"Hey, I need your help. I've to interview that guy but I know nothing about him or Bollywood," said the British journalist beside me. We were at a press conference being addressed by Hrithik Roshan on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival 2009. I had not been surprised to see Hrithik stroll down the street virtually unrecognised the previous evening - you can't expect the public to know every artist from every part of the world. This however was not a member of the public. This was a journalist from a reputed media organisation about to interview "that guy".
"First tell me what you know," I replied patiently. She: "I know the usual stuff - that the Indian film industry is called Bollywood, that you make long films with lots of songs and dances, and you don't kiss in your films." Sigh! Where do I begin? "Bollywood is the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai. India has several flourishing film industries in other languages," I began explaining. "I had no idea," came the surprised response, though Google could have told her what I just had.
I was reminded of this conversation as India reacted with amusement, irritation and anger to starlet Mallika Sherawat's recent interview to Varietyin Cannes. Mallika has been more or less off the serious Indian film-goers' radar for years now, yet there she was addressing an influential international media house about the position of women in "hypocritical" India,falsely statingthat she was "thefirst actress in India to kiss on screen and wear a bikini". She added: "Instantly, I became a fallen woman and a superstar at the same time."Variety posted these quotes without any caveat in an article below the video interview on its website.
The plight of Indian women merits a separate discussion. This article is about the coverage of Indian cinema in the West, so specifically on that front… One: surviving footage of Devika Rani in a 1930s film is proof that Mallika is far from being the first Indian actress to kiss on screen. Two: Zeenat Aman, Dimple Kapadia, Parveen Babi and several others wore bikinis in films as far back as the 1970s and '80s, decades before Mallika emerged on the scene. Assuming that the Varietyinterview is part of a brazen image-building exercise, Mallika must have figured that her claims would fit stereotypical Western notions of Asian conservatism, pretty much like her claims to the Indian media about Haryana during the publicity campaigns for her firstcouple of films a decade back. At the time, Mallika had said she was a "small-town middle-class girl" from Rohtak whose father stopped speaking to her because of her choice of career, adding for good measure,"I come from a place where women are kept in the backyard along with cattle." Since Haryana has a dismal record in women's rights, everyone swallowed her claims. I confess I did too, only to be surprised during my research for an article on her in The Indian Express, when I discovered that in truth she belonged to a well-off Haryanvi family,that she had never lived in Rohtak herself, that she'd lived almost her entire life till then in Delhi, that she had studied in elite educational institutions in the Capital and that her liberal parents had supported her efforts to enter Bollywood. As she did back then, when she gave the interview toVarietytoo, Mallika must have expected that most journalists would not know enough - or care enough - to contradict her. Happily for her, her interviewer Steven Gaydos met her expectations.
During an email Q&A for this article, Gaydos got furious when I asked why Variety chose to interview a cinematic non-entity from India especially in a year when Vidya Balan, Nandita Das, Amitabh Bachchan and the team of Lunchbox were official invitees at Cannes,and whether he was aware of the falsehoods in Mallika's claims. "Based upon the controversy this interview has caused in India, I'm curious myself: Do journalists in India understand the difference between an interview and an endorsement? This was an interview, not an endorsement,"he said. So an interview on a respected media platform is not an endorsementof sorts for an artist? PR agents across the world might beg to disagree. Gaydos added:"I'm not too interested in who wore the first bikini in an Indian film, but I am interested when media figures draw attention to issues such as the infanticide rates in Haryana. Based upon the research I've seen, Ms Sherawat's concerns, while extremely disturbing, appear to be not completely unfounded."Fair enough, but that was not my question. Was he awarethat Mallika is not the first Indian actress to wear a bikini or kiss on screen? Would he post a caveat or corrigendum on his website?At this point Gaydos angrily terminated the interview.
I should have expected that. After all, it's not easy for a senior journalist to admit that he fell for spin. The uncomfortable truth though is that a considerable proportion of Western journalists show a similar lack of knowledge and perspectiveabout Indian cinema and society.To be fair, there are mediapersons in the West who are extremely well-informed in these matters, but too often they are overshadowed by those who are not.In a conversation with legendary British interviewer David Frost for Al Jazeera TV in late 2012, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan said that after she won the Miss World title, "it shocked me how ill-informed so many parts of the world were actually about current India".Sometimes lack of knowledge leads to factual errors, at other times to the unwitting exoticisation of an alien culture even by well-meaning mediapersons. The latter led to an entertaining exchange between Aishwarya and US talk show host David Letterman in 2004. "Do you live with your parents?" Letterman asked. "Is that common in India for older children to live with their parents?" To which Aishwarya replied with a disarming smile: "It's fine to live with your parents because it's also common in India that we don't have to take appointments with our parents to meet for dinner." Letterman responded sportingly to the gentle jibe, telling his audience: "Oh, oh, I think we've learnt a little something here tonight."
Indian consumers of foreign news coverage tend to have a greater interest in and access to English language TV and print outlets from North America and Europe than media in other languages or from other parts of the world. The general assumption in India isthat these news organisationsare obsessive about fact-checking and research. Yet sadly, a random search ofreports in the American press on the Internet throws up a string of factual errors about Indian films.A 2012 article in Variety cites Slumdog Millionaire as a Bollywood film. An LA Weekly interview with Irrfan Khan in 2012 substitutes Imran Khan's name for Aamir in a reference to Bollywood's reigning Khan trio. ALos Angeles Times profile of SRK in 2011 described Ra.One's Anubhav Sinha as a "veteran" just 10 years after the release of his first film. Not surprisingly, this cluelessness spills over into non-film-related reports such as a recent one in the New York Daily Newsabout a costumed character in Times Square attacking the child of former Miss India Asia-Pacific Parmita Katkar.Though littleknown in India, Katkar is described here as "an accomplished Bollywood actress and model". All this seems minor compared to the exclusion in article after article of all Indian film industries other than Bollywood.
Earlier this year, British media heavyweight Yasmin Alibhai-Brownconcentrated solely on Hindi cinema in a lengthy write-up for The Independentpurportedly celebrating 100 years of "Indian cinema". She explained her focus on Bollywood in these words, "Although regional and independent films have always done their own thing, and brilliantly, the most prodigious sector is Bollywood, the ultimate dream factory in Mumbai." The reality however is that the Telugu and Tamil film industries match Bollywood in the scale of their productions, their budgets and the total number of films released each year.According to the Central Board of Film Certification's annual report for 2011, of the total number of Indian feature films to which certificates were issued that year, 206 were in Hindi, 185 in Tamil and 192 in Telugu; in the previous year the figures stood at 215 Hindi films, 202 Tamil and 181 Telugu.
The widespread lack of awareness in the West about non-Hindi Indian film industries could partly be because Bollywood markets itself betterthan the others. It could also be the fault of India's own 'national' media organisations, most of which are so North India-centric that they are fixated on Bollywood. Consequently, any foreign journalist keen to study Indian cinema beyond Bollywood faces a huge challenge. It's possible that like their counterparts in India, most Western film journalists too avoid in-depth research, lap up press releases and spiel from publicists, which could additionally explain the exaggerations of the "A is a veteran", "B is an established actress"variety and other errata.Besides, when you're a journalist researching a Third World country, exotica like "you don't kiss in your films" and "I was thefirst actress in India to kiss on screen"must be just so attractive, so easily saleable to editors and so appealing to headline writers. So what if it's untrue?As George Clooney once said acidically to the media while responding to speculation about his love life: "Don't let facts get in the way of a good story."
(Anna MM Vetticad is on Twitter as @annavetticad)