Weekend Binge | Unlike Basmati Blues, 5 great foreign movies about India
Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.
While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.
When it comes to making films about other cultures, Hollywood’s track record is spotty at best. As with any other form of appropriation, or, to use a politer term, translation, when a foreigner looks at a different country and its people, they bring a unique perspective - one that doesn’t necessarily gel with ours.
In the case of films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Lion - both films starring Dev Patel and both films that could possibly elicit knee-jerk reactions from desis - this perspective highlighted the realities of living in modern India to almost absurd extremes. While this may not be an accurate representation in the larger context, it’s usually more likely for Western-made films to be more honest about our problems (and achievements) than we are - they’re made by people who are divorced of any personal baggage.
However, none of this is applicable to Basmati Blues, the long-delayed Brie Larson movie that was given a strange release in India months after if crashed and burned in other countries. Like the recent Victoria & Abdul, it’s perhaps the best example of how not to make a movie about a culture alien to your own - it’s filled with racist stereotypes, poorly researched, and doesn’t have a single authentic character (let alone an authentic depiction of India) in its unbearable 130 minute run time.
But Basmati Blues is, surprisingly enough, quite the anomaly. Here are five English movies about India that didn’t fall into the same traps - minus Slumdog and Lion and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, because you’ve probably seen them.
You’ve also probably seen Mira Nair’s timeless classic, but it’s never a bad time to revisit the story of a typical Punjabi family preparing for the grandest of Indian traditions: the Big Fat Indian Wedding. It’s a movie that has aged like fine achaar, having revealed layers that you perhaps might not have spotted the first time. It’s understandable if it seems unrelatable - the milieu is very specific, and very privileged - but the story is universal.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
While it’s common for films about Italy to have at least one scene about cooking food - even Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t resist giving a pasta lesson in The Godfather - it’s unusual for films such as The Life of Pi to take a pause for a dosa. Swedish sentimentalist Lasse Hallstrom’s movie about competing families trying to run restaurants - one French and the other Indian - is over-the-top in all the best ways, and should play wonderfully to fans of the Bollywood tradition of emotional storytelling.
Million Dollar Arm
Of all the films listed here, Million Dollar Arm is perhaps the least popular one, which is baffling, considering especially how good it is. It’s based on one of those this-happens-only-in-India true stories, about two village boys chosen in a reality show contest to play for a Major League Baseball team. It plays into the best traditions of sports dramas, and in a welcome change of events, doesn’t feature a ‘white saviour’ character at its centre. It does however feature Pitobash in sublime form.
While the tendency for the West (quite understandably) is to replicate the heightened emotions of Bollywood - even if the films themselves aren’t musicals - Mira Nair’s second film on this list is one of the most honest depictions of NRI life. And like most films about immigrants, the era of Donald Trump has given it a new life, and has opened it up to fresher interpretations.
The Darjeeling Limited
For there to exist a Wes Anderson movie about our country almost sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. In The Darjeeling Limited you can experience the joys that come along with watching a Wes Anderson movie, and feel a vague sense of satisfaction for being represented. Anderson has been a lifelong fan of Satyajit Ray, and his story about three brothers on a spiritual journey across India is a wonderful homage to Ray’s films.