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BROWN IS THE NEW BLACK
- The West has always welcomed inoffensive cultural catholicity

Reports of hysterical fans mobbing Amitabh Bachchan in California appear to suggest that there might be some truth in a recent American study’s claim that far from being synonymous with America’s cultural imperialism, globalization is a two-way street. Obviously, this comforting, if self-serving, conclusion owes something to the logic of numbers. When a global internet survey voted Indira Gandhi the century’s most outstanding leader, for instance, we could be certain that it reflected the patriotism of millions of Indians worldwide who surf the net with unflagging diligence and leave their footprints in cyberspace. Similarly, Britain’s large south Asian population must have had a hand in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham reaching the third place in the cinematic Top 10.

California is also the home of thousands of Silicon Valley Indians. A goodly number of them must have thronged round Bachchan’s horse-drawn carriage. Some tried to touch him, others held their infants up to be blessed, and mothers even placed children in front of the horses to slow down the cavalcade. Such exuberance gives the impression that ethnic and geographic boundaries have vanished so that India’s idols are now the world’s. It is a tempting inference. As an east Asian scholar once put it, the “West vs Rest” debate has taken a bizarre turn because the Rest is now in the West.

Not that the two have merged. Nor is the Rest in the West as a Trojan horse to take it by storm or to destroy it from within, as some of our old swarajists used to say about participating in the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. They are there because they cannot resist the allurements of the West. If people like Ananda Coomaraswamy or Tu Weiming continued to espouse Asian ideas from their Western sanctums, it was because the West welcomed inoffensive cultural catholicity.

Of course, numbers are bound to make themselves felt somewhere along the line. But this does not amount to much when the multitude is without wealth or power. To do justice to the Burkle Centre for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles, the study it conducted regards Asia’s burgeoning film industry as the hope of the future. It sees two benefits. First, globalization will no longer be shorthand for Americanization. Second, cultural cross-pollination, especially the exposure of Americans to Asian creativity, could be enormously healing. Mass entertainment “will not in itself be adequate to overcome inclinations towards hatred and violence,” says the report. “But it can help.”

These expectations raise no cavil. But in arguing that we are heading for a more equitable form of globalization that will no longer be American, the study reads too much (and the wrong) meaning into the fact that the United States of America accounts for only four per cent of the world’s population while India and China together boast more than 30 per cent. No one save an American propagandist would treat the two Asian countries as one entity. Moreover, even if more than a billion Indians pop up in every simple headcount, they are in no position to challenge America’s stranglehold on the flow of information and entertainment. No wonder, infotainment is an American word and concept.

Language helps. English, which the US has hijacked to such an extent that the world is expected to speak with a transatlantic accent 50 years hence, has been described as the greatest neocolonial force today. Even if Indians or Nigerians do not sound American, their unconscious addiction to phrases and words like “meet up”, “meet with” and “transportation” is revealing. The orthodox meaning of everyday words like “high,” “gay” and “cool” is all but forgotten.

Chinese might be the world’s biggest single linguistic group, but a billion and a half people speak English, a language that enjoys some kind of official status in more than 60 countries. Computers in English store most of the world’s information, and practically all its scientific papers. Indeed, the computer revolution has reinforced American control of not only knowledge but idiom. A simple illustration will suffice. Singapore still uses British spelling, but my students (almost all of them ethnic Chinese) write “program” and “center” and “favor”. Asked to explain this preference for American spelling, they remained quiet until one, bolder than the rest, admitted that the computer’s spellcheck facility determined choice.

The West-Coast study cites numbers to suggest that Hollywood, the most powerful instrument of American culture, may no longer shine brightest in the silver screen. It points out that while the US releases only about 250 commercial films annually, India produces between 800 and 900. But these are low-budget productions without global reach, while more than 50 per cent of the audiences that sit enthralled through Hollywood blockbusters are outside the US.

Oprah Winfrey and Larry King are the cult figures of our age. Sesame Street is watched in about 90 countries, Dallas in at least a hundred. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have been dubbed in Mandarin. Spiderman inspires those who are waiting to be absorbed in the MTV generation, Star Trek excites the young of all ages. MacDonalds is truly MacWorlds. Asia has nothing to offer by way of competition, even if a trickle of Japanese cartoons and films are becoming popular in South Korea and parts of southeast Asia.

True, Asian film industries can claim some spectacular successes. The Chinese film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has earned an impressive $100 million in the US alone, the first to make that kind of money. By banning Western exports and stamping down on all forms of levity, Iran’s ayatollahs unwittingly opened the gates of native genius. Films like The White Balloon, The Apple and Children of Heaven have taken audiences by storm.

A British diplomat in India used to worry in the Eighties that the proliferation of raj books might give quite the wrong idea to Indians who would be disappointed when they visited Britain to find the bulk of the people there indifferent to them and their past. By that token, the attention that Shah Rukh Khan’s Asoka, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan and, of course, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding attract can be misleading. “Brown is the new black” Meera Syal, the British-born actress who played in the television comedy, Goodness Gracious Me, was once quoted as saying. But her cute remark was itself an admission of the exotic appeal of Indian films.

Western cinema is resilient and innovative. When television sets arrived in Hollywood in the Forties, the legendary Jack Warner apparently had them thrown off the studio’s lot. He was conv- inced — wrongly, as it turned out — that the new device would kill his thriving movie business. Half a century later the studios turned their backs on the internet with the same mixture of dread and disdain. But just as Hollywood eventually made the most of the small screen, it is now investing heavily in the net.

The West has responded to Asia’s cinematic achievements with the same entrepreneurial resourcefulness. Selfridge’s $1.69 million Indian extravaganza, the British Film Institute’s Imagine Asia festival and, above all, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seven-million-dollar Bombay Dreams cash in handsomely on the new brown-is-beautiful ethic. At the same time, the Indian (Nair) and Egyptian (76-year-old Youssef Chahine) contributions to 11’09”01, a commemorative film made up of 11 shorts, expose the gulf between the West and the Rest.

Nair’s Pakistani-American who died helping the firefighters in the World Trade Center is posthumously being investigated for terrorist links because, as his mother says, “his name wasn’t Jesus”. Or Ed or Al. Chahine’s dialogue appears to support action against Israel and the US which he accuses of injustice and double standards. No wonder no American distributor will touch 11’09”01 which will be released in France on September 11. Globalization is all right only so long as it does not threaten the sacred cows of American mythology.

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