Hollywood's Oriental Mystique

Rajesh Gopalan

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" films.

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 Asians.

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.