I have no argument with Winterbottom's skill as a filmmaker/ although doubtless there are people who do. I will not put forth any comparisons with Polanski's (1979) version, nor the 2008 BBC miniseries. I don't really have an issue with either Pinto's or Ahmed's acting abilities. What I have an issue with is this notion of 'First in India'. As far as I can see it, this means that an artefact of culture is assumed to assume a whole different dimension of enrichment, if it is 'First in India'.
So what, exactly, is 'First in India'? Well, this does not denote 'original' in India. If 'First in India' denoted an original product, initiated, incubated, nurtured and grown in India, this would be an exceedingly good thing. We could do with lots of those firsts, if they were competent -- in health technology, for example, but also in systems management, software and hardware, and multiple other areas. But 'First in India' does not seem to connote either originality, or even competence in the current cultural environment. Instead, it seems to be largely a process of re-hashing, re-presenting, re-locating, and presenting the final product as, um, re-original.
No, actually, the final product is not presented as re-original. I would not have so much of a problem if it was. It is, instead, presented as pretty much original, because it is 'First in India.'
This trend has to be understood against another fact with which India, and the rest of the world is inextricably tied, which is the global flow of capital. We've been hearing about the rise of the Indian Tiger (capital I, capital T) for about a decade now. It seems to be happening, not so much because we are doing anything special, but because the West has really managed to mess itself up. India, China, the East, in general are the big markets of the future-- and I do mean big, as in vast, in the billions. However, these are also largely non-English speaking markets, who are attached to their own cultural heritage, to greater or less degree.
This has two implications: First, that these new markets are not familiar with the original cultural references, and are unlikely to see the re-original for what it is. For them, these re-hashes constitute an original cultural experience. And these artefacts, in turn, change the territory on which they act, so the expectations of an audience become located ever further from their original frames of reference.
Second, the artefact itself has to be tuned to the environment in which it is expected to make money. Much like McDonalds serving McAlooTikki to respect our many vegetarian sentiments, these products have to be carefully adapted, so they can draw the maximum possible number of people to the theatre, for their own cultural enlightenment, and for the clinking of the tills.
Bride and Prejudice tried this in the crudest possible way, with the worst actors, and failed quite miserably. Slumdog Millionaire got the formula right, and boy, did the tills clink. Now we are going to see Tess, Thomas Hardy's tragic heroine. But this will not be Tess at all, but a facsimile, in Indianese.
Thomas Hardy used bleak, open, vast spaces, to reflect the insignificance of human action. In fact, Hardy's landscapes have been posited as being part of the overall narrative structure of his powerful, pessimistic stories. Tess's tragedy hinges upon her lack of mobility in a physically bleak middle-England environment, and the lack of community per se. I'm waiting to see how they translate these ideas, fundamental to the stature of Tess as heroine, into Indianese.
But these are literary ideas, and reflect the concerns of another medium.
Let us, then, examine the figure of Frieda Pinto, who gives the 'First in India'-ness of the project away in no uncertain terms. She had huge success with Slumdog Millionaire, and then managed to be the only Indian actor to be considered acceptable in Hollywood. This takes several talents, doubtless, but only one essential: the ability to interpret oneself, acceptably and completely, in the terms of the culture into which one wants acceptance. So she is, herself, Indianese, interpretable easily for the West. In today's world, this is a winning formula.
She is exotic, but not too exotic (The Smita Patil type in Mirch Masala would be too exotic, I think. We also have several other actresses, across theatre and film who would be thus defined). Indian, but not too Indian, Brown, but not too Brown.
Her male lead, Riz Ahmed/ also known as Riz MC, is born and raised in Britain, and therefore provides less Brown exotica. But Brown exotica is not nearly as necessary in men. Besides, a less-Indianese male lead provides for two important things, from the perspective of a 'world' film.
First, it grants comfort to the gaze of western audiences, who will see the film through the gaze of the camera/ and therefore, arguably, a male gaze. Second, and just as important from the same perspective, this less-Brownness means that the male lead is also partially 'foreign' (read superior). Socio-culturally, this guarantees a tickle for our quite developed arraviste senses.
Like Frieda, but in a different way, and to a different degree, Ahmed is Brown, but not too Brown.
Presenting Tess of the D'Urbervilles, First in India.