Baz Luhrman’s $125 million extravaganza The Great Gatsby has opened in the US to mixed reviews. Audiences are thronging to see the lavish production, with top stars and glamorous sets and it has triggered intense interest in the 1920s, a time of flapper girls, glittering parties, jazz and all round excess. The Wall Street crash and the Great Depression were yet to come when F Scott Fitzgerald wrote his slim novella about the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his love for the shallow Daisy Buchanan. It has since come to be regarded as a morality tale of sorts, exposing the dark side of the American Dream.
In India, Luhrman’s film is of particular interest as it marks the very first Hollywood appearance (he declines to call it a debut), of superstar Amitabh Bachchan. He has a blink-and-miss role as the Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfshiem, a mentor of sorts to Gatsby. That has not stopped Warner Bros, the distributors of the film in India, from giving him prominence in their promotional material, obviously to pull in the local audiences.
Warner is doing what others in the past did not do. Aishwarya Rai had a significant role in Pink Panther 2 but was missing from the posters. Anil Kapoor got slightly better treatment during the release of Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol, but all the publicity focus was obviously on Tom Cruise.
Past experience has shown that Indian audiences normally react in one of two ways whenever a Bollywood star shows up in an international film. Some say it is an honour for India that one of its own has been included in a prestigious Hollywood project. But given that such roles are usually small — it is a western film, after all — such appearances are also criticised as mere tokens. One cynical interpretation is that the West wants to penetrate our markets by including brown-skinned characters. In which case, it certainly did not help films like League of Extraordinary Gentleman, which included Naseeruddin Shah and A Mighty Heart, with Irffan, both of which failed to ignite the box-office here.
These reactions all miss the point. They are coloured by a nationalistic prism, which looks at every issue concerning Indians — and not just related to films — as a matter of pride or as an insult. Even if some marketing input goes into deciding a film’s cast, a good director will look for several attributes before finalising an actor. It could be that the actor’s ethnic background relates to the story or perhaps the actor, whatever the national origin, fits that particular role. Some may get chosen for their looks, others for their acting talent. The very fact that Bachchan plays not a typical ‘Indian’ character but a Jewish one should tell us how Luhrmann thinks. For him, Bachchan is an interesting face that will lend an extra dimension to the role, raising it above the ordinary.
More important is that such appearances indicate growing collaboration between the Indian film industry with its global counterparts. India may produce the largest number of films in the world, but is a minnow in terms of revenue compared to the Hollywood machine. Hollywood’s growth has slowed down in recent years and it has to look at newer markets, such as India and China to expand, but its products do well almost everywhere in the world.
There is no doubt that Bachchan lends an extra-special flavor to The Great Gatsby, more so since his is not a stereotypical role. Guest appearances are fairly common in Indian cinema, sometimes even if the script does not call for it. Bachchan has done several in his career and this is his latest one. Indian audiences may or may not go to see the film because of him, but his presence will definitely not go unnoticed. There are no small roles, only small actors.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal