Hindi Cinema and a Portrait of Overseas Indians

Bollywood has emerged as truly global media addressing a global audience and as a symbol of the ambition of India as a world power

I recall my days in Montreal in the 1980s when I was undertaking my postgraduate studies in a culturally new and unfamiliar environment which often made me feel homesick. Homesickness is a commonly experienced state of distress among those who have left their homeland and find themselves in a culturally alien setting.

The only means I had to reconnect with my homeland and overcome my nostalgia and feel a sense of belonging was Bollywood movies which used to be screened in those days in obscure cinema halls in out of town Montreal.

I was not particularly fond of Hindi cinema due to the lowbrow, elusive and largely unrealistic nature of the screenplays, but somehow it became a focal point of connectivity. Indeed Bollywood movies bind Indian people residing across the world in what Benedict Anderson calls an ‘imagined community’. They foster a sense of community going beyond the national borders.

Recent Bollywood films, focusing on the Indian Diaspora and heralding a set of conservative and essentialised Indian values, seek to do away with the distance separating overseas Indians from India. To quote an Indian specialist in cinema and politics, “cinema is widely considered a microcosm of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of a nation. It is the contested site where meanings are negotiated, traditions made and remade, identities affirmed or rejected”. Popular Indian cinema is a major actor of social engineering.

The character of the expatriate Indian perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. In Purab Aur Paschim, a movie released in 1970 (which has inspired the 2007 movie Namastey London), the emigrant, whose Indian origin is not denied, is presented in an extremely unfavourable light. The young hero played by Manoj Kumar is called Bharat (India) and quite explicitly embodies the nation. He visits London to meet the Sharmas, friends of his father. Mrs Sharma, brought up in England, drinks, smokes and calls her husband ‘Darling” (according to conservative Hindu etiquette, the wife should not use her husband’s first name and always treat him as parmeshwar (God). Their daughter, Preeti, smokes and drinks like her mother, wears mini skirts and, in a supreme gesture of acculturation, has dyed her hair blond.

Manoj Kumar, who is also the film’s director, paints a psychedelic picture of a metropolis obsessed by consumerism and sex. Living abroad means here living in a den of depravity and uncensored appetites and losing or renouncing one’s original values. In these conditions, emigration can only be shown as a negative phenomenon and the migrant as the ‘moral antithesis’ of the real Indian. Until the 1990s, the foreigner was thus an absolute counter example and anti hero whose salvation lay in a dramatic change of status, such as a return to the native country or death. This ideological construct of migration as a morally reprehensible act is deeply rooted in Indian legends and goes back to the character of Ravana, the King of Lanka, in the Ramayana.

During the next decade, however, with the rise to power of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s economy was being opened up after the first liberalisation measures in 1991, which benefited mostly the middle classes of India. The Non Resident Indian (NRI), who is imagined to be necessarily rich and westernised, became a role model for a fast growing middle class facing the challenges of globalisation and its own anguish or feeling of guilt due to a possible acculturation. The NRI, once unloved and portrayed as the epitome of moral corruption, became in Indian films the embodiment of the national ethos as well as of a triumphant capitalism.

The 1990s, following the rise of Hindu nationalism during the 1980s and the country’s economic liberalization in 1991, witnessed the emergence of a new generation of films glorifying consumerism even as they made religion and feminine docility the core of the definition of Indianness. Films made after the 1990s always vehemently champion Indian values through a dominantly essentialist and culturalist discourse, but these values can now be transposed outside the national territory.

The new generation of neo traditional films combining ethnic nationalism and the praise of materialism also seek to champion a patriarchal structure that idealises the woman sublimated by either virginity or motherhood while insisting on her submissiveness. In addition, the emigrant (‘pardes’) is no longer accused of forgetting his roots and values: it is the host country and, more generally, Western culture that are held responsible if at all.

Ideal Indians have hence become deterritorialised models of national identity. The migrant has therefore ceased to be a symbol of the ‘Other’ and has become instead the prototype of the new Indian, globalised and modern, but always a nationalist at heart. For instance, the rich American of Indian origin played by Amrish Puri in Subhash Gai’s ‘Pardes’ sings, “ I love My India” and recites “Karam Mera India, Dharam Mera India, Vatan Mera India, Sajan Mera India” (India is my destiny, India is my religion, India is my motherland, India is my beloved).

The NRI is now largely represented as a man who goes to India to invest in a business venture or in a life partner. The choice of capitalist role models, by contrast with the Socialist Nehruvian type embodied by Raj Kapoor or the anti Establishment angry young man interpreted by Amitabh Bachchan, does not only stem from changes in attitude towards consumption in India after 1991, but is also largely dictated by economic motivations.

In 1997, the Financial Times wondered somewhat cynically, ‘Which of us in London or Los Angeles has ever seen a Hindi popular movie?’ This type of remark would be more unlikely today since most of the major international capitals have hosted Bollywood festivals and films broadcast on mainstream TV channels. The “Incredible India” line has now been transformed into “Investible India” as an international promotional tool.

In 2008, ex Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, for instance, acknowledged that “the soft power of India in some ways can be a very important instrument of foreign policy. Cultural relations, India’s film industry – Bollywood – I find wherever I go in the Middle East, in Africa – people talk about Indian films. So that is a new way of influencing the world about the growing importance of India. Soft power is equally important in the new world of diplomacy.”

Bollywood has thus emerged as truly global media addressing a global audience and as a symbol of the ambition of India as a world power. The Indian Diaspora, including Mauritius, represent a sizeable market for films whose protagonists are a definition or reaffirmation of the Indian identity transformed by globalisation. Indian films have too many tears, too much nostalgia, too many festivals. The characters spend their time praying and fasting. Real India is not like this but that is how the Diaspora wants to see it.

* Published in print edition on 26 September 2014

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