One of my most vivid memories dates back to when I was about nine years old. In the third grade, I had two long braids, a recent hobby of exploring Roald Dahl novels, and an unfiltered love for my parents. My mother was the one who raised me—took me to school, made me “peanut-butty sammiches,” and gave me hugs continuously. My father was always working, and my image of him was something akin to Zeus. He was majestic—an ambiguous figure, who I rarely saw. Most of my memories of my father consist of long drives in the car, rolling by California windmills, and listening to my dad’s oldies. In third grade, I was a girl lost in American culture: the Beatles (bugs?), the Spice Girls (what masala girls?), and Elton John (who looked like my school principal). I had no idea what to listen to or how to be cool. But, in my father’s car, I felt at home listening to oldies tunes in a language I was forgetting, tunes from a country by which I longed to be accepted.
The nightingale sounds of Asha, the high-pitched chorus in the middle of a melody, and the musky soundtrack to Dev Anand’s woes—these were the mysterious, attractive sounds of India, the country in which I was born (and, as I like to playfully say to my parents, from which I was kidnapped). As my father would later explain to me, there was a lustrous quality in Indian cinema not always found in American showbiz. He described the culture, illustrating the emotions depicted in song, and then we would listen in silence.
Throughout my childhood, there was a continuous crop of Bollywood films out in theaters. From the epic Hum Aapke Hain Koun …! to Kal Ho Naa Ho, it was an era of feel-good films: moralistic plots with some tragedy and hidden humor. The films were hilariously cheesy, but, in the end, all good fun. Like a road-trip sing-a-long, watching each film was corny, but taking part in it was fun. Oh, and how we took part in it! Dancing at every family gathering, my cousins and I wore our bright-satin suits and played anthakshari to hits from films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. It was a clean childhood.
Then sharply, the feel-good era ended. Films began to lose their special, twinkling quality. Still, most Indian-American families rented the latest Bollywood blockbusters, hoping for some adherence to their cultural background. Many, including myself, were disappointed. So were the big names in Bollywood; they didn’t make as many lakhs as they hoped. So, the industry turned to the biggest seller: sex.
In the “olden days” of Indian cinema, a kiss was considered taboo. Slowly, Bollywood began to come out with more and more sexual innuendo.
But hey, it was just sex. I mean, as long it pertained to the plot, I wasn’t too offended. Not as bad as MTV, my junior high mind thought. So I still hero-worshipped Rani Mukherjee and Vivek Oberoi. I still bought Filmfare magazines to cut out pictures of my favorite stars for my taped-up wall. And I still rented Hindi movies on Friday nights, hoping for some euphoric connection to India like I’d felt during those old car rides.
By the time I entered high school, there’d been another transition in Hindi film. Ever since Lagaan had been nominated for an Oscar, it seemed increasingly possible that Bollywood films could have an American market. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make films that would be well received in both India and overseas.
Out came these monstrously bad movies and brown Pamela Andersons with bindis. Was this supposed to be India? I was a sophomore in high school and I was frustrated. Whatever happened to the sweet simplicity of Dil to Pagal Hai or the comedic exploits of Govinda? The blatant sexism just felt degrading. Women in the movies had to be plastically beautiful, dance in the cold wearing chappals and string bikinis, and still somehow keep their “moral values” while giving lap dances. It was sad that these movies that used to connect people, bring young and old together, could no longer be watched without blushing or lowered eyes.
The verdict: sex sold. On top of which, Karisma Kapoor got married, Madhuri Dixit went off to some faraway palace, and Salman Khan was convicted of drunk driving. Aishwarya Rai went from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to the Jane Austen remake Bride and Prejudice. The era of “feel-good” films seemed to have passed, only to be replaced with a new genre of “feel-me-up” movies.
It seems to me that in trying so hard to be forward, Indian film has lost its culture and dignity. Aside from a few rare aberrations, everything is a remix. In trying to be modern, we have gone backwards. We have equated sex and flashing bulbs to moving forward. Forget about lip-syncing! Now, the vogue is just gyrating to DJ-ed tabla beats. What is the next generation going to face?
The fact is that India is a young independent country, though we have inherited years and years of ancient traditions. We can choose how we want to represent ourselves. Our films should reflect the age-old Indian values of integrity and community, values which must be kept for posterity. And, by teaching through example, we can ensure that our children do not only internalize the importance of superficial success and shiny lehengas.
The “modernization” of Indian cinema reflects the fact that India is changing rapidly, but perhaps changing so rapidly that she is falling off track. The era of clean and simple cinematic escapes may be over, but we should still be careful as to which direction our film industry is going. The media produce what we consumers seem to want. Instead of becoming a society that looks for cheap-cheap-cheaper thrills, perhaps we should focus on how to represent India the way she deserves to be represented—with respect, depth, and dignity.
I look forward to the day when I will drive in my space-age car with my children, California windmills rolling outside, filmi music playing from my car stereo. My children will be listening in the backseat, possibly bickering, but I won’t be able to hear them. I’ll have my own oldies on, the volume up high.
Hardeep Jandu is a senior at American High School, Fremont, Calif.