Masala — Take One: The Audience that Didn’t Count

A Review by Yasmin Jiwani

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It was an unsual site.

South Asians lined up outside of Vancouver's West End; an area defined by its proximity to the business centre, the beach, night clubs and numerous restaurants. Its an upbeat part of town, to be sure, but not one where the presence of a large number of South Asians is a taken-for-granted everyday occurence...

Those of us who are privileged enough to have the means to go and see a film, particularly a film that was part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, were in that line-up. We were there for several reasons: to support one of the few South Asians who had made it to the screen in Canada, and to see what he had brought to public attention about our realities as a marginalized community in Canada. We had already heard about the film but nothing that indicated what it was about. So we came, and we brought our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our nieces and nephews. We broughtourfriends. We wanted to show the world that we too are a capable people; that we too can produce works that can enter the festival circuit. And that we too had a story to tell. Not that South Asians don't produce films. We all know that the film industry in India churns out eight hundred films per year on the average. But this was a film made by someone who was part of the diaspora, and who we hoped would articulate some of the experiences that have structured our lives in the west.

Masala was mesmerizing as a film. It was a collage of all those symbols, traditions and ways of being that are inherent in our culture and community. It was a melange of colour and sound. It was hypnotic. It had all the requisite elements to make it a popular hit—fast pace, an engaging plot, a clear violation of expectations; it had fools and heros, gods and mortals, men and women, and most of all, violence and sex. It was as the Rungh [Vol. 1, Issues 1 & 2] article title suggests, "Leather, Sex and Masala." But it was a masala we were not prepared for. It was a masala that in the end, did to us symbolically what British colonialism had done to our ancestral land—it violated us, made a mockery of our sense of being, and betrayed us to the wider society. For it was a masala that combined the ingredients of an internalized racism mixed with a postmodernist discourse of identity, sexuality and race, all of which were re-cast in the ahistorical plane of Krishna's vision of himself and his reality. Differences dislocated from their social, cultural and economic grounding floated in the spectacular plane of unreality taking fantastic shapes and grotesque forms.

A quintessential symbol of this kind of dislocation and ahistoricism, is apparent in the filmmaker's use of the god Krishna. Disconnected from the Indian subcontinent, Krishna the god becomes an alienated being, flying aimlessly around with no notion of control, and yet seeking to fulfil the prayers of his disciples 'across the black waters.' If one were to analyze the filmmaker's psyche, the key would lie in the portrayal of this god. Deprived of his dignity, his sense of being and mission in the world, Krishna the god drifts around and visits his disciple through the electronic medium of the VCR and its complement, the TV set.

It was a masala that...did to us what British colonialism had done to our ancestral land—it violated us...

For the rest of us, who have lived in this country for 20, 30 or 50 years, or for those of us born here, the import of the VCR and television set is anchored in the cultural and social reality that surrounds us. Excluded from participation in many of the institutions in the larger society, encouraged to retain our ethnicity but only in a privatized form, we have come to rely on the technologies of communication to maintain a symbolic connection to the 'homeland.' We use these technologies to see popular Indian films; we use the TV set so we can access information about the wider society, learn how to get by, learn the symbolic rules and strategies that will enable our survival. We have turned to our own media because we are well aware of how the mainstream media casts us. We are continually bombarded with images of ourselves as a violent community; as immigrants, as refugees, as terrorists, as belonging to a 'backward tradition.' Our customs are scooped up by the western media and examined under white magnifying lenses. We become topics by virtue of our arranged marriages, our exploitation of women, our greedy merchants, and so on. Our differences are levelled by the media. We have become one in this land of white dominance.

But for Krishna, the maker of Masala, all of these things are reduced to the comic caricature of the woman who prays to the television set and who plagues her god Krishna to fulfil her wishes. Yes, religion has assumed a greater significance for us here than it did for some of us in our lands of birth. But why? Because in a hostile environment, we seek refuge in those places that will not condemn us. We cling to threads of community so that we can pull our disparate selves together—selves separated by the market-driven, colonially grounded culture we live in; selves compartmentalized by the private/ public separation that splits our being.

As for sex, Masala sought to destroy old stereotypes of South Asian women who 'didn't do it.' But what replaces those stereotypes— the women who do 'do it'? Or is it the classic representation of those women who 'do do it' as vamps? For the audience that had eagerly lined up to see this film, the sex was a major issue. As one man in the audience put it, "sex is like money, you put it in your bank account and don't tell anyone about it!" And a woman in the audience remarked, "I just want everyone here to know that not all women in the East Indian [sic] community are like that." But to the simple question that was asked (at the Vancouver screening attended by actor Saeed Jaffrey, and co-producers Srinivas Krishna and Camelia Frieberg), namely, why is there so much sex, Krishna declined to answer. Instead Saeed Jaffrey responded by saying that in marriage while women want a house, "men want a fuck." One couldn't expect a more appropriate answer from a cultural hedonist who appears to have no sense of the location of the South Asian community in Canada, or for that matter in England. But if the issue is one of sexuality, then what kind of sexuality is being celebrated? The objectification of women in Masala attests to this in more than one way. It is heterosexual relations that are being depicted; sex as an integral part of a community's code of intimate relations is rewritten; it is cast into a distinctly western mould. You have fantasies about a woman, you sleep with her, and the next day, you toss her out or she tosses you out. And while that may be the case, it is only one permutation out of a range of combinations and permutations of such relationships.

The irony is that this expression of sexuality works on a superficial level. We are led to believe that Krishna's depiction of South Asian women destroys old stereotypes of women as being asexual, or sexual only under certain, patriarchal conditions. But Masala's portrayal of sexuality merely opts for the western definition of sexual 'liberation' (if one can define it that way). In the end, one is left with the impression that all women 'do it' and hence, all women are vamps. In part, this may have been what the audience was reacting to because when the issue of sex is examined within popular Indian cinema, the depictions are clearly separated by value-laden judgements that define a woman by her actions.

We are continually bombarded with images of ourselves as a violent community...as belonging to a 'backward tradition'.

In popular Indian cinema, women are either positioned as self-sacrificing mothers, chaste, naive and romantic brides, or as the classic vamps. Violence within the framework of sexual relations is rife throughout contemporary Indian films. Given this background, the portrayal of sexuality in Masala should not have evoked such a strong response, save for one differentiating factor. Popular Indian films are consumed by and large within the community, in a privatized fashion, whereas Masala belongs to an arena that is clearly dominated by white interests and white audiences. Hence, sexual scenes in the film appeared to unveil parts of the community's code of relations, revealing the contradictions between community notions of izzat and actual social practices. But these practices were by association attributed to every woman within the film, and hence every woman within the community. At the same time, these contradictions were disclosed in a public setting—to a racist society that is quick to seize any representation that favours its interpretation of people of colour and their cultural traditions. There was no context provided, save that of Krishna's egotistical and self-centred universe.

And that is what we saw that night—Srinivas Krishna's vision—his notion of himself; his universe which is populated by greed, stupidity, mockery, and opportunism. Most people would expect just this. In fact, the current fad seems to be that filmmakers should have the unfettered right to tell their own stories and transform their vision into celluloid. Some would go even so far as to say that the very act of making a film presupposes an egocentric personality— after all you have to think that your story is worth telling in order to want to translate it into images viewed by a public at large. But this red herring is synonymous to debates about freedom of speech—a line of argument used by white supremacist Ernst Zundel and others to preach hatred against different groups. Such a freedom presupposes an equal society where everyone has the right to make the kind of statement or image they want. It presupposes that there are no structured preferences wherein one colour of skin is privileged over others. Difference in such an utopic landscape becomes just that— difference. And society becomes a cacophony of voices and visions competing in a marketplace, and accessible to all. The image is akin to the notion of this country as a mosaic wherein each part is valued as much as another.

The reality as we know it is quite different. Unequal power relations are the norm. The mosaic is in fact a hierarchy; the polyphony of sounds is in fact marred by some voices ringing louder than others, in some cases, drowning out or completely silencing yet others. Krishna's vision in Masala attempts to operate on an utopic level. The only element of unequal power relations within the film, and even this is trivialized, occurs in the incident involving racism where Krishna gets stabbed. A fitting end to a hero. The script requires thatthe hero die and it is through this great self-sacrifice that Krishna chooses his final exit. Other power relations are either repressed, neutralized or naturalized. In fact, Krishna and his alter ego, the god, are the only change agents in the film. Everyone else either remains the same, or has something done to them. They are passive agents, moved by forces around them and beyond them. They react rather than act. And of those that are permitted to act, as for example, the Sikh character, his actions are subsequently trivialized and made comical.

There is no change in Krishna's world. The South Asian community has remained the same except in the form of Srinivas Krishna. His forays into the dominant society, into street life, somehow make him the only change agent around. His leather jacket is his sign of 'being with it,' and his sexual exploits qualify him not only as hero but also as the modern renegade who seeks to dissolve a part of himself that he hates—his own Indianness. He is reminiscent of Kipling in this kind of ambivalence, for Kipling too hated the "Indian" part of himself. However, if we subscribe to Krishna's vision of the world, external change is impossible, the system just goes on. And change when it does occur, occurs only in the microcosmic plane of interpersonal relations, and within limited parameters, e.g. the women who 'do do it'.

This aside, what is more problematic about Krishna's vision is its location in this society. As the voice that has made it into the public arena, and as a voice from an otherwise silenced minority, it acquires 'the burden of representation.' Masala has the dubious distinction of being the only popular Canadian film that speaks about the realities of South Asians in this country. It is in fact thrust into the role of the reluctant ambassador; a position that many of us find ourselves in as we try to contest the definitions and stereotypes that the white society around us imposes on us. And as this reluctant ambassador, Masala does us more harm than good. If we did indeed have a cacophony of voices, then Masala would be an irrelevant film that one could either dismiss or commend only on the basis of its superb cinematic technique. But unfortunately, what we do have in the newly emerging tradition of South Asian diasporic films, (within North America), are basically those films that focus on the young male immigrant (e.g. Lonely in America, Sam and Me), and those films that confuse the issues of racism and ethnocentrism (e.g. Mississippi Masala), thereby giving more ammo to those that oppose our presence here.

As a marginalized community, South Asians in Canada have had their share of sufferation, (as the Rastas would say it). We have been maligned in the press, mocked, ridiculed, dismissed, and at one point, denied any rights. As immigrants and refugees, we have been told to be thankful to this great and benevolent land, notably to its white powers. But we haven't forgotten that even as refugees, those of us who were allowed into this country were 'the cream of the crop'— neither have we forgotten that the colonial destabilization of our economies in the homeland, and the destabilization of regimes in our lands of birth, have contributed to our diaspora. Our 'choice' to be here is a choice predicated on constraints and situations beyond our control. The last thing we need is one of 'us' to condemn us yet again; and Krishna, by virtue of his colour, his culture, his positioning in this society as a racial minority, is one of us. This is about the only truism that Masala imparts to its audience: that the racism out there is what makes us turn inward; it socially constructs us as a racialized minority. And whether he likes it or not, whether he has a leather jacket or not, Srinivas Krishna is a South Asian, and as a South Asian, he just trashed his culture in a public arena which has no sympathy for the South Asian reality. As with the discourse of the mainstream media, Masala reduces us to a monolith, our differences become merely inflections in the great mix of symbols, customs and traditions; a mere fragment in the tiered mosaic that is Canada; we are one dimensional yet again.

Outside the theatre, throngs stood around discussingthe film. White people milled around trying to find a group they could join. They wanted to understand why the film was so offensive to us; they wanted to discuss its rich texture; its melange of images; and its message. We stood around awkwardly. There was so much we wanted to say and yet were reluctant to say. We had witnessed the manner in which the filmmaker arrogantly dismissed those who had the initiative to say something. Some of us were plain floored by the explicit sexuality. The film verged on being soft porn. Others among us were outraged. Having seen the manner in which objections were neutralized, we were at a loss in terms of how to vent our frustrations and anger; we felt voiceless.

Still people stood around, waiting it seems for the filmmaker to make another appearance. When Krishna stepped out, nobody did anything. They just didn't know what to say. Slowly, the crowd began to thin out, and people ambled back to their cars and homes. We knew we were an audience that just didn't count! It didn't matter that the grist for the image-making mill had been our culture, traditions and our ways of seeing the world, and that all this had been appropriated by one opportunistic filmmaker to make a name for himself. We were once again, the background and the props, just like a James Bond film, or one of Indiana Jones's adventurous exploits.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Yasmin Jiwani
Yasmin Jiwani is a cultural worker, a writer and a student of Communications in Vancouver.
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