Cultural Imperialism and the Image of India in British and Indian Cinema

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

29 Pages, Grade: Distinction





CHAPTER ONE Cultural Imperialism As a Postcolonial Concept

Chapter Two British Cinema The subordinate representation of India
19th Century Description of Subordination
Continuation of the Imperial Attitude
21st Century Representations of Subordination
Representation of Education and Culture
Representation of the Indian Woman
Cultural Imperialism in Contemporary British Cinema

Chapter Three Indian Cinema: Alienation From one’s identity
Sustaining the Imperial Attitude
Representation of Annihilation in Swades
Representations of National Culture
Cultural Imperialism in Contemporary Indian Cinema




This dissertation endeavours to examine the existence of cultural imperialism in 21st century film on India. Evaluating two films, the British film Slumdog Millionaire and the Indian film Swades, this study attempts to consider both perspectives of the ‘other’. A subordinate representation of Indian education, culture and women in Slumdog Millionaire continues the imperial attitude towards India. Although signs of a national culture are present in the film Swades, the Indian film also contributes to the existence of cultural imperialism. This is done by sustaining the imperial attitude through representations of alienation towards the Indian identity. Scholars Edward W. Said and Gayatri Spivak help in my analyses of subordinate representation in the British film. Similarly, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Frantz Fanon form the basis for my analyses of alienation and national culture in the Indian film. Although varying in opinion, these authors have come together in this study to highlight the presence of cultural imperialism in contemporary films on India.


Imperialism is a common yet complicated concept to understand. The pivotal idea that is accepted and utilised among scholars is of it being a policy that extends a country’s power and influence to and over other countries. Although this remains a largely universal definition, the interpretations of the term vary greatly. As the concept was formally brought to an end in the 19th century, the possibility of its continuation is often debated. While the arguable fact that cultural imperialism is still present in the world today only appeals to a certain school of thought; postcolonial theorists are certainly among them. Like imperialism, the term ‘postcolonial theory’ is also highly contentious but the concept’s rapid expansion and diversification continues. The general idea of the theory is its continued and undisputed existence after colonisation, hence the name ‘postcolonial’ theory. This concept however, can take various forms. In the way most theories are divided, this theory is also divided into political, economical and cultural areas. While all these aspects are important, the cultural factor is arguably the most impacting due to its long-lasting nature, as I will go on to explain. According to Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, editors of the infamous book The Postcolonial Studies Reader, “The most formidable ally of political and economical control had long been the business of ‘knowing’ other peoples because this ‘knowing’ underpinned imperial dominance” (Ashcroft 2006: 1). Here, the reference to the attitude of ‘‘knowing’ other peoples’ can be seen as the cultural dimension of imperialism, which is more powerful than political and economic control. Thus, cultural imperialism will be examined as a continuation of a constructed imperial attitude. This attitude of ‘knowing’ can also be related to Michael Foucault’s philosophy of power/knowledge. His general idea of power as understood in his work, The Subject and Power, conveys that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge. In light of these theories, imperialism can thus be considered as an accepted form of domination. Considering this view, imperialism is seen as a relationship between Europe and the ‘other’. Further, this relationship can be viewed as a relationship between the dominant and subordinate. Edward W. Said is famous for theorising the post-colonial concept in this way. According to Said, imperialism takes “the meaning of the practice, the theory and the attitudes of the dominating metropolitan” (Said, 1994: 8). In continuation, Said mentions in his book Culture and Imperialism, “Imperialism as we shall see lingers where it has always been, in a kind of a general cultural sphere” (Said, 1994: 8). This re-emphasises the importance of a cultural bearing within imperialism. Said’s main concern is with ‘knowing’ the ‘other’. His main anxiety is with the continuation of the identity-less ‘other’. Gayatri Spivak, through her work, Can the Subaltern speak?, can be recognised to share the same anxiety. This anxiety has brought her to analyse the subject constitution of the ‘other’ after colonisation, much like Said has done while looking at the colonised as a subject of discourse. Therefore, together they analyse the imperial attitude of subordination that the coloniser has towards the colonised. This can be observed as the continuation of the imperial attitude. However, their involvement in analysing the subordinate constitution has limited them to only one side of the argument. They have not taken into consideration the subjects constitution of itself. Authors Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Frantz Fanon however have looked at this other side. They believe that the reason for an identity-less ‘other’ lies in the eyes of the beholder. Thus suggesting that the colonised themselves contribute to the continued imperial attitude towards it. While Ngugi explains this to be a result of a “cultural bomb” (Ngugi, 1986: 3), Fanon says it is due to the lack of a “national culture” (Fanon, 2006: 119). This aspect I understand to be the sustenance of the imperial attitude. Therefore I will endeavour to explain that it is the combination of the continuation and sustenance of an imperial attitude that contributes to the long-lasting existence of cultural imperialism. Postcolonial authors have yet to consider these two aspects together; they have analysed either one or the other. This, according to me, offers a limited idea of cultural imperialism. Another aspect of limitation among these authors is their restriction to mediums such as observation and novels. Considering these are authors who have written their books in the 20th century, I will apply and examine the continued existence of their theories in the 21st century. By doing this I will apply the formulation of these four authors to the contours of contemporary film. Simon Featherstone in Postcolonial Cultures and Roy Armes in Third World Film Making and the West, have concentrated on the response of national cinema to imperialism as a postcolonial study. While this is interesting, it is again limiting itself to one side of the story. In order to get past this limitation in my dissertation, I will explain and analyse both the continuation of and response to cultural imperialism in contemporary films on India. After theorising cultural imperialism as a continuation of a constructed imperial attitude, I will analyse how this attitude can be perceived within both an English and Indian film on India. Therefore this approach attempts to explain and analyse both the Europe perspective of the ‘other’ and the ‘other’s’ perspective of itself. Given that Said, Spivak, Ngugi and Fanon have constructed their theories in the 20th century and have based their work on novels, I will apply the same to the 21st medium of film. Thus the two films I will analyse in this light are, the 2008 English production Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle and the 2004 Indian movie, Swades by Ashutosh Gowariker. By analysing aspects of subordination, alienation and national culture in film, this dissertation will examine how cultural imperialism can be perceived in contemporary films on India despite the presence of a national culture.

CHAPTER ONE Cultural Imperialism As a Postcolonial Concept

Cultural imperialism can be considered as part of the academic discipline postcolonialism. Postcolonial theory explains, analyses and responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism. As Simon Featherstone points out, “the term ‘postcolonial’ prefixes courses in literature, cinema, critical theory and cultural studies” (Featherstone, 2005: 1). Thus reiterating the theory’s cultural bearing. However these cultural legacies can take various forms such as an attitude, formal policy or military action provided it reinforces cultural hegemony. While formal policy and military action are important factors of imperialism, it is the imperial attitude that arguably plays the biggest role in the concept. After all Edward W. Said defines imperialism as “…the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan” (Said, 1994: 8). Considering this study will mainly focus on the continued existence of a constructed attitude post colonisation, cultural imperialism becomes the compilation of forms of rhetoric contributing to the continuation of Western hegemony. In this sense cultural imperialism is referred to as a constructed attitude formed by rhetoric that maintains the imperial, hegemonic nature of the West. Thus the first step when perceiving cultural imperialism within contemporary films on India is to accept cultural imperialism as a constructed imperial attitude. Henceforth, I will evaluate how a constructed imperial attitude can be perceived within contemporary films on India. Therefore in light of a postcolonial discipline, cultural imperialism or the constructed imperial attitude, will be explained, analysed and responded to as a postcolonial concept.

A constructed imperial attitude is a colonial legacy that exists within the relationship of the coloniser and the colonised. This attitude arguably persists to exist towards and within contemporary non-western countries. Authors such as Said, Spivak, Ngugi and Fanon all speak of this phenomenon. Their main concern is to examine the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. Thus, this dissertation will further endeavor to analyse the way in which a constructed imperial attitude continues to oppress the voice of the non-western, or in Spivak’s words, ‘the subaltern’. This brings into the equation the role of the ‘other’, a common reference for the “Other of Europe” (Spivak, 1988: 75). Terms, ‘the subaltern’ and ‘other’ signify the role of the non-western or the colonised. In the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised these authors notice the prominent role of domination in the constructed imperial attitude. To this effect Said states that imperialism is “…supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination” (Said, 1994: 8). The mention of ‘certain territories’ is a reference to the ‘other’, thus restating the dominating character in an imperial relation. In the postcolonial relationship therefore there is a domination of the previously colonised by its former coloniser, observed through a constructed attitude or through the mode of cultural imperialism.

This attitude is hard to observe in a medium other than a cultural one, whether novel or film. While other cultural legacies such as formal policies, military actions or other political gestures should be analysed in a more political environment, the necessity for this constructed attitude to be analysed in a cultural environment is the same. This is due to its allusive nature. Said rightly points out that, “allusions to the facts of empire” can be observed “nowhere with more regularity and frequency than in the British novel” (Said, 1994: 73). In fact it is this allusive aspect of cultural legacies that demands an examination and analysis, even a response, from the ‘other’. The four scholars, Said, Spivak, Ngugi and Fanon have adhered to these demands in their own and varied ways. Despite this heterogeneous nature, their main observation of cultural imperialism as a relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed has united them in my dissertation. In addition to this, and moreover, as a result of this, they stand united in conveying the importance of the ‘other’. Within this perspective, the scholars can be divided into two groups. Said and Spivak argue that it is the coloniser’s subordinate representation of the colonised that conveys the constructed attitude and renders the identity of the ‘other’ useless. This being said the other two authors, namely, Ngugi and Fanon, consider the same identity-less ‘other’ as a result of the colonies’ alienation from themselves and their cultural identity. This poses two different aspects to cultural imperialism. The two constructed imperial attitudes being, subordinate representation and alienation from one’s cultural identity. While the subordinate representation of the ‘other’ is a direct continuation of an imperial attitude, the alienation towards one’s identity helps sustain this imperial attitude. Therefore together, the continuation of an imperial attitude and the sustenance of the same, help the continued existence of a constructed attitude post colonisation.

The difference between continuation and sustenance is important to note for this dissertation. When I consider the continuation of the imperial attitude in contemporary film, I will be referring to the coloniser’s attitude towards the colonised. I find Said’s literature in Culture and Imperialism, and Spivak’s article Can the Subaltern Speak?, particularly interesting in conveying this point. Both these authors, through their own means, convey the postcolonial problem that the ‘other’ is unable to speak. They both regard this as a result of constant colonial domination. I am going to use this theory as a basis for exploring a contemporary British conception of Indian otherness. While the continuation of imperialism is one thing, the sustenance of it is another. Their relationship can be seen through the light of this analogy: When a rumour is being spread, unless there is resistance to it, the rumour will not be negated, further allowing it to continue to exist. In a similar fashion, Indian cinema should act to resist the dominating attitude of the imperial, in order to get rid of it. Therefore I will examine the medium’s lack of resistance or ‘feeding of the rumour’. I will do this with the help of the other two scholars, Ngugi and Fanon. Ngugi’s theory in Decolonising the Mind and Fanon’s observations in Black Skin, White Masks, explains the alienation the colonised feels towards themselves as a result of imperialism. Spivak and Fanon in their work refer to their personal experiences when discovering these attitudes, while Said and Ngugi come to the same conclusions after examining these attitudes in novels.

This dissertation will analyse the two attitudes of subordination and alienation and apply it to the contours of film. Featherstone points out that films have a “potential for reaching a mass audience, and one that is not circumcised by literacy” (Featherstone, 2005: 97). Therefore one of the reasons for why film should be analysed beyond novels is its extensive and comprehensive nature. Along with large audiences, the film medium helps separate audiences as well. In this dissertation where I intend to analyse the presence of cultural imperialism within contemporary films on India, I can separate a British film from an Indian one. A British film refers to a film made and directed by a British director in a British industry, and the Indian film is an Indian version of the same. Therefore, the British movie that I will be evaluating in this dissertation is Slumdog Millionaire directed by Danny Boyle and the Indian movie is Swades by Ashutosh Gowariker. This separation will give a clear understanding of a British perspective of the ‘other’, in this case India. Moreover through the analysis of an Indian film one can analyse the Indian perspective of itself as the ‘other’. Foucault once said in his work The Subject and Power, “to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity” (Foucault, 1982; 211). This philosophy re-emphasises that it is not just sufficient to view the ‘other’ from an imperial perspective, but is necessary and equally important to analyse the identity of the ‘other’ by the ‘other’. When considering either perspective individually, the British or Indian perspective, it is like eating half a pie and feeling full. However, in doing this, one has not completely analysed the entire imperial attitude. Thus one needs to eat the entire pie to be full. This means that the academic scholars observed are guilty of being full too early, thus in this dissertation I consider that the factors of subordination and alienation together sustain the imperial attitude.

Chapter Two British Cinema The subordinate representation of India

I shall begin by eating half of the pie and speak of the subordinate representation of India as the ‘other’. This can be perceived in contemporary British cinema. Although imperialism is a 18th and 19th century phenomenon, the legacies of it can still be observed in the 21st century. Having reached its formal end by the mid-19th century with the disintegration of large empires, imperialism’s cultural legacy continues to affect the ‘other’ till today. In its contemporary manner, that of being informal and deceitful, Britain’s subordinate representation of India can be observed in its 2008 production, Slumdog Millionaire. The constructed imperial attitude takes on an allusive tone in this 21st century medium, one that can be analysed solely through cultural practices. According to Said, cultural practices are described as “the arts of description, communication and representation” (Said, 1994: xiii). Thus, while cultural imperialism is now recognised as a form of expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly, it can be successfully analysed through observing description, communication and representation in film.

19th Century Description of Subordination

Commencing with the art of description, the first term of rhetoric that requires attention is the title of the movie. The title ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is evidence in itself of the subordinate description an Indian identity holds in the eye of the British imperialist. For starters, the term Slumdog is a British conception given to the Indian individual living in the slums of Mumbai. The use of the word ‘dog’ speaks volumes for this attitude of subordination the coloniser has towards its colony. The following word, Millionaire, although seemingly superior, powerful and refreshing, does nothing to retreat from this inferior idea. In fact the title intends to act as an oxymoron, further degrading the Indian identity. This can be understood from a line spoken at the beginning of the film, “What the hell can a Slumdog possibly know?” (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). The entire film is made to constantly question the possibility of a boy from the slums winning ten million Rupees on a general knowledge TV show, treating the occasion as an ironic event. The police in the film are convinced with the idea that, “the slumdog has cheated” (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). Taking the boy from the slums as a depiction of Indian identity, the theme of the movie illustrates the ‘other’ as an impoverished, uneducated individual who is a potential fraud. Said examines the vocabulary used in classic 19th century imperial culture, stating that it is “plentiful with such words and concepts as ‘inferior’ or ‘subject races’, ‘subordinate peoples’, ‘dependency’, ‘expansion’, and ‘authority’” (Said, 1994: 8). However, considering the end of formal rule is well established in the 21st century, the way of perceiving cultural imperialism has become less evident in description and more transparent in representation. Imperial description transforms into the postcolonial form of imperial representation in the 21st century. Therefore Said’s idea of 19th century vocabulary can be translated to 21st century representation. While the words ‘inferior’, ‘subordinate peoples’, ‘dependency’, may not be explicitly obvious in contemporary film, their similar representations can be grasped in the 21st century film, Slumdog Millionaire. However, how the imperialist succeeded in establishing this cultural domination over their colony is integral to understand.


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Cultural Imperialism and the Image of India in British and Indian Cinema
Royal Holloway, University of London
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british, cinema, cultural, image, imperialism, india, indian
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Tanya Keswani (Author), 2013, Cultural Imperialism and the Image of India in British and Indian Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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