Friday, March 16, 2012

Brits in India. Again.

In Trishna, Michael Winterbottom has achieved nearly pitch-perfect casting right from the guide to the Jain temple in an opening scene to the school assembly at the very end (if, like me, you are wondering how Trishna (Freida Pinto) learned English, that closing scene is your answer - as is mention of the Thar English Medium School in the credits; you know how cranky I get about foreign directors who are inattentive to the politics of language.) I haven't read Tess of the d'Ubervilles, so unlike most reviewers I can't say anything about (in)fidelity to the text. There are two very quick but cheekily intelligent moments in the film. Jay (Riz Ahmed) spends a lot of time lying around reading cliched things like the Upanishads and the Kamasutra (yes, we're all reared on a diet of scriptural sex), but in one scene he is reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals. A feudal hotel-owning BBCD with a love-slave employee reads himself into a book written by a gora in India about 18th century goras in India with bibis and harems. In another scene, Trishna's immense nuclear family crowd around a TV set that is playing 'Twist' from Love Aaj Kal (you have just enough time to catch sight of someone in the uniform of the Queen's Guard gyrating behind Saif Ali Khan): a British director making a film in and 'about' India nods at a desi film sequence shot in a London market. Two countries talking to each other.

This can't really be said of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Inoffensive, and possibly for that reason unmemorable, the film has the virtue of signposting its exoticization of India and claiming to be about nothing more than how a bunch of ageing Brits view India. The premise of using attitudes towards India as a story-telling device to build the personalities of British characters is a familiar one (remember Mira Nair's Vanity Fair, although India -the place - is mostly off-stage in this tale, with characters either eagerly looking forward to going there or horrified at the prospect: her credits contain salaams to Edward Said, whose Culture and Imperialism - with its thesis about the mutual cultural constitution of core and periphery - almost certainly informed the making of that film). Dev Patel has clearly been working on his accent. Perhaps a bit too much. How can anyone with a posh mummy like Lilette Dubey end up sounding like that?

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