The Outside Gaze can be a cinematic genre — where foreign writers or/and directors conspire to create an India that is so wretched and beautiful, royal and retired, that most Indians would not recognize it. There is both the attempt to explain and exotify, but these two are so inextricably woven, it’s hard to parse one out from the other.
The White Tiger, the 2008 Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, was recently made into a Netflix film, a story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) from Bihar, the driver of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) in Delhi. Written for the screen and directed by Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani (the novel was dedicated to him, a friend of Adiga), the film was celebrated in the West, and predictably, looked at with a 10 inch pole of curiosity and eye-rolls back home.
But this is not new — this differential response. Movies have often taken India and filtered it through a Kamasutra tinged yellow haze. In fact, the very first scene in the film, showing Balram wearing a “Maharaja” outfit to appease his employers is a perfect symbolism of these films, appeasing the eye of the foreigner, validating their idea of India. (“Madam! Cow! Cow!”) This view can be beautiful, comical, awe-inspiring, or gut-wrenching, but it’s also reductive.
The film begins with a montage of Indian gods— the Lingam with bright marigolds, Ganesha in blue silk, Durga with a string of 10 Rupee Notes (which were actually introduced after 2010 where the film is set), Kali holding the decapitated head of a man, and Hanuman under a road-side tree. Thus begins the saga of explaining India to non-Indians, using lazy generalizations like Dark-India and Light-India, and awkward frameworks like the Rooster Coop Complex. The laziness and awkwardness is made palatable because the genre is a satire, where anything goes. It’s “edgy”. What is made obvious, however, is that this is a story written by an Indian, directed by an Iranian, but for an explicitly non-Indian audience.
This is a list of similar moments that betray the intended audience.
1) Basmati Blues (2017)
We have an Indian scientist living in a shack in a village, wearing dhoti and check-print shirts, sitting on train roof-tops (spared the Chaiyya Chaiyya) offering strange white women chai. Brie Larson plays the White woman, a rice scientist (of course), who comes to India to convince people to use this new productive GMO strain of rice.
It’s a musical and so as she travels through India in a white ambassador, she sings ‘When Tomorrow Comes’, as fishermen open out their nets, and washerwomen bang clothes against the rocks of a river, while lip syncing the English song. Rice is husked, and women dry colourful saris under narrow bridges. The India Introduction Montage™ is a listicle that writes itself.
2) Vogue (1956)
In November 1956, the Vogue magazine hit the newsstands, with these photos by Norman Parkinson. It was then that Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief famously exclaimed “How clever of you Mr.Parkinson to know that pink is the navy blue of India”.
These photos are aesthetically pleasing, and framed meticulously, but they also betray a gaze that is as stilted, as the greasy, sizzling hamburger is for that of America. Of course, we have the snake in the palace, and the royal elephant — showing both the dated and the dazzling side by side.
3) A Passage To India (1984)
What brownface tends to do is show that White people are just like brown people— the difference is incidental and aesthetic. It thus erases the centuries of violence. This is often practiced in cinema, for example, when Sir Alec Guinness plays Professor Godbole in A Passage To India (center in image). Earlier too Peter Sellers played Hrundi Bakshi in The Party (1968), and later Max Minghella played the Indian-American Divya Narendra in The Social Network (2010). Why cast Indians if the story is not for Indians?
4) The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
It isn’t a surprise that Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), in which Satyajit Ray thought Renoir was “overdoing it a bit”, served as an inspiration for Wes Anderson when we went on to make The Darjeeling Limited, a lush and limited view of India (the film’s dedication to Ray notwithstanding). The plot follows three brothers, Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) who set out on a “spiritual journey” across India by rail.
A pivotal moment in the film is when the dysfunctional trio save two drowning kids, but unable to save the third, they attend his funeral. This brings them face-to-face with the deeper meaning of life i.e. despair. The Indian herders and farmers are props, beautiful props, but props nonetheless. It is India’s poverty-crusted mud-huts and white-washed autos that become this catalyst moment of catharsis. Irrfan’s presence in the scene, as the father of the child, is fleeting, but like his life, elevating.
5) Eat Pray Love (2010)
Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) leaves her life in New York for a three-stop worldwide tour: Italy to eat, India to pray, and Bali to love. I did cry the first time I saw this film, but regardless, the salt water could not block what was obviously a closed-in India Liz experienced.
After the chaotic and delirious montage of noise, smoke, in a speedy, reckless taxi (India Introduction Montage™), she is an ashram, where the cliches abound — white people in air conditioned meditation caves, and conversations that are minefields of metaphors (“Is the Guru here?” “The guru is always here!” “No but is the guru here-here?!”). She is exhausted. When asked why she came here of all places, she turns to that age-old romantic idea of The Orient.
6) Extraction (2020)
It’s not unusual for foreign eyes to look at a place differently. When Shoojit Sircar hired the Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre to film Yahaan’s Kashmir, it was deep-dyed in indigo and was uneasy with sunlight, a Kashmir that looked unlike no Kashmir — fact or film.
So it isn’t surprising that when people choose to shoot and colour-correct India, they might want to make it look brighter than it is because that is their first experience of India, a country closer to the equator than their comfort allows. But this is soon becoming a way to make these countries easily identifiable, with the uneasy typhoid yellow filter plastered onto scenes, the Apu of colour correction. Extraction was called out, and so was Breaking Bad, and Narcos.
7) Phantom India (1969)
Louis Malle, the famous French director was touring India in 1967, presenting French New Wave films when he was struck by the idea to make a series on India. He begins the first episode, “Only 2% of Indians speak English, the official language after colonization. This 2% talks a lot in the name of the rest.” Feeling that this Anglophone group’s idea of India was too “ordered by Western symbols and logic”, he goes to the outskirts.
He uses the “camera’s fundamental brazenness”, aware that he is encroaching on people’s privacy to make a film, but doing it anyways, turning ordinary people into protagonists of poverty. At one point he looks at two diggers and wonders out loud how they look like “slaves from vanished civilizations”.
The Indian Government then felt that Malle had merely focused on the impoverished, rather than the developing parts of the country. They asked the BBC to stop broadcasting the programme. The BBC refused and were, as a result, briefly asked to leave their New Delhi bureau.
8) Outsourced (2006)
The cow is a statement, inside as much as outside India. The outside gaze uses the cow as a source of humour, like in Delhi 6, like the stray cow in the beginning of The White Tiger. But the most funny has to be from Outsourced. In the film Todd (Josh Hamilton) has to travel to India because his department has been outsourced, and is thus exposed to the yellow filters, and dusty crowds. He sees a cow in the middle of his office and is shocked. His Indian colleague is unperturbed. The stereotyped humour is the difference. (Reminds me of a friend who convinced her American born-and-bred friend that she travels to school, Dhirubhai Ambani International School, in a bullock cart. The charade ran for years.)
9) Beyond The Clouds (2017)
Now, this is tricky, because while the film is directed by Majid Majidi, a renowned Iranian filmmaker, and shot by Anil Mehta known for his easy and non-fussy framing, the writing and acting is painfully exposition heavy. Sample the scene with Amir and Tara (a bronzed up Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan), where they weep and speak of pain and poverty and alcoholism.
The issue is, as a viewer, I didn’t understand if this exposition was a narrative flaw, or a narrative trick to provide context to these characters for an audience that might be unfamiliar. Majidi’s gaze seems to look at things like prostitution and poverty as beautiful, and perhaps even novel.
This is the slippery slope of representation, not knowing that point beyond which a story becomes not just an artistic, but an anthropological endeavour, and the response always varies, like the French balking and beaming at Emily In Paris. As long as movies are made, movies will be criticized.