India seen through Western eyes is bitterly sweet, sweetly bitter.
I have always marvelled at those visitors from the West who travel to India, spend a few weeks here, go back home and write lengthy commentaries on the country. Sometimes even books emerge out of such lightning, cursory tours. At other times, movies pop out of the cans.
Media headlines follow, screaming about India’s rapidly expanding middle class, and newspaper/magazine articles peg the number of mobile telephones to rising prosperity. Or, there could be harsh comments about the nation’s poverty and misery. Or, journalists can even be keying in romanticised versions of the rickshaw-puller in Kolkata or the dacoit in the Chambal valley.
But none of these is the truth.
Let me confine this column to cinema.
Rolland Joffe looked at Kolkata in his “City of Joy” with an essentially Western perception. Bitterly sweet, sweetly bitter.
More recently, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, while making a star out of a nobody, Frieda Pinto, was a “cheap celebration of poverty”. So quipped renowned Greek helmer Theo Angelopoulos. Boyle’s India was degrading to the core, sad, shameful and nauseating.
But most of the 5,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loved Boyle’s slum story, and nominated it for 10 Oscars. The film won eight, including that for the Best Picture and the Best Director!
“Slumdog Millionaire” walked away with all these accolades, because the movie fitted in perfectly with the West’s notion of what India is. The academy was comfortable with Boyle’s views (read prejudices).
But the same academy looked the other way when Satyajit Ray created masterpieces about Indian reality, where he spoke about poverty with touching dignity. It was only when Ray lay dying that the academy woke up to his genius, and dashed to Kolkata to present a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to him.
Men like Boyle, apart from playing to the Western gallery, believe that they have a complete insight into India. But do they?
Let us take Michael Winterbottom, the British director whose debut feature, “Welcome to Sarajevo”, was almost brilliant. However, his latest, “Trishna”, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and which I saw at the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival, disappointed me.
Winterbottom’s ignorance of India and its mind-boggling variety (language, religion culture, food) was amply proved by the way he has written the Trishna script.
Adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, Winterbottom – who had earlier used Hardy’s novels, taking them far away from England, where they were originally set – transposes Trishna from the 1891 English countryside to a village in Rajasthan.
Trishna, though, unfolds in contemporary India, about 120 years after Hardy captured the life of a simple, pure village lass as it dramatically changes when she meets two men, one spiritual and sublime, and the other sensual and selfish.
However, the fact that Winterbottom chose to set his movie in present times seems to be his biggest mistake.
To begin with, contrary to what one might want to believe, the Indian woman, even in some of the nation’s most backward regions, is not as docile and subdued as Tess was – and as Winterbottom’s heroine, Trishna, is. It would be far-fetched to imagine that the Indian woman is shackled by some of the compulsions that Tess faced. But Winterbottom appears unaware of this when he binds Trishna to similar pressures.
In an altered version of the Hardy fiction, Winterbottom introduces us to the wealthy son, Jay (Riz Ahmed), of a blind hotelier (Roshan Seth), who comes to India from Britain to explore business possibilities. During one of his travels, he meets Trishna (Frieda Pinto), who works as a maid in a hotel. When her father’s jeep, that helps her family earn its livelihood, is damaged in an accident, Jay offers an educated Trishna a job in one of his father’s luxury hotels.
Jay combines in him the two men in Hardy’s literary work, Alec and Angel, and unlike the original, Winterbottom’s hero is largely noble – a fact that bewildered me about Trishna’s final act of destruction. It was equally hard to accept that an educated woman, even if she were to be living away from India’s hep cities like Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore, could be as helplessly enslaved as Trishna is.
What is more, she had chances, and enough, to have freed herself from what Winterbottom purports to be a slavery of sorts, sexual certainly, accentuated by the wide economic disparity between Jay and Trishna. Even if one were to consider Trishna’s advantage in a relationship with Jay – that will help her impoverished family better their living prospects – she had, as would any Indian woman today, avenues other than the one she so tragically chooses.
Well, Winterbottom does not understand India, and like very many Westerners, has opted to see the country through a rather blinkered view. It is all very easy to perceive the nation of 1.2 billion people as backward and where women, outside the cities and towns, are submissive to the point of slavishness.
Equally hard-to-digest is the way Winterbottom presents the relationship between Trishna and her immediate family, father, mother and siblings. In a state like Rajasthan where virginity is invariably equated with family honour, Trishna’s folks appear as calm as a British household would when they find their unmarried daughter pregnant.
Winterbottom shows Trishna going through an abortion (after a sexual encounter with Jay, not quite rape as in the novel) at a clinic with her parents in calm attendance. The only sign of familial displeasure is seen in the father (who refuses to talk to Trishna after the incident). There is not even a trace of sorrow or anger in her mother!
The truth is very different, and Winterbottom seems quite unmindful of Indian society, where the family plays a vital role in especially a young girl’s life.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.