Media Anthropology – Introduction

Media & Visual Anthropology

Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora in the USA

Iris Schultz

Bollywood as a globally successful phenomenon can be attributed to the alignment of the film industry towards the Indian diaspora and a wider audience outside India. In January 2015 the Indian government counted 27,1 million people as Non-resident Indians (NRI) or Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). NRI are people with an Indian nationality living abroad for more than 180 days per year. PIO are people of Indian descent up to the 4th generation living outside of India.

The term Indian diaspora should be seen as a social construct which tries to summarise groups of Indian descent that differentiate concerning class, race, ethnicity, religion, region of origin, length and choice of residence and time of migration etc. Religions among the diaspora include Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Parsi, etc., while the different ethnicities include Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Naga, etc. USA (4,46 million), Canada (1,02 million) and the UK (1,83 million) are among the main regions of destination for permanent emigration. In the US the economic background varies extremely with around 250 million people located in the middle-class and 300 million people that can be classified as poor. This is due to the different migration patterns. In the 1960s and 70s Indian migrants were mainly professionals and graduate students, while many migrants who arrived in the US in the 1980s and 1990s tend to be less well-off and educated.

A self-designation, particularly among young Indian-Americans or British-Indians is the term desi. Hindi movies from Mumbai – widely known as Bollywood – play a crucial role for this community in their diasporic lives. To get an idea about the industry: Bollywood movies are watched by around 3.2 billion people worldwide and about twice the size of Hollywood. Bollywood as a specific form of media has the potential to enable the construction of identity across generations of the Indian diaspora. This was recognised by the Bollywood film industry as well as by the Indian government.

In 2003 the Indian government created the annual festival Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Non-resident Indian Day) for NRI and PIO to mark the contribution of the overseas Indian community to the development of India. It is celebrated on January 9th and commemorates the return of Gandhi to India from South Africa in 1915. The festival is combined with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (Overseas Indian Award), an award to honour exceptional contributions of NRI/PIO in their profession. Pictures of the award ceremony from 2015 can be found on facebook.

Besides the effort of the government the Bollywood film industry started producing films directed at the diaspora in the 1990s, after the liberalisation of the Indian economy, with movies such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Large-Hearted will take away the Bride, 1995), Pardes (Foreign Country, 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens [in the Heart], 1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes happy, sometimes sad, 2001), Swades (Own Country, 2004) and Delhi-6 (2009). These movies star a (group of) NRI/PIO who discover(s) India anew and thus create India as a place of longing focusing on family, tradition and national identity. Thereby negative cliché images of poverty and pollution are avoided and the modern Bollywood movie emerged.

Here, the movie Delhi-6 can be an example. The story is told quickly. Roshan, played by famous Abhishek Bhachchan, comes from an Indian-American middle-class family and accompanies his grandmother to India as she is terminally ill and wants to die in her home in India. This home is in Delhi 6, an area in Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) in the capital. There he meets the family of his grandmother, an old admirer of his mother, and the neighbours with a gutsy daughter. Eventually he falls in love with the young neighbour and tries to help her avoiding an arranged marriage causing trouble with her father. He first meets her at a Ramayana play where he encounters his first culture shock as he had never been to India before. The marriage of his parents had been an inter-religious marriage, which had caused a conflict between Roshan’s father and grandfather, resulting in the family’s absence from India. Gradually he learns to like the city and its people who present itself as colourful, diverse and full of live. On another level the movie includes the figure of a big black monkey, the Kalar Banda who attacks several people across the town. In 2001 and 2002 several incidents in Delhi with a big black furry thing were reported which was taken up by the director. The appearance of the Kalar Banda in Delhi 6 leads to violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims and leaves Roshan confused about his feelings for this ‘homecountry’ as he had just decided to stay. In the end Roshan embraces the diversity of Delhi 6 and India.

Below the German trailer as the quality of the English one is rather poor.

This example shows an India that is not free of contradiction but able to overcome its conflicts. It is shown as colourful, vibrant, spiritual etc. thereby making it a place of longing for all generations. Here, India is created as a modern, clean and fashionable destination, an imagined and possible future homeland desh. The first generation is reminded of its childhood and youth and longs for their former home as a place for retirement. The second or third, hence the young generation of desis gets (a different) access to the heritage of their parents and grandparents, that might be unknown otherwise. For the generation in their 20s to 40s the movies deliver a powerful image of a ‘homeland‘ that they desire to visit. This well-funded diverse group of Indian-Americans partly rediscovers India as a possible future home and develops an increased interest in the heritage of its ancestors. This resulted in a boost for tourism by the Indian diaspora.

Modern Bollywood movies give the diasporic audience the possibility to form their identity with the help of an idealised ‚indianness‘ that is visible in these movies and can be discovered and embraced. This is particularly visible among teenage desis in the USA. For this group Bollywood serves as a visual culture, a social institution and as a linguistic recourse which is incorporated into everyday lives variably depending on class, linguistic, religious and geographic background. The movies can be watched together with friends and family on DVD, internet streaming or in cinema halls. Songs from the movies become popular and are used as mobile phone ringtones, are heard in cars, on headphones and at parties so that film music and dialogues find its way into daily life of young desis forming their experiences and offering a tool to express themselves. The displayed fashion is sought-after and can be imitated and presented at the next family related wedding or festival. Thus Bollywood as a media practice and mediascape includes the movies itself, a soundtrack, fashion, jokes and lines, advices for interaction with friends, family and romantic love and provides the means for ‘performing indianness’.

One of the reasons for its success in the diaspora is the combination of consumerism and so called desi values. Bollywood movies aimed at NRI/POI often portrait a global youth culture with access to branded products from the US and Europe. The film characters are young, attractive, wealthy and embedded in consumerism. Yet despite this modern touch values considered as desi or typically Indian are of high importance, such as maintaining the purity and chastity of women, respecting elders or sacrificing of individual desires for the larger good of the family. Characters referring to and respecting these values while representing modern consumer life are seen as role models. Here, consumerism can be seen as an indicator for social (upward) mobility, which is highly valued in the diasporic community. Having desi role models is crucial for many teenagers offering an alternative to Hollywood actors. Eventhough many Bollywood actresses and actors adapted to global ideas of beauty – being fair-skinned, extremely slim or muscular – dark eyes and dark hair often distinguish them as desi as well as a South Asian style of speech, mannerisms and values.

The success of Bollywood in the diaspora is reflected in the increased consumption of Indian products, such as DVDs, fashion, booking of travel agencies etc. which fuels the industry and contributes to its success. Yet voices of critique are raised, e.g. coming from audience in India, for whom the portrayed lives in ‚the west‘ are not accessible or desirable. The displayed ‚indianness‘ mostly shows well-off middle class or upper class families who don’t have to struggle financially to manage daily life. Yet the ‚indianness‘ that unites different age groups of the diaspora will remain an imagined one, as India itself is a diverse country.

(Personal) recommendations for Bollywood and Indian movies

PK (2014): An alien (Aamir Khan) lands on the earth and gets the remote for his UFO stolen. As people tell him to trust in god he tries the available religions in India and gets into a lot of trouble. Also he falls in love with a young journalist, who tries to help him. The film received a lot of negative attention by religious groups demanding its banning through the government. Very funny comedy.

Mardaani (2014): Crime thriller with Rani Mukerji who plays a tough-talking policewoman whose interest in the case of a kidnapped teenage girl leads her to uncover secrets of human trafficking by the Indian mafia. The tough lead role is entertaining to watch.

Kahaani (2012): A mystery thriller set in the beautiful Kolkata. A pregnant woman searches for her missing husband in Kolkata during the festival of Durga Puja. The crew often employed guerrilla-filmmaking techniques on Kolkata’s city streets. Kahaani explores themes of feminism and motherhood in male-dominated Indian society. Lovely colours and a plot twist.

Delhi Belly (2011): Black comedy whose story revolves around three roommates, a journalist, a photographer and cartoonist, who are leading an unkempt and debt-ridden life in a shoddy apartment in Delhi. The movie is about drugs, mix-ups and rough language. Very funny.

Dhobi Ghat (2011): Drama film with Aamir Khan. The story knots the life of four people in Mumbai who meet each other despite their different backgrounds. Great pictures and full of atmosphere.

Gandu (2010): Black and white movie set in Kolkata. A teenage rapper tries to get to grips with his life. This involves a ‘crazy’ riksha driver, a lot of drugs, the goddess Kali, rough language and explicit scenes.

Don (1978, 2006, 2011): Action movie from the 1970s starring famous Amitabh Bachchan playing a wanted criminal. The remake with Shah Rukh Khan as Don was released in 2006 including a serious plot twist. In 2010 the second part was filmed in Berlin. The original has a great soundtrack, while the modern version is a ‚typical‘ Bollywood movie with Shah Rukh Khan as a cunning villain.

Sholay (1975): Amitabh Bachchan in one of his best roles as the young angry man with a brilliant soundtrack.

In general most of the movies by Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), a film maker from Kolkata.


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Maira, Sunaina Marr (2002) Desis in the House. Indian American Youth Culture in New York City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mukhi, Sunita S. (2000) Doing the Desi Thing. Performing Indianness in in New York City. New York; London: Garland Publishing.

Rao, Shakuntala (2007) The Globalization of Bollywood: An Ethnography of Non-Elite Audiences in India, The Communication Review, 10:1, 57-76.

Shankar, Shalini (2008) Desi Land. Teen culture, class, and success in Silicon Valley. London; Durham: Duke University Press.

Shankar, Shalini (2009) Reel to Real. Desi Teens’ Linguistic Engagements with Bollywood. In: Angela Reyes and Adrienne Lo (eds.), Beyond Yellow English: Toward a Linguistic Anthropology of Asian Pacific America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vandevelde, Iris (2013) Revisiting the NRI ‘genre’: Indian diasporic engagements with NRI and multiplex films, South Asian Popular Culture, 11:1, 47-60.

© July 2015, Iris Schultz

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