Remember Ahab the Arab, the popular Tin Pan Alley song about a mule-like Arab shiekh with flowing robes and a stubborn camel? That was back in the fifties just before the Beatles’ reinvention of India as a sanctuary for the spiritually starved. In many ways that Sgt. Pepper reincarnation of India still holds firm in the imaginations of tortured artistes - the Uma Thurmans, Demi Moores, and Alanis Morissettes - artistes that can only cope with their lot in life after wading in the Ganges. Thank you India indeed.
India is not all that mystical. We should know. We’re right next door. Besides, as it transitions from dot-qaum to dot-com, the image of India as panacea to all of one’s existential woes is an increasingly tired one. Gone are the days when Indians appeared as mystical characters, like the ghostly pundit in David Lean’s horrendous Passage to India.
While India retains its rank as an exotic, sparkling gem, Pakistan is finding its way into Hollywood screenplays as a festering, radioactive germ. Pakistani characters in Americana serve as the other; the menacing and marginalised.
Pakistan is evoked in a number of action-packed, enemy-requiring, faux-heroic sagas where the Pakistani becomes a convenient villain. Think Rambo 3and its slew of paan-spitting, cannabis-smoking, gun-toting characters. Or last year’s Vertical Limit and its pernicious Pakistani army man who orders an attack on Indian territory up North exclaiming, “It’s time to wake the Indians.”
DreamWorks’ first ever film The Peacemaker involved Pakistan in its convoluted George Clooney-fends-off-nuclear-terrorism plot. The nuclearisation of Pakistan also earned her a mention in Tomorrow never dies,a recent instalment in the lady slaying James Bond franchise. Such glowing representations leave the Pakistan lover shaken and stirred.
Channel Four’s stirring Traffik chronicled the drug trade between Pakistan and England. The tele-film was a no-holds-barred expose that had Pakistani characters swallowing balloons full of heroin and waddling across the continents.
Asians haven’t had it any better either. Before Michelle Yueh kung fu-ed her way into James Bond’s heart, the Asian woman was merely a fetishised, sexualised object. Think Kubrick’s ham handed Full metal jacket and the line that will not die: Me luff you long time. Polanski’s noveau-noir Chinatown imbues all that is culturally and linguistically indecipherable with a sense of menace. “Chinatown,” the film’s protagonist Gittes says, is where “anything goes.” Gittes’ inability to understand the LA district and its denizens hampers all objectivity and the district appears a nebulous, morally grey area.
While Pakistanis remain mired in stereotypes, Asians and Indians having migrated to meatier jobs. By virtue of their talent, filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur, Ismail Merchant, and M Night Shyamalan have furnished Western audiences with a revamped Indian image. Portrayal of expats/ex-Paks (take your pick), in spite of gross stereotyping, can sometimes still strike a cord at a fundamental human level.
Richard Linklater’s Suburbia is a version of Sartre’s hell set in a small, lifeless American town. In it, a young Pakistani couple that runs a mom and pop convenience store and gas station finds itself the target of racist slurs. The young man (played by Ujay Naidu) is working to put himself through college in the hope of living the American dream. When the guns come out and a midnight brawl ensues, Pakeeza (Samia Shoaib, a Pakistani filmmaker who also appears in Sixth Sense and Requiem for a Dream), his saried wife scolds him, “ kyoon laye ho tum idhar hum ko, kya zaroorat thi?” [Why have you brought us here, what was the need?]
Misrepresenting the other is not only a Caucasian trait. Bollywood and Lollywood are equally (if not more) crass in their depictions of the gora saab. Comic representations of desis persist in the tradition of Peter Sellers and his Indic turn in The Party. Apu, the Kwik-e-Mart owner in The Simpsons elicits laughter because he stands in contrast to the older Indian character. Characters like Tracey Ullman’s Pakistani security guard at JFK perhaps seem abrasive and harsh because there are fewer (if any) real life Pakistanis in the American experience who can offset such depictions.
This article was published in Friday Times on June 23, 2001. I noticed that for every simple thing, Pakistan authors compare them with India. This is one of such articles.