In case anyone should have forgotten just how notoriously racist
and idiotic Hollywood's portrayal of the "orient" can
be, director Mira Nair has decided to jog our memories with her
recently released film, Kama Sutra. By filling the movie end-to-end
with sadistic princes, exotic harems, runaway slave-girls, conniving
eunuchs and moustachioed guards wielding curved swords and limited
vocabularies (yes-saheeb, no-saheeb), Nair has faithfully reproduced
many of the most outrageous and absurd stereotypes of Asia that
Hollywood has ever invented.
Over the years, films and characters such as Gunga Din, Charlie
Chan, The King and I, Rambo, James Bond and Indiana Jones have
in turn come to exemplify the utter arrogance and condescension
that characterises Hollywood's overwhelmingly eurocentrist outlook.
To date, Asians continue to be defined as either comical buffoons,
or as tragic victims of "tradition" in desperate need
of deliverance by western liberalism. More recently, Arabs and
Muslims have come to be cast as fanatical terrorists bent only
upon the wanton slaughter of innocents.
It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon and this genre
altogether as benign stupidity, and indeed, many films like the
Kama Sutra are so appallingly poor in every respect, that they
verge on the comical. But in an age where Hollywood's cultural
savagery stalks virtually every corner of the globe, it is disturbing
to think that people even in the Middle East or South Asia are
often learning of their own cultures and histories through this
distorted perspective. One is only reminded of the tragedy of
North America's devastated native population, who learn a crude
caricature of their own traditions and history through "cowboys-and-injuns"
Kama Sutra is itself supposedly set in 16th century northern
India - but is otherwise quite unidentifiable in time and space.
In an apparent effort to create an ultra-exotic big screen wallpaper,
Nair has set her story against a visually enticing, but entirely
baffling backdrop in which the palaces and deserts of Rajasthan
appear to be but a short walk from the sculptures of Khajuraho
and the banks of the Ganges.
Sixteenth-century Indian society was in the throes of deep
social, political, ideological, cultural and spiritual ferment.
Within years of the death of the scholarly Sultan Sikander Lodi
of Delhi, the first battle of Panipat became the founding-stone
of the Mughal empire under Babur, which was further consolidated
and strengthened under Akbar. Rajasthan itself was aflame with
the rise and fall of the great Rajput confederacy led by the Ranas
of Mewar. It was the age of sufi and bhakta poet-saints such
as Kabir and Nanak, whose message and muse would win the hearts
of millions and leave an indelible mark on the popular consciousness
for centuries to come. But if the makers of Kama Sutra should
have chanced to hear of any of these developments, or indeed of
anything that could betray even a remote acquaintance with Indian
history, they choose to make no mention of it.
The story itself, which is far too embarrassing and flimsy
to recount, revolves around four main characters, all of whom
appear to have escaped from the set of a steamy daytime soap opera.
In all fairness to the actors, of whom three are British and
one is American, no amount of artistic ability on their part could
possibly have overcome the sheer mediocrity of the clichÈ-ridden
script, which Ms. Nair herself is partly responsible for. With
an absurd story, poor acting, no script, and a profound contempt
of history, it is clear that the only thing this film hinges upon
is its repetitive and tedious attempts to create an aura of mystical
and exotic sensuality. Beyond this, its provocative choice of
name and much of its hype can only have been designed to lure
in libidinous American soft-porn enthusiasts by conjuring up images
of dusky maidens engaged in obscure and complex sexual practices.
It must also be borne in mind that especially since Mississippi Masala (1992), Mira Nair has sought to project herself as a spokesperson of sorts for second generation South Asians from Britain and North America. This factor also runs through Kama Sutra, which is scripted entirely in English, and in which the four main actors are themselves second generation South Asians.
In Mississippi Masala, Nair tackles the knotty question of
identity and the "identity crisis". The central character
in the film is a young American-raised South Asian woman grappling
with the complex and often difficult condition that this society
imposes on millions of immigrant families, particularly those
not from the blessed "west". Similarly, Kama Sutra
is also of significance to second generation South Asians insofar
as it has pretensions to explore and expound on aspects of South
Asian history and culture.
But on both counts, the verdict is disturbingly negative.
In Mississippi Masala, the young protagonist ultimately overcomes
her identity crisis only by completely severing all connections
with her undesirable Indian background - and thereby becoming
fully assimilated. Throughout the film, Indian culture is only
characterised as parochial, oppressive and racist - in contrast
to American society, which is glowingly cast as modern, liberal
and tolerant. The Indians in the film are ageing tyrants and
bumbling buffoons while the Americans are normal, rational, and
worthy of emulation.
For South Asians living abroad, this kind of absurd and offensive
depiction is only too familiar. It is prevalent not just in film,
television or print media but appears to be the official outlook
of the societies they live in, and is amply manifest for example,
in the various "assimilationist" policies that they
are victim to. For all its pretensions to "exposing racism",
it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mississippi Masala
itself sets new standards in the racist stereotyping of South
As for Kama Sutra, the less said the better. Are second-generation
South Asians supposed to feel culturally enriched by being made
aware of their sexually sophisticated ancestors? It is a wonder
at all why Nair has chosen to make a film that is so historically
inaccurate, and that gives such disproportionate prominence to
the memory of a sixth century text within the context of a dismally
enacted sixteenth century fairy-tale that has absolutely no relevance
to the realities of the twentieth century.
If anyone should be shocked that such a grotesque caricature
as this can be conceived at all today, then surely it is an occasion
for even greater shock to note that it has actually been directed
by a South Asian. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that
a Bernardo Bertollucci or even a Cecil B. DeMille could come up
with something quite of this calibre.
But Kama Sutra is only the latest entrant into what is a growing
genre of contemporary literary and cinematic output by South Asians
artists that is so steeped in eurocentrist cultural chauvinism
that it can only conceive of South Asia through the eyes of a
heathen-hacking Indiana Jones.
Sad to say, one can only conclude that Hollywood's oriental mystique has struck deep roots among the orientals themselves.