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The White Woman and the Indian in Bollywood Movies

by Joe Bourn

Bollywood films that take on a strong nationalistic feel almost always garner positive responses from audiences. While they evoke very clear feelings of patriotism with their plots, they also very cleverly use their subplots to help justify overly melodramatic sequences. One such plot device is the white woman in Bollywood films – portrayed poorly to provide a contrast to the native woman. However, it does not stop at just showing the pitfalls of westernization and the Indian woman’s ability to embrace a rigid blend of modernity with sanskaar; It also requires the approval of the Indian man for both these women.

The Indian man in these cases embodies the audience’s approval of the film, and in his claim to the better woman of the two is a nod to an intensely nationalistic story.

In most movies the white woman doesn’t even have to be black and white, their promiscuity is embodied in “disturbed” women. Notable examples are – Lisa Haydon in ‘Queen’, Deepika Padukone in ‘Cocktail’ and Katrina Kaif in almost all her films.

Watching these movies would lead one to assume that these women don’t take a break from being “wild” or even doing their laundry. The personification of “westernized” traits to appear “immoral” is only to show the supposed advantages and morality of living a more culturally Indian lifestyle. This opposition between two women is often not enough in itself and requires the validation of the Indian man.

Some of the most popular representations of white women in recent years have come from nationalist films like ‘RRR’, ‘Lagaan’ or ‘Rang De Basanti’. In these cases the white woman on a very practical basis has no reason to side with the Indians, let alone go out of her way to help them. However, this troupe is easily believable not only by Bollywood’s penchant for showing deep, life-changing connections that come from just two minutes of conversation between people, but also by Western acceptance of the Indian cause. In the white woman’s offer of help lies not only the complicity of the cause but also the supposed disempowerment of the white man. In this situation, a white woman is a tool used to reinforce Indian masculinity as preferable to white masculinity.

In ‘Lagaan’, in a seemingly impossible twist of events, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) is in love with Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) for what one can only assume is his secret affair with her. If this subplot was only to provide a romantic arc to the film, which was already largely provided by the relationship between Bhuvan and Gauri (Gracy Singh), it would have felt somewhat redundant. However, in the larger scheme of things, Elizabeth’s help and love is vital not only to Lord Krishna-Rada’s over-the-top metaphors, but also to understanding the game and ultimately winning. It is evident in the depiction of the importance of religion, morality and culture of a very narrow kind to the larger nationalist plot.

If we were to step away from this narrow perception and look at ‘Rang De Basanti’, we find the white woman-Sue (Alice Patten) as a tool representing unity and morality. One may argue that her presence in the film or documentary on Bhagat Singh is purely for cinematic purposes, however, her position as DJ’s (Aamir Khan) love interest and her endorsement is an integral part of the larger plot. She offers no contrast to the Indian Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) in the film, but her documentary backfires very quickly, having served the purpose of evoking rebellious nationalist sentiments, once she is attracted to DJ. As the film progresses, it seems to be mostly about Indian masculinity and their revolutionary fervor towards their nation. Towards the end of the film, Sue is seen reminiscing on the airstrip where they used to hang out. On stage, Sue doesn’t just talk about Sonia, the Indian woman who lost her pilot husband, Sue also talks about her own experience. However, while he takes up the mantle to speak for the two, he unfortunately seems to put them both in the position of the viewer. It says little to nothing about their own contribution and perception of the tragedy.

Nationalist films almost always use women in the role of wives, mothers, and sisters to advance larger plot points that let them do the talking instead of letting them do the talking. The white woman is a very clever additional tool to enhance Indian masculinity while simultaneously subordinating to the cultural superiority of the Indian woman. It’s clever because it’s a bad representation, but that’s exactly what works and is needed for the plot.

It’s like the requisite vamp placement in all Indian daily soaps, whose evil actions make practically no cohesion, but certainly make the couple look great.

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