I had been looking up articles relating to “Gangnam Style” for a completely different essay when Neil Patrick Harris’s latest “Puppet Dreams” Bollywood “parody” video fell right into my lap and proved my point. Which is this: Americans (and more broadly, those operating in the American-dominated cultural sphere) are either unable or just plain unwilling to engage with foreign cultural products beyond LOL! PEOPLE IN OTHER COUNTRIES DO FUNNY DANCES! LOL!
Bollywood fans, if you’ll indulge me, I need to talk to the Americans in the audience.
Guys, let me explain a little something about how parody works. Parody requires that the viewer is familiar enough with the source material to be able to appreciate the comedic differences in the parody. Case in point: every video of Weird Al’s ever. White and Nerdy has Weird Al performing stereotypical nerd tropes as if they were stereotypical hip hop video tropes - sucessfully parodying two things at once! NBC’s Community is also an expert user of parody, doing things like transferring the tropes of a space disaster film to a bus trapped in a parking lot.
Mel Brooks, Christopher Guest, Woody Allen, Lonely Island... these guys do parody and they do it well. But their work requires that you be familiar with the source material they are skewering - whether it’s heavy metal bands (Spinal Tap) or a certain kind of thinky documentary (Zelig) or Star Wars (Space Balls) or that one douchey white guy with dreadlocks (Ras Trent).
Parody can be brutal or it can be done out of a fondness for the source material but the key here is this: PARODY MUST ENGAGE WITH THE SOURCE MATERIAL IN ORDER TO BE PARODY.
Now, Bollywood fans, watch that Neil Patrick Harris video and see if anything seems familiar to you? Does the song sound even remotely like anything you’ve heard at the cinema recently? No? Okay, well, does the setting look familiar? No, again. Hmm... How about the dancing? Costumes? Lyrics?
Right. Which means this isn’t Bollywood parody but “Bollywood” parody, in which “Bollywood” is represented by youtubing Benny Lava and that handful of Punjabi music videos you caught while waiting to pick up your take-out food. It’s a mythical land of bright colors and nonsense where dancing happens spontaneously! And ladies sing really, really high in squeaky voices! And the men are all hairy disco-dancing sleezes! Or just gay and effeminate! And maybe we’ll mix some Aladdin in there! Oh, wait did you see the The Party?! Hilarious! LOL! BROWN PEOPLE DANCING LOL!
Why do Americans feel qualified to parody something that they are completely unfamiliar with?
I have an answer and it’s not a flattering one.
What videos like the above say to me is that the cinema I love is just such a big a joke to people like Neil Patrick Harris that he doesn’t have to actually learn about Bollywood or bother to get it right because the word “Bollywood” in combination with some vaguely Indian outfits and dance moves is enough to just kill everybody with laughter.
Because LOL! FOREIGN PEOPLE DO FUNNY DANCES LOL! is the extent that America is willing to engage with the rest of the world. (See also: “Gangnam Style.”*)
And the inevitable result of being unwilling to engage with different cultural paradigms is videos that are at best ignorant and at worst utterly racist.
Would you like to see what a Bollywood parody looks like?
The top of the class of the American-done parodies is the Guild’s “Game On.” The music and staging aren’t precise pastiche but they are at least operating in the same sphere of reference as a generic Bollywood song.
But actual Bollywood parody looks like this:
Yes, that’s Bollywood doing an effective parody of three specific Chinese films.
And here’s Mithun Chakroborthy doing a parody of his hit song from cult classic Disco Dancer.
And here’s a parody of “Chale Chalo” from the Oscar nominated Lagaan from the film Kal Ho Naa Ho.
Do you know what all of these songs had in common? SPECIFIC reference points that the audience knows and can appreciate. These songs are all parodies and if they didn't make sense to you, that's not because the songs don't make sense, it's because you don't have the cultural knowledge to make sense of them.
Or you could take the American way out and just say: LULZ! OTHER PEOPLE LIKE WEIRD STUFF! That puppet song is not a parody; it is mocking something it doesn’t understand and that’s sad. Mockery like this shuts down conversation and understanding. Mockery like this says, “My understanding of the world is the only valid one.”
*And I give mad props to PSY for turning the joke back around on us. Make no mistake, PSY was totally playing us, as we happily handed over wads of cash.