Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cultural melding: Bollywood style...

As you may or may not have noticed, I got into a bit of an argument with Raza Jaffrey on Twitter last night. He was determined to defend that incredibly shitty Smash song by any means necessary - including getting on his high horse to tell me that cultural melding is a grand tradition in "Indian cinema" (WHICH region, dude? They're not all the same.) and that I should take the Aladdin-Indian conflation in the Smash song like that.

Leaving aside the fact that nowhere in the Smash promotional material nor in the reaction to the song in the Western press did anybody even briefly drop a hint that they knew that the "Arabian Nights" aren't actually a Bollywood thing, I thought it would be worth pointing out to Mr. Jaffrey some Bollywood songs that manage to meld two different cultures without resorting to putting white people in Aladdin vests and have them steal lamps. (Because that is what Arabic culture is all about, ammirite? Stealing lamps and waving peacock feather fans for the sultan's wife. I suppose we should be grateful that at least Smash didn't make them terrorists in Aladdin vests, since that seems to be the only other option for representation of Arabs on American television.)

Yes, Bollywood does trade in ethnic stereotype humor (aka all of Double Dhamaal) but that doesn't mean they don't know how to get it right from time to time!

1. Bollywood X Spain ("Paint It Red" from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara)

Sure, the film tends towards the touristy but they do a nice job here, I think.

2. Bollywood X America ("Pretty Woman" from Kal Ho Naa Ho)

One of many "authorized" remakes of American rock songs...

3. Bollywood X Western Art Music ("Dil Ka Rishta" from Yuuvraaj)

This movie was terrible but the music was pretty...

4. Bollywood X Western Style Jazz Cabaret Club ("Jab Bhi Cigaret" from No Smoking)

Just because I never pass up an opportunity to watch this...

And this is just off the top of my head at 7am after I've just gotten up... I'm sure you guys can think of more! And not an Aladdin vest in the lot of the them.


Tady said...

I love the passion you are bringing to this topic ... the worst is having people (in this case the actor) of said production defend and when they have no concept of what Bollywood is. All they understand is the stereotypes.

Thank you!

Filmi Girl said...

Thank you, Tady!! :)

I know I got way too worked up about this but it was driving me batty!! (Especially as a librarian! "Somebody is being inaccurate... danger danger... librarian meltdown...")

But how somebody cannot see that "Smash" song as just inappropriate - let alone not Bollywood... Majorly SMH at that dude.

* said...

Correct me if I am wrong but you say "Yes, Bollywood does trade in ethnic stereotype humor (aka all of Double Dhamaal) but that doesn't mean they don't know how to get it right from time to time!" does this mean that in order to be fair we should be comparing the entire breadth of American television to see when they
"get it right from time to time"? Because there are plenty of examples in that case when depictions of minorities and cultures are fair.

Moreover, maybe Raza shouldn't have said "Indian cinema" because I think he was reffering to Hindi cinema but the thing is that that is how Hindi cinema portrays itself in the world and I wouldn't really fault him for not being aware of the nuances of Tamil, Telugu and other regional film cultures.

Taking that into account his argument isn't that off. Hindi cinema ADORES what is referred to as "cultural melding" done properly and improperly (with heavy overtones of racism). Heck, Hindi cinema can't even get a proper depiction of Pakistan right (and we live right next door). They often conflate Pakistani muslims with Lucknow cultures (or what is assumed to be Lucknow culture) whereas the two systems are very different. There have been very few films with depictions of modern South Asian Muslims that I could relate to, Hindi cinema also loves fetishizing white women (and men) and for the longest time they were portrayed (in particular women) as "promiscuous". You named Double Dhamaal but you could pick up any Sajid Nadiadwala (or others but I particularly detest this producer) film for racist caricatures.

I was talking to a Tibetan friend the other day who told me that "3 idiots" kept on misprouncing the proper Tibetan name of Aamir Khan's character and treated it as a joke in the film even though it is, you know, not a joke. Similarly, I cringed multiple times during Kurbaan. Also how can someone forget the song "Kilimanjaro" from Robot.. a song about Africa's highest mountains (and a symbol of great pride for Tanzania and Kenya) shot in Machu Pichu of all places with the cast and dancers wearing what appeared to be ostrich costumes..

So in short, Hindi cinema gets it wrong often. For someone fed a constant spiel about Hindi cinema being "Indian" cinema, it makes sense why he would conflate the two. Cultural melding is a common occurrence in Hindi cinema and is handled poorly.

That said, the SMASH song, was for me personally not as cringeworthy as the examples listed above. although that could be entirely because Raza Jaffery is incredibly good looking and I am very very very shallow. As an aside, you are very lucky to get to talk to him.

Filmi Girl said...

@* That is a long but welcome comment!! You make a lot of good points...

Cultural melding is a common occurrence in Hindi cinema and is handled poorly.

... especially this one. Your point is very much taken.

I guess my filter this morning was an American one and thinking about the awful depictions of South Asians and Arabs in American media - especially since the terror attacks of 9/11 - people dancing around in Aladdin vests just felt like watching a minstrel show or something.

I wonder if we can draw a line between that kind of Double Dhamaal ethnic stereotyping and actual "melding," though... because if you think about it that way, Bollywood has been pretty successful at "melding" Hollywood stories with Bollywood sensibilities. I was thinking more along those lines this morning rather than the ethnic stereotyping - although you are right that I shouldn't have handwaved it away.

(And maybe I'm just being biased but I don't think I'm that lucky to have tweeted with him. He was pretty condescending to me. You are, of course, welcome to find him attractive, though. ;)))

Again, thanks for the comment! I really appreciate this kind of thoughtful discussion because if we DON'T talk about issues like this, we'll just continue to uncomfortably ignore them.

Moimeme said...

I didn't watch the Smash "Bollywood" song, mainly because of your horrified comments, but also because I know generally that American TV gets these types of things pretty wrong.

However, I think you're on weak ground if you're going to hold up Hindi films, especially the "Bollywood" version of them, as some kind of model of cultural respect and correctness. * has delineated how they get their Pakistani Muslim culture wrong (which even I, who am neither Pakistani nor Muslim, wondered about many times). But they can't even get the cultures within India right -- just look at how they depict "South Indians" -- from the oldies like Padosan to the latest ones like Ra.One. Not much respect nor sensitivity there. Or how they show Punjabis -- a one note depiction of loud jolliness and nothing else. And considering how much grief they give to actors about not getting the Hindi accent "right", from Hema Malini to Sridevi to Katrina, and how much they criticize people like Priyanka, Aishwarya, and Madhuri for "faking" an American accent in English (truly bizarre in Madhuri's case, since she actually lives in the U.S.!), how well do Hindi films do in getting at least the right English accent for any English speaking character? We have New Yorkers from Brooklyn speaking with Australian accents (Jaaneman), Britishers in the 1800's speaking with "Anglo Indian" accents (Mangal Pandey), and supposedly American born and bred characters of Indian origin speaking with the sing song Indian "convent" accents (Kal Ho Na Ho).

You can criticize the Smash guys for distorting a "Bollywood" song, but please don't hold up Bollywood itself as some kind of ideal.

Filmi Girl said...

@Moimeme Oh, dear!! I didn't mean that at all!! I know perfectly well they have some pretty awful ethnic stereotypes. I'm afraid I didn't put my point across clearly if that's what it sounded like I was saying... :(((

I was thinking more of Bollywood taking on different "melded" styles of songs and doing them well...

I've seen enough whorey goris and comedy arabs; comedy punjabis; comedy South Indians; evil Pakistanis; etc to know Bollywood isn't some melting pot of ethnic inclusiveness.

I hope that distinction makes sense...

I said as much to Raza Jaffrey yesterday, too. He was the one who said "lots" of Bollywood films that he's seen had "Arabic" influences - to which I replied, "Oh, like the comedy Arabs - well, Smash did a great job if that was the case."

Neither Hollywood nor Bollywood has a clean slate in dealing ethnic minorities but what killed me about this stupid Smash song was that it did the typical terrible Hollywood job at it and then acted like it was the real thing!!! Kind of like Shahrukh in Ra.One then... so maybe Smash really did nail Bollywood... Bollywood's stereotypipification... not that Raza Jaffrey would admit as much.


But thank you, my dear, for the comment!! If I didn't have pushback from people I wouldn't find all the holes in my arguments!! LOL!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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