Can Outsiders Make Films About India in an Honest Way?

Written for KQED Arts, April 14, 2016

Sold tells the story of a 12-year-old Nepali girl trafficked to India for sex slavery. The film is based on a book for young adults by Patricia McCormick, also called Sold. It also happens to be directed by a white man.

I got the opportunity to speak with director Jeffrey D. Brown about the film. During the course of our interview he told me twice that his stepfather is Bengali. The first time he told me I thought it was interesting; by the second time I wondered if this was the South Asian-equivalent of telling me he has Black friends.

Still from 'Sold.'
Still from ‘Sold.’ (Courtesy of Jaya International)

Was he trying to prove to me he couldn’t be guilty of a certain amount of white savior complex because his stepfather is Bengali? My stepmother is Czech (true story) and despite frequent visits to Prague, I don’t believe this gives me authority on anything Czech-related.

The film is well shot and beautiful in many ways, but it will always be uncomfortable to watch a 12-year-old girl being raped and continually abused. Maybe it was more uncomfortable for me since the main character and I share a name.

Still from 'Sold.'
Still from ‘Sold.’ (Courtesy of Jaya International)

It also felt strange to hear English spoken in a variety of Indian accents. The cast of Sold came from all over India; Brown said filming in English was one of the most challenging parts of production. In the end, they spent 26 days on dubbing. Though they wanted to shoot Sold in both Hindi and English, the budget wasn’t sufficient to do both.

This got me thinking about other films about India (and beyond) and whether or not outsiders are truly able to understand a community that is not their own. And since nothing is merely black or white these days, I’ve come up with an emoji ranking system: four diverse thumbs up = 4 out of 4 stars. Let’s try it out:


Born into Brothels (2004) directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman

In this Academy Award-winning documentary, director Zana Briski chronicles her work teaching kids from Kolkata’s red light district photography skills and her efforts to get those children into boarding schools.

What the critics said: “The red light district has existed for centuries and will exist for centuries more. I was reminded of a scene in Buñuel’s Viridiana. A man is disturbed by the sight of a dog tied to a wagon and being dragged along faster than it can run. The man buys the dog to free it, but does not notice, in the background, another cart pulling another dog.” — Roger Ebert


Honesty rating: While I liked this film overall, it could be seen as problematic because of its “white savior” undertones.


Monsoon Wedding (2001) directed by Mira Nair

What constitutes an outsider? As an Indian-born woman currently living in New York, Nair is arguably an insider. Perhaps that’s why she gets four thumbs up.

What the critics said: “The cast is exclusively Indian and the setting is Delhi… The film is played out in English, Hindi and Punjabi, which such a family would speak. Though tradition, such as the arranged marriage of the family’s daughter, plays a large part in the film, there is modernity too. The groom is an engineer from Houston, and the characters are as familiar with the dot com society as anyone in the west… Nair looks at these contrasts with a skilled eye that’s ironic but never mocking.” — Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

Honesty rating:There’s beauty, nuance, and a variety of complex and complicated characters.


Best Exotic Marigold Hotel(2011) directed by John Madden

What the critics said: “Despite all the creaky contrivances (notably Muriel’s new-found ability to walk coinciding with her realization that brown people aren’t so bad after all)… The case to be made forThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that it addresses a sector of the cinema audience — the over-50s — routinely overlooked by the film industry, and deals, however lightly, with subject matter that meshes with their preoccupations.” — David Gritten, The Telegraph


Honesty rating: It’s entertaining, but ultimately the target audience seems to be older folks.


Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by Danny Boyle

What the critics said: “This proves to be one of the most upbeat stories about living in hell imaginable.” — Manohla Dargis,The New York Times

“The main issue isn’t that the film is just patronizing to India, but to the audience. It is merely a pastiche of styles and ideas, although ethnicity and epic landscapes may be enough to satisfy the Academy judges… Maybe we should be realistic: if the slum tours profit, so do the charities supporting them. So the film has done some good. But that isn’t the same as it being any good.” — Chei Amlani, The Telegraph


Honesty rating: It’s slightly patronizing and stereotypical but overall it’s an intense and moving story.

Still from 'Sold.'
Still from ‘Sold.’ (Courtesy of Jaya International)

Back to the matter at hand. Sold the movie makes one big change to the original book’s narrative (spoiler alert!): Lakshmi frees herself instead of being rescued.


I give Sold two thumbs up because despite all its problems, its message is a good one.

Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry that impacts over 20 million people around the world. Anything that brings attention to these issues is important.

I give Sold two thumbs downs because I didn’t need to see a movie to be convinced we need to end child trafficking. It makes me wonder if money spent on the film could have been better allocated directly towards the cause it promotes.

Have you seen a film in which an outsider accurately portrays a community? Does it make a difference if someone is from that place, race, or country?

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