Going Global: Bollywood and the New Indians Abroad

Introduction

 

I may as well begin with an anecdote or, what might be more appropriate to the topic of our Workshop, a snapshot of two Indians whom I saw in a tram at the Elizabeth St. tram terminus in downtown Melbourne.  Both were young, Punjabi males, smart, good looking, and almost certainly unemployed and recently arrived.  Both spoke incessantly on their mobiles, mostly in Punjabi and Hindi.  Dressed in brand name t-shirts, jeans, jackets, and sneakers, their “look” was most certainly influenced by Bollywood.  In fact, more than just the look, their being itself seemed to have been produced by Bombay Cinema in the manner in which Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that “a stockpile of representations … generate new representations”—“Images that matter, that merit the term capital, acquire reproductive power, maintaining and multiplying themselves….” (6)  What the men were doing here wasn’t very clear, but they seemed neither businessmen nor tourists, but more likely, prospectors, young men out to find a life and in the process themselves in a foreign land.  But it did seem as if their self-esteem or self-validation came from their resemblance to role-models or icons from Bombay cinema—they could not go wrong because, after all, they looked like Shahrukh Khan or Abhishek Bacchan.  That made their lives viable that rendered them presentable or trustworthy to the world at large.

I would like to suggest that Bollywood not only produces images, but also produces people.  In today’s context, the latter are not just defined by regions or nations, but have become transnational.  Bollywood gives these Indians an identity and a means to define themselves; almost, it gives them access to a wider world.  Their passport may be Indian but their visa is stamped in Bollywood. In other words, diasporic Indians, though they live in countries which are often far away from India, also inhabit a greater India of feelings and emotions, an India of the heart and head, one of whose primary sources is Bollywood. More than anything else it is Bombay Cinema that helps to conjure up this greater India, this imagi-nation, for those who have left for distance shores.

 

                                                                                                I

 

That Bollywood has been the second cinema of the world has been known for a long time, but it is only now that this fact has gained recognition and acceptance.  As early as the 1930s, Indian cinema circulated in the Far East and since the 1950s it has been popular in what used to be known as the “second” and “third worlds,” in the Soviet Union, China and other communist countries, and in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, respectively, especially where the Indian diaspora resided in large numbers (Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha 20-21).  Indeed Bombay Cinema has been one of the defining markers of Indian or South Asian identity abroad. At least three notable and evocative inscriptions of this phenomenon are available to us in the works of Ziauddin Sardar, Vijay Mishra, and Suketu Mehta. Sardar, writing of his experiences of growing up in England, recounts how seeing Hindi movies was a weekly ritual in which his mother and he religiously participated. In fact the title of his essay “Dilip Kumar Made Me Do It” is itself suggestive of the powerful influence that Hindi cinema exercised on a growing Pakistani boy abroad. The essay clearly brings out the fact that despite the partition it was the experience of Bombay Cinema which united the broken hearts and healed or sutured the subcontinental unconscious, at least temporarily:  it was in the experience of viewing a Bombay film that the two parts of the subcontinent came together.  Similarly the introduction of Vijay Mishra’s study, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, is a moving celebration of the auratic power of Hindi cinema experienced by an Indian boy growing up in distant Fiji. Seeing your favourite film stars on the “silver screen” was nothing short of a darshan akin to citing your Ishta Devatah (favourite deity). In a more recent reiteration of the fascination that Hindi Cinema holds to the overseas Indian Suketu Mehta writes of how the happiest afternoons of his adolescence were spent singing Hindi-film songs and watching Bombay Cinema at Eagle Theatre with his Queens buddies. He calls it “travelling back [to India] on music, the cheapest airline” (9).   As Mehta puts it, “I existed in New York but I lived in India taking little memory trains” (ibid). These accounts of diasporic Indians show how Bollywood serves as a shared idiom or as Mehta puts it the defining characteristic of a South Asian abroad:

Who is a south Asian? Someone who watches Hindi movies. Someone whose being fills up with pleasure when he or she hears ‘Mere Sapno ki rani’ or Kuch kuch hota hai’. Here is our national language: here is our common song….                                      (379)

 

Prior to the 1990s, however, the content and idiom of Bombay Cinema , by and large, reflected or rather represented a national consciousness.  For diasporic Indians the movie experience was one way of going back, of re-visiting, albeit briefly, the homeland that one had left behind. In that sense, watching Hindi movies abroad was a nostalgic trip. But after the 1990s owing primarily to the purchasing power and imaginative hunger of this very nostalgic diaspora, Bollywood registered a radical shift in both its form and content. As Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel show so persuasively in Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Films, the typically recognizable filmy style that characterised Bollywood changed drastically. Whether in locations, costumes, promotional material, or the circulation of Bollywood in various media such as print, T.V, Internet, or music videos, the very idiom of Bombay cinema began to change. Simply speaking Bollywood’s visual culture became more global and cosmopolitan so as to attract audiences in the West. This came about through the use of techniques, which were hitherto identifiable more with Hollywood than with Bollywood.  Cinematography, lighting, colour, costumes, set designing , the selection and construction of outdoor locations, in fact the very mise-en scene of Hindi Cinema altered significantly to reflect its internationalisation.  Regardless of whether the content was Indian, the “look” and “feel” of Bollywood became slicker, more contemporary.  But perhaps equally significantly the themes, the stories and the content changed too.

For the first time you had movies set abroad for most part, a trend perhaps started by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge that came to its logical conclusion in films like Kal ho na ho, Salaam Namaste and  Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, which are entirely set abroad.  It is not as if earlier movies did not deal with the theme of Indians abroad. In fact of all art mediums in India it is cinema which is most proactive in engaging with urgent concerns and social issues. Whether Bollywood cinema engages with these issues in a realistic fashion is an entirely different question. But it does engage and is possibly the first to engage.  Whether it is communalism or terrorism, social unrest or inequality, homosexuality or women’s rights, Khalistan or Babri masjid, cops or dons, it is Bombay cinema that is often the first to voice concern and depict the issue, even if it does so symbolically, elliptically or, indeed, fantastically.  Similarly the problems of the Indian diaspora were not lost on Bollywood.

The defining film of the earlier Bollywood response to the diaspora was Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim (1970). As its very name, East and West, suggests the film was primarily devoted to problematizing the relationship of diaspora to its host land and homeland.  Again characteristic of the earlier Bollywood movies, it valorised and exalted Indian values over western values. The latter was seen as corrupting and deviant, destroying the moral fibre of those who succumbed to them. The return to India had to be accomplished through the re-education of one of the protagonists who had gone astray and become westernised. This paradigm was introduced in Upkar (1967) but reached full blown even missionary proportions in Purab aur Paschim.  Several films in the following years including Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), Naam (1986), Pardes (1997), Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), and so on followed this paradigm. As is obvious form the list, these films depicted the abandonment of Mother India as a sort of “bad faith,” which the diasporic.could work out only by returning to India, either literally or symbolically by re-embracing Indian values, often represented by an Indian wife.  Leaving India was guilt-inducing; the only atonement was by undoing the cultural logic of departure. Even the new films of the 1990s, which do not have a validation of Indian values at the expense of the life in the diaspora, are not altogether unaffected by the older India-exalting theology.

But what changed irrevocably in the 1990s was the fact that the diaspora had become a market to reckon with, a territory for film distribution, whose earnings could supplement if not rival box office collections from India itself.  Particularly in North America, Europe, and the Gulf, the Indian diaspora had come of age, graduating as I have said elsewhere from the status of minors to majors almost overnight.  Or to put it differently though a minority they could, with their huge purchasing power, behave like a majority. The Indian diaspora in these continents was indeed like a nation of 20 million, though scattered across 70 countries.  It was capable of behaving as a coherent unit when it came to its appreciation and support for Bombay Cinema. With overseas returns of upwards of 30 million dollars (about Rs 130 crores) in the first few weeks, recent films like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna have demonstrated that what a film earns abroad can add substantially to what it earns in India or even offset losses on its Indian sales. Bollywood, which is primarily a money making business enterprise, has been quick to recognize this new market and therefore has re-packaged itself to appeal to and cash in on it.  For the first time, the overseas Indian experience is valid in its own right, without a “return” to India.  In the process Bollywood has become globalized, but it is also Indianizing the world.

This process of  not only globalizing itself but spreading images of India abroad and thereby Indianizing the globe is happening in unprecedented ways.  In fact, this is how, Bollywood has been consolidating its position as the second cinema of the world.  More recently, it is even making its inroads into the more dominant Hollywood, merging and integrating with its rival as never before and yet retaining its own unique identity. Almost it would seem from being the subaltern second cinema of the world, it is becoming the dominant second cinema of the world—may be not as dominant as Hollywood but dominant nonetheless. It is this shift of Bollywood that I call ‘going global’ and I propose to develop further in the rest of the paper with reference to Salaam Namaste, which exemplifies the relationship of Bollywood to this very city of Melbourne in Australia.

 

II

 

Salaam Namaste is supposed to be a copy of Nine Months (1995). However it is not merely a copy but an adaptation of some of the elements of the Hollywood film. By changing the cultural and linguistic context, Bollywood actually creates “original” parallel texts. Indeed as I have been trying to show in his paper the relationship between Bollywood and Hollywood is not merely one of originality and imitation, nor one of dominance and subordination.  Instead of the colonizer-colonised paradigm, what we have here instead is difference and alter-nativity. Bombay cinema is neither a duplicate nor a substitute for Hollywood: in fact it is another cinema, to some extent actually a competitive second global cinema.  As Kaur and Sinha put it

One fundamental difference between Hollywood and Bollywood is that the former pushes world cultures towards homogenization, whereas the latter introduces in those cultures a fragmentary process.  Hybrid in its production since its beginnings, the circulating of India’s commercial cinema through the globe has led to the proliferation and fragmentation of its fantasy space, as its narrative and spectacle beget diverse fantasies for diasporic communities and others.  (15)

This is a fine, though debatable point.  I would like to add that this process of diversity, if not fragmentation, is introduced to Indian and subcontinental audiences too because Bollywood’s inherent plurality creates and engenders plural fantasies and aspirations.

Unlike Hollywood whose ostensible audience and reach are universal—the West normalises itself, as the universal—Bollywood is more modest in its pretensions. Its overt aim is to address Indians, subcontinental and diasporic South Asians.  That actually an even wider audience appreciates it is something that Bollywood perhaps does not acknowledge openly. While Hollywood though appearing to be universal actually excludes several sections of the world’s population from participating as equals in its offerings, Bollywood it would seem offers surreptitious enjoyment, even voyeuristic pleasure, to those whom it does not even address directly. This is what makes for its unique fascination even as is style and culture industry to westerners who may have no use for it as entertainment. Thus, Bollywood is actually a purveyor in fashions and trends, adopted willingly by its target audience and perhaps periodically by an even wider unintended set of consumers. How else might one explain the following that it enjoys in the most unexpected corners of the world and its incorporation, albeit as kitsch, in unexpected host cultures?  Bhangra, kolhapuri chappals, Indian clothes, and Indian food—all have become Bollywodized so that Bollywood stands for much more than cinema, as “a conveyor of ‘Indianness’ to diverse audiences…, as a means of negotiating both Indianness and its transformations, particularly when representing and being received by diasporic populations” (Kaur and Sinha 16).  Indeed, Salaam Namaste illustrates this trend by showing not entirely unrealistically how an Australian wedding celebration effortlessly breaks into a Bangra dance number. The circulation of Bollywood music ,dance, style and iconography  far exceeds its intended and actual audience.

Salaam Namaste (2005), an offering of the Yash Chopra’s production house, is a romantic comedy set in Melbourne. It is the story of two young non- resident Indians Nikhil Arora (played by Saif Ali Khan) and Amber Malhotra (played by Preity Zinta), who experiment in living together before they finally decide to get married. Ron (played by Arshad Warsi) and Lisa (played by Tania Zaetta), the second couple in the film, serve as the foil. There is a bit of a love triangle, normally a staple in Yash Chopra’s films, but here reduced only to a minor sub-plot in that Jignesh (Jugal Hansraj), Amber’s medical school batch mate and partial sponsor seems to be definitely interested in her, but she regards him merely as a friend. From the point of view of this paper an important question is:  what is the significance of setting the film in Melbourne and what does this tell us about changing Bollywood itself?

              First of all it is clear that Australia is becoming an increasingly popular venue for Bombay filmmakers. This trend is exemplified in movies ranging from Dil Chata Hai to the latest mega production Chak de India, which even as I write this paper, is being shot in Melbourne. I do not intend to go into the material causes for this popularity because I expect some of the participants of this workshop to do so, but thematically in Bombay Cinema, Australia seems to stand for a non American or European, but nevertheless advanced Western, even white society. The question is why is such a site at all required? First off it seems to me that it reflects a long overdue acknowledgement of the inherent complexity of what constitutes the “west” to the Indian mind. Bollywood, which has usually resorted to the negative stereotyping and homogenising of the West has last begun to show the West in more complex colours. Australia, furthermore, represents a slightly different possibility for an Indian immigrant than do, say, the United States or England. These differences may be very slight but are significant.  In another 2006 hit, Krish, the foreign setting is Singapore, which makes one ask why it is not England, USA, or elsewhere in the “West.”  Bollywood has begun to understand and exploit the need to choose different contrasting locations to India.  Not just the West, but the Middle East and the Far East have come under its purvey.  Here, it seems that Indo-China, which has been India’s traditional theatre and sphere of cultural influence right up to modern times will also be the place where India’s new emergence into power will be more easily recognized and acknowledged than in the West. 

              But to return to Melbourne, we have in Salam Namaste, the idea of the Australian dream which is available to the immigrant as there is an American dream for films set in North America.  In fact, these dreams are now extensions of the Indian dream, a part of which is to make it abroad.  Even so, the Australian dream, in this case Nick’s owning his own restaurant, is not just somewhat more modest but also more humanised than, for instance Sexy Sam’s unexplained but stupendous success, on more than one front in the US in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna .Unlike some of the films set in the U.S Salaam Namaste, it would appear, pays greater attention to the economic factors that underlie emigration. Both Nick and Ambar struggle with not just earning money but saving it and planning for the future.  One of their prime reasons for sharing an apartment is economic.  Later, their quarrels and disagreements are also over money. The economic is thus not conveniently elided or erased in this film.

But the main purpose of setting the film in Australia is revealed when we ask why it cannot be set in India. The fact is that mainstream Bollywood audiences in India are still not ready to accept the live-in-relationships being endorsed on screen. Even in Salaam Namaste in the end it is marriage, and the values of monogamous and legitimate sexuality associated with it, that finally prevails. But the major potion of the film is about the agonies and ecstasies of a live-in-relationship, which might have been too bold for mass audiences in India. In other words setting the film far away from home, in Australia, allows the latter to serve almost as an experimental laboratory for new social and sexual mores. To that extent rather than being merely escapist Bollywod is also educative. It is actually teaching folks back at home how post modern relationships develop and work themselves out, subtly suggesting that it is o.k. to live in before marriage. This pedagogical and liberative potential has seldom being recognized or studied. Bollywood is not just a cinema of allurements but also of education.

The central problem which the film seems to explore is the tussle between freedom and domesticity. This problem is explored through several gender benders leading to the possibility of a truly egalitarian relationship in which each partner is not only equal but also independent. Nick though he is an architect wants to be a chef and Ambar who moonlights as an R.J is actually studying to be a doctor. Such modifications in conventional career choices are interspersed through out the film. In fact one reason that Ambar agrees to move in with Nick is because the latter is such a good cook. She on the other hand not only hates cooking but is also extremely messy while he is a neat freak. Towards the later part of the film, a very pregnant Amber does, perhaps for the first time on Indian cinema, a song and dance number, thereby making pregnancy cool and sexy rather than taboo, as is usually the case in unmarried heroines in Bollywood. Similarly the birthing sequences in the movie though farcical are meant to normalise and humanise what in Bollywood would never be shown openly on screen .The film also as a part of its theme takes a stand on the abortion debate, coming down firmly in favour of retaining the baby even if the choice of the woman to abort it is recognized. In fact the battle of the sexes between Nick and Ambar is resolved in the latter’s favour only after she becomes pregnant and graduates from being a lover to a mother. True to Bollywood conventions motherhood is supreme, whereas a woman as a romantic lover can only come second. Her decision to keep her baby puts her at a moral advantage over Nick who finds himself forced to choose between descending to brutality or rising to the occasion of becoming a responsible partner and father.  In the end, therefore, responsibility trumps freedom. The “me generation” must finally turn to the “us generation.” To that extent the long reach of traditional Indian values extends even to distant Australia. Indeed Ambar acknowledges that in escaping to Australia and dumping her parents she set herself up for the kind of suffering that she has to undergo. One of the added conveniences of locating the movie in Australia is the absence of family and elders who in India would have made Ambar’s and Nikhil’s experiment impossible in the first place.

Though set overseas the film at least peripherally addresses questions of ethnic and linguistic diversities which are typical of modern India. It shows characters from different parts of India and South Asia, with different regional accents, mother tongues, even food habits, but interacting with one another and forming a cohesive subculture abroad. For instance Ambar’s boss is supposed to be a Malayali, while Nick’s is a Bangladeshi; the landlord from whom they rent their apartment is a Bihari. Nick and Ambar of course are Punjabi Hindus, which for long has served as Bollywood’s idea of the national norm. It might be added, though, that their names suggest that they are from two different castes. As in many other Bollywood films set overseas Salaam Namaste  does not show a full fledged engagement with the host culture; native Australians whether aboriginal or white are marginal to the film . Nick’s Indian friend does marry an Australian girl but she remains a minor character. The cultural and social traumas of diasporians abroad are conveniently elided in the film. In fact the marriage scene in which both Nick and Ron meet their partners is a fully integrated and multicultural event where issues of racism are ignored. One cannot expect a better endorsement of Australian multiculturalism.

Indeed at least for Australians, the film is by and large the best possible free advertisement, not just of Australianness but of a specific location Melbourne. In terms of actual revenue generation and tourist dollars a single film like Salam Namaste has probably done more for Melbourne than all the advertisements put out by the Melbourne tourist board. The allure of Bollywood is irresistible:  to see their favourite stars cavorting against the backdrop of the shining steel and glass towers of the central business district of Melbourne or prancing about the banks of the sparkling blue Yarra, which in real life can be rather muddy, makes for the best possible pitch for travel worthy Indians to visit or to discover themselves in alluring Australia. Bollywood eroticises whichever location it chooses, thereby creating a desire for these exotic lands in the minds of wanderlust-ful and now well-to-do Indian audiences. The earlier trend of shooting abroad in order to give Indians who actually cannot travel a taste of foreign lands has been now translated into an invitation for those who can afford it to actually visit. So the function of the foreign location has changed with globalisation. It is no longer a place that an average Indian cannot go to and therefore must be brought to in the movie as part of a larger package of desire and wish fulfilment, but is actually a place any aspiring Indian may reach in due course. In other words the possession of the foreign is not just a fantasy but a possibility.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that allegiance to India and to Indian values can be completely jettisoned in the film. A part of Nikhil’s education is his acceptance of his name, which he wants shortened to Nick. When the film opens Nikhil’s hatred of his name suggests this despite the fact that he is making a living by selling Indian food abroad, he still wants to dissociate from his roots.  The taste of India not only serves Nikhil but is also spreading across the world. The prerequisite for Ambar’s accepting Nikhil is the latter’s acceptance of his own name and along with it his entire cultural identity. Similarly, Ambar’s self-willed rebellion and breaking away from her family is criticised in the movie and is acknowledged by herself as one of the causes of her sorrow. In the end, traditional family values triumph over the carefree and exciting romance of a live-in-relationship. In fact the latter is seen as a preparation for the former. In fact the protagonists fall in love because domesticity even of the live-in variety is seen as so attractive. It becomes untenable and intolerable when Ambar’s accidental pregnancy foregrounds issues of responsibility versus freedom. It is with the acceptanc of Nikhil accepting a modified definition of love as entailing responsibility and not just freedom that the conflict is resolved. Carpe Diem which was the motto of the youth  seems to be replaced by a concern for the morrow not just for the  lovers but their progeny as well.

              One of the fascinating aspects of the film is that both Ambar and Nikhil’s conversions are affected by a “movie”. It is only when Ambar sees the live sonograph of her as yet unborn child that she instantly begins to relate to it as a living being. Her latent motherly feelings are aroused and she determines to keep the child. In the case of Nikhil this part of the film has been lifted outright from Nine Months where the character played by Hugh Grant watches a video of the ultrasound after his girlfriend (played by Jullianne Moore) has left, which makes him change his mind. Both the films are unwittingly thus self reflexive, celebrating the power of the cinematic medium in this case, not in technicolour but in a drab and blurred monochrome, digital ‘celluloid’ nevertheless. Similarly it is not entirely accidental that Ambar works as an R.J in a South Asian radio station, Salaam Namaste. This, incidentally, is actually a metaphor for Bollywood itself, cementing ties between diasporans, intervening in their lives in unexpected and decisive ways. Nikhil and Ambar meet on the radio show and are also united in the end because of it.  Bollywood and its audio extensions/ subsidiaries, is thus a part of a larger interwoven cultural unit which helps define South Asian identities abroad.

Despite its reach and ambition, Bollywood in the ultimate analyses, remains the cinema of hope rather than a deep or far-reaching engagement with complex realities of our world.  Indeed, it is primarily the cinema of  a large subcontinent and of a smaller sub-culture in the diaspora. The homeland-hostland relationship as mediated through the diaspora is not utterly devoid of tensions, ambivalences and compromises. Salaam Namaste is after all a comedy. In the end Nikhil gets his girl and presumably will go on to open his restaurant. He and Ambar with their Australian born twins will be less and less Indian with the passage of time. Ron, his buddy, has already gone half way towards assimilation with his white Australian wife, as indeed has the Bihari landlord with his not too intellectually keen partner. Indian values however exalted maybe harder to carry across into the next generation. Mere linguistic or geographical hybridity may not be sufficient to deal with problems as complex as these. Bollywood may, for all we know, come up with yet another idiom to grapple with what is to come. But as far as this film is concerned there is no return to India but rather an incorporation of “a usable” and transferable India to a brave new world in the antipodes.

 

Conclusion

 

              Salam Namaste is one of the many new Bollywood blockbusters which is set entirely overseas. This growing trend shows that the global Indian is a reality, both as audience and as the subject of the film.  In a sense, Bollywood has succeeded where the Indian government has failed; it has extended the cultural citizenship of India to overseas Indians long before the Indian government extends its Peoples of Indian Origin card to its diasporic children.  Bollywood becomes the imagination where Indians of different nationalities and locations come together as one nation, greater India if you will.  Salam Namaste, set entirely in Melbourne, may be the first Hindi film to concern itself with Indian Australians.  However, there is not much in it by way of relating to the host country Australia. The latter, then, becomes the setting where an Indian couple experiment with living together before marriage, but return to the more established social institution of marriage in the end.  Yet, this experiment allows them to explore new dimensions of what it means both to be Indians and expatriates.  Bollywood thus educates its Indian (and overseas) audiences on what being Indian means in a globalized world.  It means pursuing your dreams, but also retaining essential values.  Rather than nursing a wounded psyche, the newly arrived trans-national Indian is comfortable both at home and abroad.  With the cultural citizenship of greater India conferred upon him by Bollywood, he is able to cross national and geographical borders with ease without feeling alienated or excluded.  That the ground reality is very far from this rosy picture is a different matter.  What is important for our purposes is the Bollywood promise that another world is possible.

 

 

 

                                                                                Works Cited

 

Greenblatt, Stephen.  Marvellous Possessions:  The Wonder of the New World.  New York:  Oxford UP, 1991.

 

Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel.  Cinema India: the Visual Culture of Hindi Film.  New Delhi:  Oxford UP, 2002.

 

Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. New Delhi, Viking, 2004.

 

Mishra, Vijay. C. Bombay Cinema:  Temples of Desire. London:  Routlegde, 2002.

 

Sardar, Ziauddin. In Ashis Nandy ed. The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence and Culpability in Indian Popular

Cinema. Delhi: Oxford, 1998.

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape