From 1962 Merchant Ivory to 2007 Mira Nair, desis have been making art in English for a long long time. But are we ready for Bollywood in English? Smitha Radhakrishnan reflects on desi films such as The Householder, Bride and Prejudice, The Namesake, and the recent Amu.
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. "Filmi Philosophy" is her premiere podcast with Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at email@example.com.
For all of you who are not quite sure where the word "desi" comes from, it comes from the Hindi word "desh," meaning "homeland." "Desi" refers anyone hailing from the homeland: a countryman, so to speak. But this term, through the magic and oversimplification of diasporic cultural politics, has come to refer to just about anyone of South Asian descent anywhere -- collapsing hundreds of languages, dozens of religions, and zillions of shockingly distinct cultural practices into one big brown lump of humanity.
So, I assert the word "desi" with my tongue in my cheek. On one level, I feel "desi" myself, but on the other hand, I know the category is made up just to make people like me feel like we belong to something. And so, I join a long line of folks stuck on the identity fence.
But surely you've noticed how hip it is to be bicultural these days? In my American childhood of the 80s, it seemed so abnormal, so prone to the proverbial identity crisis. But now, it's fashionable -- the subject of novels and movies: Bollywood, Hollywood, independent. And desis, well, ironically, we're everywhere now. The thing that amazes me about the newfound "cool" factor associated with being Asian, South Asian (or whatever other hyphenation you'd like to add to your American-ness), is that it's always tied to some sort of impassioned searching -- for authenticity, for roots, for something to substantiate the hyphen.
I went to see The Namesake on opening night, when it came out a few months ago. Imagine, my story on the big screen! Wasn't that how my dad was, coming to America in the early 70s to live in a little apartment in an East coast college town? The film was so sensitively and convincingly done, that the next day I actually had to remind myself that I did not necessarily have to have all the same issues and experiences that Gogol does: that we each have our own unique experiences though we have a similar kind of story. I'd liked the book too, but somehow, just the flesh-and-blood-and-color aspect of the film made it even more delicious to consume.
In the end, though, Gogol was always caught between the "old" world of his parents (symbolized by Bengali; a beautiful, though at times naïve, sari-clad Mom; and the pull to marry an Indian girl) and a hip, white, all-American life (symbolized by a cute white girl from a good liberal family).
Independent movies seem to move away from these cultural binaries we love to hate. Amu, a film that's been out in limited release this summer, was really about the little-known massacres that took place in the 1980s in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination.
But to get to that story, the filmmakers used a desi girl, Kaju, who had just graduated from UCLA and goes to India to get back to her roots. It's interesting because the Indian guy she meets in Delhi, who ends up being her romantic interest, is oh-so-bored with the American desi coming to search for the "real" India. And r, I'm sympathetic to that view. Perhaps I knew enough not to go around telling people I wanted to get in touch with my roots when I spent a year in India during college, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't identify with Kaju in the movie.
The great irony, of course, is that Konkana Sen, a well-known Indian actress, was putting on an American accent to pretend to be an Indian who didn't grow up in India -- just to make the American-desi-in-India-thing more "authentic." And to complicate matters further, the "true" story that the movie is roughly based on is based on the life of a girl who actually grew up in India. They just threw in the diasporic angle to make things more interesting. Have you lost track of the real and fake yet? I certainly have.
But then, large-scale desi filmmaking in the diaspora is just the latest episode in a long history of Indians writing English literature. Let's forget for a moment that many of us who consider ourselves Indian these days grew up speaking English, and rewind to a time and place where English was the language of rule. The British come to India, set up a state run in English, teach the natives their language so the natives can help run their state, and one fine day, the natives tell them to leave in perfectly articulate English. As in other postcolonial nations, especially those in Africa, English became the language of the intelligentsia in India. Indians took ownership of English, and we made it our own -- with all the confusions and contradictions that entailed.
But we're so hesitant to come out and say, yes, English is an Indian language too. Some time ago, I saw a movie off of Netflix called The Householder, a black and white movie done by Merchant Ivory in 1962. I'd never seen an old Indian movie all in English, which perhaps reflects my own ignorance, but there you have it. An old Indian English movie is not, it turns out, as oxymoronic as it sounds. The Householder stars a very young Shashi Kapoor playing a college professor, who has just married a cute girl he barely knows and is anxious about not being ready to be the head of the household.
The weird thing is that everyone in the movie speaks English -- the in-laws, the guy at the sari-shop, the neighbors. And he's not a rich high-flying guy or anything. I thought: this is an India that I've never seen.
One of the turning points in the movie is when Shashi Kapoor meets this American guy traveling in India, looking for spirituality and saying how great India's spiritual side is. So, our hero is talking about the greatness of 5-year-plans and industrialization while this white American guy is saying: "I just love the inherent spirituality." I thought that was one of the best moments in the film. It was so contemporary: West turning to the East while East tries to catch up with the West. Everyone loves to talk about that these days. And English (the language of this exchange in the movie) had everything to do with it.
In The Namesake, Gogol is caught between two names, which comes to symbolize the tension between his two worlds -- the old and the new, the desi and the American, his parents and his white girlfriend. The contemporary diasporic dilemma. The beauty of it, of course, is that it's neither new nor unique. Even our beleaguered, undeniably-less-appealing-to-contemporary-sensibilities householder is caught between worlds -- his parents' expectations that he should be a householder when he isn't sure he's ready, his English-educated sensibilities and his very disappointing everyday reality, and the disconnect between what he was educated to do and the reality he lives. It's a weird intersection between an old (British) India and a new (independent) India: this too, articulated, like Kal Penn, in angst-ridden English. English film for a desi audience has undoubtedly come a long way between The Householder and The Namesake, but isn't it amazing that that similar in-between-worlds dilemma has then and now, been articulated in English?
The point is -- Indians owning up to English has a really long history, contrary to the usual diasporic fantasies that by speaking English as Indians in the US, we are losing or rejecting a "native" tongue to which English is foreign.
At the same time, though, there's no doubt that diasporic desi filmmaking -- English filmmaking especially -- is a distinct, colorful voice, not the same desi-Indian voices that might have come before. Look at Gurinder Chadha. I don't know anyone who actually liked Bride and Prejudice, Chadha's 2004 desi remake of Jane Austen's classic starring the stunning Aishwarya Rai. But I admired the gutsy-ness of it. Who'd have ever thought to sing Bollywood-style songs in English, while trying to portray a middle-class family in Amritsar? Gotta hand it to her for thinking outside the box, not falling prey to the same old dichotomies, recognizing the perfectly Indian families who speak English at home just as often as they speak any other language.
But when people go to see a Bollywood movie, they want a particular thing. Not Broadway-meets-Bollywood numbers of Punjabi sisters dancing in their nighties singing songs of adolescent romantic hope, even if one of those sisters is the gorgeous Aish herself. To have the whole entire song in a "foreign" language? It pushes the line.
Seriously, though, why not have English Bollywood? I think India's ready for it, has been ready for it, probably for a long time. It's us diasporic folks who have issues, who still want mother tongue to represent the old and English to represent the new -- which even the beautifully done Namesake falls into. It's us out here, not them over there, who are so one-dimensional in our view of tradition.
Published: Friday, August 24, 2007