Witty Indian Film Incites Complaints

FILM: INTERVIEW

`FOR various reasons," says Indian screenwriter Arundhati Roy, "the third world is not allowed to laugh at itself, or in general." That's why, she explains, her new film "Electric Moon" has received such a divided response here.

At the Bangalore International Film Festival, where the film opened earlier this year, critics blasted Ms. Roy and director Pradeep Krishen "for using foul Indian language, for portraying a certain lifestyle which would harm tourism in India, and for generally showing India in a poor light," according to a news account of a press conference the filmmakers gave at the festival. "Is 'Electric Moon' Rude to Indians?" wondered one ensuing headline.

But critics also called the film the funniest at the festival. One heralded Roy and Mr. Krishen for "creating a new idiom for the Indian filmmaker." This is their third collaboration, and both of their previous films have won awards at film festivals in India. Western audiences may be familiar with one of the picture's stars, Roshan Seth - whose credits include "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Gandhi."

"Electric Moon" is set in an exclusive jungle lodge run by former members of India's landed aristocracy who are marketing their version of pre-independence India. On the walls of the main bungalow are pictures of the young maharajah at boarding school in England. There are mustachioed, turbaned bearers and tiger expeditions. The atmosphere is exotic and the satire thick. Tourists come from Europe and the United States to exchange hard currency for this adventure. But then a newly arrived bureaucrat begin s to make life difficult for the maharajah and his brother and sister.

As Roy says, the characters in the film are not sympathetic figures. The lodge owners are cynical, the tourists are either simpering or dissolute, and the bureaucrat is conniving. This gives rise to the charge, which Roy repeats with glee and pride, that the film does not show India "in the proper light."

THE film's critics also point out that the movie was largely financed by Britain's Channel 4 and is intended for foreign audiences. Channel 4 is planning a theatrical release for the film in Britain and is looking for a US distributor. It's unlikely the film will get much theatrical play here, however, since India's commercial houses are largely given over to the low-art, high-entertainment products of the Bombay film industry.

Roy isn't interested in portraying her country as a nation of noble figures struggling against the colonial legacy and poverty. "I belong to a generation that has never known British domination, so I have never felt racism," she says. "And I belong to a class which is totally privileged."

"Electric Moon" isn't a light comedy, either, despite the filmmakers' refusal to work within the traditional framework of the so-called serious Indian film. Roy's treatment of the "business of culture" is an exploration of class and race: She calls the tourists "whites" and the Indians "blacks" in talking about the movie and how those issues affect the interaction of cultures. The choice of setting, for a movie about cultural cohabitation, was easy, she says. "Tourism is where everything comes down to it s crudest."

Roy says crossed cultures define her generation. She is often asked why her English is so good, when it is her mother tongue. When she leaves the house in the morning, she has to make a cultural choice whether to wear a sari or her bicycle shorts.

The humor of the film seems to have especially offended some critics. But Roy responds: "The saddest things about some things in India is that they're so funny. It's a humor deeper than sadness."

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