Tuesday, September 19

Gandhi’s Voice in Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’

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I was thrilled when I heard the voice of Christopher Walken as King Louie in Disney’s The Jungle Book! I would call this a genius move on Favreau’s part as it allowed him to break away from the anti-black racism that is associated with Disney’s 1967 version. But I wonder if audiences have been too quick to celebrate the film for not being racist and imperialist in the 19th century-Kipling fashion. Favreau’s Jungle Book is subtly receptive to another racism embedded in a new imperialism: anti-Islam. And this racism might be easier to sell to a global audience.

The funny thing about about an imperialist narrative is that it adapts easily to other forms of imperialism. And as much as Favreau tried, he was never going to be able to break away from the imperialist and racist undertones of Kipling’s tales. Some might liken this phenomenon to Audrey Lorde’s famous quote: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

With that said, I can’t say I was excited to hear the voice of Ben Kingsley as Bagheera. Was Gandhi’s voice really guiding Mowgli — the young Indian-American boy — to kill Shere Khan?

“What does this mean?” I wondered.

In India, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book has earned more than ₹ 100 crore (almost 15 million USD) since its release. And getting into the 100 crore club is an especially signficant achievement for a Hollywood production amongst Bollywood film goers. In general, outside of the United States the film has already totaled 140 million USD. And many of these international markets — i.e. Malaysia, Mexico, and Spain — are also very receptive to Bollywood films.

So is it possible that some of the film’s global success has to do with its understated adaptation of Bollywood’s anti-Islam platform?

Jon Favreau’s live-action remake is certainly captivating. From the first shot I was transposed to a jungle and I forget that the film was made just a few warehouses down from where I was sitting in Downtown Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, some of the voices in Favreau’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century tales distracted me and pulled my mind out of the film. For instance, when I heard the voice of Scarlet Johannson as Kaa charming Mowgli my mind drifted off to the controversey of whitewashing ‘Ghost in a Shell.’ So there, in the middle of a loud and packed theater, I found myself thinking about genocide and the history of blackface. For a moment I felt like an audience member in the audition scene of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. So then of course I considered all the problems with casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. And considering the spectacular effects of Favreau’s film, which actually had me jumping out of my seat at times, I find the fact that I was put off by a few voices especially concerning…

My concern escalated when I heard Ben Kingsley’s voice. Thirty-five years prior to putting ScarJo in yellow face, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi featured Kingsley in brown face as Mahatma Gandhi.

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But neither Kingsley as Gandhi nor Kingsley’s Oscar for acting as Gandhi concern me anymore. We have had that conversation. And it looks like we will have plenty of opportunities to continue discussing the whitewashing of cinema and history (thank you for your dialogue Constance Wu and Ming Na Wen).

My concern is that it is Gandhi’s voice that is guiding the young Indian boy — actor, Neel Seethi — to kill Shere Khan.

Leaders around the world often reference Gandhi, the Indian activist, by quoting infamous one-liners such as “be the change you wish to see in the world” or “live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.” And globally, Gandhi is probably most noted for his anti-violence (or Ahimsa) campaign. In many ways Gandhi is the face of independent India: an India that had to fight for its freedom from the British and, unfortunately, an India with new borders.

With new borders drawn to create seperate nations for Muslim communities, Gandhi’s face connotes a Hindu India. The larger than life photo of Gandhi at the Wagah border that separates independent India from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a great example of India’s use of Gandhi’s face to represent a Hindu India. At this border, Gandhi’s face is placed in opposition to Pakistan’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah. So with the steady Hinduization of a once secular India, Gandhi is more than just a face on the nation’s currency.

Gandhi has been made the father of a neoliberal and Hindu India.

As a result, the use of Ben Kingsley’s voice to guide the young-Indian boy that eventually kills Shere Khan gets a little complicated for someone that equates Kingsley’s voice with Gandhi.
The narrative of a young Indian boy guided by a father-figure to pull himself out of the ‘wild jungle’ who must first kill a Muslim ruler/terrorist/enemy for the greater good is a little too familiar.

A Few Bollywood Blockbusters with a Similar Anti-Muslim Plot:

  • Ek Tha Tiger (₹3.3 billion or US$49 million) — In Kabir Khan’s 2012 film an Indian spy/RAW agent kills several Pakistani and Muslim spies during his mission in Iraq.
  • Agent Vinod (₹620 million or US$9.2 million) — In Sriram Raghavan’s 2012 film an Indian spy/RAW agent kills several Pakistani-Muslim spies on a globetrotting mission revolving around the money laundering practices of the character Abu Nazir.
  • Veer-Zaara (₹174 crore or US$26 million) — In Yash Chopra’s 2004 film a Pakistani-Muslim family is depicted as revengeful. Pakistan’s hostility is illustrated by wrongfully imprisoning an Indian-Hindu man for 20 years.

I appreciate Favreau’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s work. In Kipling’s tales Shere Khan was born with a crippled leg, runs away from a near-death experience in fire-fight with Mowgli, and then dies from a buffalo stampede incited by both Grey Brother and Mowgli. So while it is clear that Favreau could not have used Disney’s 1967 film ending alongside the technological “magic tricks” in the film, he could have selected another actor to guide Mowgli.

A revenge plot guided by Gandhi’s voice is for many viewers across the globe a standard Bollywood film. If only Favreau had incorporated Kipling’s Rama character, the king of the Buffaloes, then the anti-Islam message would have been much more conspicuous. And I suppose if it was a true Bollywood film the director would have stayed true to Kipling’s story by having Rama (who happens to share a name with an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu) and his Buffalo herd kill off Shere Khan. It is without doubt that the saffronized audiences of India would cheer to Kipling’s line: “Under the feet of Rama lies the Lame One!” Instead the film concludes with a final scene that feels like any given evening on Fox News as the entire jungle unites with their collective hate towards the Muslim character, in this case Shere Khan. But of course the film’s anti-Islam racism is the racism we are not allowed to talk about…because, you know, terrorism and the military industrial complex justify this racism.

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