“So this is where we learned about India.”
I had just returned to the US for a visit and decided to watch a movie during some downtime. I chose Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because I vaguely remembered it being set in India. It was the first time I had seen it since I was six and my mother forced me to shut my eyes during the ‘heart removal’ scene. (Thanks, Mom.)
Watching it later in life, with a few years of living in India behind me, all sorts of things started to make sense. Stereotypes, generalizations, cultural attitudes – all nicely packaged in a blockbuster adventure.
One thing I am always amazed at is the lack of knowledge that people in the West have about ‘real’ India. Whether they see it as a land of snake charmers and turbans (1980s) or one big call center (2000s), these perceptions seem to stick. After watching Steven Spielberg’s movie, I figured out how they’ve gotten stuck in most of our minds.
So, I thought it would be fun to go back and analyze a few movies about India from the last forty years that have served as ‘educators of the masses’ for people who have never been to India. I’ve started with the big blockbusters that would have been seen by a majority of movie-watchers.
Let’s start with Indy.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Release Date: 23 May 1984
- Box Office Revenue: $333 million
- Ranking: #1 worldwide in 1984, #3 in the US in 1984, #86 all time
- Other top movies in 1984: Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, The Terminator, A Passage to India
If there was one movie that set the standard for how Americans thought about India from 1985-2000, this is it. It’s probably not a stretch to say that if someone is over 35 and has never been to India, most of their perceptions and generalizations were cemented after seeing this movie…unfortunately.
As far as action movies go, The Temple of Doom is a fun thriller. But when it comes to learning about India, it’s pretty horrible. For all the discussion about Indians being #Thinskinned, I feel some backlash against this movie is pretty justified.
The film is set in the 1930s during the British Raj. Indiana Jones literally falls from the sky into northern India. He finds some poor villagers who are mysteriously losing their children, and they beg Indy to retrieve their sacred stone that will fix everything. He then embarks on a quest through corruption, greed, human sacrifices, child labor, black magic trances and, of course, a collapsing rope bridge.
If you knew nothing of India before watching the film, you could easily deduce that there are 3 types of Indians:
- Helpless, ignorant, superstitious farmers
- British puppets
- Weird, power-hungry maniacs who eat monkey brains, worship stones, sacrifice humans, and practice voodoo in their spare time
If you think this is being a little harsh or ‘It’s just a movie!’, be aware that some US school teachers even taught some of these things as truth in classes. Yes, it’s a fantasy adventure movie, but it also serves as the only interaction with India that most people had during that time.
The movie was initially banned in India for ‘depiction of Indian stereotypes’. Even Steven Spielberg has said that, looking back, he doesn’t care for the film very much. Many writers have commented on its inaccurate depiction of India (read here and here).
“Never mind that anyone with some education and a little common sense should have been able to see how absurd these propositions were the filmmakers correctly assumed that they wouldn't. Given both the relative youth of the audience and the colossal global ignorance about India in those days, the Indiana Jones view of India was swallowed without challenge by cinegoers around the world.”
But alas, that’s the power of movies.
This movie came out at a time when we (would like to believe we) were much less culturally sensitive in the US. It was appropriate and expected to have the American guy come in and save the helpless Asians from the evil ones. If only there had been a Nazi reference, it would have been perfect. Or at least a Russian one…but we’ll leave that for the next film.
While movies are not the ideal way to experience India, if this is the only one you’ve ever seen, please appreciate the fanfare, and then watch a different one.
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