The Representation of Indian Culture in Bollywood and Indian Diaspora Essay

The Representation of Indian Culture in Bollywood and Indian Diaspora

            India has the distinction of producing more movies than any other county in the world, with over 1000 movies a year, and more than 13,000 movies seat a daily crush of nearly 15 million people, hence the term “Bollywood” (Chakraborty 414). In these “Bollywood” films, Indian culture is usually depicted where epics and traditional ballads are infused with musical-like cinematography which involves many song numbers and dances. As of late, Bollywood films and style have penetrated the international film market. Danny Boyle’s award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” is a testament of this trend, especially if we take a look at how Bollywood dimensions are seen throughout the film. In line with this, Indian transnational identity, supranational identity and other identifies defined by diaspora are being given focus, especially in the context of media being a global force in the modern era. The concern of this paper is to take the fictive cases of two individuals who are borne out of diaspora, both of them Indian and both of them living in Western Europe, and find out what their perception of Bollywood and Indian media is. One is a 20 year old girl who is from a middleclass family who resides in Paris. The other is a boy coming from an upperclass family residing in London. There are three things that we have to consider here: 1) the intersectionality of their identity, meaning understanding that their identity is multifaceted and that their actions which shapes their identity is also being determined by the norms attached to these labels 2) the way Indians and Indian culture are being represented in media and if there are indeed changes to it 3) the environment in which they have grown in and possible historical links to their “mother country” which is India.

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            But first, let us discuss the immediate effects of the Bollywood explosion in Western pop culture and the Indian diaspora. Bandyopadhyay (81-84) outlines the most significant effect of Bollywood as a mechanism for building up the Indian identity of Indian diaspora. In effect, there is a boost in tourism from ex-patriots because these individuals feel a strong sense of “Indian-ness” given the portrayal of Indian culture in Bollywood films. These films had so much appeal to ex-patriots that a new industry Bandyopadhyay terms as a “diasporic tourism industry”. Here, he finds that what appeals to the diaspora are the new contours represented in these films, where they depict “modern-day Hindus enjoying the prosperity of the new age” (Bandyopadhyay 86). The interplay between “nostalgia, identity and tourism” centers on the medium of Bollywood because it provides mechanisms for these three to be manifested in reality. He cites films that depict Indian diaspora as the protagonists that opt to return home to India because the overall value that supercedes all other values is gping back to one roots, their primal culture, as it is from which one defines who he or she is. From this nostalgia, people are prompted to go back to India for them to experience it for themselves as well as be in touch with who they really are.

            Given this, we see that there are positive effects that Bollywood films and Indian media presents to the Indian diaspora and more importantly, it provides precedents for discourses that aim to reconstitute Indian identity and oneness in the face of a globalizing world that sees cultures diluted through the rapid exchange of ideas, technology and culture. This however also presents venues for antagonisms coming from within and without the diaspora as there are other factors that have to be considered.

            Next, let us discuss the identity of Indian diaspora and how it is shaped in the modern era though a variety of discourses and recent historical events that have provided spaces where diasporas and the “other people” around them unite as well as have antagonisms. As of late, immigrant Indians are in a midst of a delicate way of living in the places where they have settled in as they often battle with a duality of identity. What diaspora does is instil a notion of conflict between maintaining their ethnic heritage as well as being integrated with the general populace. The idea here is that there is a sense of betrayal from leaving India when the country needs them just to reap the benefits of western living and other opportunities western institutions provide (Gopinath 161). This is especially true when we factor in the idea of the 9/11 terror attacks where Indians are confused with middle-eastern peoples (thanks to racial profiling) as well as media reports of India and neighboring country Pakistan as states that harbor terrorists. Gopinath sees that Bollywood becomes a discursive site where “nation, race, gender and sexuality” are “consolidated” (160) and as such, sees the proliferation of Indian movies as a double-edged sword that can do positive reinforcement and negative reinforcements of forwarding “traditional values” seen as backward and antagonistic by others in the society they live in. This shows that Bollywood does not only provide an escapism that audiences usually get from your run-of-the-mill cinematic experience. Rather, it becomes a beacon of confirmation on the part of the Indian diaspora of their worth but it also becomes the basis of ridicule and discrimination. It is with this balance that Indian diaporic identity is defined and it is through this framework which the whole notion operates in. Non-South Asian viewers who view these films usually subject their own standards to asses what they have viewed and what usually happens is that the movie is made out to be a spectacle, with many Indian cultural markers seen as exotic or taboo because these are taken out of context. Also given the racialized environment of the post-9/11 world, we see that these spectacularizations are taken as it is with minimal or no critical analysis and these in turn become normalized in daily life. However, the identity of the Indian diaspora can also be seen as a collective with a strong sense of oneness and connectivity with their place of origin and it is through this that they create counter-discourses which contest these normalized stereotypes. Another facet that has to be highlighted when we talk about this is the sexuality and gendered role of members of this group. Gopinath cannot sum it up better by stating that non-South Asians are bombarded with the idea of Indian women being totally subservient to the whims of men (which is to some extent true in rural Indian life which still adhere strictly to the rules of Hinduism) ergo objectifying them (168). Basically, women are portrayed in their traditional manner with no comparison to the modern Indian women of today which gives the idea of them being “available for male consumption” (Gopitnath, 164). However, we see that women who have dominated the Indian media scene are those who have “idealized” versions of what the Indian woman should be and deems those who have highly sexual or attractive features to be dangers to the portrayal of the nation (Sundar 151). This kind of representation shows a hegemonic and engendering side of Bollywood, in which women are usually depicted as subservient to men and that Indian culture has remained to be backward as it does not recognize women’s rights and independence: something that is the basis of modernity in this global village. In this sense, we see Bollywood as an institution that enables and constraints women at the same time, enabling them in the sense that they are depicted as the wise ones in the film but constrained in the sense that their movements remain to be limited and their worth bound to tradition (Sundar 160). Men on the other hand are depicted depending on the context in which they work in. D’Cruz outlines the differences in how Anglo-Indians in Hollywood are depicted comically as compared to Bollywood where they are depicted as almost invincible heroes with oozing machismo and how these two are different in how Indian men are depicted in arthouse films as bastions of wisdom and spirituality (56-61). These different depictions are tailor-fitted to the audience of these different genres and as such, the Indian diaspora are given different pictures of the Indian man. However, men here are viewed in all their positive aspects. Hollywood actors are depicted as perfect specimens of integration, an individual who have seamlessly adapted to immigrant life and has no problem maintaining their duality in identity. Arthouse films project this image of the Indian man as wise with years of being battered by the harsh realities of life and being gifted by the enlightenment of spirituality. Bollywood projects Indian men as the perfect male specimen, being capable of handling whatever business they come across with so much ease that it becomes ridiculous at times (D’Cruz 63-65). Basically, Bollywood has variations in presentation targeting non-South Asians as its primary demographic, however being exposed to backlashes resulting from taking things in these films out of context through spectacularization. Women here are also seen as a central force in Bollywood films especially when we talk about “Bollywoodized” western novels such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (Raw 73-74). It is seen that Bollywood would want to appeal to other audiences aside from its local population. As such, these methods make the medium more accessible to as many people as possible which magnify its capacity to shape the social forces that take place in areas where Indians have migrated to.  Wilson also sees this pattern in the movie “Bride and Prejudice” which works on the premise of an ex-patriot going to Punjab to seek a bride (327). In this sense, women become a force that is to be desired and fought for by men but at the same time, a source of parody from the romantic tradition of Austen and other western romantics which adds an underhanded criticism from Bollywood.

            Now that we have a clear idea of how the different considerations operate with regards Bollywood and Indian diaspora, let us now go back to the fictive cases that we have outlined above. Let us fist discuss the boy that lives in London born in an upperclass family. First off, he is a man which places many pressures on him. He has to have the necessary characteristics to rightfully inherit whatever his parents leave him and as such, he will be most likely imbibed with what it takes to be a real man, in the context of British high society (as he is also part of the upper echelon of the social structure). This constrains him in many ways, possibly in actually viewing Bollywood as it is deemed as effeminate and exotic by his peers. Most likely, he will deviate from partaking in watching these types of films in the fear of being ridiculed and ostracized as well as risk the good reputation that his parents have worked so hard to build. Since his parents are of highclass, it can be assumed that they have integrated seamlessly with British culture especially if we consider how stringent the standards of Bristish high society are. This being the case, and with Bollywood and Indian media deemed as exotic, it serves as a negative reinforcement for the boy to watch the film. In effect, the boy tends to create a negative perception of Bollywood and possibly of Indian culture because in the place in which he grows up in, he has to constantly battle hidden discrimination and what not, given especially that India was a former colony of Britain. However, in the off-chance that the boy partakes in viewing Bollywood films, there is a high chance that he will have a strong sense of heritage and a strong confirmation of his manhood. Even if it is women who are generally highlighted in these films, leading men are depicted ideally as well and so the boy takes from the idea that he is a master of his own destiny and that whatever inheritance he will receive is worthy of him. One other possibility is an in-depth understanding of his culture, and imposing upon himself a requisite to fully understand his heritage. Even if at first he deems what he sees in the film as exotic, he will be compelled to break these stereotypes. Rich people have the tendency not to take ridicule lying down and as such, he will probably find ways to discover his heritage. However, it is more likely for him to deviate from enjoying these films as western concepts of manliness appeals to him more than traditional ones.

            In the case of the 20 year old female in Paris, things might be slightly different. As a female, she is more prone to being open in what she watches and is given as many options there is when we talk about the media. Also, the fact that Bollywood is characterized as a movie bombarded with traditional dances and feminine appeals to female audiences than it does men and it has no stigma attached to female viewers as it is seen as more natural on their part to watch such films. However, there is a struggle when it comes to the representation of women in these films. Let us remember that France is the homeland of dissent and feminist thought and it is very likely that she will be influenced by such notions. The representations of women in Bollywood films usually are packaged to them being tame and subservient to men, the exact thing that feminists fight against. Although not all women are radical feminists, women in liberal democracies such as France are raised to be independent and critical thinking and in effect, women, even immigrants, would want to work within this mold. Moreover, being a young adult in this western society demands for her to be on the move al the time even without the company of a man and this runs counter to the representations seen in Indian media. This is buffered by the fact that she is middleclass which pushes her to rise above her current status and make a success with herself, and so she will most likely pursue a career. However, what she can appreciate is the presentation of a simple and alternative way of life. Even in the midst of al these feminist firestorms, there will always be space for romantic ideals in the psyche of a woman and this ideal version of settling down and being cared for deeply by a man who truly loves her makes her aspire for something similar to that. In turn, Bollywood can also serve as an advertisement of how ideal mates Indian women really are and this can be another venue of appreciation on the part of the woman. The strength of character also forwarded by the heroines of these films also serves as an example for her to follow and become paragons of excellence.

            At the end of the day, we see that when it comes to media and diaspora, there are many possible outcomes. That is the nature of a diaspora. It works like a double0edged sword and becomes a source of pride and at the same time shame. The way that it can be truly assessed is contingent on the individual characters of these people and these are also shaped by different factors aside from their ethnicity and heritage. In a globalizing world where Bollywood has become recently highlighted in western pop-culture, there is a new appreciation from non-South Asians of this age-long tradition from India which can easily be carried over to the Indian diaspora. As their identity is now also being directly shaped by Bollywood, they are forced to have appreciation for the artform and find themselves in a place of discovery and rediscovery as well as a plateau of enlightenment. Coming to grips with ones roots is hard to do, especially if we talk about people who have never been to the motherland and have the slightest idea of real Indian culture. It is through Bollywood that they are given unlimited and unadulterated dosages of Indian culture operating on different levels of social life. The adjustments of Bollywood to appeal to diasporas and non-South Asians also allows for the previous to reconcile the two identities they possess. Such is the mystique of media and the way it works.

Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, Ranjan. “Nostalgia, Identity and Tourism: Bollywood in the Indian Diaspora.” Journal of Tourism & Cultural Change 6.2 (2008): 79-100. Hospitality & Tourism Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Chakraborty, Chandrima. “Once upon a Time in Bollywood: The Global Swing in Hindi Cinema.” Letters in Canada 78.1 (2009): 412-414. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

D’Cruz, Glenn. “Anglo-Indians in Hollywood, Bollywood and Arthouse Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 28.1 (2007): 55-68. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Gopinath, Gayatri. “Bollywood Spectacles: QUEER DIASPORIC CRITIQUE IN THE AFTERMATH OF 9/11.” Social Text 23.3/4 (2005): 157-169. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Raw, Laurence. “From Jane Austen to Hollywood to Bollywood.” Literature Film Quarterly 38.1 (2010): 73-75. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Sundar, Pavitra. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8.1 (2008): 144-179. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Wilson, Cheryl A. “Bride and Prejudice: A Bollywood Comedy of Manners.” Literature Film Quarterly 34.4 (2006): 323-331. Academic Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

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