American cinema, like American politics, is an us-first industry. It rarely looks outside its own swagger and complacency to take notice of other cultures. And when it does, it often sees ethnic differences not as alternate world views but as tribal foibles, worthy only of our imperial derision. We ignore or scorn those who may one day be our masters.
So a director like John Schlesinger -- England-bred but with a resume full of Hollywood hits (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) -- earns some respect when, in his new film Madame Sousatzka, he considers the clash of Anglo and Indian cultures. And Mira Nair, born in India and educated at Harvard, is to be cheered when she brings American movie expertise to her Salaam Bombay! In each film a bright Indian boy comes of age and finds the struggle for independence and maturity as daunting as it was for his country. Both are films of good intentions, but there the resemblance ends. Madame Sousatzka is a cracked cameo, Salaam Bombay! a poignant, imposing fresco.
Madame Sousatzka (Shirley MacLaine) teaches piano and shares a London house with a few other distressed gentlefolk. They might all be sitting on a verandah above the Ganges a half-century ago, waiting for the subcontinental jewel to fall out of the imperial crown. But now Madame has taken on Manek (Navin Chowdhry), a gifted Indian lad, as her prize pupil. She will wage war with his beautiful mother (Shabana Azmi) over his time and loyalty. She will goad Manek to greatness and lose a bit of her heart.
In an earlier life Shirley MacLaine was a splendid actress. Not so in her current incarnation as the Auntie Mame of films and chat shows. Her Madame is a cacophony of jangling bracelets and coquettish demands -- just the sort of acting that wins Oscars. Schlesinger's direction suits his star, with visual metaphors as subtle as a wrecking ball against a London house. Down goes the old world of nattering gentility; up comes the high-rise of Third World aspirations.
In Salaam Bombay!, ten-year-old Krishna (Shafiq Syed) has no hope higher than survival. His mother has thrown him out, and he must earn 500 rupees in the churning Bombay slums. Is this a death sentence? No, it is a challenge for the resourceful Krishna. Does the film curtsy to liberal pieties? No, it sees the city as a school for life -- life as it is for millions of Asian children. His neighbors may be prostitutes and pushers, but they are neither fiends nor Artful Dodgers; they are individuals come to bracing anecdotal life. And Bombay may not be paradise, but for Krishna it is surely an adventure.
The film is an adventure too, a tightrope dance between sociology and sentiment. Salaam Bombay! deserves a broad audience, not just to open American eyes to plights of hunger and homelessness abroad, but to open American minds to the vitality of a cinema without rim shots and happy endings.