Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bollywood in chains

E-mail nationalism: Does India exist only in the emigre’s imagination?
India, it was once said, was nothing but a figment of the British imagination. Watching the latest Bollywood offering Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that contemporary India is nothing but a figment of the NRI imagination.
Javed Akhtar is right. The Bombay film industry was paradoxically much freer in the days before the coming of the ‘‘free market’’ when films like Teesri Kasam or Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam delineated complex human relationships. In the contemporary free consumerism, Bollywood appears to be bound in chains to the dictates of overseas audiences.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham is a ghastly film. It’s a film made not by a film director but by a marketing executive determined to inject religion, glamour and exotic locales to recover his undoubtedly huge costs. Its characters are strictly caricatures, its sets not just outlandish but baffling (an English country house passes for a Hindu family estate). Kareena Kapoor is a mini-skirted Gayatri mantra reciting disco baby, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan lend tragic legitimacy to retrograde backward-looking role models who when not thundering on about The Hindu Family are being tearful about consumer goods. In K3G India doesn’t exist. What exists is a strange mutant, a beautiful, savagely dumb, ritual-driven wasteland where rich people sing adrenaline-thumping bhajans and, in times of stress, the national anthem.
It is also a chilling film. Chilling because here is India, Hinduism, Jana Gana Mana made into glossy laughable commodities to be purchased for a high price. The film is designed to make NRIs thankful that the Old Country is as beautiful, as backward and as resoundingly traditional as he wants it to be. K3G is our beloved Bollywood’s final surrender to the NRI. The NRI is a sort of super Indian. He is highly talented and successful. His donations to the IITs, medical colleges and schools are impressive and many like Sabeer Bhatia have created companies that have provided employment and wealth to numbers of his fellow countrymen. But in the sphere of culture, the NRI’s vision of India is drastically and sometimes irrevocably in conflict from the vision of those who actually live here.
In the NRI cultural imagination, India must remain a vast stretch of villages, fakirs, sadhus and cool spirituality. The recognisably modern, the sensible, the commonsensical or indeed the ordinary business of life merits no attention because such features are simply not what the NRI would like to remember. Indian emigre writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni have written perceptively about the Indian immigrant experience. In Shashi Tharoor’s latest novel Riot, India is similarly an area of darkness where the only ‘‘normal’’ characters are American. This is not to succumb to a knee-jerk opposition to Orientalism and insist that India is no different to any other country, yet a certain denial of any seriousness or any integrity to this country seems to be an unfortunate feature of the NRI imagination.
Monsoon Wedding, made by another non-resident Indian, bravely attempts to imbue Indians with some amount of individual dignity. Yet the film has been described by critics as a ‘‘shaadi home video’’ which is content to remain at the surface of a beautiful Indian wedding rather than plumb the depths of character development or social conflict. When there is a need to appeal to an emigre audience that has no patience for Indian realities other than those peddled by a sensationalist media, naturally the subject that is being tackled cannot be too complex, or locally thought-provoking. At the risk of sounding sensationalist, Indian culture itself stands in danger of being colonised by NRIs, precisely because of their power and success.
An acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer recently said that on tours abroad she is repeatedly asked to portray ‘‘angst’’ and ‘‘alienation’’ through her dance. When she responded that Bharatanatyam is not about angst or about alienation, she was told that youthful overseas Indian audiences would not sponsor her if she remained overly traditional. Benedict Anderson, historian and author of the book Imagined Communities, is critical of what he has called ‘‘long distance’’ nationalism or ‘‘email’’ nationalism of non-resident communities.

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