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Here’s Why We Seek The ‘Exotic’ In Our Pop Culture

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Every year, Disney comes up with one or more of its animated films. Although these films are directed towards children and their parents, Disney gets its fair share of viewership from adults. Just like children, adults are captivated by the colors and the creative storylines. But have you noticed that Disney has the tendency to seek exotic locations to set their stories in? Disney stories are not just based in American/European locations, many of their films are based in ‘other’ most often ‘exotic’ locations. Films such as these not only cater to the thirst for viewing exotic and different locations in films but also opens up the possibility of a larger market when people from these locations get interested in watching how their place and culture has been represented. Pretty much the same way films such as “Slum Dog Millionaire” and “Lion” made the Indian population very keen on watching them.

Disney’s quest to show the ‘exotic’ has propelled it to produce many such films based in unique locations – a Pacific island, Brazil, Medieval China, Medieval Scotland, Colonial America. As Guy Debord (1967) said – our life has become an accumulation of spectacles. Doesn’t Austen’s women make a spectacle of themselves or the women of Man Men? As Debord wrote in his Society as Spectacle (1967), “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Doesn’t it pique our interest to see women’s limiting ways and opportunities in the past? Most commonly, do we not like watching serial killers and the visual details of their horrendous murders? People revel in watching what they have never watched before. Did “Kung Fu Panda” only become successful at the box office because of its star dubbers and storyline? Did its success have nothing to do with setting the story in Medieval China?

People talk of “orientalism” and how Hollywood and American media exoticize the Islamic and Asian cultures. Most popular examples given are Disney’s “Aladdin”, Julia Robert starrer “Eat Pray Love”, Cardi B’s song “Bodak Yellow”, Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse”, Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend”. American media has been accused of injecting enduring stereotypical images into the imagination of Americans about Arabs, Indians, and other Asians. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” Debord wrote. Stereotypical depictions make the very impressionable viewers vulnerable to as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie aptly says, “The danger of a single story”.

Some argue that our quest for seeking the ‘exotic’ is rooted in our tendency for escapism. Science fiction and fantasy films are often considered as relief for its escapist viewers, offering us alternate realities and luring us to the purposeful suspension of disbelief. I say it’s more than that. For even depictions of unreality are governed by some rules of reality. Contents of science fiction and fantasy aren’t entirely bereft of the themes or sub-themes of forces which define our reality — be it universal human emotions, inevitable conflicts or the binary of good and evil.

When I watched Pixar’s “Coco” (2017), its lovely animation with splendid spectacles of colours enchanted me. It interested me to know about the culture and a festival – of a non-American/British country. We are bombarded with images from the American and British media. Our thirst for the unknown makes us crave for those “images” which are not our own or those that we don’t most often come across. I view Bollywood’s obsession of introducing Bengali characters (among others) in movies, as one such example.

Why are Indians so keen on Hollywood over Bollywood? Isn’t it similar to few people’s preference of Pink Floyd over Bollywood songs? Or preferring Premier League over Indian Super League? We crave for the unfamiliar. We as Indians are powered by xenocentrism. People prefer things which are popular, caused by our mimetic desires as expounded by Rene Girard. After all, we are all very impressionable and it’s being “hip” and “cool” to like Pink Floyd, and to root for Chelsea.

I think our Indian film industry has a bigger scope of exploring the much diverse and complex social reality of India. When I watch Hollywood films – their content appears predictable – people’s lifestyles are pretty similar within different segments of the society (and there aren’t many segments). The Indian film industry has the potential to come up with complex and unpredictable stories, as our pool of inspiration is mammoth. So what if our CGI is lightyears behind their’s, our stories can be different – they need not compete in the domain dominated by them but instead produce stories unique in themselves. We can find the “exotic” in our own diverse socio-politico-economic reality itself.

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