Women of the Indian diaspora are often portrayed as hyper-sexual and constantly rebelling against their own heritage in efforts to assimilate to Western norms.
Often, they are “rescued” by a male protagonist who inspires them to restore their Indian values. The celebrated and socially acceptable nature of Bollywood movies amongst diaspora populations makes internal criticism rare.
Increasingly, Bollywood films tend to reinforce aspects of cultural nationalism among diaspora populations, using the female protagonist to propagate not-too-subtly a highly patriarchal order. With its light-hearted plots, vivid dance sequences and aesthetically appealing actors espousing feelings of cultural nostalgia and longing, Bollywood slips these influences into our family rooms unnoticed.
Several recent movies fit this genre, but the most vivid example that comes to mind is the 2007 film, Namastey London. The movie revolves around Jasmeet “Jazz” Malhotra, a young girl born in London who, through drinking, partying, and socializing with men, wholeheartedly rejects her Indian heritage. Her worried father arranges a trip to India to help her re-discover her roots, and in the process, covertly arranges her marriage to boy named Arjun, who lives in a village in Punjab.
Arjun attempts to extend his boundless patriotism to Jasmeet, and believes that through their marriage, he can help her appreciate her “native” culture. Jasmeet flees to England to marry her British fiancé, and Arjun follows her, attempting to win her back by pointing out the various moral degradations of Western culture and its influences.
‘I am not Indian’
Jasmeet’s character is introduced during an arranged date with a potential Indian suitor, Bobby. She enters the scene wearing a traditional Indian salwar kameez, and immediately orders multiple shots of vodka. While imbibing, she discloses to Bobby her sexual relations with various men and her parent’s desire for her to marry a “good Indian boy.” She abruptly leaves a stunned Bobby and gets into a taxi, where she discards her Indian garb and changes into a revealing black dress. When the taxi driver asks if she is from India, she quickly answers, “God no, I’m from Harris Street.” In a later scene, while eating lunch by the London Bridge, her Indian female friend questions her vehement opposition to marrying an Indian. Jasmeet replies:
“I am not Indian, I am British. I was not born in India, I never visit India, and since the age of three, I have held my hand over my heart and sung “God Save the Queen.” My attitude and thinking is completely British. How can I be Indian?”
As Jasmeet begins to describe her ideal mate, a red sports car pulls up, driven by a handsome, blonde British man who is revealed to be their boss. As Jasmeet runs to his car, her friend warns her about his notorious promiscuity and fondness for affairs with work colleagues. Jasmeet ignores her friend’s advice, and gets into his car in an act of defiance.
Jasmeet’s career-oriented mentality is characterized as overbearing and selfish, and her name change is seen as an overt assimilation into English culture. Her exaggerated dismissal of her roots is perceived as shaming her parents, who have no other option but to arrange her marriage with Arjun. Her cultural introspection and eventual repatriation to her own heritage is evoked through her romance with Arjun.
Arjun’s character acts as a “saviour” who redeems Jasmeet, rationalizing her Western mores to ignorance perpetuated by her corrupt British surroundings. The movie ends with Jasmeet and Arjun happily wed, riding through fields on his motorcycle in Punjab.
While Bollywood movies are received as light-hearted entertainment as opposed to in-depth social commentaries, their unspoken messages have an understated impact on the formation of women’s identities in diaspora communities. The unquestioning acceptance of these forms of popular media, coupled with the fact that they often serve as the singular cultural connection to an “imagined homeland,” reinforces its legitimacy as a source of cultural nationalism.
Nobody quite captures the diaspora experience as Salman Rushdie, bestselling author of Midnight’s Children and The Satantic Verses: “Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”
I generally find myself in between those two metaphoric stools, perennially balancing cultures as a second-generation Canadian Indian. I was reminded of Jasmeet’s travails during a recent summer in Delhi, which I saw as an escape from having to walk a fine line between cultures. After about a month alone in Delhi, I found myself automatically identifying with my Canadian-ness at every opportunity. And so, the classic paradox of the confused Canadian born Indian persists. According to Canadians, I am Indian. According to Indo-Canadians, I am not Indian enough. And according to Indians, I am Canadian.
I empathize with Rushdie, who describes his position as an Indian author living in the diaspora thus: “Our identity is at once plural and partial … if literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles.” — New Canadian Media