From Bollywood to Baghdad, Screen Stories Help Create Empathy

We live in a time that is in frantic need of empathy, tolerance, and compassion, and a move in the that direction may just begin with a movie night.

Bollywood posters

Bollywood film posters on a wall in New Delhi. Credit: Flickr Commons

We walked up a hilly field trudging through rows of sprouting seedlings, mottled with spots of brown mud from the rain that had since subsided. I was being led through legume fields by a local guide in Rwanda. We had chatted about what each of us did for a living, where our families lived, what we’d studied at university and within the first 30 minutes of our journey, we had exhausted our repository of routine questions. We continued the rest of our walk silently – until I heard him whistling a familiar tune. On closer scrutiny, I realised that it was a Hindi song called Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai from the infamous Bollywood blockbuster of the same name. It was a surreal moment, standing on a hill in Rwanda, cringing at that song 12,000 kilometres away from home.

I learnt that day that Bollywood is a big deal in Africa and was surprised to see this appeal for mainstream Bollywood cinema amid a non-Indian audience half-way across the globe. Even back home, I struggle to make sense of the archetypical Bollywood blockbuster with its brave heroes, beautiful damsels in distress, excessive song and dance, and far-fetched story lines. But something about Bollywood cinema has people in Africa relating to it the way audiences do back home. My guide didn’t speak any Indian languages and he had never left East Africa, but he had seen our slums and our cities, he knew of our obsession with fair skin, he understood that most of us spoke English, he could name over three Mughal emperors and had heard of the Mauryan Empire. Unsurprisingly, he did not know much about the South, but South India’s gross underrepresentation in anything Indian is a grouse for another essay.

This encounter made me realise just how effective film is in bridging the language and geographical barriers between communities. Film solves a problem that intrigues and gnaws away daily at the international development community – the problem of creating empathy. While it takes time for the effects of public policy and development work to materialise and be felt, films can travel across borders in weeks, translating a range of global voices for a local audience. Especially for non-English speaking, non-white communities, the evolution of film, technology, and social media, mixed with our rich cultural heritage, has empowered storytellers in the form of the filmmaker. Filmmakers, much like entrepreneurs, are inseparable from their societies and culture. They play a critical role in helping the outsider understand the nuances of their communities and contribute to social and political narratives. Films are far more than pieces of artistic expression – they are tools of communication and a way to familiarise an audience with issues that have the potential to invoke compassion among distant communities, and, in some instances, influence change.

In a scene from one of Charlie Chaplin’s most beloved films, The Immigrant, the protagonist is on a ship with other immigrants crossing over to the US. When they get off the ship, they are roped in and jostled around like cattle causing Chaplin’s character to irritably kick an American officer in the butt. While the scene is first and foremost amusing, Chaplin’s reaction is relatable on such a personal level that it diminishes the viewer’s sense of self and invokes a deep sense of empathy for the immigrant experience. This scene especially strikes a chord when re-visited today in light of the refugee crisis and the lack of compassion surrounding it. Movies allow us to engage in the perspectives of another person, and in being able to do so, we begin to unconsciously augment our own lives with those perspectives. Chaplin’s work is an important reminder that cinema is not a luxury for the elites, it is a crucial to a society’s progress, and the international development community must pay attention to it.

With the battle of Mosul at large, the development community is getting ready to implement relief programmes aimed at rehabilitation and rebuilding a democratic nation. However, these programmes run the risk of dehumanising individual identity in the attempt to preserve a statehood, and investments in development programmes need to address the histories and violence that have obscured this identity. To showcase a culture that has often been distorted to provoke political violence, Abbas Fahdel, an Iraqi-French filmmaker, crafted a moving and deeply personal record of the modern day, war-ridden Iraq in his film Iraq (Homeland Year Zero).

Fahdel records the lives of Iraqis before and after the US invasion. He films everyday rituals and the moments spent as a family – working, eating, playing. We see his family preparing for and then facing the annihilation of their society with an acquiescence that stems from being victims to the whims of leaders completely removed from the lives they are destroying. We are shown wrecked homes, burned children and ruined lives. But before we witness the carnage, we are introduced to the people behind these devastations. It is an alarming, difficult-to-watch, and much needed human depiction of the country. The movie doesn’t pick sides or paint a political picture, it only attempts to spotlight the millions of Iraqis that have so far been missing from the news. It sets cinema as a tool for representation and the realisation that the process of rebuilding a community needs a systematic understanding of cultural and societal activities that are tied to historical memory.

Development programmes are designed as a function of inputs and outputs that are required to meet a predetermined outcome. These outcomes often assume that we already know the innermost thoughts and desires of a community, thereby denying them agency. In his essay ‘Getting Others Right’, Teju Cole discusses how to understand and deliver a true depiction of an ‘other’ community. He argues that sympathy is not enough (and often condescending) while appropriation is invasive and flawed. How a community’s reality and issues appear to an outsider may not always be how they are perceived by the community itself. The way to understand a foreign experience while trying to intercede in a meaningful way is by listening intently, recognising that culture and history is messy, and then, within that knowledge, finding a way to serve the underserved.

It is important to acknowledge the privileges and biases that inform our perspectives in order to engage in genuinely inclusive programming, and cinema is an effective catalyst to do that. I am reminded of a quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that sums up these thoughts perfectly – “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” We live in a time that is in frantic need of empathy, tolerance, and compassion, and a move in the that direction may just begin with a movie night.

Devyani Singh heads the India chapter at the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), a program of The Aspen Institute.