Tuesday, February 03, 2004

In the recent futuristic flick, "Matrix Revolutions", we saw 3 Indian characters. The featured Indian family didn't have much of a role to play, but what matters is that they were there. The characters spoke of the Indian views of creation, karma & destiny. And to top it all, the film ended with the chanting of the Sanskrit verse "Asatoma Sadhgamaya" from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This made one think of how many more such Indian characters have appeared in English films & books exposed to the Western world thus far. What follows is an assorted list of Indian characters which have appeared so far in international literature & films.

Not long before the above mentioned last part of the Matrix trilogy, came a film (it was an utter flop alright) named "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". It had Nasirudeen Shah playing Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo was the Indian Prince of Bundelkund as created by Jules Verne. He makes appearances in Verne's "The Mystery Island" & in also in his more famous "20000 Leagues Under The Sea". In the film, he is shown worshipping the fiery Kali & navigates his huge submarine "Nautilus", with a big linga on its stern.

Talking of lingams, Arthur C Clarke had Dr. Sivasubramanian Chandrasegaram Pillai wearing one onto his neck. Dr. Chandra is one of the main characters in Clarke's Space Odyssey series and is the inventor of the robot HAL. This super intelligent robot autopilots the humans half the way across the Solar system to Jupiter & beyond. (Dr Chandra comments once that HAL means Heuristic ALgorithm and not one step ahead of IBM as everyone thinks!)

Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi", winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2002, had Piscine Molitor Patel as its hero. Pi came from Pondicherry and was the son of a zoo keeper. The much hyped J K Rowling's Harry Potter series too features Indian children as attending school at Hogwarts along with Harry. Parvati & Padma Patil the Indian twins, aren't given as much space as the Weasly twins of George & Fred, but still they make timely appearances again and again through out the series.

Cartoons and comics too are increasingly being considered a part of modern literature. In the widely famous Dilbert strip, Scott Adams has the character named Asok, an engineer from IIT. Here are some of Asok's humble quotes - "Luckily I'm an IIT graduate, mentally superior to most people on Earth", "I'm trained to only sleep on national holidays". And sample this : "At the Indian Institute of Technology, I learned to use my huge brain". "But I try not to frighten ordinary people with any gratuitous displays of mental superiority". "For example, I no longer reheat my tea by holding it to my forehead and imagining fire."

Speaking of cartoons, we had an Indian cartoon character much much before Dilbert's Asok. Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Books" was adapted by Walt Disney and made into a wonderful classic that any child would love to watch. Mouglee & his animal friends, with their sweet rhyming songs have enjoyed equal status with Mickey & Donald of the generations past. Kipling, though English, spent most of his life in India. And his "Kim", which was about an adolescent Anglo-Indian boy vividly captures the living styles of India at the turn of the twentieth century.

Some old films too have to be mentioned here. We had this tough Sikh Gobinda, played by Kabir Bedi, weilding his sword against Ian Fleming's 007 in "Octopussy". Also, tennis ace Vijay Amritraj made a guest appearance in the film, as the story passed through India. The other cult hero next only to Bond, Indiana Jones, had to fight Mola Ram, played by the good old baddie of Bollywood Amrish Puri in "Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom".

Fifty years ago, we had R K Narayan as the widely popular Indian novelist known to the West. And now, we have many writers of Indian origin, like V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhathi Roy, Khuswant Singh and others who are writing books about the one billion plus strong Indian diaspora spread across the world. If it was R K Narayan in literatue, it was Satyajit Ray in cinema those days. After Ray, film makers like Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Shekhar Kapoor, Mira Nair, Nagesh Kukunoor, Deepa Mehta and others have made the Indian genre of films well known. Even regional directors like Kasaravalli & Adoor are acknowledged in film societies worldwide. Not to mention the Bollywood musicals, which have found their mark too. The West and the world in general, is finally taking note of the Indian presence. And it will be no wonder that we will continue to see more and more of this Indianness being represented in international cinema and literature in the years to come.

(Dec 16, 2003)