World culture’s spice
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