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? :)