Wonder Woman (now in theatres) has won widespread acclaim for finally depicting a powerful and charismatic female superhero. However, their $100-million budget did not prevent them from making a hideous error that casts a shadow over the film for any Indian watching it. The moment is small, but chilling.
When gathering a team to infiltrate the battle lines at Belgium during World War I, we are introduced to the one brown character in the film, a man called Sameer (played by French-American actor Saïd Taghmaoui). So far so good — but because Sameer is apparently too difficult to pronounce, he is given the nickname "Sammy".
Only that "Sammy" was, especially during the time the film was set, a horrible colonial slur used by the British against Indians in South Africa. It is a corruption of "Swami".
Its painful history is recorded in the 1982 biopic Gandhi, where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi himself is mockingly labelled a "sammy" before being thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg. He is called "you little sammy b*****d" again when being assaulted by a policeman at his first major protest, against the Black Act of Jan Smuts that required all Indians and Chinese in South Africa to carry passes.
Racial and national minorities are welcome in Hollywood fantasies so long as they remain flat and familiar caricatures of themselves.
I am not even making a point of the only Indian character being a letch and a con artist. Nor am I raising the fact that several of the British soldiers in the trenches of Belgium, where the heroes cross the battle lines, were actually Indian sepoys. Or the fact that one of Sameer’s most prominent contributions in the film was to play a garrulous and servile chauffer to Chris Pine’s Captain Trevor. His disguise as a chauffeur includes him swapping one unidentifiable “oriental” cap (seen in the picture; it appears to be, of all things, the Indonesian Songkok) for another unidentifiable “oriental” turban.
Sameer is granted the distinction of being able to speak several languages, but there too he is shown as inferior to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who shuts him up by speaking even more.
The fact that a blockbuster is still failing to do even the most basic research into these characters — all of whom represent colonised communities — calls into question the whole trend of token representation. For the film does not acquit itself well in terms of its other token characters either.
Apart from Sameer, we have a Native American smuggler and war profiteer who is only called, of all things, "chief". His contribution to the mission includes sending up smoke signals. There is neither regard for nor mention of the specifics of Native American culture.
The film also features an alcoholic Scot who suffers his PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) nightmares when sleeping out in the open — wearing a kilt. At the time, the kilt was a ceremonial dress worn only on special occasions and during formal events.
While the effort to include colonised peoples in Hollywood blockbusters is an improvement upon their invisibilisation in the past, it is rather inexcusable to repeat racial slurs and insulting stereotypes.
This lack of basic research gives the lie to the whole gesture of including these characters. It shows us once again that racial and national minorities are only welcome in Hollywood fantasies so long as they remain flat and familiar caricatures of themselves.