Monday, December 26, 2005

Hakim in "Vanity Fair"

I finally have seen Mira Nair's film Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. I found it somewhat entertaining but felt by the end that it had run aground. But really, what I want to comment upon is the unbelievable and completely non-credible "dance scene," staged by the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) and featuring Becky Sharp, to impress the King of England.

It's hard to imagine why Indian director Nair would put such a sequence on screen, where a posse of white British dancers wear what basically are bellydance outfits (somewhat Indianized) and perform ersatz bellydance moves, and where Reese Witherspoon wears Goth-style eye makeup. Such "bellydance" costumes were invented, in fact, by Hollywood in the early 20th century, and eventually adopted back in the Middle East. But what is really strange about the sequence is that it features Egyptian bellydance music by acclaimed sha'bi vocalist Hakim. The song, "El Salam," (from Hakim's 2002 Mondo Melodia release, Takatik), features all acoustic accompaniment, but nonetheless it's entirely inauthentic and anachronistic. Normally I like such "Arab inroads" into Western culture, but this one sits ill with me. Plus it fits into that standard Orientalist trope, whereby all "wog" culture, whether Indian or Arab, is more or less equivalent.

I also hated the end of the film, where Becky realizes her dreams and ambitions by finally marrying Joseph Sedley and traveling to India. The last scene shows Becky and Joseph riding elephants in a gorgeously colorful and exotic India. Pure raj/imperial nostalgia.

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