Posted Aug 25, 2010 in Arts | 0 Comments

Blackface at Fantasia Bollywood tribute

Marc Lamothe (aka DJ XL5), the creator of Fantasia’s Bollywood Zappin’ party, is a multimedia artist, and one of the directors of the Fantasia Film Festival. I went to the show hoping for an entertaining evening. What I got to witness instead was a botched up job full of clumsy snippets taken from random mainstream Indian films from the last six decades, along with song and dance numbers performed by white kids in blackface.

The first film collage started with Amir Khan’s drag performance in Ashutosh Gowariker’s 1995 film Baazi. The clip got roaring laughter from the audience, however it was never revealed that the leading lady was actually a man in drag. At this point, the line between respectful representation and cheap farce was being crossed.

In the next segment, about twenty young white actors in t-shirts, jeans and blackface makeup (that really just looked dirty more than anything else), started lip syncing and dancing to an Indian film song. Their attire was extremely shabby. I saw a few South Asian audience members get up and leave.

The second set of clips happened to be from mostly the same movies chosen for nothing more than shock value. A clip from a movie where Amitabh Bachan slaps actress Neelam across the face a few times received much audience applause. The films concentrated on a handful of stars like Amitabh Bachan, Akshay Kumar, Amir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan. There was no mention of the actresses, directors or writers. Almost entire film trailers were used with no contextualization or explanation of image juxtaposition. There were two distinct clips of South Indian actor Kamal Hassan in black face regalia – afro wig and all. Clips of Rajnikanth and his little dancing dwarf were repeated along with fat Indian celebrities making it with voluptuous young women. The whole shtick got very tiresome.

The Indian film industry is a thriving enterprise with hundreds of state produced films commonly called “art films.” Mr. Lamothe makes the false assumption that Bollywood is the “cinema of India,” even though many Indian filmmakers take exception to the term Bollywood, as it is a pejorative comparison to Hollywood. Lamothe also claims that the Bollywood films are “Moulin Rouge-inspired” when it was in fact Moulin Rouge that was inspired by Bollywood.

Reductionism is abundant in mass media and Hollywood. It is no surprise that people will laugh at the “other’s” expense. Race always makes those at the giving end a kick for their buck. I pointed out to Mr. Lamothe that blackface theatrics were not only in very bad taste but were also racist. Lamothe explained to me that his intentions were noble. He wanted to pay homage to Indians. I think that indeed may be the case, however, reducing a people and their culture into such essentialist caricatures takes away their dignity and agency, besides being insulting. Lamothe explained to me that he “ha[s] no Indian friends,” and I told him that there were many Indian performers of Kathak, Bharatnatyum or Bollywood dance, as well as trained actors, that work with companies like Teesri Duniya in Montreal. He told me he hadn’t looked for them at all, apparently because he did not see the point, since anyone in blackface can do it just as well. But does one have to know South Asians in order to know that it is not alright to caricature them?

With Bollywood Zappin, Lamothe and his contemporaries seem to view Indian film and culture as a monolith. In his interpretation, Indians seem no more than a bunch of ill-trained brown clowns singing and dancing nonsensically to much Western comic relief. There is no dignity in this mockery.

When is black face alright? Never!

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