film - pictures that
aim for both an Indian
and a western audience
Shyam Benegal, Indias most respected
independent filmmaker, is working on a comedy that has
us both shaking with laughter before he is halfway through
describing the plot. The film is named after its central
character, Maha Dev, who is the traditional letter-writer
and letter-reader for his illiterate fellow villagers
in an impoverished corner of northern India. As in thousands
of such villages, modernity has not visibly intruded,
barring the occasional bicycle.
Then somebody acquires a television. The villagers are
mystified by what they see: a mix of glamorous US re-runs,
such as Baywatch and The Bold and the Beautiful, and
a host of ritzy Indian urban daytime soap operas. Even
the commercials, which nobody who has watched Indian
television could possibly forget, mesmerise the villagers.
The characters in Indian car advertisements always seem
to be driving along pristine highways in Scotland or
California, with never a pothole or a sacred cow in
sight. As for the household appliances commercials,
in which corner of India do people reside in outsized
Mediterranean villas? Pretty much everywhere according
to the advertisements.
As the only literate man in the
village and the one who has always interpreted the outside
world to them, the whole village turns to Maha Dev to
explain what they are seeing on the television,
says Benegal. Naturally Maha Dev is as clueless
about what he is seeing as everyone else. But he has
to pretend he knows what is being depicted. He does
We are seated knee-to-knee in Benegals
cramped office in downtown Mumbai - formerly known as
Bombay - where I am soliciting his views about changing
images of India. My thesis, I tell him, is that Indias
image has progressed a long way from the days when it
served as the principal locus of western fantasies of
the Orient. The west, I say, as often as not nowadays
dispenses with its romantic lens altogether. By the
same token, Indias self-image has also altered,
from one that saw itself as beyond comparison with normal
countries, to a new globalised mindset that was as predictably
flag-waving but also as insecure as anywhere else.
Of course, I continue, my account was
almost certainly too simple, since India has an irksome
knack of demolishing neat conclusions almost as soon
as they are formed. But to my surprise, Benegal is already
nodding in agreement. In his late 60s and sporting an
arty grey beard, Benegals eyes sparkle with sympathy.
Of course its true, he says. Look
at yoga or any other spiritual product of
India. It has become a global commodity like any other
- charged at $60 an hour. Nobody looks to India for
spiritual enlightenment any more. Once something becomes
a commodity it is fundamentally changed.
Attempting to capture India on the page
(or the screen) is as futile as trying to put humour
into a bottle. India, like any other nation, has no
essence or core - it is a series of perceptions. And
perceptions of India, both from outside and from within,
are changing. Having reported on India since 2001, I
have come to the view that the nations traditional
romantic image is, if not dead, then certainly overshadowed
by strikingly new and different ones.
Someone once said that it cost a lot to
keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty. Nowadays, most people
praise Gandhis notion of holy poverty only to
bury it. In an age of information technology and nuclear
weapons, Indias image overseas can no longer be
reduced to the rope trick, the maharajas and their elephants,
or even the self-denying ordinances of its freedom fighters.
The Beatles pilgrimage to India in the 1960s seems
almost as long ago as the tall stories Marco Polo told
in the 13th century. What then is supplanting these
Most foreigners have not yet heard of
it. But there is no better place to start than Gurgaon,
a satellite town of New Delhi that is rapidly becoming
the headquarters of Indias service economy. Like
Bangalore in Indias south, Gurgaon is home to
dozens of call centres and back-office processing units.
Like Delhi, 20 miles to its north-east, Gurgaons
roads are chock-a-block with fancy foreign cars. And
like Mumbai, 850 miles to the south-west of Gurgaon,
it is sprouting shopping malls and multiplex cinemas
with a furious impatience.
But unlike Indias other metropolitan
centres, Gurgaon is almost wholly middle class. A decade
ago its population was 30,000. Now it is half a million.
Gurgaon is projected to hit two million within the next
five to 10 years. Measured against Indias vast
population of 1.05 billion, Gurgaon is barely a drop
in the ocean. Yet to any Indian advertiser or filmmaker,
Gurgaon is already shorthand for one of their most important
demographics, or target audiences. Gurgaon
is the most undiluted version of what is happening to
every Indian suburb. Someone who lives there is a guppie
- a Gurgaon yuppie.
What is the guppies idea of India?
H.K. Bhutani, a former colonel in the Indian army, manages
the City Centre Mall, the first shopping mall to be
built in Gurgaon, and only the second in India. Although
it only opened in December 2002, Gurgaon has another
35 malls in various stages of planning or construction.
There is also 2 million sq ft of office space in the
pipeline and a roughly equal amount of residential apartment
space on the way. Gurgaon already has 3.6 million sq
ft of Grade A office area - more than five
times that of New Delhi.
We meet at Barista, Indias version
of the Starbucks chain, in the main foyer of the shopping
mall. Around us are the familiar brands of retail centres
anywhere in the world - Dominos Pizza, Adidas,
McDonalds and a multiplex cinema that is showing
Collateral, Terminal and Bride and Prejudice.
Bhutani seems benignly puzzled by my questions.
I ask him why everything in Gurgaon has a Californian
name. The apartment high-rises are called Beverly Hills,
Belvedere Towers, Silver Oaks, Windsor Court and West
End Heights. The office blocks are called Royalton Towers,
Icon Pinnacle, Plaza Tower and Gateway Tower. And the
malls are prefixed by Metropolis, or Mega or Super or
City. Which way is it to India? I joke.
We offer a total experience for
the full family entertainment, says Bhutani, as
we sip our cafe lattes. It is a total all-round
experience. You dont have to haggle in the retail
outlets, the prices are fixed. You dont have to
watch rats scurry across the floor in the cinema or
worry the power supply will go. And afterwards you can
eat in a restaurant with a clean kitchen and guaranteed
Total satisfaction is assured, it seems.
Much the same applies to the Delhi Golf and Country
Club down the road, which, like the City Centre Mall,
is owned and operated by Delhi Land and Finance, a billion-dollar
family-owned developer that has built half of Gurgaon.
The 130-acre golf club is managed by Kapil Kaul, another
Kaul, sporting a straw hat, proudly gives
me a tour of the site. The wedding-cake club building
is serving a Saturday buffet lunch to its members. Most
of the men are wearing the cheesy uniform - baseball
caps, naff jumpers and slacks - of any golf club in
the world. Membership is $15,000 for four years. It
is Indias number one golf course. In the foreground
are dozens of caddies in neatly starched uniforms. In
the background are the plush residential high-rises
of MNC (multinational corporation) Gurgaon. Almost everyone
here works for some MNC or other. Gurgaon is headquarters
to the Indian operations of Pepsi, GE, Seagram, Nestle
and many others. Naturally golf is the principal networking
Every single blade of grass has
been carefully planned, says Kaul, as we glide
in his golf buggy towards the first of 18 holes. Close
your eyes and you could be anywhere in the world. Over
there, he continues, eyes firmly open, is
what I like to call my Manhattan skyline.
Driving through Gurgaon is like flitting
in and out of Singapore or Phoenix and then back into
India. The city is still in its infancy, so there are
large tracts of scrub, grazing land and stray dogs.
Then you are suddenly in a thicket of high-rises again.
Billboards advertise Villas in Mediterranean and
Arabian style. Behind them and still visible through
the frontier-town dust of construction are the residential
complexes that contain the three, four and five-bedroom
apartments of everyones dreams.
It was only when I saw Gurgaon that
I realised we could now return to India, says
Naveen Mishra, who works for a multinational that he
asked me not to name. We are having dim sum at an upmarket
Chinese restaurant. Until five years ago, Mishra and
his family were based in Singapore. As a middle-aged
executive at an international corporation, Mishra is
a quintessential guppie. Bribes hardly ever need to
be paid, he says. And almost all of his friends pay
taxes. In reality, we are still living the expatriate
lifestyle, he says. Almost everyone here
has lived abroad.
Mishra and some friends recently set up
the Gurgaon Wine Club. It has 65 members. At their last
meeting the theme was Chilean wine. Do I ever
need to go to Delhi? he asks. Not really.
Everything we want is in Gurgaon. Perhaps if we have
friends staying from abroad I will take them to Chandni
Chowk [Delhis largest street market]. But it is
quite dirty and noisy, and I wouldnt go there
Everyone in Gurgaon seems to be dreaming
of California: dreams fuelled, as they are everywhere,
by the images of America pumped out for the last century
by Hollywood. But now Bollywood has emerged as a rival
dream factory. The sheer vigour of its directors, actors,
choreographers, musicians and writers is capturing an
ever-wider audience at home and also abroad, initially
through the spreading diaspora of non-resident Indians
(NRIs, as they are known everywhere).
Film City is a park on the outskirts of
Mumbai, where many Bollywood pictures are shot. The
sprawling 517-acre site sits adjacent to the Rajiv Gandhi
National Park, a jungle that encroaches, sometimes dangerously
(leopards have paid frequent nocturnal visits to the
studios make-up rooms), on the suburbs of Indias
commercial capital. Situating Film City in such terrain
was deliberate. No Bollywood film would be complete
without one or two dance sequences in the forest or
a lovers duet on a stone bridge overarching a
stream. We drive through the sprawling campus, dodging
impromptu film shoots from the backs of jeeps and in
dappled vales beside the road. Everywhere there are
Bollywood starlets in brightly coloured hotpants or
cut-off jeans and dark glasses.
The buzz in Bollywood nowadays is about
the rise of the crossover film - pictures
that aim for both an Indian and a western audience,
the latter presumably encouraged by their NRI neighbours,
colleagues and friends. Which explains why so many of
the sets we stumble across are foreign. I find myself
sitting in a precise replica of a Jubilee Line carriage
in Charing Cross station on the London Underground.
This is a complete copy down to the patterns on
the seats, the set director tells me. He is not
exaggerating. All I would need to complete the experience
is a sweaty armpit in which to place my nose. We
have to do this otherwise the western audience wont
find it believable.
The quest for that elusive serious western
audience is going to extravagant lengths. Films are
now frequently shot twice, once in Hindi and once in
English. To cater to western tastes, the English scenes
are shorter and punchier and there are fewer set-piece
dance sequences. But the NRI audience - once a much-derided
cousin of the resident Indian middle classes - is real.
And their influence on the content and style of Bollywood
films is growing.
Independent film-makers complain bitterly
that the space and finance for films that deal with
Indias social reality, or even rural
India, have virtually disappeared. Many films ostensibly
based in India are actually filmed in plush resorts
in Mauritius or even Switzerland, where the scenery
resembles Kashmir. Dev Benegal, a cousin of Shyams
and also an independent film-maker, says: When
we pitch a film about Indian social reality, the financiers
say: We dont want to do a documentary, we
want real acting. There is no space for serious
films in Bollywood.
In the 1950s and 1960s, in the aftermath
of Indias independence from Britain, Bollywood
sold the dream of development and modernisation and
films were often set in rural India and depicted heroes
battling against the evils of feudalism. Nowadays Bollywood
would more accurately be described as an arm of the
consumer goods sector. The contemporary formula - which
has left rural India, in which two-thirds of its people
live, on the cutting-room floor - caters to the tastes
both of Gurgaon and the NRIs.
Quite by chance, my tour of Film City
coincides with the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, Indias
most revered film star, whose 62nd birthday has just
been celebrated in dozens of newspaper supplements.
I am halfway through an interview with Sanjeevanee Kutty,
the civil servant in charge of Film City, when her assistant
rushes in: Mr Bachchan is ready now, says
the assistant. Ready for what? I inquire. Mr Bachchan
is ready for his interview with you, he says.
This qualifies as one of Bollywoods improbable
little twists. Having no idea that Bachchan was in the
vicinity, I had not requested an interview. Had I done
so, it would have taken weeks of faxed letters and conversations
with public relations agencies to get even the ghost
of a chance. Led by Kutty in her official white Ambassador,
we pile into a cavalcade of cars and rush to the shoot.
Like most of Bachchans shoots nowadays,
it is a commercial. Wherever you are in India, the chances
are that if you close your eyes and throw a dart it
will land on a billboard or bus-siding bearing Bachchans
distinguished grey-bearded visage. Whether it is Pepsi
Cola, Cadburys chocolate, Parker pens or Maruti
cars, no amount of exposure seems to dilute his brand
equity. This time Bachchan is starring in an advertisement
for Dabur, a health-food chain.
Although we are on the edge of the jungle
and the temperature is more than 30 deg C, Bachchan
is wearing a balaclava and looking flushed. Behind him
a machine billows out fog. It is clearly a winter scene.
Are you wearing that [balaclava] for the shoot?
asks Kutty, evidently awkward in the presence of a living
legend. Well obviously, Maam, replies
the megastar, emphasising Maam. My
interview is short and to the point. Many independent
filmmakers say that Bollywood ignores the realities
of India, I say. Well, yes of course, says
Bachchan, with the same edge to his tone. Its
called escapist cinema. Why should somebody pay to see
a film with poverty in it when they see poverty in their
neighbourhood every day?
But why are so many of the films set in
Switzerland or New York or some constructed fantasy
of India? People dont want to be reminded
where they live, says Bachchan as if (and not
entirely without merit) talking to someone who has difficulty
understanding. Would you like to make more films that
remind people where they live? I really dont
see the point. Nobody will pay to go and see a film
like On the Waterfront [the Marlon Brando 1954 classic
set in the New York dockyards].
As we are ushered out of Bachchans
presence, Kutty says to me: It was so kind of
Mr Bachchan to give his valuable time, he is always
giving of himself. That is why he is so loved by everybody.
By this stage I have become quite fond of Kutty and
her self-effacing, always helpful manner. I want to
find out what she thinks. It takes some pressing but
eventually she admits: Personally I dont
much like watching these films. I suppose they are a
bit silly. But I am in a minority.
Before leaving Film City, we gatecrash
another shoot. A young girl, dressed in a frazzled nightclub
outfit, is being harassed by her lover under the shade
of a large tree. The shooting over, the young actress
heads directly to where we are sitting. Would
you like to interview me? she asks, with almost
Shabana Sultan, it turns out, is a 21-year-old
NRI who was born and brought up in Tripoli, capital
of Libya, where her father was an orthopaedic surgeon,
sometimes consulted by Colonel Gadaffi, Libyas
dictator. Sultan has always dreamed of being a Bollywood
actress and this is her first film. I am not at
all nervous, she says. The camera is my
lover. Her father, who never lets his daughter
out of his sight (Even the boys are no longer
safe in Bollywood, he tells us) hands over his
daughters portfolio, which she is keen for us
to peruse. The portfolio is a series of pictures of
her in different costumes - one in western evening dress,
another in sultry nightclub attire, the next in a sexy
wet sari pose, a fourth in more restrained
sari mode, and so on. There was not a written word in
the file, not even her name. I dont know
why they gave me the part, she says, absent-mindedly.
There wasnt even an audition. As we
leave, her father rushes after us clutching a small
piece of paper. This is Shabanas mobile
telephone number, he says. In case you want
to continue the interview.
The typical Bollywood film is a blend
of brilliantly choreographed titillation, which goes
down very well with much of the male audience, and a
resolutely conservative ending, which meets with the
approval of their mothers and wives. A recent hit, Dil
Chata Hai (My Heart Wants), shows a young man falling
for an older, divorced woman. Much sultriness ensues
before she falls ill and dies. The young man ends up
with a girl of his own age. Or take another, not-so-classic
film, Girlfriend, which inexplicably provoked a nationwide
boycott by rightwing Hindu groups. A lesbian, who spends
her spare time beating up men in amateur kick-boxing
sessions, seduces her drunken and unsuspecting best
friend. The latters wholesome fiance cottons on
to the formers preferences and, in confronting
her, is almost killed in a furious, muscular assault
before he finally prevails. The final scene shows the
conventional Hindu couple paying their respects at the
lesbians Christian gravestone. Convincing scripts
are not Bollywoods strong point. Bollywood
is expert at having its cake and eating it, says
Dev Benegal. It shows you some flesh but it always
ends by disapproving of such behaviour.
But it is the impact of the NRI on Indias
self-image, whether via Bollywoods scripts and
through journalism or even tourism, that is most strikingly
apparent. I talk to Sunil Khilnani, author of the The
Idea of India, one of the most widely cited books on
modern India. Khilnani, an NRI himself, to whom many
opinion-makers in the west turn when they want a judgment
on contemporary India, is head of the South Asia department
at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington
In the past there was an Indian
self-image and a romantic foreign image of India and
the two were fairly distinct, although often linked,
Khilnani tells me over the telephone. Now it is
very hard to keep the two apart - often they are one
and the same thing. And that is because of the NRI.
Khilnani cites a number of Indian trends
that have come from NRI communities, whether it is bhangra
rap - dance music from the British Midlands that is
based on traditional Punjabi music - or chicken tikka
masala, a dish previously unknown to India that was
popularised by Marks and Spencer in the UK. Equally,
Bollywood films nowadays often show Indian characters
playing basketball or driving sports utility vehicles.
Such habits are starting to catch on in real life.
Perhaps the most vivid example is www.shaadi.com,
a matrimonial website set up to enable NRIs to find
partners. Now with more than two million members, of
which only a third are NRIs, shaadi.com is thriving
in India. NRI couples often ask for their weddings to
be modelled on sequences in recent Bollywood films,
complete with the same costumes, musical numbers and
dance lessons so that they can learn the moves. The
films themselves are targeting the NRIs. This is life
imitating art inventing tradition.
India has for centuries played up
to an image of itself - however contrived or invented
- that the west had of it, which the west then picks
up and sends back, says Khilnani. Now, with
Bollywood and other media and a large and wealthy community
of NRIs, it is a much more continuous two-way process.
But it is the NRI rather than the traditional westerner
who is often driving it.
What impact does all this have on traditional
India, sitting around the television set with Maha Dev?
Has its self-image changed? Shyam Benegal tells me that
the idea for his film (which will not have any dance
sequences) came to him when he was visiting a small
village near Bhopal in the central Indian state of Madhya
Benegal overheard a group of children
in school singing a series of what sounded like nursery
rhymes. On closer listening they turned out to be catchphrases
from popular television commercials. But too often,
he cautions me, us metropolitan types tend to
romanticise the poor. In fact they dont have much
time to think about these matters. They are worried
about where their next meal will come from.
My final excursion is to Benares, Indias
holiest city and the site of the famous ghats, or steps,
that flank the Ganges, the most sacred river for the
majority of Hindus. Benares, or Varanasi, as it is also
known, is Indias most ancient holy city, with
some structures dating back more than two millennia.
Customs do not change rapidly in Benares - but they
I saunter along the narrow backlanes of
Benares with Dipankar Gupta, one of Indias most
respected sociologists and a professor at the Jawaharlal
Nehru University in Delhi. Gupta has not visited Benares
for years and he has forgotten how insanitary it is.
We pass long lines of barefooted pilgrims trudging through
cobbled streets awash with overflowing drains, cows
urine and the everyday detritus of mass tourism.
We peer through small courtyards and catch
glimpses of pregnant women feeding vegetables to sacred
cows that are standing indifferently in their living
rooms. The act of feeding and worshipping a cow, they
believe, will protect the unborn child. Everywhere there
are bells and incense. Gupta wrinkles his nose. It
really wouldnt take much to clean this up,
he says. Gupta is among a number of Indian academics
who has helped retrieve the study of Indian society
and, in particular, the Hindu caste system, from the
clutches of western romantics and their Indian acolytes.
Until a decade or two ago, the prevailing view
of Indian caste and therefore of Indian society, was
that it was entirely a world to itself. Unlike any other
society, India could only be studied in reference to
itself, he tells me. This was principally
the view of French and American sociologists.
Nowadays, Indian sociology takes a more
comparative and less obscurantist view of Indian society.
We are sitting on a boat on the Ganges. Our boatman
has a degree in commerce and is chattering away to us
about the tourists. At dawn every day opposite the ghats
downstream, the river teems with boatloads of Japanese
and Europeans, all struggling to catch some camcorder
footage of burning corpses. Traditionally, the Ganges
is the most auspicious place to be cremated.
Gupta points to another ghat where semi-clad
women are washing themselves ecstatically. Three steps
above them a teenage boy is urinating. Nobody pays him
the slightest attention. The Ganges washes away
all impurities so no external dirt or matter can possibly
affect them, he says. In this setting, unlike
any other, these women are unselfconscious about their
bodies. Then he pauses. Something in the towns
medieval quality has unsettled him. This makes
me feel like a foreigner in my own country, he
Millions of Indians visit Benares every
year. But large numbers have the same response as Gupta
- a mixture of amusement, displaced reverence and repulsion.
None of my Indian friends could understand my motives
for visiting: Why would you want to go to Benares?
they asked. A number of civic-minded Indians have been
agitating to clean up both the Ganges, which is chronically
polluted, and its attendant holy towns - so far with
little result. In the end they will probably succeed.
In the meantime, Benares is not on the
itinerary of the guppie or of the Bollywood starlet
or of any but the most unflinchingly devout of NRI tourists.
Yet a large proportion of guppies and NRIs are also
Hindu nationalists, a very recent movement in Indias
long history, which aims, without always openly stating
it, to emulate the unity and discipline of Christianity
and Islam. In spite of their global brand names and
manicured golf courses, many of Gurgaons residents
tend to vote for the Hindu nationalist BJP, which was
turned out of power at Indias last election in
May. We dont like the targeting of minorities
and we do not approve of the extremist branch of the
BJP, Naveen Mishra, the MNC executive, had told
me over our Chinese lunch in Gurgaon. But we are
proud of our culture. You could say we are cultural
nationalists. We see the BJP as reformist and modern.
I turn again to Sunil Khilnani, who admits
he is not a close follower of Bollywood - although
the rumour of Bollywood is always in the air,
he says. Like Gupta, Khilnani is also a critic of Hindu
nationalism. But he sees little contradiction between
living in Gurgaon, or Houston, or Singapore, and supporting
Hindu nationalism. Far from it. The further away
you are from the social realities of India, the easier
it is to buy this packaged and simplified version of
Hinduism, says Khilnani. It is a paradox
everywhere of globalisation. You have your comfortable
lifestyles and your consumer goods. But you need something
more, something to fill that empty space.
Some people fill it with Bollywood. Others
with new age mysticism - at which India excels. Still
others with cultural nationalism. And some confine themselves,
if at all, to homeopathic doses of the above. In Maha
Devs village such needs are still a rumour, although
a fairly outrageous one. Sitting in front of the village
television, Maha Devs neighbours are learning
about a completely different world, some of it fantastic,
some of it true. How will they decide which is which?
Source: Edward Luce is the FTs South Asia bureau