The temptress, schemer & the giant: foreigners in old Bollywood and our cultural anxieties

Growing up, three foreigners were prominent in Bollywood, mostly in negative roles. A look at their typical roles is revealing about the Indian view of ourselves and why these roles were best essayed by foreigners.

Tom Alter – the scheming angrez.

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Born and brought up in India, Tom was an FTII alumnus. He brought alive the character historical stories had painted for us about the colonial rulers. Ruthless, scheming & exploiting the innocent, defenseless Indians. He didn’t always need to play a British officer, the ‘gora’ appearance was enough to trigger those associations in our minds.

Much later, the character of Capt Russel in Lagaan brought alive the same archetype of the ruthless & cunning angrez exploiting the innocent Indians.

Bob Christo – the intimidating giant.

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The hulk of Bollywood from Australia, Bob always played the bad guy. He represented our complexes stemming from the imposing physique of foreigners compared to the much more modest Indian body. Historically, defeats in wars and subsequent domination caused much emasculation in our psyche. Defeating the physically superior gora was an important way of reclaiming masculinity.

Though bad guys with intimidating physical presence have also projected ‘Africans’ in Bollywood, but the lack of any historical reference vis a vis India meant such characters did not strike a chord the way a gora like Bob did.

Helen – the bad woman.

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The role of a vamp in Hindi cinema was to be everything the ideal Indian woman was not to be. Smoking, drinking & most importantly expressing her sexuality through her dancing. India’s freedom struggle involved creating an identity for what an ideal Indian woman would be. Helen therefore provided not just titillation, but also an example of what was ‘bad’. Her death in most movies underlined what fate our cultural stories deemed fit for such characters.

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So it’s interesting to see developments in modern Bollywood as a contrast to the above. The heroine is far more open about her ‘sexiness’, ending the careers of vamps. The heroes are flaunting their beefed-up bodies. While scheming is often heroic in a cool way.

All three, perhaps a sign of us having thrown off the baggage of innocence of the earlier era and coming of age.


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