Indian-Australian cinema: a new path or a safe bet?

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Indian-Australian cinema: a new path or a safe bet?
Zenia Starr

Are we witnessing the birth of a cinema about the Indian diaspora in Australia? Or is crossover cinema more than just about the diaspora?

Do audiences create ‘film genres’ or do ‘genres’ create audiences? When a genre spawns its great films and stars, critics and fans may find it necessary to trace the origins of a style or a movement or an art. But otherwise it might be hard—and pointless—to separate one from the other, and look for what came first, and how a ‘genre’ took shape. Words like ‘genre’ might blind one to bigger or more complex developments as they manifest in films or other cultural activities.

It was not long ago that Indian filmmakers and actors in Australia felt frustrated at the lack of diversity or opportunities in the Australian film industry. A common lament is that there were/are no scripts or roles true to the everyday experiences in a multicultural society. Perhaps these feelings of frustration are the signs of a growing audience in need of its own films and stars. When filmmakers and actors clamour for change, perhaps they are not trying to be part of Australian cinema so much as they are demanding a new ‘genre’ or new cinema.

“The present day Indian-Australian co-productions are part of that larger continuum and ever-expanding cosmopolitan outlook of Bollywood and the Indian diaspora”

It could be that there are cultural ‘genres’ that fulfil the needs of audiences accustomed to seeing a certain type of Australia or America, a type that can accommodate only so much change and diversity if it is to preserve its form, both in art and in life. Perhaps we are accustomed to seeing, onscreen, a form of life, a culture, a society, that we’d like to believe is the real thing, and the other details, like diversity, multiculturalism etc, are just minor details.

This could be why actors or directors cannot create change even when they are part of a film industry like Australia’s film industry; perhaps this could be why Indian filmmakers sometimes shy away from Indian stories and adapt to formulaic themes and stories that seem to work well in a particular cultural milieu; perhaps it could be why stories have to be sanitised and made palatable to an imaginary Australian audience.

Whatever the many meanings and hidden yearnings of the demands for diversity or change may be, there are definite signs of an emerging Indian-Australian film industry. It may be nowhere near becoming a ‘genre’, yet this Indian-Australian cinema shows every sign of an awareness of a growing audience in Australia, India and beyond.

Bollywood Diplomacy
Writing in the Conversation last year, Melbourne academic Amit Sarwal says that the growing Indian diaspora in Europe, America, Australia, Africa and in several countries in Asia has helped “realise what we might think of as Bollywood’s cultural diplomacy project”.

Sarwal’s article says, “Switzerland, USA, UK, Mauritius, South Africa, Canada, Dubai, and Singapore have all been leaders in attracting Bollywood film-makers. The present day Indian-Australian co-productions are part of that larger continuum and ever-expanding cosmopolitan outlook of Bollywood and the Indian diaspora”.

“Melbourne’s Pallavi Sharda is a known Australian actress who made it into Bollywood. Another promising new actor is Sydney’s Zenia Ann Starr. What makes Zenia’s work interesting so far is that she has acted in Australian, Indian as well as Australian-Indian films”

For many filmmakers and actors this is the right place and the right time to be in Australia. It’s almost as if the frustrations actors and filmmakers faced in recent times have been forgotten as they wake up to the exciting possibilities of this new kid on the block. And it’s not just cross-cultural or transnational or multicultural films that seem to be on the horizon, but a new wave of potential stars. The story might be something like this: Bollywood discovered Australia, and then filmmakers from Bollywood started moving to Australia, and now the traffic looks set to be two-way in more ways than one.

Talent spotters, beauty pageants, and an Australia-India Film Fund are among a few agencies at work to get this cross-cultural venture a big audience. And it already has its own list of promising beginnings including films like Taj and My Cornerstone.

Sarwal’s article in the Conversation says that Indian-Australian Bollywood entrepreneur Anupam Sharma is credited with more than 200 co-production projects between the two countries. Add to this list the work of others like Raj Suri, Ana Tiwary, Vikrant Kishore and others to get an idea of the potential scale of this cross border venture in cinema and culture and one can’t help but get the feeling of an important movement taking shape. It may be that this Indian-Australian cinema has a long way to go before it realises its ambitions of global prestige and audiences. Support for this cinema and nascent industry is gaining ground with Australian tourism bodies and other institutions using Indian and/or Bollywood themes and stars to promote Australian interests.

Many young Australian actors from an Indian background are working in Bollywood or looking at Bollywood as a career option not just as actors but as Australian actors. Melbourne’s Pallavi Sharda is a known Australian actress who made it into Bollywood. Another promising new actor is Sydney’s Zenia Ann Starr. What makes Zenia’s work interesting so far is that she has acted in Australian, Indian as well as Australian-Indian films.

My Cornerstone is the first Australian Indian crossover film. The film is about a beautiful Indian nurse who secures a healthcare position in Australia through an employment agent in India. She arrives in Sydney to work for a wealthy Indian-Australian family. Adina’s job is to care for Lydia Pinto, an elderly stroke victim. Lydia’s uppity daughter-in- law Miriam Pinto treats Adina like a slave. The cultural clash Adina sparks off in the film touches on all the subtle racisms in contemporary Indian-Australia. Miriam feels superior to Indians from India but her son falls in love with Adina. As Lydia recovers from a stroke, Adina discovers things she has in common with her patient. Lydia’s experiences as an Indian immigrant in Australia strike a chord with Adina.

Miriam’s domineering ways make it hard for Adina to continue in her job. At the same time her son makes several advances and refuses to take no for an answer. Memories from a traumatic past overwhelm Adina at this point and she is on the verge of a breakdown. Eli works out that Adina is hiding a secret about her past.

“…so far as Indian life in Australia goes this cinema shows no inclination to move beyond the stereotypes and safe themes about India and Australia. Don’t expect to find Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese or any of the other migrant communities who are part of the Australian mosaic”

At this point Miriam accuses Adina of being a gold digger and trying to seduce her son. She tries to arrange a marriage for her son with another wealthy Indian family.

As Miriam tries to arrange her son’s marriage, cracks start surfacing in her own marriage and life. At this point her mother-in-law threatens to leave her son and daughter-in-law out of her will. The drama gets intense as Adina reveals her secret. Her past proves too much for the entire family.

This in brief is one of the first Indian-Australian dramas, and the first to be shown at Event cinemas. It was shot in 37 days, and in both India and Australia.

Is there an audience? The diaspora and the interest in Australia will deliver that audience hopefully. Talents like Zenia, Pallavi Sharda, Romin Khan and many others together with the likes of Sharma, Suri etc will persevere to build this space.

Clearly this cinema is not just about the diaspora. ‘Crossover cinema’ may become altogether a new type of popular cinema with its own stories and transnational plots. However, so far as Indian life in Australia goes this cinema shows no inclination to move beyond the stereotypes and safe themes about India and Australia. Don’t expect to find Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese or any of the other migrant communities who are part of the Australian mosaic. Crossover cinema could well be just about Indians and white Australians. In that formulaic encounter India is the land of poverty and corruption where women are exploited and mistreated and the west is the promised land. This is the recipe our new kid on the block is betting on. Hopefully the future will create more possibilities.

Crossover Starr

Zenia Ann Starr, an Australian actor whose career is beginning to take shape in Bollywood and Australia and in crossover films, has just been signed up for two films by KAHWA Films and Entertainment in India. The first one, a thriller drama, My Birthday Song (directed by Samir Soni), was shot in Delhi in December 2014, and Zenia plays the onscreen wife of nationally acclaimed actor Sanjay Suri.

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