India Shining?: America’s Indian Moment

2008-11-12 (Limited release)

In case you haven’t noticed, India is rising. The nation’s steady ascent in economic power, the large number of her natives that have migrated to America, and the fact that your call to 1-800-I-NEED-HELP ends up in Bangalore have made India an ineluctable part of the 21st century American imagination. But, in the first months of 2009, the “idea of India” has been circulating in the national consciousness with unprecedented vigor. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker prize-winning Indian bildungsroman, has held its own on the New York Times bestseller list for several several months now. For a while, the inexplicably Indian-American governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, looked as though he would become the face of the Republican party. And, of course, everyone’s movie of the moment is the Indian odyssey, Slumdog Millionaire. In the midst of this mini-mania, was it any surprise to see Anoop “(Slum)Dog” Desai installed as the 13th member of the “final 12” contestants on season eight of American Idol?

Perhaps the beginning of 2009 is a cultural tipping point. Maybe American popular culture is unconsciously experimenting with the first moments of our Indian future. This interpretation would be supported by Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger. The sardonic, self-taught narrator of Adiga’s scathing appraisal of contemporary India is committed to the idea that the age of the “white-skinned man” is coming to an end, while the “brown man” and the “yellow man” are easing their way up to the world’s throne. Balram’s thesis finds a lot of support in these days of the Western financial meltdown; and, there is the temptation to view the awards heaped upon Slumdog and White Tiger as a form of abdication, as though Western cultural power-brokers are admitting that the central stage of popular world culture is moving away from its traditional sites.

However, if the “brown man” is moving toward a focal point in the American imagination, it’s worth thinking about the bargain he strikes to get there. What parts of “India” are sacrificed when Indians appear in American popular culture? What is America seeing in this new brown man?

The example of Governor Bobby Jindal suggests stark answers to these questions. Jindal, who apparently changed his first name from Piyush because he so identified with Bobby from the Brady Bunch, seems to have sold his Indian soul for a place in the pantheon of high-stakes politics. Before the voting public, he’s done almost everything he can to conjure an air of American familiarity while muting the perceived exoticism of his Indian background. When he flips on the Southern drawl and starts talking about his fervent Christianity, the Subcontinent retreats into another universe.

But, Jindal’s political success as an Indian-American transcending Indianess in America, appears to contrast with the Hollywood success of Slumdog Millionaire. The film’s eight Academy Awards indicate that, while Republicans may not be prepared for Piyush Jindal, Hollywood is ready to receive new visions of the globalizing world. Danny Boyle’s film heaves India upon the silver screen with relish; and Americans have gobbled it up.

Of course, part of the reason Slumdog is so consumable is its archetypal fairytale narrative. Its helpless maiden, its valiant lover and its promise of upward social-mobility give it the foundation for success. But, perhaps there is something else at work in the film. Perhaps Slumdog is an elaborate, cinematic version of Bobby Jindal. Perhaps Slumdog rejects the beauty of India, even as it represents her with flourish. And, perhaps Western audiences have so deeply appreciated Boyle’s film because it subtly reiterates a symbolic order that is as familiar as colonial conquest.

To fully appreciate Slumdog it’s best to go back into India’s colonial past, or Hollywood’s representation of it. In its subject and success Slumdog walks in the Hollywood footsteps of Richard Attenborough’s lush 1983 epic, Gandhi. Both films took eight Oscars while narrating the beauty and pathos of India for a British-American market; and, both films demonstrate expert engagement with the sensitivities of their primary audiences. Attenborough’s film faced the particularly difficult challenge of having to sell a largely unknown context, a non-white hero, and a fairly brutal representation of Anglo villains in the British Raj.

These problems were addressed in various ways. For example, casting Ben Kingsley — an Englishman with an Indian father — in the title role gave audiences a partly European form of reassurance. And, once darkened to approximate the complexion of the historical Mohandas Gandhi, Kingsley’s character was chaperoned throughout the film by kindhearted white characters. These sympathetic British and American figures provided comfort to Western audiences likely to feel alienated by the film’s South Asian context, and unsettled by the chronicle of a pacifist Indian in his struggle against violent white colonialists. These kinds of impositions may seem to be markers of a culturally-insecure, bygone age. But, even today, when Hollywood goes on international safari it usually provides white-skinned guides. (Think of Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, Tears of the Sun, The Last Samurai, et al.)

Contrasted with Gandhi, Slumdog presents itself as an evolved Indian odyssey. With its almost entirely Indian cast, and swaths of Hindi dialog, the film and its mainstream success seems to be a renunciation of the assumption that Western audiences require international stories to be told using Caucasian points of reference. It appears to signal a new Hollywood possibility — apropos The Age of Obama — in which the known world of the West is bravely cast aside and the diversity of the global village is presented in its own terms. But, some of the grand rhetoric about the Hollywood sea change signaled by Slumdog is almost as fanciful as the plot of Boyle’s film. When it is distilled to certain essential symbols, Slumdog can seem to be an Indianized reiteration of a familiar racial order that has found expression since the birth of Hollywood.

To begin simply, who can escape the realization that Dev Patel, the actor playing adult Jamal — the central role in Slumdog — is an Indian white man whose look reminds you of David Schwimmer in the early seasons of Friends? As an isolated fluke of casting, Patel’s light complexion and Teutonic features would be unremarkable, but within Slumdog‘s carefully orchestrated hierarchy of color Patel’s appearance is an important symbol.

Because Boyle’s film never masquerades as anything other than a fairy tale in which all things are possible, many will ignore the magical skin-whitening that occurs as the film’s male and female protagonists grow from the squalor of childhood deprivation to the riches of young-adult love. If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie about a man who gets younger as time goes on, Slumdog Millionaire presents the curious case of lovers who become whiter as they get older. Is it possible that a fraction of the charm and the hope and the magic so often attributed to Slumdog emerges from the cinematic alchemy that turns unlucky dark children into fair-skinned fortunates?

The film’s Disneyesque manipulation of skin-color symbolism registers most clearly when Jamal’s creamy adult face is brought near the dark brow and curls of his adult brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). While Jamal, full of love, luck and idealism, looks like Adrian Brody, the nihilistic, brooding Salim favors Michael Jackson in those beautiful Off the Wall days before Michael embarked upon his own magical skin-whitening fantasy-disaster. As Salim grows older, maintaining the dark skin of his childhood while also becoming more violent and more attentive to his “Islam,” Slumdog‘s symbolic order becomes vexingly familiar. Eventually, the zero-sum calculus of fairytale narrative asserts itself as dark-brother Salim must be sacrificed so that the pure love of fair-brother Jamal can live on.

If the symbolic scaffolding that cues audiences in Slumdog is a reminder that American popular culture still hasn’t gone post-racial, a look into the heart of the film also indicates that Hollywood hasn’t yet arrived at a truly post-American moment. In the moments before his death and his killings it seems that Bad Salim finds composure in the ritual of Islamic prayer. However, Good Jamal proves himself palatably secular as he meets his most dramatic challenges. Perhaps he needs no prayers because, during his moments of greatest daring, Jamal sits in already-holy precincts — in the most ecumenical of shrines. What is this revered space that audiences find as they peer into the sacred core of Slumdog‘s India?

I know it’s not “A,” The Taj Mahal, or “B,” The Khajuraho Temples. So, my final answer is “C,” The sovereign territory of EuroAmerica, flooded with sterilizing light. The universally-recognizable, infinitely-exportable sound stage of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? organizes Slumdog with comforting, fanciful efficiency. Through its reductive simplicity the game’s multiple-choice format ingeniously tames the Indian chaos that continually threatens to overwhelm the film, its heroes and its audience. From the comfort of the American cineplex, Slumdog audiences gaze through India into a familiar, organized sanctum of Western media culture. All is right and ordered once the proper sequence of letters is offered to the glowing Force that animates the game-show and film: Light wins out over darkness; capital is transferred to the deserving; and, the synchronized symmetry of a (weak) Bollywood dance number imposes a final reassuring structure on the world.

Although he is more like murderous Salim than virtuous Jamal, Balram Halwa, the protagonist-narrator of White Tiger, would find himself at home in the fluorescent ring that pulses in Slumdog Millionaire. The figurative point of origin in Aravind Adiga’s novel is a “150-square-foot space” illuminated by a grand chandelier. It is here, beneath a shower of muse-light, that Balram reveals his own rags to riches history. His narrative, in which cynicism, deception and murder is rewarded, appears to be the negative to Slumdog‘s postcard tale. However, in his analysis of our chaotic 21st century Balram is drawn to the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? order that reduces complexity in Slumdog. By his simplifying logic, humanity is organized into discreet color-groups that vie for power on a geometric game board. After his treacherous ascent from rural peon to urban entrepreneur, Balram forecasts the continued rise of China and India: “White men will be finished within my lifetime… My humble prediction: in 20 year’s time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the whole world.”

While this prognosticating is an example of the wry humor that touches almost every moment of his novel, in a post-Booker interview with The Guardian, Aravind Adiga earnestly endorsed the folksy geopolitical vision of his protagonist, declaring that India and China are “likely to inherit the world from the West.”

Yet the examples of Bobby Jindal and Slumdog Millionaire suggest that, at least in the cultural sphere, “the West” is not exactly handing over the world. Something far more complicated is going on. This Indian moment in American culture represents part of the ongoing negotiation for a complex future that confounds Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? models of cultural and political history. It’s unsatisfactory to simply label Slumdog a disguised vehicle of Western propaganda, or to brand Jindal nothing more than an Indian sell-out. But it’s hopelessly reductive to think of this Indian moment as a sign of the transfer of power from the white man to the brown man, or even as an uncomplicated celebration of diversity. The recent rise of India in American popular culture represents one more way in which — however resistantly — the national imagination works through the logic of egalitarian democracy and comes just a bit closer to accepting the oneness of humanity.

Derik Smith lives with his family in Muscat, Oman where he teaches in the English Department at Sultan Qaboos University. Contact him at [email protected].