America’s newfound enthusiasm for Indian cinema is restricted only to the popular variety. When will our auteurs command the same respect as a Kurosawa or a Godard, asks Koli Mitra.
In the spring of 2006, I was taking the Amtrak train from Washington DC to New York. It was a full train, so sitting by oneself was not an option. Luckily, the passenger next to me turned out to be delightful company. We struck up one of those itinerant-neighbour interactions that happen when people are involuntarily thrown together with pleasant enough strangers.
My neighbour—let’s just call him Jack—was a digital media analyst. He was telling me excitedly about how Web 2.0 was already shrinking the world. (This was a time before Twitter existed, when Facebook was something only young people used and YouTube was brand new.) Jack said YouTube was going to revolutionise not only the way we watch movies and television, but that it would add immense diversity to the content we consume. He said we would soon live in a truly “global” civilisation, where the vast richness of formerly “other” cultures would be always at our fingertips.
Right about this time, we passed the Metropark station and I spotted a life-size image of Amitabh Bachchan on an ad poster, flashing a beguiling but avuncular smile and telling us to trust him and just buy the latest Nokia flip phone (or something like that). “Who needs Web 2.0 to ‘shrink the world’,” I asked Jack, “when we already live in one where Amitabh Bachchan promotes Finnish consumer goods to suburban New Jersey-ites from a brick-and-mortar ad wall, old school?” Jack laughed and said the digital revolution probably had a little something to do with that development as well. After all, could you have imagined this ad back when we were kids?
‘Indian culture’, whatever that might be, has been in the air for a number of years, and it’s getting stronger.
No, I couldn’t. But then, this was not the mostly-lily-white Northern Virginia of my childhood, it was central New Jersey, in the mid 2000s—thick with middle- and upper-class Indian Americans and Indian immigrants with dollars to spend, dollars that makers of consumer goods are only too happy to compete for. I was pretty sure that Mr Bachchan’s presence was less a sign of deeper cultural access than one of increasingly manipulative market penetration. And, by the way, Jack, who was not a person of Indian origin, already knew exactly who Amitabh Bachchan was. He did not know this from the Internet, but from associating with his info-techie colleagues, among whom ‘Indian’ is a heavily represented ethnic group. At any rate, I don’t know whether Internet connectivity really had any particular causal link with this kind of sub-culture-specific marketing. But one thing is clear: ‘Indian culture’, whatever that might be, has been in the air for a number of years, and it’s getting stronger.
I recently witnessed something that reminded me of my conversation with Jack. This time it was on an airplane, with another one of those itinerant neighbours. Barb was a lady in her early- to mid-60s, with medium brown hair worn in a short, sensible—if nondescript—style. She wore mom jeans with cushioned shoes (perhaps Rockports or Naturalizers), and spoke with an accent that sounded Midwestern. She was white. The last thing I expected to hear out of her mouth was the word ‘Bollywood’, but there it was. She was talking about the movies and she said her favorite genre was the musical, both Hollywood and Bollywood.
Of course, any person of Indian origin who has encountered other ethnicities will shrug at this point, because who among us hasn’t been told how much some stranger “loves” something about “our culture”? Right? Well, let me fill you in on one little detail I left out from my description of the conversation with Barb: she was not talking to me.
I was curious as to where Barb got her exposure to Bollywood. But I didn’t want to ask. Why should I assume this was anything extraordinary? The Hindi film industry has been around for over a century.
Barb was sitting across the aisle, in the row behind me, and she was talking to her traveling companion, another elderly lady whom a stranger might describe very similarly to the way I described Barb, except that she was black and had a Southern accent. I remembered Jack’s question from nine years ago and thought, “No, I definitely can’t imagine this happening when I was a kid.”
I was curious as to where Barb got her exposure to Bollywood. But I didn’t want to ask. Why should I assume this was anything extraordinary? The Hindi film industry has been around for over a century. It is a huge industry, in a huge country where almost a fifth of the world’s population lives. Why shouldn’t a mature adult like Barb, with access to information about the world, be exposed to it? Also, I didn’t want to be presumptuous and act like I had some special right to insert myself into their conversation just because I was Indian and they were talking about Bollywood. That’s exactly the kind of stereotype I abhor. Besides, it was just plain rude to interrupt their conversation in this way.
But I couldn’t resist. “Excuse me,” I said to the ladies, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but do you mind if I ask you something? How did you get introduced to Hindi movies?” To my relief, the ladies didn’t seem to mind my intrusion. Barb told me she had always liked musicals and at some point she found out about Bollywood, she was not sure exactly when. I asked whether her discovery had anything to do with the movie Moulin Rouge! (2001), which started a brief revival of the musical genre, had been partly inspired by Bollywood movies, and was frequently likened to them by critics. Barb gave me an amused, mildly condescending smile and said that she started watching Bollywood movies since the mid-to-late 1990s and thought that Madhuri Dixit was far superior to Nicole Kidman, both as a dancer and actor.
When I think about it, that period of the mid-to-late 1990s seems to be pivotal in the tectonic shift toward ‘India’ awareness in the general American culture. Indian Americans had grown into wealthy and eminently targetable consumers. India itself had become a place suddenly full of hungry consumers with expendable income, not to mention highly skilled labourers who could do sophisticated technical work cheaper than you could get an American high school dropout to serve burgers at Wendy’s.
It’s probably no coincidence that around this time, American-influenced global beauty pageants produced a long series of winners and strong-finishers from India. Indian food, including takeout, became mainstream. TV and movie characters of Indian descent became less caricatured. By the early 2000s, the British-Indian movie Bend It Like Beckham become a hit with mainstream American audiences without surprising anyone and Harold and Kumar easily became the new generation’s Bill and Ted on their way to White Castle. All through the last decade, there has been an explosion of Indians and Indian Americans on TV. The writer, actor and television-show creator Mindy Kaling has broken through the typecast of ‘the female lead’s quirky, ethnic best friend’ and established herself as a regular character—even title character—on hit shows. From campy sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Community, to mainstream ones like 30 Rock and The Big Bang Theory, and political dramas like The Good Wife to adventure series like Lost, and sci-fi fantasies like Heroes to musicals like Glee, Indians and Indian Americans are everywhere. Alongside this, there has been a rise in general curiosity and awareness about ‘authentic’ Indian culture, straight from India.
This is a big shift from “when we were kids”, to go back to Jack’s observation. Back in the 1980s, the average American was mostly ignorant about India. Of course, I am not taking about students of Indian history or mythology or about sociologists or linguists or other scholars taking a particular interest in India (and these were always rather few and far-between). Nor am I talking about yoga-enthusiasts and aging hippies with memories of a month spent in some Himalayan ashram in their youth. I’m talking about decently educated ‘regular’ people, who know precious little about India beyond whatever was in the headlines and maybe some idea of who Gandhi was, although many of them were unsure about his first name, because “I think ‘Mahatma’ is some kind of title, and not a name, right?” they would ask, hesitantly. My middle school French teacher thought Indira Gandhi was M.K. Gandhi’s daughter.
As an adult I constantly run into people with little interest in deeply understanding other cultures—or the intellectual patience to succeed at it—who nonetheless feel it necessary to show off how much they know about India.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: one always ran into a few people who might have read something by Salman Rushdie or R.K. Narayan, owned a Ravi Shankar recording or had seen a 30th anniversary screening of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy with Italian subtitles at a film festival. But that was about it. And even these were a lot less common than we might think. Those of us lucky enough to have known more than a few such people in our lives sometimes don’t realise just how small and rarefied a group this is. If we had well-read and culturally curious Indian parents, they were likely to attract friends who were also well-read and culturally curious people, particularly those who might take a special interest in Indian things. It’s a pretty self-selecting group.
By contrast, as an adult I constantly run into people with little interest in deeply understanding other cultures—or the intellectual patience to succeed at it—who nonetheless feel it necessary to show off how much they know about India. I met a man at a party who said he knew how to dance the bhangra and proceeded to show me. It was perfectly clear where he received his lessons, as there was something distinctively ‘Bollywood’ about his moves, but I was amused and touched that he knew what it was called. Then it dawned on me that all this newfound enthusiasm for Indian culture seems to focus inordinately on Indian pop culture, particularly Bollywood. People find out that my background is Indian and immediately inform me of how much they like Bollywood dance numbers or how hot they think Priyanka Chopra is.
In New York, there is an annual Indian Film Festival, featuring the less ‘commercial’ movies. There is a wide range of offerings, including the good, the bad, and the pretentious, from all over India. They are often in languages other than Hindi. Many of them are half in English, regardless of which language they are “officially” in.
This festival, interestingly, does not seem to be widely attended by non-Indians—even if they are ‘alternative’ film buffs—unless they have a specific interest in Indian cinema.
The attempt here is to present art rather than pop-entertainment, not that there should necessarily be a strict demarcation between the two. This festival, interestingly, does not seem to be widely attended by non-Indians—even if they are ‘alternative’ film buffs—unless they have a specific interest in Indian cinema. This is not much different from when I was a kid, when some elite cultural seekers and film aficionados were remarkably well-informed about obscure movements and experimental films being made India (usually called “parallel cinema” back then), but they were very small in number compared to the number of people watching French or Italian ‘art house’ movies. This has not changed significantly.
If anything, as the line between Indian ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ film has blurred, the appeal of Indian cinema for hardcore academic film buffs has somewhat waned. Films like Margarita With A Straw, with the interesting goal of exploring the ordinary life and preoccupations of a young girl with a disability as well as a bisexual identity, come across as too rom-com to be genuinely thought provoking. Films like Chhotoder Chobi, with another seemingly laudable premise, involving the lives of people with dwarfism, come across as a little voyeuristic and awkward, and fall far short of the sensitivity with which American independent films like The Station Agent handled the topic over a decade ago.
In the past, Indians have often complained that their ‘high culture’ has frequently been overlooked in the global arena. How many classic Indian authors writing in a language other than English are international household name comparable to Lev Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia-Marques or Orhan Pamuk? In film, nations with much smaller industries like Italy, Spain, Japan, and France boast of many more globally celebrated auteurs than India, with Satyajit Ray being the sole exception to the rule. And yet, Bollywood-led Indian pop culture, with all its vapid glitziness, is being widely embraced. As I told Jack nine years ago, it seems everyone in the world knows who Aishwarya Rai is. The number of people who know Satyajit Ray pales in comparison, to say nothing of the number of people who have even heard of Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
It seems everyone in the world knows who Aishwarya Rai is. The number of people who know Satyajit Ray pales in comparison, to say nothing of the number of people who have even heard of Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Now that India has come out of oblivion and has the world’s attention, why is the interest in its culture so lopsided? Is it because its pop culture is better produced and more heavily invested in than its ‘high culture’? Is it because the world’s interest in India is largely motivated by its potential as an exploitable market, and the easiest targets of consumer marketing are more likely to be interested in pop culture? Or is it just that pop culture is inherently (and almost by definition) more appealing to a wider audience and that India’s ‘arrival’ as player in global society naturally translates to its pop culture being adopted by others in a way that its repertoire of traditional or current ‘high art’ cannot possibly match in such a short time? Is it something else entirely?
I don’t know. Even within India, most of us do a poor job of reaching beyond the Hindi and English ‘mainstream’ and, maybe our particular regional language, to find out what current, organic art movements are taking shape around the country. I have no idea what Indian films are being made outside of Bengal and Bollywood, for example. So, I can’t really fault outsiders for not knowing.
All I do know is that it would be nice if names like Shyam Benegal or Girish Karnad or Ritwik Ghatak occasionally came up in conversations about ‘classic’ international films, not specifically focused on India, the way Akira Kurusawa and Jean-Luc Godard always do.