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A new international cinema, of gentle fantasies of post-colonial harmony.

Published:August 23, 2014 1:19 am
The comfort of these films, beyond the tourist-friendly vistas and cabal of seasoned, charming English and Indian actors, is their near-total predictability. The comfort of these films, beyond the tourist-friendly vistas and cabal of seasoned, charming English and Indian actors, is their near-total predictability.

By: Simran Bhalla

The film, TheHundred-Foot Journey, and 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, seem like they belong to an older, more genteel era. Perhaps this is partly because they cater to an older, more genteel demographic; a strategy that has proved successful, given that viewers over 40 have been ignored by Hollywood for decades. Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden, starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, among others, is about a group of aging Britons who decide to live out their retirement in a ramshackle Jaipur hotel (though they don’t realise quite how ramshackle it is until they get there). Journey, produced and heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, is about a family of Indian cooks who move to a small town in France and open a desi restaurant across the road from a Michelin-starred establishment. It stars Helen Mirren, Om Puri, and Manish Dayal as the young chef who climbs the ranks of the French culinary scene.

The success and subsequent increase in demand for entries in this genre — including Jon Hamm’s lesser effort, the cricket-baseball crossover Million Dollar Arm — represent a new transnational cinema, one that is interested in gentle fantasies of postcolonial harmony. It seems that a globalised movie marketplace is eager to embrace this sort of film as well, especially when populated and validated by Mirren, Puri, Dench and company. Now, a middlebrow prestige picture aims less for Shakespeare in Love (John Madden’s previous hit), and more for Shakespeare Wallah.

The comfort of these films, beyond the tourist-friendly vistas and cabal of seasoned, charming English and Indian actors, is their near-total predictability: any serious disruption on the path to fulfilment would ruin the fun. Both films are set in the contemporary era, where non-fiction is rife with news of culture clashes that turn violent. But the racism these pictures present is either comical or quickly overcome (or both). This is more effective in the ultimately moving Marigold Hotel than in Journey, though the latter has a few pleasing touches as well.

Marigold Hotel features elderly white Britons, many of them middle- or lower-class, who find their status automatically improved once they begin to live in India, eagerly waited on night and day by cheerful Indians. However, in the eyes of the filmmakers, any echo of colonial narratives is purely coincidental. Only the most curmudgeonly film-goer, immune to the charms of Tom Wilkinson joyfully playing cricket with Jaipuri street children, would point them out. In Journey, meanwhile, the experience of poor Indians immigrating to western Europe, and their subsequent acculturation, is as simple as having a laissez-faire customs officer and experiencing the rich fullness of French country tomatoes.

In addition to juicy tomatoes, there are other local treats: young Hassan in Journey has no obstacle preventing him from being with the pink-cheeked Marguerite other than a workplace rivalry. The interracial romance that provides the most touching subplot of Marigold Hotel is challenged by society’s bigotry towards homosexuals, not race-mixers — and here even homophobia exists only in the pre-Independence era. Older films of a similar type, such as the best-forgotten Aishwarya Rai vehicle, The Mistress of Spices (2005), and the considerably more delightful Bend it Like Beckham (2002) mine the tropes of disapproving parents and incompatible mores to dramatic effect. Yet Marigold Hotel and especially Journey live resolutely in the post-racial era when it comes to romance. No one is bothered to guess who’s coming to dinner, including the audience. And frankly, it’s refreshing to have these films dispense with those tired conceits.

While Journey does rely on a few cultural stereotypes to establish differences or attempt humour (poor Indians like loud music, spicy food and lots of colour; rich Frenchwomen eschew all three), it’s more interested in the productive results of cultural fusion. Hollandaise, that ancient French sauce, is perfected with the addition of haldi. Gobi-flavoured ice cream and masala in modernist food, crafted by young Hassan, garner French restaurants Michelin stars. In Marigold Hotel, too, characters do not simply adapt to Indian culture but find niches where their particular British cultural habits and knowledge are useful to Indian enterprise. Judi Dench brings her familiarity with elderly Brits and their needs to an Indian call centre, where she is hired as a consultant; Maggie Smith begins to assist Dev Patel in running a hotel that can cater to that same crowd. In other words, both films reward skilled immigrants, whose specific cultural traits are not a hindrance but rather, can be put to use bolstering their host countries’ economies. At a time when countless immigrants and senior citizens struggle to find or retain jobs, particularly in the West, films like these discover work for them in positions that would have been impossible in any other era. In The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Million Dollar Arm — with its cricketers who transfer their strengths to baseball — cultures cease to clash when their mergers produce capital.

Bhalla is an Evanston-based writer

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