The Representation Of Indian Culture And Tradition In Cinema

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Over the past decade, Indian cinema has found a place in the hearts of billions of people around the globe. While it is a staple source of entertainment in its home country of India, it regularly and consistently finds audience among people of other nationalities as well. In fact, Indian movies have found a huge market outside of India. Major countries where Indian movies conduct reasonable, if not huge, business include the USA, the UK, China, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE etc. In several cases, the audiences differ based on specific actors cast in the movie. For example, Telugu films with Rajnikant have always found an audience in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, while Hindi films with Shahrukh Khan are received well in Germany [1]. As Indian movies of the last decade have become more ‘globe-friendly’ with reduced length, increased content awareness and lesser playback singing, it is no wonder that Indian cinema is still creating new markets for itself. For example, China is a new and highly profitable market for Indian movies from different languages, with so many of them performing well at their box office in recent years [1, 2].

There is also an increased awareness about the fact that Indian cinema is not restricted to Bollywood. While Bollywood is the name of the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai, Indian cinema is far more than what this term defines. India is a land of many cultures and languages. With 22 languages recognized officially as the scheduled languages by the Indian constitution and many more that are spoken across the country, Indian cinema is marked by numerous regional film industries. Such regional cinema has become popular not only across different regions of India, but also outside the country. It helps that India’s National Film Awards recognize best features in several languages, promoting Indian cinema and its linguistic and cultural plurality. Even India’s film entries to the Oscars for Best International Feature Film in the recent years have come from several regional cinemas. Over the last 5 years, India’s submissions for the Academy Awards have been Court (Marathi, 2015), Interrogation (Tamil, 2016), Raktokarobi (Bengali, 2017), Village Rockstars (Assamese, 2018) and Gully Boy (Hindi, 2019).

A profound reason for this increase in the appetite for Indian cinema of different languages across the world has been the constant increase in globalization, and more recently, the commencement of the digital era of cinema. As the world continues to swiftly harmonize with the digital age, new means of enjoying a full-fledged theatrical experience right at your home have emerged. With the advent of numerous over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Indian cinema has received even more exposure to a global audience with a taste for Indian culture and sensibility. A host of Indian movies – from the Hindi film industry or Bollywood, as well as the various prolific regional film industries – are available for audiences across the world to watch, appreciate and criticize.

Some mainstream Bollywood actors have either temporarily or permanently translocated to international industries. For example, Priyanka Chopra, Anupam Kher and Deepika Padukone have been parts of several films and/or TV shows in the US. These eminent actors have played a major role in iterating and clarifying to the world that Bollywood, and in extension, Indian cinema, is not merely a genre, but a formidable industry to reckon with. Through their various promotional interviews for their respective movies and/or TV shows, they have answered several questions about Bollywood (and Indian cinema in general), and the several stigmas and prejudices associated with it. While some may think them to be frivolous, YouTube and the social media have also become indispensable means of marketing and data collection. Various non-Indian YouTube channels focusing on reviewing world cinema have also made Indian cinema their staple topic of discussion and review, mainly owing to the Indian audience seeking their opinion on Indian cinema.

The Indian diaspora has also contributed to the awareness of Indian culture and cinema in the world. Globally known second generation members of the Indian diaspora are sharing their experiences with finding, understanding, accepting and appreciating their Indian as well as religious identities. The ‘first generation’ diaspora is composed of the people who were the first generation in their family to immigrate to a different country. On the other hand, one understanding of the term ‘second generation’ in the context of a diaspora comes from Alba and Waters [3] who write that:

‘The term second generation is often taken in a broad sense to encompass the children who grow up in immigrant homes, whether they are born in the receiving society or enter it at a young age.’

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Some popular actors and media personalities of the second generation of the Indian diaspora who have brought India, Indian cinema and Indianness to the front line include Aziz Ansari (USA), Hasan Minhaj (USA) and Lilly Singh (Canada).

It is clear that the breadth of Indian cinema’s outreach is vast. However, the depth of its impact on its audience is bound to be differential, especially when the audience is sprawled across continents. Even among Indians, the impact, value and significance attached to the cinema can be seen as being varied between the citizens living within India and those residing abroad (the Indian diaspora, alternatively referred to as Non-Resident Indians or NRIs in this thesis).

The reason why Indian cinema needs to be studied separately from the perspective of NRIs is that they bring a new narrative – one that revolves around the clash of values coming from two widely different cultures, their nostalgia and the conflict in their love for their home country and India. Any study of the effect of cinema on the Indian diaspora is incomplete without considering at least two perspectives. In cinema, these perspectives have been explored and investigated through varied lenses – some filmmakers live in India and make movies about NRIs, while others are NRIs themselves and make movies about NRIs.

In the first category, several Indian movies of have thrown light on NRI culture from the perspective of domiciled Indians. These movies provide perspectives on the amalgamation and transaction of cultural currency when resident and non-resident Indians or desis meet outside of India. Eminent examples from the last decade include ‘My Name is Khan’ (Director: Karan Johar, 2010), ‘English Vinglish’ (Director: Gauri Shinde, 2012) and ‘Queen’ (Director: Vikas Bahl, 2014).

The second category contains movies created by NRIs depicting Indian culture, sometimes even reflecting on their own experiences in their home countries. This category is largely dominated by a few prolific directors such as Mira Nair (USA, first generation), Gurinder Chadha (UK, second generation) and Deepa Mehta (Canada, first generation). Examples include American Desi (Director: Piyush Dinker Pandya, 2001), Monsoon Wedding (Director: Mira Nair, 2001), Bollywood/Hollywood (Director: Deepa Mehta, 2002) and Bend it Like Beckham (Director: Gurinder Chadha, 2002).

The movies in both these categories capture the complex environments of NRIs and resident Indians as they navigate labyrinthine linguistic, political, racial and social landscapes in new countries. There is a lesser explored third perspective as well, where filmmakers with no Indian roots or connection make films about Indians living abroad or in India. Some examples include Slumdog Millionaire (Director: Danny Boyle, 2008; the story itself is based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A) and The Hundred-Foot Journey (Director: Lasse Hallström, 2014).

This thesis embarks upon understanding the representation of the Indian diasporic identity in diasporic films. The thesis aims to bring about this understanding through a thorough comparison of two films created by members of the Indian diaspora that have focused on issues of the Indian diasporic identity. These films are American Desi (Director: Piyush Dinker Pandya, 2001) and Bollywood/Hollywood (Director: Deepa Mehta, 2002). Deepa Mehta, who directed Bollywood/Hollywood is a first generation Indian who was born, brought up and educated in India, and then moved to Canada. On the other hand, Piyush Dinker Pandya (USA), who directed American Desi, is a second generation Indian American. While Mehta’s film presents the duality of cultures in an Indian household based in Canada, Pandya said in an interview that the story for his film was drawn from his own experiences as a second generation Indian American [4]. It is fair to expect the perspectives of the Indian diaspora presented in these two movies to be distinct because one director is a first generation immigrant, while the other is a second generation Indian American. This is an important and an illuminating comparison because the two directors belong to different generations of immigrants. Moreover, the two directors are also residents of two different countries in North America, which may add to the variation in perspectives. This thesis aims to explore such enlightening comparisons through in-depth scene analyses. Finally, the ideas of customs, religion, sexuality, family values, language, arranged marriages, being comfortable with one’s Indianness and the Bollywood stereotype will be explored and discussed through these two films.     

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