I think I might be Indian in my past life!
Maybe I truly was,
or maybe my intoxication with Indian culture hallucinates me into a bizarre and crazy belief!
Even before I stepped on the land of India, I have been fascinated by her rich and colourful culture and arts: the powerful and mesmerizing musical and dance rhythm in Bharata Natyam, the mysterious performance of Khatakali, the breath-taking beauty of Mughal arts, the unique serenity of the Buddhist statues, and of course, the amazing play of colours in Holi as well as the peaceful happiness in Diwali, both are Hindu festivals celebrating the precious human nature in the name of gods. More can be added into this list, and the most interesting is certainly the highly entertaining Bollywood films, interweaving everything artistic into a spectacular ensemble that marks the unique cultural feature of India.
Some would say that such a fantasy can never survive that actual experience of being in India. The poverty and underdeveloped social milieu scare most travellers immediately after they walk out of the airport, as we see in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which the English ladies are so shocked by whatever they see, even the air they breathe in. The reality kills the fantasy, and many would end up leaving the country with a great disappointment. That is not my experience though. The truth is every minute I spent in India only strengthens my strange love for that country and her culture, and the character’s falling in love with India in the end reminds me of how much India offered me when I was embraced by her vibrant pulse and hospitality.
The excellent acting of these brilliant actors – a retired man who grew up in India, an old lady who served a family of the high society all her life, a widow who lost almost everything due to her late husband’s wrong investment, a couple who try so hard to fake a happy marriage, an aged gold digger who still wants a rich husband, and an old man who seeks love and the rejuvenation of life – constructs a sense of reality, with which viewers are not only deeply touched, but also drawn into an imagination where they feel what human nature is through the magic of Indian culture, regardless whether the viewer truly has that actual experience of India or not. Or probably it is my personal preference and experience that make me like this film so much!
Of course, there are stereotypes, and the revelation of cultural stereotypes poses some problems as well. Even though India has not yet lifted herself from actual poverty and underdevelopment – the most obvious example is the recent massive black out that affects almost the overall Northern part of India, the film representation reinforces the already prevalent image of what India should be. This image is composed of yellowish sky with dusty air, horrible traffic, as well as a skyline of unorganized buildings, usually with a huge orange setting sun behind the wavy air. To add extra exotic flavor to this background, a bunch of dark skin children running around tourists and begging for money, even with their naïve smile, is always arranged to set off those spectacular ancient architectures standing at the back. This is the India we perceive in our mind through different kinds of mass communication in the age of World Wide Web, or understood as the age of simulacra. Is this image real? Maybe it is for my memory of India is not that different from the scenery captured by the camera lens. However, this image is not what India truly is. It is only a surface without depth that has been falsely believed as a truth.
India has so much to offer in terms of her culture, particularly a unique humanist view seeking a life of peace and love. No matter how those characters reject and deny the environment and people around them, being surrounded by those who are brought up by that specific view on life and the submersion in that culturally rich environment slowly change their views, leading them to embrace what used to horrify them and even making them willingly become a part of that country. It could be sympathy or friendship with a deeper though not complete understanding, but it is no longer exoticism, no longer a prejudice that sees people and their culture through a looking-glass. It is the characters’ sincere reception and understanding that saves the stereotypical representation from becoming a biased cultural note that is arbitrary, hostile, and superficial. Once again, great and mature acting helps this film to eschew the problem of cultural imperialism – though not totally successful – in colonialism.
One aspect is particularly interesting, and this is the story of the retired official who spent part of his life in India when he was young. Unlike all the others going there primarily for a fresh start after retirement, he goes there with a wish that has haunted him ever since he left that land. His love for India is inseparable from his love for this Indian man, and he wants his life without regret, a perfect ending in the perfect place. Such a homosexual relationship is essentially intolerable, let alone it is one between a white boy from the dominant social class and an Indian boy from a lower social stratum. Forbidden it is, so the unexpected exposure of the scandal results in the misery of the two, and the following political turmoil further complicates the issue, making their reunion an impossible dream, an eternal loss. How amazing the power of love it is! He finds the love of his life and learns about his loyalty even though he is forced to marry by the social norms. His lover loves him so deep that he had to confront his wife with the unbearable truth. Now he is ready to die, but he dies a happy man because he finds his heart again on that land of his dream.
What is special in this story of love is not the loss or reunion, but the understanding of the Indian man’s wife and her acknowledgement of love. Love brings about a deep understanding of human nature permitting her generous acceptance of her husband. The true love between two men is not that different from the love between a man and a woman in her eyes. She sees love as a natural phenomenon in terms of classical Hindu religious and philosophical perspective, a worldview she was brought up by, not a moral standard according to social norms and prejudice. Of course, not all Indians are like that, and it is more likely that most of them reject homosexuality in terms of religious doctrine, particularly those growing up in a Muslim surrounding. It is this great contrast that highlights her notions on love and life, showing not only the unique and healthy attitude to life in classical Hindu thoughts, but also a different representation of Indian culture.
Corresponding with this view of life is the warm and encouraging embracement of others in the Indian society, and it is this open embracement without preconceptions that helps the widow who has never really lived a life of her own to start bravely a new meaningful life. Through her exploration of both herself and the new environment, she slowly regains the meaning of her existence and also opens her heart again to welcome new possibilities. Indians are passionate and they are willing to help, though maybe too passionate that somehow scares those who are so used to keeping the distance. The house maid who is forced to leave her job shows that fear of being close with people, particularly people with colours. Her self-defence is a perfect example of racism, but ironically she is the one who fights for the right of the hotel owner. She would not have changed her very limited view of people and the world without that willingness to change, a change that owes its debt to the passion and care of those around her. Their embracement gradually opens her eyes to see how people really live their everyday life. When you decide to really open your eyes to see what life is, skin colours, poverty, underdevelopment, and even nationality all become nonsense. What matters only is that concern for another human being whom you care and love, whom you would try your best to help when obstacles arise, whom you know deep down would do the same to you. Now begins a beauty and wonderful friendship that goes beyond all sorts of boundaries like age, social status, and cultural barriers.
Maybe I was just lucky when I was in India, because I know there are stories from others that do not match the represented images of culture and people in this film. But it cannot be denied that good things are beautiful and they are more easily recognized in India than in most Western developed societies, a society of consumption in which human relations are reduced to the exchange of goods. Everything can be calculated in terms of monetary values, even human emotions, with a result of a cold and detached human world. The good acting of the characters reintroduces the significance of being human, but this significance would not be achieved without its being set off by the rich and vibrant Indian culture, which sees life as a journey of understanding. Peace, love, and content are the divine prizes for those who are willing and ready to pursue this journey, to become human again.