Continuing with Hollywood movies about India that educated the West, here is another from the early 1980’s.
- Release date: 10 June 1983
- Box Office Revenue: $187 million
- Ranking: #3 Worldwide for 1983, #6 in the US in 1983
- Other top movies of 1983: Return of the Jedi, Scarface, Risky Business, Terms of Endearment
While the target audience for James Bond is quite large, the UK has always had a special relationship with India. They have built-in stereotypes that come from generations of eating Indian food and buying medicine from Indian pharmacists. (As opposed to Americans, who first need to be convinced that India actually exists.)
So would a film that features a British hero naturally be a better source of knowledge about India? We’ll see.
James Bond and India
No one ever claimed James Bond to be an ambassador for cultural understanding. As long as there are guns and beautiful women involved, he can adapt to any environment.
Luckily for him, India seems to be filled with both.
In Octopussy, Bond is sent to Udaipur to investigate the death of a fellow agent, when he uncovers a jewelry smuggling operation that turns out to be a front for starting a nuclear war (by the Russians, of course).
The most ‘Indian’ scene is an exciting chase in souped-up auto rickshaws through an Indian bazaar filled with fire breathers, hot coal walkers, sword swallowers, snake charmers, and a man laying on a bed of nails – all things the British would have believed existed on every street in India. Like The Temple of Doom, there is also the obligatory gross-out scene where Bond is served a stuffed sheep’s head and the villain eats the eye.
Is it offensive?
As I was watching this movie, I didn’t have quite the same slightly disturbing feelings as when I watched The Temple of Doom. This film seemed more harmlessly and fantastically stereotypical, rather than negative like Indiana Jones. It didn’t seem like any Indian characters were being shown in a particularly bad way.
Then I realized that there basically weren’t any Indian characters. It was just a classic James Bond film with a few background scenes changed.
The main villains are an Afghan (portrayed by a French actor), and a Russian general. The leading ladies are both tall, fair, Swedish women. (Not that any culture should have to beg to allow its women as Bond girls.) All the Indian hotels and islands are filled with gorgeous white women in bikinis.
The only Indian roles of any significance are the Sikh bodyguard, Gobinda (the ‘henchman’ role like Jaws or Oddjob), and a cameo feature from Vijay Amritraj, the famous Indian tennis player from Chennai (who actually does a great job before his character is killed off). The only other Indian roles are of typical, poorly trained assassins.
A James Bond Experience vs. an Indiana Jones Experience
While not as obviously offensive as The Temple of Doom, James Bond’s offense of omission might be an even greater sin. More common than actively offending Indians is the pervasive attitude that they are not even there. A silent one billion majority that will quietly walk in the background while we do the important work.
Without trying to take the analogy too far, these movies typify two very common experiences foreigners have with India. To have a Temple of Doom experience is to offend the culture so badly that people get worked up. See Richard Gere, the US diplomat who referred to Tamilians as being ‘dirty and dark’, or the other US diplomats who were deported for making racist comments on Facebook.
Yet, even more foreigners have a James Bond experience. Everything is the same except for a few background images. Gated communities, long brunches at hotels, drivers for cars, and fantastic vacations can insulate people from the realities of India. (The same might often be said of Wealthy Indians.) Also like Bond, when things get tough, they leave a trail of bodies (or relationships), and jump on the next plane home.
Both Temple of Doom and James Bond experiences can be detrimental to both outsiders and Indians. Which do you think is worse?