Within the first few scenes of The Ma-trix: Revolutions I knew Neo wasn’t the One. I was. When Neo opens his eyes at the train station, the portal between the real world and the Matrix, the first person he sees is a young South Asian girl. That was Hollywood’s way of letting me know it is finally my turn in the spotlight.
Well, maybe not me in particular, but my people. We are cool at last. In 1492, Columbus thought he had discovered Indians. Now, after more than six centuries of waiting, we are truly discovered. It’s no longer about the ethnic chic of Gwen Stefani’s bindi, or henna tattoos. This is the real thing—a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster.
This is not your parent’s sitar generation. That was just fizzless karma cola in comparison. This time we Indians take center stage, instead of just handing our sitars over to the Beatles to twang.
The signs, as the Oracle would say, were all there. Like Neo, I just wasn’t ready to believe.
Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer a few years ago for Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories about Indian immigrants. It was an unbelievable feat for a first-time author. She was our Trinity, taking us as far as she could into the cold Machine City heart of the highest echelons of the American intelligentsia. But even the high priests of literature are not immune to the lure of Hollywood—Salman Rushdie showed up in a cameo in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Films like Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham were our advance guard, our Hammer, breaking into the forbidden lands of the Midwest multiplex. Even though those movies are now moving to the video market, their effect remains. Louisiana just might elect the first Indian-American governor in the nation, if Bobby Jindal has his way.
The Bollywoodization of American popular culture has long been underway. There have been misfires, like those images of Hindu gods on footwear and toilet seats. But evidence has been piling up. Deepak Chopra has long been managing the spiritual fortunes of Hollywood’s golden people. Britney Spears’ new album has a bhangra remix of one of her singles. Images from old Indian matchbooks and posters now retail as birthday cards. T-shirts say “San Francisco” in Hindi script. The vinyl seat-covers of Indian rickshaws are turning into tote bags for Manhattan’s chic.
But none of it amounted to much until Hollywood anointed us as cool. We were the model citizens—winning spelling bees, writing reams of code, and buying responsible cars like Hondas and Toyotas. We had money, motels, and a lobbying firm in Washington. But we were never cool. When Hollywood blesses you, however, you become transformed. Suddenly, we are the stuff that dreams are made of. We came here in search of the American dream. Now, Neo, we are in it.
I do not know who decided it was our turn. Was it the new bonhomie between Washington and New Delhi in the war on terrorism that tipped the balance? The booming immigrant population from South Asia spreading across the suburbs with that deadly secret weapon—the all-you-can eat $6.99 lunch buffet? The promise of the giant middle-class marketplace in India hungry for washing machines and McDonalds?
The question is, are we ready? We have been eager to protest the misappropriation of our images. When Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft or Xena played with Hindu mythology, some Hindus were outraged. Dr. Dre got slapped with a lawsuit for using a few lines from a song in an old Indian movie in his song “Addictive.” But those were just minor skirmishes with the foot soldiers of the American dream factory. Now we face the real thing—Hollywood itself. It promises us entry and says unimaginable glories will follow.
But we know that once we enter the Matrix, there is no going back. There is no telling who will consume whom. We know we can be chewed up and processed and spat out as millions of cookie-cutter lunch boxes with images of Krishna stamped on them. Probably made in China!
Its face is seductive—the young girl in Matrix distilled from the ashes of hundreds of stereotypes and finally free of them. No more echoes of Sabu, the jungle boy, or Apu, the cartoon storeowner in The Simpsons. These might be the death throes of Mowgli. But if Matrix has taught us anything, it is not to trust appearances. All we can trust is the Oracle.
The Oracle says everything that has a beginning must have an end. In the movie, the beginning shows a young Sati looming over a supine Neo. It ends with Sanskrit mantras chanting shanti. Enough said. Neo, move over. No hard feelings, it’s just your karma.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents, and host of Upfront, a weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.