Minorities who appear different to “mainstream society” whether because of ethnic background or just through distinctive dress are always in danger of being singled out as targets for mass rage. America is a complicated place. We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants who came here for a better life (conveniently leaving Native Americans and those brought here by force out of the story) but we have never really unified as a single nation and though our history is long and bloody with communal violence and sectarian disputes we rarely explore these ideas through our films.
As I read about the attack, I couldn’t help but predict that this incident will probably be appropriated and reworked into a Bollywood film. Kunal Kohli probably has 20 pages of white people delivering blisteringly racist diatribes ready to go right now! But America’s film studios will never touch Oak Creek. Not just because the victims are Sikh and the villain a white man but because America’s dream makers like to pretend racism and communal violence in America don’t exist.
While Bollywood picks at the wounds of Partition and the communal violence in Gujarat and other places, Hollywood prefers to keep our violent history buried. Imagine what Anurag Kashyap could do with the Wounded Knee Incident where FBI agents faced down Native American rebels from Pine Ridge Reservation. Why hasn’t this bloody battle been picked apart like so many of the “encounters” of Indian cinema?
Then there are the race riots of the 1960s, almost ignored outside the African-American community. Here in Washington, DC, the damage done to H Street - where the riots were centered - is only now finally beginning to be erased. Why hasn’t this been explored in mainstream American film? Where is our tragic Mausam - lovers torn apart by violence? Is soft-core white fantasy of The Help the only thing in our hearts?
Where are the films about the Japanese-Americans put in internment camps during World War II? The films about coal miners worked to death in West Virginia?
Where is our Aamir Khan willing to support a film about the troubles our farmers face?
And why am I instead guaranteed five sequels to the latest comic book superhero tripe and eight films musing on the troubles of middle-class white dudes?
Watching mainstream American films, one would think the biggest conflict in our history is between people who liked Bush and people who don’t. (Unless it’s a Civil War film, in which the conflict is between heroic white people who want to free the slaves and heroic white people who want to save their farms.)
I know Bollywood is far from perfect; depictions are biased and politics simplified. My Name Is Khan. And I recognize that for every film that explores a social problem, there is an utterly inane Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum to negate it, but you can watch mainstream Bollywood (and especially South Indian) films and be made aware that these problems exist - that these events happened and still define our relationships to each other.
The only reason I know who the Naxalites are or about farmer suicides is because of Bollywood.
I’m not holding my breath for another American History X any time soon - not with ten more Marvel Comics and remakes of every film made in the 1980s in the works - but I am curious to see how the film studios of Mumbai will handle this. Will we see a turbaned Sunny Deol airdropped into downtown Madison ready to bash heads? Only time will tell.
But I kind of hope so.