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A little cultural sensitivity, please

A film is often either a fictional or a loose version of reality. But it is, arguably, the version of reality we relate and react to easily, if not the most. Lena Saha writes.

chandigarh Updated: Jun 22, 2012 17:40 IST
Lena Saha

A film is often either a fictional or a loose version of reality. But it is, arguably, the version of reality we relate and react to easily, if not the most.

And react we did - to a sequence in the Hollywood superhero ensemble The Avengers in which Dr Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered alter ego of the Hulk, is tracked down to a squalid slum in Kolkata where he is treating a leprosy patient.

While actor Neha Dhupia said she was "disturbed" to see the "murky underbelly of India in Hollywood films", National Award winning actor Rituparna Sengupta felt the sequence could have been handled better.

It was not "disturbing" to see the "murky underbelly of India" in the film. Kolkata does have slums and since "murky underbelly" is very much a part of our country - as, by the way, most countries - there is no reason to shy away from it. For all that the sequence is worth, it is minuscule in respect of the film in totality and not something one takes away from watching it. It could, arguably, have been done away with as the location adds little to the progression of the plot.

But in the few minutes that the sequence unravels, it seems to characterise Kolkata as a slum-infested one to members of the audience, who would care to have little knowledge about it, except only by watching the film.

Should a filmmaker, without exploring a city or, for that matter, a subject or a person's life, characterise or brand it as a particular type and that too in a few scenes? Creative liberties are justified, sweeping judgements are not. Also, a little cultural sensitivity on the part of a filmmaker would do a great deal of good.

When Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which is set in Mumbai, released in 2008, the foreign audience went gaga over it and it even scooped the Oscars. In India, many were not impressed: they called it poverty porn. But the film, no doubt inspired in bits and pieces by literature on Mumbai by foreigners who had lived here and Bollywood culture, did explore the city with some depth, albeit a tad stereotypically.

Joss Whedon's The Avengers only rides on the stereotype. Was he looking to repeat - and exploit - the slum "identity" of India, but not obviously repeat the city? A sneaking suspicion is that that might have been so.

Rewind to last year when Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was released. The character of the Indian telecom tycoon Brij Nath, played by Anil Kapoor, drew more jeers than cheers from Indian audiences, so poorly defined it was. Sample one of his dialogues: "Indian mens are hots" and you get the picture. The character was used as a crass accessory, even though it got some screen space. Brij Nath had movie buffs cringing in their seats so long as he appeared on screen. The key here was not to be political correct, but to avoid stereotypes and daft portrayal of a character.

But the compartmentalisation of people, cities and culture is not Hollywood's fault exclusively; filmmakers in India too suffer from it. One is reminded of the hit film Namaste London (2007) by Vipul Amrutlal Shah in which the British character Charlie Brown, played by Clive Standen, is a throwback to so many others like him that we have watched for ages: spoilt, rich brat, with racial overtones.

Perhaps the only popular film in recent times, which steers clear of stereotypes while portraying a foreign character, is Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti (2006). Sue McKinley, played by British actor Alice Patten, is refreshing as she does not carry any of the hangovers of the "British identity". Despite the film having an ensemble cast, the character of Sue is not restricted to a caricature or a cardboard, although she very well could have been. Instead she emerges as the pivot of the film.

In the age of technology that connects us faster than the snapping of the fingers, ignorance and stereotypes cannot be our crutches; they only expose our lack of knowledge, cultural sensitivity and not being clued-in. Fictional reality of films too, cannot remain exempted from these attributes.