Upon re-watching Moulin Rouge! (2001) for this project, and this was the first time I had watched it, I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled to see the opening number of Spectacular, Spectacular was Bollywood themed. After my initial “hype” had settled, I became confused, as earlier in the movie, I had also noticed the Indian theme of Satine’s dressing room. I was prompted with many questions: Why had director Baz Luhrmann thought to include such an obvious homage to Bollywood? What does it mean that 99.9% of the actors in Spectacular, Spectacular, a play that takes place in India, are white? Could this be considered cultural appropriation? If so, is it conscious or subconscious on Luhrmann’s part?
Indian scholars Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti explore the implications of Luhrmann’s nod to Bollywood cinema in their essay titled “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Gopal and Moorti begin their discussion by giving context to Luhrmann’s use of Indian influence; he was inspired by a Bollywood film he and his wife Catherine Martin had seen while abroad in northern India in 1995. They quote Luhrmann, as he says, “‘We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi because we understood everything” (29-30). It’s safe to assume that Luhrmann meant that the narrative of the Bollywood was so transparent and universal that he was able to understand despite not knowing the native language or having any subtitles to help.
Gopal and Moorti immediately establish that they believe that Luhrmann may have meant well, but ultimately overstepped his cinematic boundaries. They write,
Though a Bollywood film is not a “musical” in the sense that Hollywood gives to the term, Luhrmann (mis)translates it as such and then proceeds to use this other cinematic form as the basis for “providing a new vernacular for the musical” in the West. Created in this mix of admiration, misunderstanding, and bricolage, Luhrmann’s homage to Bollywood arrived in the West at a moment marked by trendy citations of Hindi cinema in popular culture (30).
The scholars analyze the different aspects that Moulin Rouge! seems to borrow from Bollywood cinema, both on what I will call macro and micro-levels. “Bollywood in Drag” reads, “Few would recognize that the heroine Satine’s transformation from conniving showgirl to tragic heroine recalls the tawaif (courtesan) figure in popular Hindi cinema, while the love-addicted hero, Christian, relies on the sentimental codes of Bollywood masculinity” (30-31). Character tropes would fall under the macro-level, as would major storylines and the use of song and dance, all important facets of the Bollywood genre and of Moulin Rouge! Gopal and Moorti write,
There are striking resemblances between Moulin Rouge! and classic tawaif films like Pakeezah (The Pure One, dir. Kamal Amrohi, India, 1971) and Umrao Jaan (dir. Muzaffar Ali, India, 1981). In these narratives, romantic love brings the courtesan’s subjectivity to crisis. No longer willing to be a public commodity, the courtesan wants to give herself only to her lover. Like any other modern individual, she desires a private self (50).
Satine, a courtesan, views herself as a caged bird that may never be away to fly away. Her lover Christian can only give her a taste of what it’s like, prompting their intense emotional connection through song. Song and dance performances are essential to Indian cinema, as they serve as callbacks to tradition as well as to strong feelings. Gopal and Moorti cite specific songs in Moulin Rouge!, such as “Heroes,” that give off a similiar Bollywood-esque intensity.
Micro-levels of Bollywood inspiration include specific melodramatic sequences, as well as Luhrmann directly taking a detail from a Bollywood movie and inserting it into his own film. Gopal and Moorti remark on the dual-ending of Spectacular, Spectacular and Moulin Rouge!, in which the ending within the film’s imaginary is a happy one for the audience in the theater, but after the curtain closes, the movie viewers know that Satine has died. In other words, “The film spectator is treated to a climax that follows the narrational protocols of the Bollywood masala movie, assembling multiple generic threads including the chase, the farce, sentimental romance, and tragic melodrama” (52).
The opening scene to Spectacular, Spectacular, which I have previously mentioned, samples a song from a previous Bollywood film.
“Bollywood in Drag” reads, “The scene commences with the only overt reference to Bollywood cinema—a sample from the song ‘Chamma Chamma’— which serves as a prelude to Satine’s opening number. Performed by Alka Yagnik, this song from China Gate (dir. Rajkumar Santoshi, India, 1998) was a hit in India and among diasporic audiences” (52). In the clip below, 0:38 to 1:15 is the sample that Luhrmann took.
Within the “Hindi Sad Diamonds,” sequence, white actors and actresses appear to be singing (they are dubbed, as “Chamma Chamma” is a sample) but also dancing in the traditional Bollywood style. While Moulin Rouge! does take place in France and not in India, there are other multicultural characters, such as the actor who is solely referred to as “The Argentinian.” A white woman seen singing a Bollywood song could be termed cultural appropriation, offensive, as it “whitewashes” cultural identity. People are far more aware now of cultural appropriation and whitewashing than they woman were in 2001, but it still occurs- there was a recent uproar about Scarlett Johansson portraying an Asian woman in an upcoming film.
Ultimately, Gopal and Moorti agree that Luhrmann is perpetuating cultural appropriation to a degree. They cite the example of the only distinctive character of color in the film, Chocolat, who is seldom seen or heard except for when he is saving Satine from near-death experiences; he saves her when she falls off the swing, and when the Duke attacks her. The scholars write,
Given this savior role, it is apt therefore that in Spectacular, Spectacular he appears as a blue- skinned god — the playful and amorous Hindu deity Krishna who presides over the story—but his is only a visual presence, not one that facilitates the narrative movement. As a body of color, Chocolat encapsulates the problematic position offered to third- world subjects and spectators of color in the commodification of exotica: they do not control the positions allocated to them in the cultural marketplace, and often they can be used as substitute representatives for any “exotic” culture whatsoever, just as an African is used to depict a Hindu deity. Chocolat’s only agency in the film is in the service of the white woman (55).
In conclusion, when it comes cultural appropriation, I think that the narrative aspects of Bollywood that Moulin Rouge! takes are okay, but the excessive set design (Satine’s Elephant Room, the replica Taj Mahal in the Moulin Rouge), the direct sampling of Bollywood music, and unfitting character potrayals (Satine and Zidler portray Indian royalty, Chocolat the Hindu god in Spectacular, Spectacular) makes for a convincing argument. While it’s good that Hollywood films are inspired by Bollywood, as it makes more people aware of India’s booming filmic industry, too much copying and pasting can lead to cultural hijacking.
Gopal, Sangita, and Sujata Moorti. “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Camera Obscura 25.75 (2010): 28-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.