The first postcolonial film in my archive is The World of Apu (1959), set in Calcutta. This black and white movie, third part of a trilogy by Satyajit Ray, remains a classic of Indian cinema today. The other classic from this time is Mother India (1957), but I have not been able to find an English version. City of Joy (1992), Born into the Brothels (2004), and parts of The Namesake (2007) are also set in Calcutta.
The earliest films I have found reflecting the Western view of postcolonial India are from Merchant Ivory. This is a partnership of two filmmakers, an Indian and an American, with a heavy influence of British colonial sensibility. Their first international success was Shakespeare Wallah.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
This Merchant Ivory production (black and white) is set in India of the mid 20th century. It follows the course of a small acting troupe, specializing in Shakespeare, touring the country. This is an odd intermeshing of cultures and the spots where the troupe plays are almost indistinguishable from England, except for the race of the audience. Everyone speaks very proper English. But things are changing. The patriarch of the troupe is beginning to feel they should have left in 1947 when all the others went. Now interest in what they have to offer is waning. The drama becomes exceptionally tedious as it centers on a love affair between the daughter of the lead player and a young Indian man. There are some third rate rep scenes from Twelfth Night, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet. Culture clash sets in when the young man is insulted by the treatment given by his fellow citizens to the struggling company. The cultures cannot mesh. The young actress is wedded to the old paradigm, while the young man is part of the emerging post-paradigm world. In the end, the company disbands and the girl gets on a ship for England. The leaders of the company are played by a Mr. Kendall and his wife upon whose real life adventures this film is based. The film also introduces their daughter to the screen.
The 1980s saw a wave of British films reflecting a nostalgia for the days of Empire. All of them look backward to the British occupation of India, ending in 1947. At the top of this list are Gandhi (1982) and A Passage to India (1984). Others will be found in Movies About British Colonial India.
Also in the 1980s, there were two American films whose action scenes were partly filmed in a fantasy version of India. Octopussy, a low point in the James Bond franchise, used locations in the area of Rajasthan. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was denied permission to film in India and had to simulate its Indian scenes in Sri Lanka. The Indian government felt the Spielberg film was racist and offensive. Spielberg and Lucas have since apologized for their insensitivity.
Both the Bond and the Indiana Jones films involve heroic efforts to forestall the destruction of the world. In Temple of Doom, Indy must confront the evil Thuggee cult, worshippers of the vicious goddess Kali. This enemy of humanity is familiar to viewers of films such as Gunga Din (1939) and Merchant Ivory’s 1988 film, The Deceivers (see Movies About British Colonial India).
Mira Nair is the most successful of crossover filmmakers from postcolonial India, though she resides in New York City. Her debut film was Salaam Bombay (1988), which will be at the head of the post that follows this one (see Movies of Mumbai). Other high points of her career thus far include Monsoon Wedding (2002), and The Namesake (2007).
The movies of modern India tend to focus on the plight of women in a traditionally male dominant culture. Systematic abuses are brought into the light, and everyday triumphs are celebrated. Female directors have played an important role in this trend. See Maya (2001), Water (2006), and The Journey (2006). For a broader cultural perspective, see Swades: We, the People ( say Swa–days).
Swades: We, the People (2004) – India
Indian writer-director, Ashutosh Gowariker, made this film in India and at the NASA launch site in Florida. It is a Bollywood production, and the song and dance numbers seem like mere distractions initially. Later on, however, they take on a much greater functionality. It opens at the NASA facilities in Florida where the lead character, named Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan), is a project manager for a satellite weather forecasting program. He confides to a friend that he has been feeling deep guilt about losing touch with the nanny who cared for him during his childhood in India. He asks for time off and flies to New Delhi. Driving a borrowed caravan (RV), he traces her to an isolated village where he finds her living in better circumstances than he expected. Along his way, he has met a beautiful young woman who, as it happens, shares a spacious house with the nanny. Through the middle of the movie, Mohan becomes increasingly involved in the life of the village and begins to fall in love with the young woman. She runs the local school and is at first indifferent to his advances. She exemplifies the independence of the modern Indian woman. Mohan is at the same time trying to convince his former nanny to return to the U.S. with him. In the end, he builds an electrical generator for the village earning the respect of the people and the love of the schoolteacher.
This movie attempts to engage a broad range of issues in Indian culture at the beginning of the new millennium. It is not so much about modern politics or new technologies as it is about the entrenchments of village life. Little mention is made of religion until it nears the end. The nanny has called upon Allah earlier, indicating that she is a Muslim and probably so is the family that she worked for. A reference is also made to Rama and Sita. At the end, the teacher performs a sinuous dance in the role of Sita held captive in Lanka by the evil Ravana (see Ramayana, Hinduism in the Movies). Children appear as the monkey army of Hanuman and arrows are fired at a huge puppet figure with ten heads. Finally, Mohan joins the opera taking on the role of Rama. After that, there is a community meeting where Mohan lectures the villagers on their backwardness, intolerance, and blind adherence to superstition. Judging by the extreme popularity of this movie, it seems to have been something that many in India wanted to hear spoken out loud in a public forum. Mohan then shows his love by building the electric generator. The actor playing Mohan is a major Bollywood star and is ranked as one of the richest actors in the world.
Siddharth (2013) – Indian-Canadian
This slice of life picture follows the sad odyssey of an impoverished father whose 12-year-old son has disappeared. The boy had been sent from his home in Delhi to another city where he would work for one month in a shop that uses illegal child labor. When he does not return, his mother and father try to get help from the limited government resources that are available to them. The father travels to the place where the boy was employed and gets a clue that he may have been abducted and taken to Mumbai. When the trail grows cold, the father returns to his wife and little daughter in Delhi to resume his work as a chain-wallah (an itinerant vendor repairing changes and zippers). In a surprise ending, the father walks off down the street leaving the sense that the boy will never be found. The Ebert website gave this film substantial consideration, no doubt because it exemplifies his philosophy of movies creating empathy for people about whom the rest of the world has little understanding.
Back in the day when Sri Lanka was still known as Ceylon, Elizabeth Taylor marries the British owner of a tea plantation and becomes a fish out of water. The plantation is called Elephant Walk because it sits along the migration route of a large herd. The elephants are not happy about it and in the end they have their way. This is all about the failure of the British civilizing mission to prevail over Elizabeth’s passionate nature and the legendary wildness of this place.