Bollywood, the Indian Diaspora and Identity

For a large section of Indo Mauritians, Bollywood films serve only to entertain and have a very limited role to play in terms of education. These films do nothing to project a realistic view of Indian society, and depict both India and the West in a skewed manner. But the significance of Bollywood as one aspect of identity formation for the Indian diaspora cannot be ignored. It provides the diaspora with images that purport to be like them, and however farfetched these images might seem, they signify an attempt at representation.

Bollywood does in fact play some role in the constitution of identity, especially in ethnic and cultural terms. One important purpose that popular Indian films serve – a purpose which is often eschewed in academic circles due to its connection with “low” culture – is that they offer a vision of Indian culture, however distorted, to those who seek some sense of cultural heritage. Bollywood films, with their consistent focus on issues of nationalism, identity, tradition and integration into different cultures, and their astonishing audience reach can be seen as formative in the identity of the Indian diaspora all over the world, including Mauritius. Even for those who seldom watch these films, they provide much of the vocabulary for understanding culture, and notions of nationhood.

Despite accusations that Bollywood is little more than a poorly rendered imitation of Hollywood, the recurrence of certain themes around nation, family and faith is specific to this particular genre, and particularly since the mid-1990s, some Bollywood producers have begun restructuring their work with particular attention to the experiences of those living in diaspora in faraway places like Europe, USA and Australia, where immigrants from India and Pakistan and their second or third generation children struggle for acceptance in their adopted countries but insist on retaining a foothold in the communities of their birth.

Indeed, members of the diaspora may live thousands of miles apart but share interests in Bollywood films which seem to satisfy some sense of cultural heritage. Films made within and marketed to the diaspora, such as Bend it Like Beckham (2003), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Water (2005), manage the neat trick of being not completely Indian and yet just Indian enough. The rise of such films and their filmmakers, diasporic talents of Indian origin such as Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, was perhaps inevitable as the Indian diaspora grew larger, stronger and more mature.

Beginning with pivotal films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Lover Takes the Bride 1995), a massive domestic and international success, one notices a change in the tone of major filmmakers. Almost without exception non-resident Indians (NRIs) are now portrayed as sometimes wealthier than Indians in India but no different culturally from them. Indianness is now determined less by geographical location than by the maintenance of cultural and “traditional Indian values” that encapsulate the “real India”, whatever that means.

Heavily nationalist discourse in Bollywood has not receded in contemporary film, where subjects are expected to be overtly pro-Indian, to preserve their beliefs and to respect traditional rules of Indian/Hindu culture, such as respect for parents and other elders. The nature of nation has not changed substantially over the years, although Bollywood’s effort to market to the diaspora is one possible reason for a softening of rigid patriotic commentary. The film Veer-Zaara (2004) went so far as to promote a Hindu-Muslim, Indian-Pakistani romance that dwells continually on the unity of South Asia and its peoples. The identity promoted in Bollywood, however, with exceptions like Veer-Zaara, is often nationalist to the point of denigrating any and all potential threats of the nation, from neighbours such as Pakistan to foreign influence from England and the USA.

Bollywood is generally Hindu, often middle-class and also offers images of the nation that are gendered in significant respects. The bulk of Bollywood films have storylines which revolve largely around romance, marriage and procreation, where women are invested with the responsibility of maintaining cultural rituals in order to teach them to children, thereby ensuring the safe continuation of the traditions that define the ‘imagined community’ which is India. Although these women can now be seen in educational and professional settings, and sometimes declare their independence, it is frequently the case that they are eventually led to marriage as the ultimate act of importance in their lives, with the assumption that they will be raising children and looking after their husbands.

Here in Mauritius, we have a huge population of Indian ancestry, who may not and should not retain a sense of belonging to India as a country, but there is no denying that they maintain a commitment to some hybridized form of Indianness. We Mauritians possess multiple identities and affiliations that are by no means incompatible with the recent vote in Parliament which was heavily in favour of the mini-constitutional amendment to no longer require candidates in elections to decline their ethnicity (Hindu, Muslim, Sino-Mauritian and General Population), an amendment which by the way strikes at the heart of questions of citizenship, nationalism and identity in a plural society like ours, consisting of so many different diasporas.

Indeed, our varied diasporic identities present a challenge to more traditional conceptions of community and nation and more conventional understandings of countries bordered within a clearly defined nation-state. Living in Mauritius offers us opportunities to belong to different spaces and different affiliations. We can be both Hindus or Muslims or Chinese and still have a commitment to our Mauritian nation state. As to whether membership in one group is valorized above belonging to the nation state is beside the point.

In actual practice, Mauritians are aware that they belong to overlapping communities. My argument is that a communal identity is not incompatible with the notion of loyalty to the nation which believes in a free, democratic, peaceful and tolerant society that does not pressure the different diasporas of our island to renounce their cultural and religious heritage. In this perspective, the slogan ‘ene sel nation ene sel lepeuple’ can mean different things to different people, depending on whether the emphasis is on the politics of cultural pluralism, or the politics of assimilation as implemented in countries like France, which implies distancing oneself from one’s communal identity.


* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014

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