At the risk of sounding like I’m on a rocking chair with a glass of water (for my dentures) beside me, allow me to recount the days of our youth. Back then, a lot of things weren’t freely available, including the Internet, Coca Cola and Hollywood films. While I can’t speak for every culturally-inclined Indian, I think it’s fair to say that there were many of us who dreamt of an India where we would get the latest films, where we’d have The Paris Review landing up on our doorsteps, where “new music” would mean the same bands as it did in the West. Yes, the West, which to some may mean a collection of countries but to most of us was (and perhaps continues to be) a large blob; a big white space that could be summed up in one word – modern. (Kind of like a flipped version of that other blob, “Africa”.)

So yes, whether it was for Toblerone, Levi’s jeans and Adidas sneakers, or The New Yorker, translations of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry and Ani di Franco, we looked West. Which is why I think we get excited every time something foreign opens in India. Magazines, for example, make so many eyes widen. An Indian Rolling Stone or an Indian Vogue carries in it the promise of a once-distant West coming closer and becoming easily accessible. Unfortunately, most foreign magazines turn plain dumb and/or weird when they come to India.

Take the latest entrant Architectural Digest, for example. At first glance, it’s cut from the same cloth as the American Architectural Digest. The American AD has Brooke Shields on the cover. Ours has Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The difference? Brooke Shields looks like she’s vaguely human. Deepika Padukone stands like she’s a mannequin. She looks about as human as a skyscraper, which maybe fitting for a magazine with “architecture” in the tite but I’m not sure I’d want to be considered a work of architecture. Then again, given all I can see in this picture is how Padukone’s legs mimic the table lamps, I am perhaps not the norm. Inside, the American AD lets us look into Adam Levine and other celebrities’ homes. In the Indian AD, we get (among other things) this:

Now, obviously the entire magazine isn’t filled with images like this but presumably there’s an extra effort put into the launch issue to establish, to use marketing spiel, brand identity. So explain to me what laundry and a dhobi with a vaguely orgasmic expression have to do with architecture?

Not that homegrown media offers much hope. Take this column from the Mumbai Mirror, for example, which resulted in the hashtag “WeWantHugo” popping up for on Twitter for a few hours earlier this week. Film critic Raja Sen is upset that the companies that were to bring Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (Viacom 18 and Paramount) are not releasing the movie in India. As my grandmother put it, his heart is in the right place; if only his logic was in place along with that heart. Like all the 40-odd people who go to watch Hollywood films in Mumbai (joke, joke, untwist your knickers), I’m disappointed Hugo isn’t getting an India release but I find Sen’s attitude of entitlement baffling. It’s almost as though Indian filmgoers can lay claim to Hugo, that Viacom 18 and Paramount owe us the film. Apparently, “Myopic distributors are robbing us of magic”, which would imply that  Hugo is ours and the distributors stole it from us. Except, of course, It’s the producer and the distributor who own it. Ergo, while we may be deprived of Hugo, we’re certainly not being robbed.

Yes, I do expect writers and editors to know the meaning of the words used in articles. I’m evil like that.

In case you don’t want to take Sen’s word for the excellence of Hugo, the critic informs the reader that James Cameron loved the film’s 3D photography. Cameron, the aesthete who made Avatar, Titanic, The Terminator and Rambo (among others). What his take on the technical aspects of the film has to do with releasing the film in India, I don’t know. Do the producers and distributors of Hugo have any obligation to go on an “Educate India About The Wonders of 3D Photography” drive? No. Has Hugo made enough money in its core markets to make the producers think they can risk losing a little dough in India? No. Does India have a track record of giving Hollywood box office earnings? No.

Sen stands on an imaginary pedestal and proclaims, “…we’d watch it. Not just are we, as a young filmmaker reminded yesterday, the same people who made Tree Of Life run for three weeks.” I’m going to ignore the problems of sentence construction there and focus on Tree of Life. I saw it twice. The first time, there were about 15 people in the audience with me. After about 10  minutes, two started making out. An hour into the film, half the audience departed. The second time, there were six of us in the theatre. If this is a “run”, what’s a box-office failure in this young filmmaker’s books?

Then, Sen proceeds to outline the “logic” behind his belief that Hugo would be a hit in India. Which is that because the movies we get to see are generally terrible, we will make any good film that hits the theatres a hit. Yep, that explains how John and Jane, a brilliant docu-feature on contemporary India, could barely survive a week while 2012 is one of the best Hollywood performers at the Indian box office. Sen also suggests “a strategically slim theatrical release could do the trick, by giving the film a couple of multiplex screens in the metros and waiting for reviews and word of mouth to expand the appeal”. Only a reviewer will think that reviews play a part in edging a mass entertainer out and bringing in a niche-market film. Never mind that. Who in their right minds brings in an expensive film that uses expensive technology on the basis of the possibility of word-of-mouth buzz?

The cherry on Sen’s icing of protest is his closing suggestion that all those who want to see Hugo should pirate Blood Money, an upcoming release by Viacom 18. Yes, a major daily had no issues with printing a piece that advocated violating of the law. Clearly, the larger implications of this didn’t bother anybody. In the future, if a columnist wants to support jihad or caste-based violence, they can claim precedence in Sen’s call to piratey arms. Silver lining: clearly, this really is a free country; you can say anything and get away with it.

Protesting the withdrawal of a film by pirating another, there’s a breathtakingly silly idea. Yes, let’s go attack the prospects of a completely unrelated film and filmmaker. Because that’s a mature and constructive attitude. Rather than consolidating the community, let’s alienate people who could be your allies. And of course, what piracy really needed from the media was a little encouragement and validation.

I don’t know why Viacom 18 and Paramount chose to not release Hugo in India. Perhaps the fact that the film did terribly in America despite all the praise it received deterred the powers-that-be from spending money on releasing it overseas. Perhaps they’ll release it some time later. Perhaps Sen’s column will generate the kind of buzz that would give the film word-of-mouth publicity.

UPDATED TO ADD: Mahesh Bhatt is now suing Raja Sen. I’m surprised he isn’t also suing Mumbai Mirror.

One thought on “East and West

  1. I don’t even know who you’re condescending to any more. Are you just self loathing as a matter of course? Wislawa Szymborska is “western”? John and Jane was “brilliant”? Architectural Digest? Deepika Padukone is less plastic than Brooke Shields? (I’d say they’re both like a 7 on the plasticity scale).

    The only real woman is Mamata Banerjee. Very problematic to say as a StraighT cis male, i know.

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