Thursday, February 11, 2010

What I know, what I've learned, and what I've yet to find out.


I learned English as a second language, and it took a while for me to figure out that ignorant and the verb "ignore" didn't share meaning. You're ignorant if you don't know something, but that doesn't mean you ignore information out there. Or does it?

As a non-desi fan of Indian films I often have to admit ignorance on topics that the movies deal with. I've never been to India (yet!), I'm obviously not Indian and even though I know people of Indian descent, some who've lived there all their lives, I'm not a part of that culture. I'm an outsider to it. My information comes from books, news, discussions with people, and yes, even movies, but not any actual experiences.

Lately I've been thinking about this sort of cultural/historical/religious ignorance that I have as a non-Indian viewer, and how much I should make the effort to mend the gaps. I mean, I'm obviously beyond asking questions like, "Why do they touch their parents' feet?" or "Why does that bearded man wear a turban?", and I know a thing or two about history and religions and customs and the variety that is Indian culture. But when it comes to a country so complex, you can never know enough. Should I make more of an effort to find out, though?

I am avoiding using the pronoun "we" even though I feel like a lot of non-Indian fans of these films probably have moments when they feel the same. It's always weird to learn through movies. Not in the sense that you think whatever a movie portrays is reality, but to be inspired to find out what actually happened and what the movie did differently, or what circumstances made the movie as it is. I learnt about Tamil Nadu politics because Mani Ratnam made Iruvar. I learnt about the 90's riots through Black Friday. This kind of thing.

On the other hand, I know information rarely sinks in unless it has a framework to work into. It's very hard to take in new information unless you have existing information. I remember reading a big book on Indian culture and I honestly don't remember a thing about it, because when I read it, I had very little knowledge of India in general, and the framework to connect all of that new information wasn't there. I think when the active interest is there, whether it's built by interest in culture or interest in films or whatever, then you can build the framework, and little by little adding to it, whether it's information about cultural traditions, religion, different regions, language..

It goes without saying education in most "Western" countries does not spare many thoughts on the history of India, or Asia in general. I've never been a history buff, either, even though I got good grades in it. My interest was always in how people lived, not leaders and wars and dates. It took an interest in movies to figure out blindingly basic facts about the country; it's really quite embarrassing.

But still, you might point out, we don't learn the entire of French history to watch Amelie. We don't need to understand how the US Senate works to enjoy Star Wars. Sure, true enough. But I think it adds something, if only a lessened possibility of misunderstanding, or a sense of better understanding, or a more critical viewpoint, or whatever you like. I don't think we should stay wholly ignorant, even if the films are "just" entertainment. Because once you have that fledgling interest, it's easier to build on that than somebody who doesn't necessarily give a damn, but learns something just to learn it. They might remember those facts they've picked up, might even connect it to some other information they have, but it's different from somebody who not only wants to learn, but has a goal attached: better understanding, even if ultimate understanding always escapes us (because one can never really learn everything there is to know about a culture, any culture).

What do you guys think (whether you're desi or not)? Am I once again over-analyzing this? :)

10 comments:

Ness said...

I think broadening your understanding of the world (I use 'your' here meaning you, me, everybody!) is never a bad thing, and if it's a movie that sparks an interest that gets you to explore a topic further, why be embarrassed.
I have had/am having a very similar experience to you - the history classes and things I have taken at school seem to skip over Asian culture and politics, so it's been films like Earth and Swades that have ignited an interest an desire to learn more.

I think you do make the important distinction about not mistaking what we learn from the movies for the reality - I think if we as viewers are interested, we need to take responsibility into reading up and getting a thorough and balanced view on topics that can be presented in a biased or simplified fashion onscreen. After all - imagine if someone wanted to learn about Western culture from a film and only had access to Pretty Woman or Fight Club? Movies come with their own agendas and bias and things, but I think they are a fantastic starting point for sparking interest and investigation into new avenues...

theBollywoodFan said...

I don't think you're over-analyzing this at all! As an Indian who grew up some in India, I certainly admire the mere thought you've put into what's led to this post, let alone the desire to spend time learning more. Not all films are aimed at wholesome entertainment, as you say, and it's important to appreciate that. What I am somewhat troubled by is that most (Indian and non-Indian) fans of Hindi films (heck, even most actors!) seem all too content with discounting film as a social vehicle. It's a powerful medium, but it can be dangerous, too, of course.

The key, as you well know, and as has been noted in a previous comment, is to not accept what films conclude with at face value. The key is to seek facts from credible sources (e.g. the BBC and not an Indian newspaper or Wikipedia! :D), and to form an educated opinion that leads to an agreement/disagreement with the content of a film. (There isn't a substitute for going to a country and living there for a few weeks (at the very least) to get a good, first-hand pulse for some situtations, but that's easier said than done.)

Of course, we'd probably go seek information more often if a film is good and thought-provoking. And of course, the vast majority of viewers will continue to be too quick to judge. But so is life.

And finally, it can be somewhat positive to not have had personal experiences relating to significant situations/events. It keeps the learning process free of bias, so you can truly look at the facts (timelines, cause and effect, etc. are crucial) and decide independently. There are enough forces out there that have tainted some forever. I don't know if I would be interested in watching a lot of these if I were still in India (which leads us back to the actors'/producers' comfort in discounting the medium as a social vehicle -- it's probably just a supply-demand thing, just like everything else).

Cheers.

ajnabi said...

Actually, I believe there are just as many people in India who make the mistake of thinking they're learning straight-up reality from Hollywood or European films as there are people who mistake that about Hindi movies. Otherwise why would Europeans traveling in India get questions from people on the street like, "How can you have an 80% divorce rate?" and other stuff? Those people have to be the exceptions though, right? At least I hope.

I agree with you about the appalling lack of focus on Asian history in Western history textbooks. I try to remedy these things with my own children, but I'm still quite embarrassed that as a woman who's gone to university I still had no idea what Partition was until a year and a half ago. It's a strange position to be in, isn't it: to know far more than your general acquaintance about a certain subject, and yet realize that really you know close to nothing in the overall scheme of things. At least, that's how I feel.

Ness said...

@Ajnabi:

I studied History all through high school and university, I'm nearly 30 years old, and I only found out what Partition was a few months ago! I was so sad to realise that my expensive education was a load of crap, in a lot of respects, because of its very narrow focus.

So again - anything, if a Hindi film encourages someone to expand their own awareness of the world, I think that is a good thing.

theBollywoodFan said...

@Ajnabi:

Actually, I believe there are just as many people in India who make the mistake of thinking they're learning straight-up reality from Hollywood or European films as there are people who mistake that about Hindi movies.

Ditto! And this will always be the case until people go and live in the other community. Humanity tends to mistake fiction for fact, even within the same environment. Distance just adds so much more complexity to it. Perhaps it's because the ability or facility to experience/absorb fact isn't always available. Such a maze to navigate through, regardless.

Also agree on the need for a greater emphasis on a 'liberal education'. When learning becomes restrictive, learners tend to lose sight of everything being related in *some* way. We are one world, after all! But try saying that to someone who thinks MNIK shouldn't be released, or that Global Warming refers to warm weather. :D

MsBlogger said...

I completely agree with the comments posted above. An interest to learn is always a good thing in my opinion and if movies encourage you to learn about our world then so be it!
Just make sure what you do learn isn't biased, that happens more than you'd think in all sources of information.

veracious said...

Ness - I agree, whatever gets you to obtain that knowledge, it's all good.

theBollywoodFan - You're right that this sort of ignorance-until-I-decide-to-change-it has its benefits, too. For example, as a non-religious person who has grown up outside India I have no biases when it comes to religious tensions that occasionally flare up (other than this Amar Akbar Anthony-type religious tolerance bias). If I had family members killed in riots, it'd be quite different.. Extreme sample but first one that came to mind.

ajnabi - Yeah, it's shameful but easy to see how this happens. Take for example Finnish history education; focus is on European and Finnish history, I guess because essentially Finland is affected by European social changes. Later on you have some non-mandatory courses in high school that might focus on history outside Europe. But they're typically like, one course.

In university, if you go study history I think you might have the opportunity to focus on whatever you like, but courses everybody takes probably deal with the history they know, but on a deeper level. If you don't have the interest to educate yourself, you miss out on this stuff. Unless you're one of those world-conscious folk who try to know a little about everything, but of course in that case, you only know a little and perhaps miss out on context.

MsBlogger - True, bias is important to detect.

Himmat said...

It helps I think to know the language. You can then understand not just the nuances in the dialogue (and the songs), but also get more from the inflections and the accents prevalent in the different social strata.

memsaab said...

FYI, ignore and ignorant do share a root, and are not that different in meaning. Ignorance implies a willful refusal to learn something---ignoring opportunities to learn, as it were.

It's different from "uneducated" which implies a lack of opportunity to learn, although people often use uneducated and ignorant to mean the same thing (it doesn't, though).

Too pedantic? :)

veracious said...

Himmat - True..

memsaab - No of course not, good info! I wouldn't want to be ignorant to call you pedantic. ;)