Misrepresentation of India and The Middle East in Western Movies
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Image Credits: The Ringer
This paper will discuss the theory of Orientalism and how it exists in western movies using literary sources such as ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said and ‘A Content Analysis of the Portrayal of India in Films Produced in the West’ by Srividya Ramasubramanian as a reference base for Orientalism. For this paper I will be analyzing Orientalism in movies under two headings namely- Indian Orientalism via “Slumdog Millionaire”, and Middle-Eastern Orientalism in “Aladdin”. I will be talking about how instances of Orientalism, in the form of misrepresentation of the Indian and Middle-Eastern cultures and creating contrasting images of the East and the West, are present in western movies and how it augments the already prevailing notions among the westerners about the ‘east’ that in turn becomes a major factor as to how the western movies have a stereotypical representation of India and the Middle East, thereby creating a cycle. What I mean is that the Orientalist representation of Indian and Middle-Eastern cultures in western films solidifies Orientalist preconceptions and stereotypes in western society. This reinforcement of stereotypes in turn strengthens the Orientalist gaze in western movies, thus forming a vicious cycle.
Edward Said, one of the leading literary critics, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of the postcolonial studies, in his book Orientalism, says, “Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western-style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (Said, 1978). By West, or more specifically the Occident, we mean Europe and the United States while the other side of the coin, the Orient, consists of the Middle East, India, China, and Japan. The west is known to have looked at the east from an oriental gaze which has led to the creation of binaries like whites- non-whites, western-non western, urban-rural, industrialized- non-industrialized, developed- underdeveloped, etc. that allows them to create the distinction between the west and east which is also prevalent in western entertainment. These binaries have stemmed out of the centuries-long west’s colonizing the east, the fact that ruling over the east gave them a superiority over it, western movies that have the portrayals of the east are made based upon the very existing binaries about the east that again fill in the ideas among the western audience as to how Asia is or how it should be. Although Orientalism’s root cause is colonialism, and the fact that colonialism is generally considered to be a relic of the past, it is still in practice in the west through the movies there.
To start, the first thing I would like the reader to know is Indian Orientalism and how it has been prevalent in Western cinema. After the discovery of the sea route to India in 1498 by Vasco da Gama, the European Countries tried to establish their colonies in India due to its vast riches. The Portuguese first entered India and established their colonies. After that, the Dutch, French, and English had their colonies in India. However, at last in the game of power politics, it was the British who became successful and ruled India for almost two centuries. Over these years of Europe’s dominance over India, there was an oriental gaze that described India stereotypically. “The history of stereotypical representations of India largely dates back to colonial rule in India when the narrative accounts and photographic illustrations by missionaries, anthropologists, and government officials focused on depicting Indians as savage and uncivil simple folks.” (Ramasubramanian, 2007) India has been depicted as a mystic land. Holy superstitions, cows, spices, temples, snake trainers, and slums are a few of the words that are connected with India by the westerners, and western cinema plays a vital role in strengthening the very Orientalist gaze.
Take for example Slumdog Millionaire. The 2008 multiple Oscar awards winner movie directed by Danny Boyle was well acclaimed both commercially and critically. Having racked up around 400 million US$ in the global box office, the movie is about Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an eighteen-year-old Indian Muslim from the slums of Dharavi, and how he manages to win the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. However, Slumdog Millionaire ultimately displays a stereotypically Western notion of what Indian Culture is. The movie has vast examples of Orientalism in its purest form such as the scene of the Taj Mahal representing an iconic ‘symbol of hope to the boys after they have lost their way.
Also, the ‘slum life’ is a case inherently related to a very Indian concept and the common message of the movie, after close analysis shows that it is patronizing towards a socially, economically, and politically less developed east in contrast to the superiority of the West; there is a constant restraint towards the so-called ‘American Dream’ idea highlighted through the manipulation of powerful semiotics and the director’s strong understanding of consumer ‘psyche.’
An example of this can be seen through the scene of ‘coke bottle’ where the boys are offered Coca Cola by the gangster Maman (Ankur Vikal), who according to the boys, comes to their rescue and offers Coca Cola to Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Jamal with an association of offering a token that is so alien to them along with the assurance of a ‘better life’ that will come with it. The entire concept of the rise of the underdog is permeated via the Oriental ‘exotic’ boy breaching a position of Western capital, making our confusing and ambiguous world almost intelligible, contributing clear, readable meanings to the struggles between moral positions of duty and the lives of the slum dwellers. Another instance of Orientalism in the movie is when the boys doing fraud of shoes and money from the American tourists’ instills the stereotypical views upon viewers of Orientalism along with how Indians do business. Later in the movie, an American couple is compelled to give Jamal a one hundred dollar note after he has been beaten by an Indian man as he cries – “this is the real India,’ the couple responds by exclaiming ‘we’ll show you the real America.’
The next thing I would like the reader to know is about Orientalism in the Middle- east. The Middle East, from an Asian point of view, could be termed as the land stretching from the countries of Saudi Arabia in the west to Iran in the east. The Middle East has been the home to Arabs and originating place for their religion Islam. Edward Said talks about the Arabs being represented in the west as “gullible, “devoid of energy and initiative,” much given to “fulsome flattery,” intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the clever European grasps immediately, that roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are “lethargic and suspicious,” and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race”. (Said, 1978). The west sees the Middle East or Arabs as a rival largely due to the millennial- old kind of battle between so-called Europe’s Christianity and Arab’s Islam. In the race to declare the religious supremacy over the Arabs, the west has been exoticizing the east through the depiction of the Middle East as an exotic place of sand, Harems, Belly dancers, rich and sex-crazed Sheikhs, and terrorists, so many so that, in a way, the Orientalism on the Middle-East can be summarized as ‘Billionaires, Bombers and Belly dancers.’
The movie Aladdin serves as the perfect example that showcases Orientalism in the Middle East. The 1992 Disney flick directed by Ron Clements is no doubt among one of the best movies of the 90s. However, the movie has also been a depiction of how the Westerners
Image Credits: nybooks
think of the Arabs. The movie starts with the traditional Arab Oud melody with mise en scène of the sand and camel on which an Arab man who is shown as short, silly, dark coloured is roaming, whilst the lyrics goes “I come from a land from a far-away place, where the caravan camels roam where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Although, after much criticism by the critics, the songs lyrics were changed, but it showed just how the imagination of the Middle-East is in the West. Another element of Orientalism that can be seen in Aladdin is the representation of the character. The movie revolves around five major characters, Aladdin, the main protagonist or the Hero who is shown as a poor young man, who is dark brown in color and has no job. The Genie is a comedic Jinn who has magical powers. Jasmine, the princess of Agrabah who is shown as extremely beautiful, yet brown. The character’s original name is Badr AlBuddur but has been changed in the film adaptation to match with the westerners conceptualization of the exotic Arab woman with curvy figure decorating the Muslim Harem. The Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Agrabah who is shown as old, timid, fat and innocent. Although the generic depiction of the ruler is usually done as someone who is powerful and strong, however, the depiction of the Sultan in Aladdin reflects the west’s view of the Arab empire as something which is deteriorating. Jafar, the grand vizier of the kingdom of Agrabah who is the antagonist in the movie. He is shown to be a character driven by the want of power and is filled with hatred and jealousy toward the good. He is shown as vicious and cunning. The portrayal of the Sultan, Jafar and Jasmine is the apt representation of the 3 B’s that represent the Arab people according to the western narratives.
Orientalism was instilled in the West through the depiction of itself in the minds of the Westerners by creating comparisons with the East. As Said says, “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West).” (Said, 1978) Early European’s depictions of the east via paintings, journals, stories, artifacts, etc. aided in the creation of the east as ‘other’. This authorization of the east has done nothing but acted, over time, as catalytical in creating stereotypical portrayals of the East (here, India and the Middle-East). An average Westerner has certain misconception based on what is told to him, for example, Indians have been known to be very good at Mathematics such as Aryabhatta and Ramanujan and when the person sees that in movie, say, “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, it actually strengthens his belief that whatever he has been told is true. The same thing happens when the person is told that ‘East is barbaric’ and he/she sees instances of the same in movies depicting East as barbaric such as in “Aladdin”. That is the reason that even after it has been more than 50 years since colonialism has ceased to exist, which should eradicate Orientalism and the fact that the east has been drastically growing in comparison with the West, Orientalism is still prevailing and one of the major causes for it could be found in the Western movies stereotypically presenting the East (India and the Middle-East), acting like a vicious cycle altogether.
Said, Edward (April 16, 2003). "Orientalism".
The British Raj in India lasted from 1858-to 1947 though it started expanding its territories after the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
“What Is The First Thing That Comes To Mind When You Hear India?” India Travel Forum, https://www.indiatravelforum.in/threads/what-is-the-first-thing-that-comes-to-mind-when-you-hear-india.1266/.
“The 81st Academy Awards: 2009.” Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/2009.
Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, U.A.E., and Yemen are all countries that fall under the Asiatic part of the Middle- east.
Islam was propagated by the prophet Mohammad, who was born in Saudi Arabia.
Haider, Arwa. “Culture - 'Billionaires, Bombers and Belly Dancers'.” BBC, BBC, 15 Feb. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160215-billionaires-bombers-and-belly-dancers.
“The Problems with Aladdin: Orientalism, Casting, and Ramadan.” Medium, Medium, 28 May 2019, https://medium.com/@mastqalander/the-problems-with-aladdin-orientalism-casting-and-ramadan- 5a5bde727680.
“Princess Badr-Al-Budur.” Disneyfied, or Disney Tried?, https://dettoldisney.wordpress.com/tag/princess-badr-al- budur/.
Ashish Manav is a third-year student of International Relations at Ashoka University