Sunday 8 December 2013

Two British films I was told were Indian films (2008, 2012)

A few months ago I bemoaned how white, how British and American the films I'd been looking at were - not that those facets are problematic in themselves, but that the films I was selecting lacked diversity.  The original plan for the blog was to see 20th Century cinema from all angles, but in the end I watched very few films from outside Western Europe and the States.  I put out a request for recommendations from less familiar nations, saying "these should be films conceived and made within the continent concerned," and, after seeing the American-Canadian film 'Life of Pi' (2012), I expressed an interest in some real Indian films, as opposed to films set in India but made for Western consumption.

The two I was lent were 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008) and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' (2012), and neither is really what I was after.  These are British-funded films with white British writers and directors (indeed the former is directed by Danny Boyle, surely the most famously British director there is, after his Olympic triumph).  They're both set in India, but have largely English dialogue, so they're Indian films to about the same extent that 'Das Herz der K├Ânigin' (1940) is a Scottish film or 'Shaft in Africa' (1973) is an Ethiopian film.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) under interrogation
'Slumdog Millionaire' regards Indian characters, and is based on a novel by an Indian author, so comes rather closer to being what I was after.  It's the tale of a man from the slums of Mumbai who lives an exciting and difficult life and makes his way onto 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', with each question causing him to recall some part of his hectic youth.  'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is about elderly white folks moving to India.  Dev Patel (who stars in both films) is its Indian lead, but he's the eighth billed on the poster after a catalogue of honkeys, and gets by far the smallest picture.

I was concerned that this film would show India only as an 'exotic' background, a colourful holiday location rather than a real nation of real people.  Thankfully the screenplay isn't so blinkered as I feared, and gives a rather more complex picture of India.  It's a mite more optimistic than 'Slumdog Millionaire', which tells of a nation rife with poverty and crime, while 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is set in a country in which one can live without a door and yet have no fear of burglary.

Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, and plenty of other stars,
old enough to have earnt their great fame.
Both films end cheerfully, with 'Slumdog Millionaire' turning either on either coincidence or destiny, and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' giving an eyebrow-raising conclusion in which one of the British characters (Maggie Smith as Muriel) turns out to be more competent than Dev Patel's Sonny and relieves him of his responsibilities, so bringing prosperity and order to the white ghetto.  She starts the film as a disabled working class racist, and ends as a lovely able-bodied middle-class lady, and the film ties her moral transformation to a process of healing and rising from the wheelchair.  Alas, this is something one can find in a lot of fiction, the lingering implication being that one's impairment is a curse to be escaped through good deeds or a contrite heart.  It's a well-known trope, which upholds disability's massive stigma.  See also 'The Little Mermaid', 'What Katy Did', 'Avatar', and plenty more.

So, I still haven't seen any Indian films, at least by the criteria that I, and Wikipedia, like to judge these things.  These two were both enjoyable, well-made films, and present complementary pictures of modern India ('Slumdog Millionaire' giving us Mumbai on the coast and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' showing Jaipur in the North), which I'm happy to put together with 'The Jewel in the Crown' (Granada television, 1984) to give a richer understanding, but I can't help feeling my knowledge of the life in the Indian subcontinent is very much tinged by Western interpretations.

The only other recommendation I've had for Indian cinema is 'how about some Bollywood'; would I just be embracing a stereotype?

1 comment:

  1. Not an Indian movie, but for non-european non-american film there's Yeelen, which is a Malian film which is made by a Malian director with Malian actors - it's from 1987.
    Sita Sings the Blues is made by a white American, but it's apparently (I haven't seen it) a really fascinating look at Indian culture and Hindu literature.

    I've also heard occasional reference to Pather Panchali as being good - again, I've not seen it, and I know almost nothing about it, but I have been told to watch it in the past.