It’s never a good idea to piss off a possible demographic - especially when that potential audience pool is over one billion strong. But that’s exactly what former SNL-er/current Shrek Mike Myers did when the trailer for his return to live action comedy, The Love Guru, appeared last month. In the upcoming summer release, the artist formerly known as Wayne Campbell plays an American Born, India raised man who returns to the US. Overnight, he becomes a self-help and spirituality superstar. Just call him Geek-pak Chopra.
Taking the low brow tone of the entire Austin Powers series, and setting its sites on specific Hindu philosophies and practices, The Love Guru proposes to be a comic clash of cultures. The trailer can testify that, when it comes to sensitivity and pro-PC protections, Myers and crew knows no limits. Some have supported the film, claiming that the comedian’s twisted turn here is no more offensive than Peter Sellers’ performance as Hrundi V. Bakshi in Blake Edwards’ dated ‘60s farce The Party. Yet the notion of a non-native using another country and religion’s foundation for funny business smacks of a strange, almost surreal tactlessness.
Forty years ago, when that famed former Goon put on the brown face and ratcheted up his New Delhi dialect several skittish notches, there was much less concern about defaming race. True, the already turbulent black/white dynamic dividing the US was treated with some amount of respect (shockingly, minstrel shows had still been popular as recently as the ‘50s), but picking on other ethnicities - no matter how light or lovingly - was viewed as fair game. The British particularly enjoyed this practice. It was perhaps part of their reaction to the post-colonial collapse and conquered country independence, some sloppy satire as shuttled through a stiff upper lip, perhaps.
It’s no surprise then that Myers, as UK-ccentric as they get, would wander into such suspect territory. His turns in the unfathomably popular Powers films have always been based in the most hackneyed slams and social insensitivity. This is a man who plays fat as a fallacy, Scottish as stupid, and his beloved British as a bad toothed, thick headed horn-dogs forever stuck in the Carnady Street ‘60s. It may have seemed funny the first time around, but Myers has already proven that he can take the most unusual of premises (the actor as a live action version of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat?) and pervert it to suit his own idea of wit.
Of course, the minute the Indian community caught wind of the performance, they started complaining and piling on. The nonsensical trailer, made up of blithering buzzwords and watercolor friendly phraseology, was barely out of the YouTube gate and Hindu leaders suggested a boycott. They had every right to, from what one could see, but it’s never good to jump onto a bad mouthing bandwagon before the final fiasco has unreeled. In this case, there’s much more to the narrative than Myers playing the goony guru for laughs. There’s a hockey subplot, and something to do with romances mended and relationships guided. Still, the particular powers that be wanted to see the final result before castigating the comic further.
Paramount, hoping to avoid scandal, obliged. If one looks across the Internet rumor mill, it seems that appeasement was not the final result. Indeed, what most fear is something already inherent in The Love Guru‘s release. Put it another way, Westerners know very little about the ways of the East. Most information comes in the form of flashy travelogues, Discovery Channel dissertations, and the occasional interaction with members of the since immigrated citizenry. Perception is typically borne out of experience, and the more entertaining and repetitive the better. Now, the more learned in the crowd might not fall for Myers as a representation of everything Hindi. But amongst the popcorn and Pinkberry members of the adolescent audience, he’s a first - and very flawed - frame of reference.
Hollywood has always been pegged with the isolated insensitivity tag. Back in the ‘80s, Cuban émigrés were livid that Tony Montana of Scarface fame might be the only example of the members of the Mariel Boat Lift to a country already reeling from the political and policy consequences. Similarly, more mainstream ethnicities like Italians and Arabs have long argued that film falsifies the truth about their people’s heritage and heart. Not every Mediterranean is in the Mafia, they argue, and not every Middle Eastern wants to terrorize the innocent. Yet America is an innately insular nation, and therefore narrow-minded. Show them an actor putting on a cutesy curried brogue and they’re bound to believe it’s the truth.
Film has that kind of influence. Unlike other forms of media, which tend to traverse their subjects without a similar level of staying power, a motion picture can rewrite history and revise awareness. Oliver Stone’s JFK did just that. So did Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It may not be fair to pigeonhole The Love Guru among these famed historical dramas, but if Myers plays his character as a kind of quick witted quip machine, using his background and speaking style as a means of malapropism-prone humor, there will be those who believe all Indians similarly stricken. If his teachings come across like Zen meshed with a more eccentric Tony Robbins, this is the impression most people will have of the Hindus.
Naturally, no one is asking Myers to be perfectly faithful to the religious and cultural situations at hand. He’s creating comedy, and free speech protects even the most ludicrous of lampoons. But there is something to the Indian’s complaints. While they remain a vital and virtually impossible to ignore faction of modern America, not much is known about the country aside from its cuisine. Why The Love Guru had to tap into this particular aspect of the world will always be suspect. After all, the character Myers plays - Pitka - didn’t have to come from an Eastern Ashram. Any number of new age California quasi-EST belief systems could have worked. Clearly, the man likes working in accents - thus, the move to a more Madras-oriented identity.
And Bollywood’s been no help. As the largest film industry in the world, Indian cinema is notorious for dealing in caricature, stereotypes, and outright individual insult. Sure, it is always done within the context of a consenting community (kind of like Caucasians and Larry the Cable Guy) but that’s still no excuse for dealing in debasing imagery. Myers may not be going so far as to cast aspersion on certain elements of Eastern society, but one cannot forget that he’s following in a long line of less than sympathetic representations. Apparently, as long as they are home grown, they’re perfectly OK.
As the groundswell against the film continues, as more and more members of the Hindu faith and Indian community come out against what Myers is attempting, Paramount has its work cut out for it. Selling this movie will not be hard at all. Simply show the amiable A-lister, remind everyone of his connection to a big green ogre and a goofball UK spy, and hope that the protesters get the post-commercials middle story slot on Extra. You’re average teenage moviegoer, unfettered by controversy or matters of moralizing, won’t care anyway. They’ll line up to give Myers their money, hoping he delivers another punchline powered popcorn time at the Cineplex. Who cares if on 20 June the rest of the world views us as the ugly Americans that we truly are. It was some Canadian’s fault, after all.