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Pursuits: A movie’s authenticity depends on the ethnicity of it’s characters

Would Slumdog Millionaire have worked if Jamal had been played by a white man in brown face? Would it have worked if the slum kids all spoke in English at the start of the movie?


   Of course it wouldn’t have. For a movie to seem authentic it must have people who seem like they belong to the environment not white men with too much make-up.


   I was reminded of this when I saw a really terrible film about Lord Mountbatten’s days as the last Viceroy of India on TV. Not only was the film rubbish but no Indian could take it seriously because Jawaharlal Nehru was played by Ian Richardson (best known for the British TV series, House of Cards) and M.A. Jinnah was played by Vladek Shyebal (famous for playing Russian baddies in old Cold War movies).


   Who, I wonder, could take these two mainstays of the low-budget British cinema seriously when they put on too much make-up and adopted bizarre Indian accents?


   But I guess that’s just a reflection of the way times have changed. Think of all the great movies made in the 60s and the 70s. Did they really insist on ethnic authenticity? Let’s take David Lean, because he is normally regarded as being one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. In Lawrence of Arabia, Antony Quinn and Alec Guinness played Arabs. Smaller roles were played by Indians and Pakistanis pretending to be Arabs (would you buy a carpet from I.S. Johar, with his Punjabi accent, as he begs for mercy in the desert? Lean clearly thought you would.) The only real Arab to star in the movie was Omar Sharif and he only got the role because Dilip Kumar turned it down.


   Not that Lean appreciated Omar’s ethnic origins too keenly: in Dr Zhivago, he cast him as the world’s least convincing Russian.


   By the time Lean made his godawful A Passage to India, attitudes had begun to change. Left to himself, he would probably have cast a Brit as Dr Aziz but he bowed to popular opinion and cast Victor Bannerjee instead. Even so, he made Alec Guinness smear on the foundation and pretend to be Professor Godbole in what must be the worst performance of Guinness’s career. (Guinness never spoke to Lean after that shoot.)


   Even Richard Attenborough was not inclined to cast Indians in his Gandhi film. According to him, Jawaharlal Nehru told him to cast Brits (that old standby, Alec Guinness, perhaps) because Indians were not ready to play such a role. At least Attenborough says that Nehru told him this. Nehru is now dead so we only have Sir Dickie’s word for it.


"When foreigners are called for – as in Lagaan, The Rising, Rang De Basanti or Kites – our producers fly in the real thing."

   Had it not been for the many crores that the Indian government poured into Gandhi, Attenborough would probably have cast more Brits in brown face. As it was, he gave the lead role to a Shakespearean actor called Ben Kingsley, claiming ethnic authenticity on the grounds that Kingsley’s father was an East African Asian. Funny then, that Kingsley has quickly dropped all claims to be an Indian after his Gandhi Oscar.


   These days, when Indians are required by scripts, it is Indian actors who get to play them. (They also get to play Arabs as Art Malik and Kal Penn can testify.) Sometimes, better still, they get to play people with no recognizable national identity in the sort of role that Aishwarya Rai played in the last Pink Panther movie.


   And Bollywood has returned that compliment. When foreigners are called for – as in Lagaan, The Rising, Rang De Basanti or Kites – our producers fly in the real thing.


   I can never make up my mind as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. As offended as I am by the sight of white people browning up to play Indians, I also recognize that there is another side. Of late, black actors continually demand that they be given classic Shakespearean parts. Does it make any sense for Hamlet to be played by a Black actor? How many Africans were there in Denmark in that era, anyway? And yet, to refuse to cast Black actors in such parts is to invite charges of racism.


   It’s a complex issue and one that yields no easy solution. Richard Attenborough recalls that when he was looking for an actor to play Charlie Chaplin, somebody suggested Michael Jackson for the role.


   Attenborough was flummoxed. “But he’s Black,” he spluttered.


   “Ah,” said the man. “Have you seen him recently…”



  • swati 05 Sep 2009

    there was a play on mahabharata by mallika sarabhai and many of the leads were whites and blacks and ms sarabhai was most affronted with an q on why that was so ! maybe you ought to send this article to her

  • SpeakTheTruth 28 Jul 2009

    It is an act of terrorism\hatredness\and unacceptability of a certain section of poor people by a section of western people. In another words by awarding golden globe to this filthy/ungodliness movie the world has axed on its own legs. If anyone has any other opinion then get into your imagination of dipped into the toilet waste similar to a kid in the movie and feel the smell till you like, why do you undervalue a kid for your enjoyment. The world should no about the high value of "Indian culture", I see a direct link between what happened with Shilpa shetty to the sponsorship of this movie by a lond people

  • Neel 25 Jul 2009

    You make some valid points but how different is the situation in Bollywood when actors play and/or mock South Indians, Punjabis, Bengalis and all other castes in various movies and do nothing but make a mockery of their roles? Or how about flying in white dancers to put in the background of a typical Bollywood song? Africans may not have been there in the Denmark era, but then there have never been foreigners dancing on the middle of the street in India either.

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