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Fernando Velho: cidade

Illustration by Govit Morajkar

“The return of tourists to Goa can be best judged by their numbers at the Panjim Church Square,” said a friend just after the Covid-19 lockdowns ended. A few weeks later, and much to the disgust of worshippers and local residents, a huge simulation of a car bomb was set off near the Church steps as part of a film shoot. Goa was well and truly open for business.
The “Goa Movie” is creating an image of India’s smallest state that is being consumed by tourists long before they set foot here. These movies stereotype Goa to narrow consumerist categories: fun, leisure, churches, beaches, and hedonism. As the tourism industry becomes all the more visible in all sectors of Goan life, it is leading to the shallow reproduction of tourism tropes that derive from deep within Goa’s society. In this way, Goa is literally becoming a simulacrum of itself.
The “Goa Movie” has built itself up on a long tradition of travel writing that looked upon the state and its culture as being culturally distinct and in need of interpretation. The British colonial traveller Richard Burton was one such individual. His book “Goa, and the Blue Mountains: Or, Six Months of Sick Leave” (1851) is full of insinuations, and horrifyingly racist observations about the natives. More than 100 years later, and in kinder prose – the Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre and British writer Graham Greene still looked at the state as being distinct from the rest of the subcontinent.
Today, this theme of Goa’s difference is sustained by movies which are rarely generated from within the state or its culture. They are produced at centres of cultural production located far away from the everyday realities here. This is why our actual political and social discourse is ignored in favour of simplistic feel-good themes of fun and leisure. Since these movies are consumed nationally and internationally, they are then conveniently leveraged by the state’s massive tourism industry, and their themes get reproduced locally ad infinitum.
Even Goa’s immigrant communities are not immune to this stereotyping in diaspora. Paromita Vohra’s short documentary Where’s Sandra (2006) is a search for the origins of the racy female stereotype “Sandra from Bandra” − The quintessential good-time girl who wears dresses, drinks alcohol, and loves to dance. The documentary narrows down the root cause of this to a minority stereotype perpetuated to the Christian female characters portrayed by Bollywood in the 70’s and 80’s, but also on the fact that Goa had opened up as a tourism destination.
That “Sandra from Bandra” of the yesteryears has evolved into the eccentric buffoonery that is found in movies like Finding Fanny (2014). The tourism industry is quick to pick up on these themes and then reproduce them for tourism consumption. It is not uncommon to find a real-life character named something like “Maria”, who is dressed in costume to play her part in the tourism trade.
Films have an ability to generate tourism revenue from even a random landscape. Every day in the village of Arpora − hundreds of tourists, social media influencers, and their accompanying camera crews jostle for space on a narrow coconut tree-lined road. On closer examination there isn’t anything particularly special about that road, but Guzaarish (2010) and Dear Zindagi (2016) were both filmed here. Much like the ancient rituals of retracing the steps of saints, a new type of ritual pilgrimage is playing itself out in Goa.
There have even been “Goa Movies” that create a Goa image without being filmed in Goa. Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004) directed by David Dhawan is a case in point, shot in the Seychelles. Having Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan dancing bare-chested with garlands and skirts made of coconut leaves on the beach is apparently all that it takes to recreate Goa today.
Similarly, in architecture, films have become a mood board and a starting point. Some of the largest architectural commissions were won by firms situated outside the state, with their rather derivative and half-understood versions of Goan architecture. The South Goa District Hospital and Mathany Saldanha Administrative Complex is a case in point. In this way, when the Goan landscape and way of life begins reproducing the “Goa Movie” trope of mainstream cinema, things start getting absurd.

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