Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An open Letter from Filmi Girl to all those Americans making Bollywood parodies... please stop.

The hand of fate must have been directing my research last night.

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.


Mo Pitz said...

It never occurred to me that Psy WASN'T in on it.

Archee ologist said...

But this Neil Patrick Harris video might not be so much parodying, as stereotyping.

I mean, we have the "white skank" in every other Bollywood song? What about that? Some exotic cultures just do not have reference points, their stereotypes are used simply for amusement. Dont you think?

I mean, when every black person in a Hindi movie comes from Africa, and every American is either a racist man or a white skanky woman (unless she adapts the Indian culture and starts wearing white salwa kameej towards the end of the movie)? Similarly, I would allow others to stereotype Bollywood to an extent...


Katherine Cowles said...

Your post struck a chord with me, as I'm an American who blogs about Indian cinema. As a person of one culture who has an intense interest and fascination about another culture, I'm constantly terrified of being thought of as racist, but I have to admit that I'm always delighted whenever anything related to Bollywood goes viral, because it means that some portion of the population will have heard of it for the first time, and it's a step towards no longer getting blank looks when I bring up the subject.

I'm a huge Bollywood fan now, but I don't think I would ever have given it a try if not for the fact that I had stumbled across several over-the-top internet parodies first. And while I do agree that NPH could have done a lot to make it more authentic, I think it's important to understand that this particular video is in the context of a dream he has while watching a Bollywood movie. Coming from that standpoint, it seems less insensitive. He's an American musical theater guy having a silly dream about an unfamiliar film genre which is filtered through his subconscious via the sort of Broadway musical numbers he's accustomed to. And it's supposed to be ridiculous and nonsensical, as were the other videos in this series. I really don't think he was trying to make any kind of statement.

Say you flip the context - an Indian guy dozes off while watching an American film (for example, I don't know, Captain America or something) and has a musical dream about himself having a silly romance with a puppet bald eagle - mostly in the style of the Indian movies he's familiar with, but with a few stereotypical American elements (baseball, apple pie, whatever) thrown in. Does it still seem so insensitive? I don't think so, I think it seems ridiculous and potentially hilarious. And yeah, it's not a perfect analogy because it's not like the bald eagle is actually sacred to Americans, but hopefully you get my gist.

I guess my point is, there seems to be a vast cultural divide between Bollywood and Hollywood. They both have a hard time relating to each other, which is why most Hollywood films historically don't do well in Indian markets, and vice versa. Personally, I'm pleased whenever someone tries to bridge the gap, even if the method is a bit awkward or clumsy.

Filmi Girl said...

@Katherine I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I'm not against silly Bollywood parodies in theory - "Game On" is fine - but this puppet song is NOT a Bollywood parody. It has nothing to do with actual Bollywood but is part of a broader pattern of western dismissal of Asian culture as "silly" without bothering to understand what it is they are dismissing.

THAT I have a problem with.

As to your concerns about being tagged racist, I haven't read your blog (I don't think) but unless you are LOLing at everything or exoticizing Indian culture or making huge generalizing statements about Indians and India (hello, Rachel Saltz) then you should be fine.

But as a white person writing about Indian film, you have to accept that for large swathes of the diaspora, Indian films aren't just films but represent a safe cultural space and we have to respect that. AKA it's fine to go to film related events but not to religious festivals unless you've been specifically invited by a member of the community.

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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