The high media profile and ‘crossover’ success of South Asian migrant filmmakers such as Deepa Mehta has often bred accusations that they deliberately package themes and aesthetics in order to stir up controversy and produce an ‘exotic’ India for global audiences. This claim has recently been played out in relation to the Oscar-nominated film Water (2005), which provoked protests from Hindu fundamentalists and death threats to Mehta and her crew. My article argues that exoticist representation is a significant tendency within contemporary world cinema and needs to be addressed without the customary moral condemnation implied in both popular reactions and academic studies that favour more experimental works. It attempts to shift the terms of the debate by deconstructing the notion of the touristic, Western gaze to which these films ostensibly pander and mobilise a more fluid set of perspectives – the invocation of different regimes of sensuous knowledge and the cross-cultural adaptation of melodrama – to illuminate Water’s aesthetic choices, export success, and interpretation of gender power dynamics.
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