October 25, 2012 by bluberie
It’s strange to see how the white man’s vision of India never changes. In spite of metropolitan and suburban India undergoing rapid changes with the ingress of western capitalist ethos, commerce, and institutions of knowledge, the Indian identity continues to be simplistically represented in western flicks as a feudal, premodern remnant that’s obsessed with snake-charmers, mendicants, women in celluloid ghaaghraas, loose livestock, cow dung, bumpy auto-rickshaw rides, faded 70s ambassadors, desi macho men, pot, and smiling, idyllic working-class vignettes. Boyd Hicklin’s Australian film, Save Your Legs (2012), is the newest addition to this multi-course Western intellectual meal that keeps interpretative colonisation of non-white lands and cultures by white minds alive.
A spicy mixture of documentary style cinematography, melodrama, romance, heroism, and misgivings about India, the film is indeed shot powerfully. Whereas its style and camera movement ask you to sit in, its content seems hell bent on pushing you out of the hall. Of note is a beautiful, mystical frame towards the end of the film in which the protagonist stands in the doorway bathed in the morning’s misty, ambient light and issues lamenting reprimands to his two pot-smoking teammates for not showing integrity as an Australian cricket team. The film’s editing seems tight too. The lighting used in it also needs to be appreciated for creating effects of personal exploration, introspection and revelation that seemingly break through the mundane and male patterns of life of its subjects. In reality though that never happens as the formula is so obviously placed and set in motion right from the beginning of the film that it never takes shape.
The narrative of Save Your Legs totally sidelines the reality of an evolving and constantly modernising Indian nation-state with merchants, businessmen, internet, ever-growing corporate professional-classes, indigenously developed automobiles and aircrafts, live-in relationships, high glass-covered towers, technological prowess, thriving and questioning intellectual elite, changing popular cultures, and oppressed but rebelling working-classes. Packed in it can be seen every shade of stereotypes of gender, class, nationality, popular culture, colour, and creed. The background music and sound, consequently, are bad. It has the loud texture of a raw and meaningless Bollywood flick. Undoubtedly done for effect, it doesn’t quite work and produces a travesty of what is supposed to be a portrayal of the great Indian experience. Jarring musical intrusions in the India-visit part of the film don’t fit in well either. One feels that the choice of these scores and their layering in the film could have been different and softer, respectively.
This predicament gets highlighted especially when one looks at what shapes both the film’s backdrop and its subject: the game of cricket. One of the biggest money churners in the world and an acutely competitive and constantly evolving industry with many forms of the game, Indian cricket is never shown in Save Your Legs in the light of its commercial standing and prowess. Sachin Tendulkar, one of the most thoroughbred professional cricketers, sporting icons and male models from India ever, is emphasized as the leading light of some kind of a let’s save our withering souls movement at the dewy-eyed point of his retirement. So sweeping is the maze of this deliberate misrepresentation and melodrama that it is easy to mistake it for some kind of a never ending comic spill. It would be fair to say that the film is out to establish a changed Indian nation as a premodern, still virgin and unspoilt orient that can be looked at as the complete, amusing and relief-providing other of Australia or the West.
While the subject of the film is the spiritual journey of a group of Australian park-cricketers, its object indeed is exploration of India and glorification of Australia or the West, the two imperatives that made Western imperialism and colonisation possible since the English and Italian Renaissances. It is in this warp that the film is cast and caught. Consequently, even after two straight losses at the hands of local Indian teams, the Australian team finally bounces back and defeats a high-profile and glamorous team of Bollywood stars. The consolation is that this beaten Indian team plays well. But the Australians play better.
A shaky, white Australian cricketer who tries to be proper by asking an Indian father about dating his daughter gets the dusky Indian-Australian girl, and the dashing Indian actor, villain as he is because of his lusty powerful eyes and better physique, gets the sock. And then he resigns himself and walks back over the steps of his fading world. Only the ancient and otherworldly Indian Hindu God, Hanuman, can thrive in the midst of this competition as his premodern charm is above modern sexual interests and is based not on conflict, but on abnegation, renunciation, self-control and faith. And all that is supposed to be India. A mascot and symbol of how the West looks at India, Hanuman in the film is also a metaphor for Sachin Tendulkar who carries a mountain of expectations on his palm every time he takes guard at the batting crease. Quite clearly, this is a sentimental oversimplification of a rather intense form of personality cult, image-making, brand promotion and marketing that modern Indians are quite adept at and comfortable doing. The Australian, therefore, as Save Your Legs would have it, has come, seen, collided, conquered, learned, known, and experienced pleasure and spiritual enlightenment. India has served its purpose, its only purpose. Naturally, celebrations need to come in at the end and a supposedly authentic Indian dance needs to take place to highlight the function of the Indian landscape as a tutoring amusement park for active and enterprising Australian or Western men.
The question of how much does this film bring Australian and Indian cultures together is best left to its audiences. After all, they are the best judges of what appeals to them and why. As far as I am concerned, I’d just say that sometimes over-the-top and arbitrary mixing and plastering of cultural differences gives birth only to repetition and reproduction of biases that have had a long history and precedent. And Save Your Legs, in my reading, detrimentally hovers over that landing-strip all the time and finally nosedives into it.
*Published in http://www.pandolin.com in October 2012