Today’s Mumbai, which was known as Bombay until 1996, is a city I have never visited. This means that I can only report on what I have seen in the movies, or picked up from casual reading. Films from the “Bollywood” tradition have built a major entertainment industry in Mumbai, and those that have crossed over have found enthusiastic audiences in the West. Even so, it took Slumdog Millionaire to raise this unique melding of popular music and drama from cult status to its present level of appreciation in the West. When we were in Chennai, on the east coast of India, we stopped to watch location shooting for a branch of the Indian movie industry called “Kollywood.”
My first attempts to make an assemblage of the history and culture of India using scenes from the movies led to the realization that there are two distinct kinds of movies about this country. First are the films made in India by Indian filmmakers, reflecting authentic views on what this place has to say about itself. Second are the films made by outsiders, especially the British, which reflect points of view conditioned by their own culture and the Hollywood model of moviemaking.
Many of the movies on this list are controversial in India. Unlike the movies that expose the abuses of the British occupation (see New Delhi: Gandhi), the movies in this segment engage current sensitivities and are at risk of giving offense. In earlier posts, I have touched on the roots of many active areas of cultural friction. These include the Indo-Aryan controversy, Hindu fundamentalist beliefs and practices, and present relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities. While Hollywood is always capable of cultural insensitivity or outright historical distortion, the movies that have created the most heat have been made by filmmakers born and bred in India.
In tandem with our trip to India in 2011, we made a side-trip to the island nation of Sri Lanka. This was the southern refuge for Buddhism after its expulsion from India. We learned of the Singhalese kings and the British colonial occupiers before independence in 1948. Beyond this, we learned of the terrible tragedies of the Sri Lankan Civil War, 1983 to 2009. Under the surface politics, this conflict was fought between Hindu insurgents and the prevailing Buddhist population. There are a number of Sri Lankan films dealing with the war, but they are mostly unavailable. Hollywood supplies only Elephant Walk (1954) with Liz Taylor as the wife of a colonial plantation owner.