It was in the early 2000s when my Eastern and Western worlds melded. I was pursuing a masters degree in Boston, and coming to grips with the cold and Autumn being a season called Fall as well as the heady academic environment when I was visited by a dear friend from India. In the course of experiencing a slice-in-the-life-of-Avani, it was inevitable that friends from both worlds should meet. So the old Indian friend met the new American friend. Among shared meals, museum visits and underwear shopping, life-long bonds were developed.
One evening, enveloped in a warm, friendly fuzz, we decided to celebrate our union by plonking big red bindis on our foreheads. Ritually sealed, despite the cultural disparity. That same evening, emboldened by the camaraderie, we decided to check off another ‘must see’ item by taking a walk down the verdant, winding bike path that runs through Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As we strolled down the path, immersed in giggles, a bicycle whizzed past us with a gust of cool air. A white man, probably in his early twenties, turned around and shouted: “Get away dot *****”.
We froze, then instinctively reacted in unison by wiping off our red dots. The merriment vaporised like ether, the stroll turned into a scramble and we rushed home to the enveloping warmth of our centrally heated apartment.
This was the same year Mira Nair’s glorious film Monsoon Wedding exploded globally, binding us in our complicated love for families, the inevitable messiness within and the fortitude of the bonds through thick and thin, across cultures, around the world.
Also read: My ‘Monsoon Wedding’ Story
I returned to India in 2003. Even though I spent three years in the heart of a very WASP-y Boston where racism – for me – was always felt but not seen, I know I got off easy – very, very easy.
Back home in India, I launched into a dazzling career in filmmaking and worked with the crème de la crème – Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Danny Boyle, Farhan Akhar, the BBC, PBS et al. I became what I cheekily call the ‘slum AD’, my euphemism for independent/foreign cinema shot in India.
A few years on, the Golden Age of television made its presence felt. VPNs shielded our piracy, hard drives became the new lending libraries. Many long between-projects afternoons and nights were spent devouring episode after episode of television shows. The exploits of Tony Soprano became dinner-table conversation, the hood from The Wire felt like our backyard and Peggy Olson (a fictional character in AMC television series Mad Men) a complex, beautiful feminist dream. Our eyes popped, our hearts burst. This was incredible story telling and it wasn’t art house cinema. This was mainstream, this was accessible, this was clever.
Emboldened by the presence of all these incredible stories, I decided to test my mettle as a writer. After all, wouldn’t it be the right time to tell our stories? Not wanting to be clichéd, I laboured, wrote, re-wrote till a script was finally accepted into the NFDC’s national screenwriter’s lab. Maybe I could create a desi Peggy Olson after all.
The lab opened up my eyes and ears – what is storytelling, why do I want to tell my story, what am I trying to say, what’s the objective of the protagonist, what is the context, who is she, who is he, what are their trajectories, where are the hurdles, moral compass, character arcs and the endless the what ifs, it was a vortex of endless possibilities, heady evenings and much delight.
And then one fine day, just like that my brain froze.
A desi Peggy Olson. Really?
But I’m not white and I don’t live in America. So why was I writing as though I was seeing myself from a Western (white) perspective?
Was I a coconut (white brain in a brown body) or had I just lost sight of who I am?
And really, who am I?
For years, stories about India in the Western mainstream have largely focused on exotica (weddings or princes and princesses), poverty and cross-cultural growing pains. From within, our stories have largely been about marriage, romance and families. A song and dance wonderland of candy-tufted dreams. It was either that or grungy grit, and those that made grungy grit became ‘India’s Martin Scorsese’ (because we weren’t good enough?). There were only whispers and mumblings of independent, different, real-India stories.
The advent of OTT platforms finally launched the industry into a long overdue overhaul, it shook us out of our comfort zone and forced us to shift our perspective, moving our sight away from the familiar into a vast world of endless possibilities – just like endless what ifs of script writing.
Gradually, slowly, we fumbled, wandered, meandered and finally started seizing our own stories – someone was finally listening. Sacred Games exploded, then Made in Heaven, Jamtara, Pataal Lok and so many others. We were talking about our experiences big and small, city, town and village, caste, gender, sexuality… it all found a home. We had turned into complex human beings, telling big emotional stories from the heart, with a gut punch.
The irony, of course, was inescapable – the two major online platforms (Amazon Prime and Netflix) are in fact Western (American) owned.
Why then, in the projects commissioned from the West, are we still seen as the same-same – a sum collection of weddings, royalty, poverty and cross-cultural confusion? And is there not a cultural/racial bias, a “how they see us” subtly implied in the choices of the shows being commissioned – even if not in the end product itself necessarily?
Within the first world itself, there has been a significant acknowledgement of equal representation and a discourse around identities and race on screen – so racially-charged shows like Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You have found a home at the BBC and HBO.
“Coel’s work is one of the most talked-about cultural achievements of the year: Could I May Destroy You be the drama of the year?,” asked the Guardian. “A compelling, richly textured world”, wrote Vanity Fair. “The most sublimely unsettling show of the year,” was New York Magazine‘s take.
The Academy too recently created a new set of representation and inclusion standards for the Oscars 2020 for the Best Picture category.
Is it because Indian content of a reality beyond the obvious Western formula is not sellable or is it because a repetitive re-presentation of the same sameness reinforces the status quo between the East and West, the developing and developed, ultimately reinforcing a supremacy? Marketing matrixes, eyeballs, internet chatter and the very interwoven world of social media sometimes factor into these content decisions. What sells is what gets made. But in these times of internet plenty, what gets made often also gets seen.
Growing up in a pre-liberalised India in the early 1990s, our only visual exposure to world news was a weekly news magazine show called The World This Week. We waited with bated breath to see images of earthquakes, wars, peace marches and more. Today, our phones bombard us with alerts all day and night. And so George Floyd’s death in the US, Jair Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 diagnosis in Brazil, anti-CAA protests in India and China’s treatment of the Uighurs are all part of our daily global consumption ritual.
As identities get re-evaluated and defined in the always live and socially networked world, responding to politics, the pandemic, and everything in between also appears to gets more dogmatic and binary. Should art not respond to this, instead of regurgitating the obvious stereotypes?
In 2019, Korean film Parasite stormed the cinemas, and what would typically have been slotted as a limited release became a huge mainstream hit not only in its home country, but more significantly in the West. The film, a dark satire about a wealthy family and the attempted take over of their house by their poor ‘servants’ that ultimately ends in tragedy, went on to win an unprecedented four Academy Awards and created history by becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture in 2020.
Bong Joon-ho, the director, believes the film resonated globally because of rising inequality. He’s probably right.
In 2015, the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead, face down on a beach jolted us. According to NPR, “Until the photo appeared in September 2015, people did not seem focused on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. But Aylan’s photo mobilised empathy and concern, soon bringing in record donations to charitable organisations around the world to aid the victims.”
To use a cliché, it was an image that told a thousand stories.
The world wide web already bonds us anonymously in the stories we share and consume, so the pain, struggles, braveness of #MeToo victims feels familiar, so we can express solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and participate in #AntiCAA protests globally.
Ultimately, the world of stories is our succour. We look to them to share experiences, emotions, thoughts and ideas. Stories make us believe there are others in the world just like us, breathing, heaving, sad, happy, complicated, elated people. Stories take us on journeys, shifting ever so subtly something within us as they hold a mirror up to ourselves so that in the end, we are transformed, healed, moved and broken.
We are, all 8 billion+ of us, at our very core emotional creatures. We all feel shades of the same emotions in different measures, our reactions may define who we are, but in feeling, we are one – thinking, crying, laughing, adoring, messy, complicated human beings. And so to us in India, Tony Soprano feels familiar, Peggy Olson represents the changing Indian woman and The Wire echoes the brutality of our very own divided society.
Ultimately, stories build bridges to connect human experiences. Why then do we continue to see each other through a thematically colour-coded shade card?
Didn’t Monsoon Wedding and Parasite strike a chord with us all?
In the throes of emotion were we really thinking Parasite is subtitled or that Monsoon Wedding is about ‘brown’ people, or were we honestly just hoping that those sitting next to us in the proverbial darkness wouldn’t see the tears roll down our cheeks?
Avani Batra is an independent filmmaker who has worked in the Indian and foreign film industry for over 20 years. Her directorial credits include – a series of documentary films on Ebrahim Alkazi (the father of Modern Indian theatre), a promo for the Monsoon Wedding stage musical and Tell Me a Story screened at The Melbourne India Film Festival in 2016. Avani’s credits as an Assistant Director include multiple Academy Award winner Slumdog Millionaire, Queen of Katwe, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Namesake and God Room, JOBS and Water. She holds a Master’s Degree in Film Production from Emerson College, Boston and screenwriting credits from TISCH, New York University. Avani also teaches at NID Ahmedabad as Visiting Faculty.