The Mimic and the Multicultural: Two Indian Films
For its continued success, the colonial project depends on preserving a fixed framework of social and cultural meaning. A fluid and dynamic cultural landscape is inhospitable to colonization and exploitation—for the oppressive colonial machine to operate with maximum efficiency, the constituent parts must remain firmly in place. To maintain and ensure control, the colonizing culture seeks to preserve a desired set of cultural meanings. In turn, this preservation must be accomplished through a projection and reflection of cultural identity. In order to fix its own cultural meaning, the colonial relates itself to the colonized culture by way of the framework of Own and Other, of Occident and Orient. By setting up and perpetuating this structure of meaning, the colonial culture keeps a certain distance from the culture being colonized, keeping the cultural landscape in a continual stasis. The presentation of one culture as centered and the other as marginal, when coupled with the mechanisms of political and economic control, tends to prevent any natural exchange of cultural information. It is an enormously powerful ideological move, because its purpose does not lie outside itself—its means simply are its end. Cultural conservatism is the natural ideological choice for any colonizing group attempting to perpetuate its dominance.
Although this paradigm holds for all processes of colonization, with respect to the English colonization of India the colonizing culture may have been particularly conservative. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book The Discovery of India, calls the English colonizers “conservatives representing the most reactionary social class in England” (qtd. in Chakravarty 26). In imposing their socioeconomic and cultural practices on India, they “encouraged and consolidated the position of the socially reactionary groups in India and opposed all those who worked for social change” (Chakravarty 26).
The ideology of cultural projection and reflection that characterizes the colonial stage and early stages of decolonization and postcoloniality manifests itself in a variety of forms. One such form, which has received great attention from the postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, is the idea and practice of mimicry. Mimicry in the relevant sense may be briefly defined as occurring when colonized subjects imitate colonial ideas and practices without significant revision or reinscription. Bhabha has written extensively on mimicry’s crucial early role in the development of the postcolonial situation. Bhabha sees mimicry as an aspect of the process of cultural projection and reflection instigated by the colonizers for the purpose of self-preservation—mimicry is a servant of stasis. Mimicry can take root in various soils, whether it arises from the wholehearted acceptance of the colonizing culture or the grudging concession to technological, economic, and military power. The situations of particular colonized subjects does not interest the colonizing force, whose broad projections of meaning are designed to define the colonized people as a collective Other.
A particular scene in Ketan Mehta’s 1985 film Spices, set during pre-Independence India, gives a powerful display of cultural mimicry in action. Naseerruddin Shah plays the Subedar, one of the many traveling tax collectors employed by the colonial government during this time. The Subedar’s position of authority permits him to mistreat and abuse the village people he encounters on his duties. Because of his perceived power, the villagers live in fear and some awe of the Subedar. In the scene in question, the Subedar bedazzles an audience of local villagers by playing a record on a phonograph. While the music plays, the astounded villagers speculate that magic or trickery is at work. They are awestruck by the phonograph and seem almost worshipfully enamored of it.
The cultural and power relations evident in the phonograph scene revolve around the idea of mimicry, with the phonograph itself as the most potent symbol. The phonograph represents the Own, the Occident: it is a symbol of technological power and cultural superiority. Most of all, the Subedar, who seems to occupy such a different cultural position in relation to the village men, himself buys into the process of mimicry by harnessing the phonograph’s maximal utility as a tool of cultural identification. His mastery of the Western technological item places him above his audience. The Subedar sees himself as superior to the village bumpkins, and his phonograph is to him a way of representing that authority. But this superiority is ephemeral and ultimately insignificant when related to the broader cultural landscape that places the European at the Center and all other cultures as marginal and second-rate. For the Subedar, the phonograph is a false symbol. It points behind the mimetic grandstanding of the Subedar to the source of his power—that is, colonial authority. In attempting to utilize the phonograph as a totem of his own cultural superiority, the Subedar is endorsing the static, projected framework of the English colonizers. As much as any of the villagers and subordinates he abuses and browbeats, the Subedar is a mimic and a victim of the colonial project.
While Spices is set in pre-Independence rural India, Mira Nair’s 2002 film Monsoon Wedding takes place in contemporary Delhi. Although the two films are worlds apart visually and thematically, one can detect themes of postcoloniality. The two films represent India in different stages on the trajectory of postcoloniality. According to Bhabha, mimicry is a necessary precursor to later forms of cultural negotiation, for which he uses terms like “plural” and “hybrid.” So, instead of the evident mimicry of one culture by another that we see in Spices, Monsoon Wedding gives us something new—an Indian identity that has passed through the era of mimicking Western culture and has emerged as a novel hybrid. An obviously evident instance of this hybridized cultural landscape appears in the language used by the characters of the film. The characters in Monsoon Wedding bounce back and forth between Hindi, English, and Panjabi as befits the occasion. Nair depicts this linguistic plurality as a completely natural phenomenon—as a cultural practice, it arises naturally out of the postcolonial condition. English, the “language of the conquerors,” has been absorbed into Indian culture, reformulated through the process of decolonization, and reasserted. All these processes are gradual and indiscrete; one could hardly draw an artificial line and point to the moment mimicry stops and hybridity begins.
- Bhabha, Homi K., ed. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990.
- Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Chakravarty, Sumita. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987. Delhi: Oxford U.P., 1998.
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