Why I Stopped Idolising Western Art

One of the first comments I ever got for a short story of mine came from a stranger who’d stumbled onto my blog back in 2008. He politely told me that since my character’s name was Mr. Mark Thomas, I should refer to him throughout the story as either Mr. Thomas or his full name and not, as I’d done, “Mr. Mark”

12 years later, this incident has stuck with me because I’ve recently realized just how immersed I was in that world. It’s a world you’ve probably explored as well. A world where all the characters are white, with Christian sounding names, walking through cities that we’d never set foot in ourselves. It’s a world I’d like to leave behind. Join me, won’t you?

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The first book I ever read was a torn copy of an Enid Blyton book. After that, I remember reading Harry Potter, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a bunch of Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl books, the whole Sherlock Holmes series, followed by Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton.

I didn’t read a single book by an Indian author until I was in 10th Grade. It wasn’t because I couldn’t get access to the material. The school library had every book in the Goosebumps, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and every other imaginable series. As long as they were set in the western hemisphere. Or more accurately, in either the United States or the United Kingdom.

The school taught the CBSE curriculum, and every person who set foot into the library was an Indian (except the librarian, who was a Filipino lady). Yet where were the Indian books?

Thinking about this makes me wonder if it’s just another chicken and egg situation. Did my school stock up on western books because the kids liked to read them? Or did the kids read them because the school provided those books?

Of course, you could make an argument that there weren’t many Indian books available for youngsters to read, especially in the early 2000s. We did eventually get around to R. K. Narayan, who I found was pretty cool in a special way, and Ruskin Bond, whom I never actually bothered to read. Chetan Bhagat was just starting his cancerous takeover of the Indian reader’s market, and I was still a decade away from being a jealous snob.

But in hindsight, I can see it wasn’t just books that altered our imaginations. Most Indians who grew up in the Middle East in the 90s and early 2000s watched a lot of Western movies. We mimicked the language and the actions of those we saw on screen. I remember storming into a school bathroom with my classmates, all of us wielding imaginary guns as we “cleared” each stall. In our defense, we were just ten years old.

A relative of mine who’d come over from Kerala on a scholarship commented about the American movies he’d tried to watch. “Ella padathillum thokkund! (Every movie has a gun!)” I remember feeling surprised. I’d never thought of that as odd.

You might not consider young minds filled with images of SWAT teams and exploding buildings particularly worrying. Neither do I, actually. They were fantastic movies that provided a lot of entertainment. But they all came at a price.

We unanimously, wordlessly agreed that “Western” movies (and books) were the best. Of course, no one is denying that Jurassic Park or The Lord of the Rings is a cinematic masterpiece that has no rival in India. But rather than talk about individual efforts, we seem to have cemented the belief that “Western” art is superior in general.

I might be completely off the mark, but think back to whether you’ve had any of these thoughts:

  1. Indian movies are generally copying their ideas from “Western” movies.
  2. Most of the filmmaking techniques you see in Indian movies are influenced by their Western counterparts.
  3. If you need to get global recognition, you need to make a movie in the West (that wins Western awards like the Oscars).

I believed in all the above. I thought I had good reason, too! After all, several times I watched an interesting Hindi or Malayalam movie, only to find out that it was “inspired” or “remade” from a Western one. Remember Ghajini? I watched the Aamir Khan remake and felt flush with pride. Then I saw the original Memento by Christopher Nolan and realized it was, as the expression goes, “vera level! (on another level).”

Slowly but surely, I internalized the idea that the highest form of creativity and art originated and flourished in the West. This meant I was, at least subconsciously, discriminatory in my judgment of books and movies. How about you? Let’s say you spotted a new book for sale. The title is “The Matador Conspiracy”. Would you be more inclined to buy it if the author’s name was Jason Bergman….or Anish Chattapadhya?

I confess my regard for the novel would drop if the name was the latter. Instinctively I’d assume this book was just another Indian guy trying to ape the movies and books he’s read. It’s a terrible thing to admit to, and truly ironic, given how I am going to end this article.

But thankfully, the past few years has helped me alter my starry-eyed, naive views about art and the artists who are worthy of praise. You see, growing up I thought the greatest filmmakers were Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick and Hitchcock. All Americans (yes, cinephiles, Hitchcock was English…but that just underscores my overall point).

Only later in life did I realize that creativity flourished all over the globe while cinema developed as an art form. The same American filmmakers I admired were in turn admiring people like Akira Kurosawa (from Japan), Francois Truffaut (from France), Andrei Tarkovsky (from Russia) and perhaps most ironically, Satyajit Ray (from India). 

(Akira Kurosawa remarked after watching Ray’s Pather Panchali: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon” Christopher Nolan, the ‘God of Cinema’ for many Malayali cinema fans – myself included, I admit – said: “I think it is one of the best films ever made. It is an extraordinary piece of work.”)

 Do you realize I, and perhaps many of you, grew up in a world where we knew of legends halfway across the world but were ignorant of those who lived in our own country?

Once I started reflecting, it became painfully obvious. Some of the best American movies are remakes of French, Japanese, Russian, and other films. Some of the most creative individuals were invited to the West to showcase their talents, rather than benevolently offered a chance at success. Now, more than ever, countries around the world are refining their own artistic merits without looking towards America or Britain for critical and commercial success. Japanese anime thrives on a global audience, just as South Korean movies do.

In short, the world of art doesn’t revolve around New York, Los Angeles, and London. Perhaps it never really did. I just believed that to be true, and by liberating myself from those shackles of inferiority and unchecked admiration I’ve also been able to unleash my creativity and ambition.

Now I no longer have to write a story about Mr. Mark Thomas robbing a casino while being chased by the FBI. I’ve never encountered such a person, building or institution. Instead, I can write about people I know, like Rajeev and Maryam, working in places I know, like Cochin and Dubai, doing things I know, like struggling to pay bills, live up to their parents expectations, tolerate their social circles and so on. I no longer feel the pressure to write about what I don’t know because that’s the only thing people I know will read.

That leads me to the ironic part. While I’ve explained how I realized we don’t need to write stories featuring western characters set in a western world, there is no rule against doing so either. In fact, to a certain degree, you could argue that we’re just building fictional, fantasy worlds, except instead of ghosts and goblins, it’s populated by guns and greedy gangsters. All four of which we might never have actually encountered.

I recently published such a novel. “The Man Who Found His Shadow” is the product of countless movies and books I’ve read since childhood. It’s about a mass shooting that occurs in the U.S., one that the police and the FBI quickly realize is the deadliest one in history. Less than an hour after it happens, the prime suspect is spotted sitting in the police station, waiting to talk. It turns out he’s an elementary school teacher who’s never even touched a gun before. No one believes he’s actually responsible. But he’s adamant that he did it. And as the minutes go by, the investigators find clue after clue that makes the question whether he’s actually telling the truth.

It’s a fast-paced crime thriller that you could finish reading in about 6 hours or less. Written by a guy who’s pen name is Marwan Razzaq and not Jason Bergman. The old me would probably not have picked up the book, but I’m hoping none of you are prejudiced like I was!

If I’d written this novel 5 years ago, it would have been because I thought that’s the only kind of stories I should be telling. The kind I see on American television. But presently, it’s because it’s the kind of story that interests me. I’m currently editing my next novel, and it’s a crime thriller involving a group of former schoolmates who are having a reunion in Qatar, where they grew up.

Almost all of the characters are Indians, most of them are Malayali. Like how it was in my reality.

That’s what I’ve finally understood. I have the freedom to write whatever I want. Even if it’s my reality.

Marwan Razzaq’s debut novel, “The Man Who Found His Shadow”, a fast-paced crime thriller, is now available as an e-book on Amazon. Click here to buy your copy!

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