Published Oct 29, 2020The importance of Toronto-based director Andrew C's film White Elephant cannot be underestimated or succinctly described. This is, on the one hand, a sweetly funny coming-of-age film about a Canadian-born Indian girl who wants what she thinks is a normal life, and it's unabashedly full of romantic teenage dreams and soapy fantasies; on the other hand, White Elephant packs a punch with its searing realism. Ultimately, this movie will be, for many, like seeing your reflection for the first time after a lifetime among billboards depicting white faces.
Taking place in Scarborough in 1996, the film is about a teenager named Pooja (Zaarin Bushra) — who loves movies, especially Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet — and her friends Manpreet (Gurleen Singh) and Amit (Dulmika Hapuarachchi). The three of them go to a high school located in a majority-minority neighbourhood. There is a group of white kids who work at a video store nearby and gather behind the school to smoke. Pooja takes notice of the boy in that group, Trevor (Jesse Nasmith), and makes a move on him. Things go downhill from here.
Pooja is a romantic, and all her notions of love and her cultural tastes are informed by the Western movies and TV shows she consumes, which are dominated by white people. Manpreet calls Pooja whitewashed and this spearheads Pooja's struggles with her dual identity as a Canadian-born Indian.
Pooja's narrative is underscored by tensions pertaining to Scarborough's racial politics in the late '90s and notions of who has the right to the land; Trevor's parents have always lived in Scarborough, while he notes that immigrants like Pooja's parents have only recently moved over. The film begins with an unseen boy, a part of Amit's brother's "gang," being shot; he then spends the length of the movie in hospital, and his faltering health is a stark reminder of the unrest that pervades Scarborough (and neighbourhoods like it), as communities strive for normalcy in face of systematic racism.
White Elephant is grounded in Pooja's complex narrative. The film, through Pooja, looks at what happens when a person grows up consuming culture made for the white majority. Their tastes, likes and dislikes, how they talk, how they dress, the kind of person they're attracted to — all this is shaped by the dominant culture, but the individual remains an outsider because of their race. Pooja's family is from Calcutta, but she doesn't know Hindi and she has never seen a Bollywood movie, though she does eat Indian food and has friends who are POC. Pooja makes references to movies she's seen and they go over her friends' heads, or her friends just don't care.
Pooja dreams of a rom-com romance with the blonde and blue-eyed Trevor; she imagines that she sees herself making out with him on TV, and she believes wholeheartedly that her dreams are feasible. But as the movie goes on, Pooja learns that her race is something people can't ignore. Though she is Indian, one of Trevor's friends calls her a "Paki," a slur most often used against Indian people because it denies them their unique and distinct history. Pooja becomes increasingly confused about her identity — if she's othered by the white people whose tastes she shares, and is also othered by fellow Indo-Canadians, then who is she? Pooja's internal and interpersonal battle is mirrored in the real world by the immediate danger that men of colour face in Scarborough — the politics that Manpreet calls "fake thug-life shit."
White Elephant offers stunning visual representations of people with dark complexions. Pooja is lit beautifully, as she appears confidently on screen, laughing in bright makeup and crying alongside Manpreet. The movie depicts the reality of Scarborough — the white people are few and often silently racist. It's refreshing to see the way Pooja objectifies Trevor, gravitating towards his blonde hair and blue eyes because he looks like people she sees in the movies; it clever subverts stereotypical racist narratives, when minorities are so often exoticized by their white love interests. Though the film does have minor moments where the camera lingers for a bit too long on faces, this is easily ignored thanks to the film's amazing score.
Bushra is a force to be reckoned with as Pooja; she carries the movie with her spitfire sense of humour, her encyclopaedic knowledge, and her incorrigible confidence. Andrew C shows Pooja's character respect, allowing her to shine in her vibrant teenage moments, preserving her safety when she is vulnerable. Singh as Manpreet is hilarious as the best friend who sees everything that's going on but doesn't interfere until things get serious. And Hapuarachchi as Amit is adorable in his love for both Manpreet and Pooja. The characters, as well as Andrew C's script, perfectly capture the vocabulary of a Canadian immigrant neighbourhood.
The film, in addition to all that it does with its teenage cast, also excellently parses through the mentality of immigrant parents. Pooja's dad (Kumar Kapasi) takes the time to explain to her why someone would leave a country that is their home, that they love, for the sake of their child's future. When Pooja notes that people are racist in Canada, the dad counters by saying they're just as terrible in India. The point he makes is that, at the end of the day, people have a better chance of living a measure above survival in Canada, this is what compels so many people to leave their families and make a go of it in Canada. Americans love talking about the American Dream, but there's also this Canadian Dream: a dream of living a nice, stable, mediocre life that is safe, hopefully among nice people. Just like the American Dream, it is foiled by a rigged capitalist system and insidious racism — a silent beast that makes its way through micro-aggressions most of the time, and outright violence the rest of the time.
It would be unfair to compare the film to Bend It Like Beckham; they're very different movies, with very different tones, but the sad reality is that White Elephant is one of the first few movies in almost 20 years to talk about a young Indian girl in Western society with big ambitions. I find myself describing White Elephant as "being a bit like Bend It Like Beckham" to those who haven't seen it. Really, this is shorthand for "It's a movie about a girl like me" — a movie about a brown girl who consumes and appreciates white culture, which makes her an outsider in both white society and brown society. It's about a girl who has to craft her identity in a way that very few people have to do: self-taught, independently of anyone else around her. Everything she knows, she taught herself through her own means. This makes her powerful, but also very alone. (Jaded Pictures)