My heritage is a typical motley American mix: German, English, Scottish, Irish, and a bit of Cuban for good measure. From time to time I get comments asking why I don't just stick to my own culture. Well, actually, I do like my own culture just fine. I love attending the German Weinactsmarkt at the local German language church in Baltimore every year. I read copious amounts of British literature and listen to Scottish pop music. And just because I don't write about it doesn't mean that I don't enjoy visiting famous American Civil War battlefields (I had three ancestors in the War - two fighting for the North and one for the South.)
The reason I started writing about Bollywood online is that nobody in my real life really cares about it. I have people to discuss the latest episode of The Office or Doctor Who with but nobody wants my theories on Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan's relationship. Therefore, I turned to the Internet. And I think that being able to write and communicate with Bollywood lovers from all over and of all different nationalities has saved me from falling into the dual traps of cultural appropriation or exoticism.
It's very easy for people who are unfamiliar with a culture to fall into this way of thinking and I admit to having been guilty of this to varying degrees in the past. While what initially drew me to Bollywood was my love of film songs, I would be lying if I said that the elaborate costumes and beautiful actors and actresses didn't help further my interest. The visuals in Bollywood are extremely different from what we are used to in the West and it took sometime for me to be able to normalize and make sense of them.
Take a film like Dil Se. This was one of the first Bollywood films I saw and although I loved it immediately (and continue to love it) my reactions to it have changed. I remember being just as taken with the colorful celebrations surrounding Shahrukh's character's wedding to Preity Zinta as I was with the amazing song picturizations. To me, then, unfamiliar with Indian culture, I thought he was choosing the simplicity of Manisha Koirala over the elaborate Preity Zinta. It's not until re-watching many, many films later that I understood the mundaneness of the wedding scenes and how normal and middle class it all was. Preity's character wasn't an exotic princess dancing in Kerala but just a normal girl with a normal middle-class life.
This is the danger of watching something from another culture without context - exoticism can blind you to the main points a film is trying to make, which is what I sense whenever I read glowing reviews by Westerners of average Bollywood films (and I'm looking at you, Rachel Saltz of the New York Times - Rab Ne was an okay film, but SRK fangirl-ism should be saved for your personal time) or when reviews mention an "authentic slice of life" or "colorful ethnic costumes" while ignoring the fact that film is just average. And I wonder how much of this exoticism is reversed, too, with the glowing reviews that many average Hollywood films get from Indian reviewers.
Ideally, there is room for both Hollywood AND Bollywood (still not a typo, spell checker) and the film industries worldwide to compete without the fetishization of the "other" but somehow, I don't think it will happen anytime soon. Until that glorious day, we'll just all have to keep in mind the perils of exoticism and try to watch ourselves watching movies to see if we are reacting to the story as intended or caught up in the "otherness" of it all.
Othering and Objectifying
This is another tricky subject. Bollywood is certainly good at providing eye candy but from time to time, I get uncomfortable in enjoying the spectacle. Is it really okay for me, as a white American with all the cultural baggage that comes with it, to enjoy lusting after Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut as much as I do? Personally, I think all of us non-desi fangirls (and boys) are in the clear enjoying Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik and the rest because we don't like them because of their race or culture. We like them because they are global superstars and they have clearly defined public persons that encourage our adulation. This isn't Gwen Stefani and her nameless Asian backup dancers - we like Shahrukh the STAR, Akshay the STAR, etc. Their individual personalities are a large part of their charms.
With the actresses, I think things get tricker just because Asian women are so often fetishized by white media and white men. I do feel uncomfortable with white guys, especially, enjoying photos of Bollywood actresses because of stories like this one from the blog Stuff White People Do.
One time I went with my (white) partner to see his two white male friends. They had met while they were in Indonesia on a language study exchange program. They all seemed to have had Indonesian girlfriend(s) or ‘girlfriend(s)’ while there. It was the first time I was meeting these two men. But no sooner had I sat down then I felt a sense of ‘yuck’ dumped onto me like a vague slimy mass. I felt as though his friends saw me as an ‘Indonesian woman’ as opposed to just a person or even just a woman. It was as though they saw me more as an Asian decoration that a white man could f*** (in both the literal and figurative sense).
There will always be an element of this kind of "yuck" with the white admiration of Asian actresses and better writers than I have tackled it. That's not to say that white men can never date Indian women (my brother has been dating a woman of Indian descent for about 7 years now) but it is something I try to be aware of when presenting images of Indian women on my blog. I like to do the "Bollywood Beauty" bits with different actresses in photo shoots but I aim (and hope that I succeed) to present these women as personalities - like Bebo - rather than Harajuku Girls.
(And an added note: I have a whole other post on the objectification of white women in Bollywood.)
Ah. This is the big one, I think. When I get e-mails telling me to stick to my culture only, I have a feeling the (legitimate?) fear of cultural appropriation is behind the anger. Here is the thing, though, and maybe this should be a separate post, but obsessing over Bollywood film is different from obsessing over India. I know I'm not Indian. While I may pepper my writing with filmi phrases from time to time, it's not an attempt to desi-fy myself. Adding a yaar or something to a sentence is usually one of two things for me - either I've been watching a lot of movies and because my ear has tuned to the Hindi I feel the need to slip something in, or there just isn't a way to say something in English that I want to convey.
What this fear of cultural appropriation shows is a very strong bond for some people between Bollywood and an Indian identity. It is inconceiviable for some folks that I could appreciate Bollywood films as just another form of media. I am not sure, since hate mailers rarely include their locations, but I wonder if part of this fear or possessiveness comes from the diaspora, where an Indian identity is defined in opposition to the cultures around them. Viewed from that perspective, seeing me as a white person at the local Bollywood theatre, I'm not out to enjoy a film but to "steal" or "pollute" an Indian-only space.
Another odd little side-effect of this view is that if Bollywood is only Indian, then Hollywood is the default "international" popular cinema. And this view is a large part, I think, of what leads all those reviewers in the Indian press to say things like "we're almost competing with Hollywood" and "this film is almost as good as Hollywood."
But, to my mind, Bollywood is not and has never been strictly a regional cinema. It plays well in Africa, the Middle East, China, and the former Soviet Union - a wide variety of world cultures. Rishi Kapoor was just honored by the Russian government and Shahrukh Khan by the Malaysians. Bollywood is not provincial just because it hasn't caught on in the United States - it's a different style of popular film making from Hollywood films, not a bastardized version of Hollywood films.
Although I am not Indian, I can and do enjoy Bollywood films. Just because I am not Hindu, doesn't mean I can't appreciate stories of religious awakening or reconciliation. Love, whether between a mother and son or brother and sister or two friends or a couple longing to become engaged is a universal emotion. This said, there are some films that I understand aren't targeted at me and that I will not enjoy them - Love Aaj Kal, for one - and you know what? I don't watch them. But just because I can't identify with a film that explores the specifics of the Indian experience doesn't mean I can't laugh my butt off at Partner or weep at Omkara. Some stories are universal, or at least can be appreciated on a universal level if one puts a little effort in.
So, how to tie this up together?
As a white person, I need to be aware of how I am consuming popular cultures from other parts of the world. Exoticism and cultural appropriation - such as Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls" - are traps too easy to fall into. But there is a big difference between hitting up the local Indian theatre to go to a film and wearing a sari to a formal event; a difference between getting your hands henna'ed at a street fair and Natalie Portman as a "Bollywood princess" in a music video. As the Internet flattens out the plane of popular culture, I don't think there is anything wrong with non-desi people watching Bollywood films just as people around the world watch Hollywood. America and the west don't have a monopoly on the global popular culture. People should be free to like Tom Cruise, Shahrukh Khan, Bae Yong Joon, or Kimura Takya no matter WHERE they are from.