At a recent conference on public diplomacy in Australian-Indian relations in New Delhi, an Indian scholar gave a presentation on ‘nation branding’ – how governments construct their national image in publicity campaigns. He discussed, as an example, Australia’s controversial tourism campaign of 2006: “Where the bloody hell you are?” The Australians present exchanged glances and smiled quiet smiles. It was, of course, a perfectly correct Hindi translation where the word order is different in an interrogative. While there was much vigorous discussion at the conference – on issues such as racial etiquette in India-Australia relations, journalism and the Colombo Plan in the 1950s and 1960s, and the media’s portrayal of the shameful spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009 – this moment, I thought, crystallised something about the nature of the relationship. It was a moment of insight into the way we observe and form opinions about each other and the stubbornness of mutual stereotypes. But more subtly, it revealed how the English language, which we celebrate as a gift from the British that binds us, obscures as much as reveals meaning in our cross-cultural exchange. The English language has been an insufficient interlocutor in establishing an enduring mutual comprehension.
This paper explores this idea by pondering how Australians and Indians perceive each other as expressed in films and popular media. Before the advent of travel, student exchanges, and globalised media, this is where people-to-people impressions have been formed over the course of Australia- India engagement. State to state relations are generally framed around ‘hard power’ economic and security issues, while culture – or ‘soft power’ – forms a lubricating sort of function. It ought to stimulate curiosity, dialogue and, in turn, a deeper understanding of each other. This, in turn, leads to greater trust, more trade, closer military cooperation and, ultimately, stronger ties. Conversely, cultural misunderstanding can send us in the direction of mystification, irritation or even distaste.
For Australia and India there have been misunderstandings aplenty – cricket-related stoushes, Australia’s refusal to sell uranium to India and the violence against Indian students studying in Australia in 2009. These topics shall be noticeably absent from this paper. It is not that they are not important, but these issues have been discussed at great length in the Australian media in recent times. As an historian I am more curious about the subtle evolution of our mutual perceptions. I wish to explore the broad trajectory of state-to-state relations and the parallel formation of cultural perception through the cinematic and popular media lens to discover the disjuncture between policy initiatives and people-to-people perceptions. To begin, I sketch an historical overview of Australia- India relations since India became an independent nation in 1947. I then take an admittedly sweeping look at mutual Indian and Australian representations in an attempt to understand how Australians and Indians see each other.