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India Through A Western Lens

After early training in western classical music, Gregory D. Booth began the study of North Indian tabla drumming with Ustad Zakir Hussain in 1977. He has published widely on South Asian classical music pedagogy, processional music, and Hindi film music. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland. In his book Behind The Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios, he offers a compelling account of the Bollywood film music industry from the perspective of the musicians who both experienced and shaped its history. In the original post below Booth looks at how Slumdog Millionaire and other contemporary Indian films reflect the Western world’s perception of India .

I suspect there are quite a number of people in India just now, who are very thankful the wedding season is winding down. The “high season” for weddings in northern India is mid-January to mid-February. If the Oscars had happened two months earlier, every groom in India would have reached his bride’s home to the strains of A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho”, the winner (if I need to tell anyone) of the 2009 Oscar for best original song. “Jai Ho” is a not A.R. Rahman’s best work (compared, for example with some of his work in the latter 1990s: Bombay, Dil Se, Taal). Nevertheless, the song and its parent film, Slumdog Millionare will represent India globally for the immediate future: in the West because it’s an Oscar-winning, well-made, happy-ending film shot in an exotic setting; in India because it’s the Oscar winner and proof, if the Indian press is to be believed, that India is now one of the formally recognized winners in the film world.

There has been earnest debate on the more intellectual Indian blog sites as to whether a film set in India, with Indian actors, directed, produced and financed by foreigners, could in fact be considered an Indian film. One of those blogs points out that this is the fourth time an Indian film has received any kind of “best film” nomination. I’d suggest that the four nominees tell us a great deal about the West’s perception of India.

1. Mother India (1957). A fully Indian production, featuring the greats of Mumbai’s film world (too early, perhaps, to call it Bollywood), in which a village matron and her two sons, abandoned by their husband/father, persevere in the face of grinding poverty, corrupt moneylenders and drought.
2. Salaam Bombay (1988) a non-Bollywood film shot in India by an expatriate Indian director, in which abandoned and kidnapped children struggle against the poverty, violence, and abuse of Mumbai’s most notorious red-light district.
3. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001), a feel-good, anti-colonialist, Bollywood film in which plucky, but unsophisticated Indian villagers, overwhelmed by British taxation, learn to play cricket and, led by one of their own, beat the British at their own game.
4. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) a British-produced and directed film with an Indian cast and setting in which a homeless, uneducated boy from Mumbai’s streets grows up to win a television game show.

Roughly, all four focus on poverty. Only one features a “heroic” Indian male. Two sacrifice many of their protagonists to poverty and “the system” and two focus on the worst neighborhoods of Mumbai. Need we say more?

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2 Responses to “India Through A Western Lens”
  1. Rajesh says:

    Looks quite a few Indians in India and west forget another film with strong India connections, though a Canadian entry, “Water” (by Deepa Mehta, an expatriate Indian director) was nominated for Oscars. So it is actually five.

  2. K.D.NATARAJAN says:

    The western moviegoer wants to see raw India. Slumdog swells in it. That is why the Oscar.
    Currently, there is a contemporary film running in South India made in Tamil language entitled “Naan Kadavul” meaning “I am God”.This is about the raw beggars and POT smoking “Sadhus” of Benares on the banks of the river Ganges. If only this movie were made in English or even dubbed in English it would be a WORTHY RIVAL TO sLUMDOG!

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