concrete buildings to house the many call-centers designed to steal jobs from them?.

That sounds far-fetched to the point of being ridiculous. But it was also true, that every movie that featured, at least in part, places in India, painted an inaccurate picture of the country. The way it’s shown, it would seem that every wedding in India involved processions of elephants and/or horse-drawn carriages. Despite living in India all my life, and having attended a fair share of weddings, I have never once seen the groom/bride arrive on a domesticated animal. In fact, the first time I saw an elephant featured in a wedding was in a Hollywood movie, although I must admit I found it very entertaining, endearing even. Nothing like an elephant to light up an event, but I digress…

And of course, there is that gem of a movie “Slumdog millionaire” (I’m being ironic here – hated the movie), featuring the iconic scene where the slum kid dives through a river of excrement to get an autograph of Amitabh Bachan. All the kids begging on the streets seem to be MENSA candidates, all of whom are deprived of their childhood by indifferent elites. Another classic scene was when a policeman tries to chase a beggar kid away from a couple of tourist, and the kid, before running away, looks up to the appropriately shocked tourists(caucasians), and says “this is how they treat the poor in India” Hmmm……

The intended audience conundrum…

This dismissive attitude while portraying India, could stem from an ingrained bigotry. But if that was the case, and people in the USA held Indians in low esteem, then it would be difficult to explain the eagerness of Indian students to pursue higher education/work in that country, or the eagerness shown by American corporate to woo Indian students. I myself have friends working in the States, who have only good things to say about the country. In fact, they don’t lose an opportunity to gloat about the high standard of living the country affords them. That leaves me with only one possible explanation – Indians were never intended as the primary audience for most of these shows/movies. And that is ironic, considering that the burgeoning middle class in India is taking to western media in a big way.

Hollywood – big in scope, but not in spirit?

Hollywood mainly catered to the American suburbia and a smattering of English speaking countries across Europe. However, 21st century has brought much of the world within the scope of Hollywood, with its’ portrayal of the ‘good life’ and ‘living the American Dream’. In fact, there was a news report recently of how the Arabic-dubbed version of the classic sitcom ‘Friends’ was helping to loosen up the severe moral codes enforced on woman in Saudi Arabia. As Hollywood spreads its’ sphere of influence and finds new markets for its’ wares, it is important that they accept the new responsibilities that this entails. Like they say in Spider-man, ‘with big powers come big responsibilities….’ and all that. A recent reuters report claims that Hollywood movies accounted for 8.5% of all box-office collections in India in 2012. This figure is only expected to grow in the coming years.

Censorship vis-à-vis Cultural sensitivity

India and several Asian countries have a long and dubious history of censorship that clashes directly with several core American values. A new law in India requires the flashing of a warning about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol use, every time a character lights up a cigarette or has a drink. Ridiculous even by Indian standards, it has long been a bone of contention between the govt. and film directors. Recently, a Hollywood director Woody Allen, refused to screen his film ‘Blue Jasmine’ in India, because he didn’t want to tinker with the print of his film to accommodate govt. labels. With more and more Hollywood films looking to be released in India, conflicts like these are going to be commonplace in the coming decades.

While Hollywood directors/distributors have every right to demand creative freedom and expression for their works, they also need to keep in mind the cultural persuasion of their audience. A scene in the first installment of the Ironman franchise has Robert Downey Jr tackling terrorists in Afghanistan. In a scene where the terrorist are talking to themselves, supposedly in Arabic, (as per the subtitles) they are actually speaking Hindi. And then they suddenly switch to another unrelated language. It left a bad taste in my mouth, watching it in the theatres. How would the American audience feel if in the movie Slumdog millionaire, the American tourists spoke in Spanish, and a helpful subtitle declared that the language being spoken was American? Not only do such experiences subtract from the overall experience of the movie, they also show the scant regard the filmmakers have for non-English audience. In the coming years, movies that speak to the global audience need to become the norm. Showing a greater attention to detail when it comes to the portrayal of culture, languages etc, only makes the medium more powerful, while also enriching the experience of the viewer.

Indian film industry is taking to Hollywood and English in a big way. Reliance Entertainment has already signed on multiple deals with several Hollywood production houses including the Steven Spielberg owned Dream Works. All this could signal a change in studio boardrooms across Hollywood.

Personally, I look forward to movies that show weddings sans elephants, Indians who are not culturally stereotyped woman-oppressing irrationals, and where all Muslim women are not burqa-clad non-entities.

Hopefully, the coming years will mark a new era in the entertainment industry which will see it finally break free from the shackles of populist propaganda which was on display in movies like Rambo, a milestone in Hollywood.

Or so, one hopes. Like Nigel Powers says in Goldmember (2012) :

“There are only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”

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