World cul­ture’s spice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - GREG SHERI­DAN

IF you can, make sure you see the In­dian film Loins of Pun­jab Presents . It is a gem. I warn you I’m about to spoil its plot, al­though I sus­pect it won’t get the­atri­cal re­lease here any­way and will only be avail­able un­re­li­ably on DVD. I saw Loins of Pun­jab Presents last year in the cin­ema at Con­naught Place in cen­tral New Delhi, and had to go through US air­port style se­cu­rity be­cause some Pun­jabi groups ob­jected to the al­leged dis­re­spect of the ti­tle.

Not, I has­ten to add, that there is any­thing car­nal in the ti­tle’s in­tent. Loins of Pun­jab is a New Jer­sey butcher spe­cial­is­ing in pork loins, run, as you might guess, by Pun­jabis, al­ways the most en­ter­tain­ing, lov­able and com­pelling of In­di­ans ( I have spe­cial knowl­edge of this sub­ject). The film’s ti­tle is also a joke on the com­mon In­dian mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the word li­ons. In Loins , the New Jer­sey butcher spon­sors a lo­cal In­dian tal­ent con­test along the lines of Amer­i­can Idol . ( In­dian Idol is a huge television suc­cess in In­dia.) A se­ries of In­dian stere­op­types present them­selves for the con­test. There is an over­achiev­ing Gu­jarati girl, much sassier than she seems. There is an ag­gres­sive Pun­jabi, who has rather bizarrely turned him­self into a grossly foul- mouthed rap artist.

Much hi­lar­i­ous melo­drama, cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing and skul­dug­gery go into the con­test, which is ul­ti­mately won by a white Jewish boy whose In­dian girl­friend has turned him on to In­dian mu­sic. The vil­lain of the piece, a so­cial­climb­ing, mid­dle- aged In­dian ma­tron, tries to thwart his suc­cess by brib­ing the band to pre­tend they don’t know any of his tunes.

He sings the In­dian na­tional an­them, which the band can­not ig­nore. Not only does the Jewish boy win the con­test by pop­u­lar ac­claim, but a cheeky sub­ti­tle in­structs view­ers in the cin­ema to fol­low the lead of the au­di­ence in the film and stand up for the an­them. And this we all did at the Con­naught Place cin­ema, the first time I’ve been part of an au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion joke at a com­mer­cial movie.

Af­ter the prize is awarded, one con­tes­tant com­plains that surely it should go to an In­dian. The or­gan­iser replies mar­vel­lously that as Amer­ica has in­vited In­di­ans to be­come in­sid­ers, how can In­di­ans in Amer­ica make Amer­i­cans out­siders in their con­test? Be­sides, he says, ‘‘ we are brown, but we are fair’’.

Within the manic, Marx Brothers clev­er­ness of it all, I can­not tell you just what an in­ter­est­ing lit­tle dis­course it is on race and iden­tity, which are an in­creas­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in In­dian film. Last week a friend lent me an­other bril­liant In­dian movie, Chak De! In­dia , which roughly trans­lates as Go In­dia! This film is set mostly in Melbourne, at a world hockey cham­pi­onship. It is also a con­tem­pla­tion of iden­tity. In Chak De! In­dia , Shahrukh Khan, the great­est heart- throb in In­dian film, plays a Mus­lim char­ac­ter for the first time. Khan him­self is Mus­lim, or at least of Mus­lim back­ground. But as Bol­ly­wood’s lead­ing lead­ing man, he has al­ways played a Hindu be­fore, or some­one whose re­li­gion is not iden­ti­fied.

Here Khan is the cap­tain of the men’s hockey team. He misses a vi­tal penalty against Pak­istan and is sub­jected to wholly ground­less re­li­gious vil­i­fi­ca­tion, to the ef­fect that he threw the game out of dis­loyal sym­pa­thy for Mus­lim Pak­istan.

He is then shunned. Seven years later he earns re­demp­tion by coach­ing the In­dian women’s hockey team. They con­front sex­ist as­sump­tions that as women their sport is mean­ing­less. But they also over­come the in­ter­nal di­vi­sions that arise from their rep­re­sent­ing so many dif­fer­ent In­dian eth­nic­i­ties and back­grounds.

In­ci­den­tally, Melbourne never looked pret­tier than in this film. One of the big trends in In­dian di­as­pora film and lit­er­a­ture is an in­creas­ing em­pha­sis on the US in­stead of the tra­di­tional fo­cus on Bri­tain, but also a ris­ing con­scious­ness of Aus­tralia.

The big theme of th­ese two films is the com­plex in­ter­play of eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion and iden­tity. This is also ev­i­dent in one of last year’s loveli­est In­dian films, The Name­sake . The sheer qual­ity of In­dian films now is un­de­ni­able. A lot of Bol­ly­wood out­put is dross, nat­u­rally, as with all na­tional film in­dus­tries, but ev­ery year some of the finest films in the world come from In­dia.

In The Name­sake , the epony­mous hero is named af­ter Niko­lai Go­gol, the writer clos­est to his fa­ther’s heart. Grow­ing up in the US, young Go­gol aban­dons his name, ne­glects his fa­ther and turns his back on his In­dian iden­tity. At his fa­ther’s death he is over­whelmed with re­gret, reem­braces his In­di­an­ness, parts from his Amer­i­can girl­friend and mar­ries an In­dian girl. This mar­riage ul­ti­mately fails as well, and this is part of the film’s sub­tlety.

Iden­tity, eth­nic­ity, cul­tural tra­di­tion — none is an easy con­cept — and there are al­most no rules. This en­thralling and beau­ti­ful film pro­ceeds from an equally beau­ti­ful book of the same name. And herein lies a great key to In­dian cul­ture: the en­dur­ing strength, and the con­tin­u­ing pres­ence in the West­ern mind, of the In­dian novel.

I re­cently re­or­gan­ised my li­brary and was a lit­tle sur­prised to find I owned a shelf of In­dian nov­els. I have never con­sciously col­lected In­dian nov­els. When­ever I visit In­dia I feel an ur­gent need to read non­fic­tion: pol­i­tics, strat­egy, eco­nomics, his­tory.

But my fond­ness for In­dian nov­els pre­dates any pro­fes­sional in­volve­ment with Asia. I be­gan decades ago read­ing R. K. Narayan, whom I re­mem­ber as a kind of In­dian Jane Austen, a su­perb mas­ter of the nu­ance of re­la­tion­ship, the fine grad­ings of so­cial sta­tus and the in­eluctable bonds of fam­ily.

In­dian lit­er­a­ture is full of Jane Austens. The In­dian love af­fair with English has pro­duced writ­ers who mas­ter the long, sinewy sen­tences of Vic­to­rian English, whose love of the ad­verb and the pre­cise ad­jec­tive re­flects a con­scious­ness that makes fine dis­tinc­tions and val­ues deep emo­tions, of­ten un­der­stated.

The power of In­dian film arises di­rectly from the power of In­dian nov­els. To­gether they make In­dia unique among Asian na­tions for its pres­ence in the West­ern mind, and in­deed in global cul­ture. Many Melbourne and Syd­ney cine­mas now show an In­dian film at least weekly, ev­ery book­shop car­ries some In­dian nov­els. This is a unique el­e­ment of cul­tural glob­al­i­sa­tion.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion, cul­tur­ally speak­ing, has mostly meant Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion, with an oc­ca­sional Bri­tish sub- theme. No one could rea­son­ably ac­cuse your colum­nist of be­ing anti- Amer­i­can, but this at­trac­tive In­dian spice has now be­come the most im­por­tant Asian in­gre­di­ent, per­haps the most im­por­tant non- Amer­i­can in­gre­di­ent, in the global cul­tural diet.

Chak De! In­dia, say I.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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