How often have you watched Hollywood action movies plotted along the lines of a literal white knight who happens to save everyone and everything from absolute destruction? How many times have you seen the movie's damsel in distress being saved by a man so strong and humble that the viewers cannot help but fall in love with him. The recently released Extraction is yet another action-thriller film of the same calibre, dragged down by its regressive white saviour elements.
Extraction's narrative is engulfed around a white man's rescue mission in a dirty, poverty-stricken and squalid South Asian city where nothing good ever takes place. In most such Hollywood movies, and on the off chance that a Hollywood film travels across cultural borders, the foreign lands are portrayed as the antagonist's den and the white man becomes the knight in shining armour. Apart from the clichéd star character of Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth), the nonsense action and faulty cultural misrepresentation, Extraction also contains one invisible super-element - orientalism.
Orientalism, since its conceptualisation in 1978 by legendary public intellectual Edward Said, has become an important concept in many areas of social science. It refers to the exaggeration and distortion of cultures and societal values of the Orient - regions surrounding the Middle East and most Asian countries, including the Indian subcontinent.
Orientalism highlights the West's paternalistic perspective of the East by diminishing its cultures, traditions and societal norms into one single thought - in ruins. One area Orientalism manifests itself most readily is within the confines of film, although being ever present in modern, or pop, culture.
Whilst not discernible to many viewers, orientalism in Extraction vividly trumpets its presence. The Hindi street signs, the awkwardly misspelled "Allah sarvo shoktiman", the Kolkata-influenced Bengali accent used to portray Dhakaites was a clear example of reducing Dhaka's unique existence to an extension of its neighbouring Bengali speakers.
Dhaka, as a filthy city, is enough to satisfy the orientalist perception of the Western audience. Hemsworth has a winning chemistry with one of the characters that attempts to soften the uneasy optics of a white guy violently blasting through a sea of brown villains. This is an unabashed projection of the average white man's imagination of the regional stereotype when it comes to cultures that are different from the West.
Leveraging the West's depiction of the East as inferior, uncivilised and, for the most part, weird, the stereotypical portrayal, simultaneously, was about defining the West as the Orient's opposite - superior, civilized, and all around wonderful. Such representation of Asian culture in films is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude. One prime example of such a film is Entrapment - the 1999 Jon Amiel film, partly shot in Malaysia, that sparked controversy globally due to "distorting the truth".
Needless to say, Malay viewers were excited about the portrayal of their nation in Entrapment. Unfortunately, the initial excitement of having Malaysia viewed as a highly developed country was dampened by spliced-in scenes of Malaccan slums alongside the Twin Towers and even sparked an angry response from then Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
"The distorted view of the twin towers will certainly make the movie audiences in rich countries conclude that Malaysia is one of those developing countries which waste public funds, perhaps even foreign aid, on useless grandiose monuments," Mahathir told the press then.
Mahathir was particularly angered by the film because the Entrapment team were helped with visa processing, customs clearance, telecommunications and security in a bid to promote Malaysia as a film location.
Like a pair of glasses that distort your vision, orientalism deals with exaggerated cultural and religious differences. With these glasses, everything and everyone seems highly exotic and strange. Or worse, fanatical and dangerous.
While Hollywood has produced countless action and drama movies depicting the presumably violent and bizarre ways of living in the Orient, it has also produced a swarm of films that portray the violent, stuck in the past, sensual, exotic, monstrous, mysterious and other stereotypical notions of the Orient.
Aladdin - a crowd favourite among children, is another film viewed through the glasses of orientalism. Although the cultural appropriation was not at all evident to young viewers of the movies, and to many adults as well, the orientalist approach to discredit Arab culture slowly rose to the mainstream over time.
Aladdin (1992) was a huge orientalist fantasy and it has gained so much popularity over the years that it has been made into Hollywood movies and cartoons a number of times. Penning the storyboard of Aladdin with the ink of orientalism has aided the stereotypical picturization of Arabia - from extreme poverty, to the bloodthirsty Arab man and the submissive, yet seductive, Arab woman.
In most Hollywood movies, Middle Eastern women appear either as an exotic belly dancer or an oppressed "veiled" woman with no nuances in between. The overly sexualized character of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin is simply a continuation of the paintings from the 19th century, where women were represented as erotic, sexualized fantasies. It is however noteworthy that the latest live-action version of Aladdin makes an effort to depict Princess Jasmine in a different light.
In early 2000s Hollywood movies, Middle Eastern men were portrayed as exotically romantic, and more recently as a crazed fanatical terrorist - obliterating all the ordinary human traits along the way. What is more absurd is the fact that a major population chunk of the Oriental region embraces this controversial ideology.
These images present a narrative of how the Western world sees itself as superior and rational against the orients, and everyone else as mysterious and inferior, if not outright barbaric.
Circling back to the subcontinent, the 2008 sensation of a film Slumdog Millionaire made its rounds around theatres worldwide with huge commercial success in the Western world, sweeping the viewers off their feet with the film's enigmatic portrayal of the struggles of a Mumbai slum boy who lost everything as a child. Serving as an example of a transnational production which incites the underlying elements of Orientalism, many critics accuse the film of being "poverty porn" and an Orientalist and Eurocentric exploitation of India.
Slumdog Millionaire was also dubbed as a "poverty tour" for Western audiences. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that what the film claims to represent as "authentic" image of India, is aligned with the Western perception of India as a third world nation. An American couple is given a tour of the Ganges River - "the biggest laundromat in India." When the foreign tourists are taken back to their car, they discover that it has been stripped clean of its tires, engine and other components. The next scene shows the furious driver beating and kicking the tour guide - Jamal, who is also the main character of the film. Seeing the horror of the tourists, Jamal retorts, "You want to see a bit of real India? Here it is."
The critically acclaimed film creates an image of India which conforms to Orientalist ideologies of an exotic, primitive "Other." When a film is as popular as Slumdog Millionaire and has the power to reach global audiences, its responsibility towards the representation of other nations and cultures cannot be ignored.