I was driving across the country on Interstate 40 with a Jewish classmate in a beat-up Toyota Corolla during my first American summer, when my friend asked, “What do you wear in India if you want to look chic?”
“A sari of course,” I said.
“A sari is not really chic or sexy though, is it?” she said.
You couldn’t fault her for her attitude.
When I first arrived on these shores, Americans had not seen Hindi film actresses or heard of Bollywood; the term had not yet been invented. Americans did not know that Bombay made more movies per year than Hollywood. India to them was a home of snake charmers, swamis, holy cows, and untouchables; a stereotypical Indian was Peter Sellers in The Party .
All that has changed. Bollywood is all the rage now; henna, bindis, and chappals have become mainstream. Indian women, once considered docile and overly feminine—which is to be expected if a boyish Mia Farrow is your ideal—are now hailed as the most beautiful women in the world. Indians are news anchors, reporters for major media outlets, stars on primetime TV, writers for The New Yorker. Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair are well-known, if not by their names, then by the names of their movies distributed by mainstream outlets.
On the other hand, with cable TV and the world wide web, not to mention over 2.5 million tourists and NRIs who regularly visit India, the Americanization of India, too, is probably at an all-time high.
So it was inevitable that some day the two celebrity capitals of the world would unite to create mega-celebrities.
The Shilpa Shetty-Richard Gere debacle notwithstanding, a Dubai company recently announced that it would produce multiple English language films with major Bollywood stars playing alongside Hollywood talent.
Other deals are in the works. Aishwarya Rai and Colin Firth star in this year’sThe Last Legion . In 2008, Rai and Michael Douglas will be seen in Racing the Monsoon. Sony Pictures Release of India is collaborating with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s production house, SLB Films.
I should be elated at such news; after all, the less marginalized we Indians are, the better it is, right?
Behind the news releases and the hype is a stark reality that we should be wary of; Hollywood is about to take over Bollywood.
Once upon a time, Indians were afraid of a new wave of colonization by the U.S. military-industrial complex. So India would not let Coca Cola enter its market, and for good reason. Because today, Coca-Cola is using up India’s scarce resources for its profits while the poor are lining up at trickling taps to collect water for their daily needs.
Superficially, collaboration between Hollywood and Bollywood seems a good thing, at least for the magnates on both sides of the seven seas who will rake in profits. But its devastating effects will be subtle yet far-reaching.
India’s movie industry began in my home state of Maharashtra as an extension of literature and theater. Some of the earliest Indian movies were made in Mumbai in my native tongue, Marathi, and constituted missives for social change. V. Shantaram’s Kunku explored the plight of girl-brides and widows as early as 1937. His other films, like Amar Jyoti, Shekari, andManoos, focused on daring topics like Hindu-Muslim tensions, feminism, and landlord-peasant relationships. Hindi and Bengali cinema, too, explored social topics such as untouchability through films like Achuta Kanya.
Alas, as the Hindi film industry slowly grew, its movies took on a silly formulaic format. The so-called Art Cinema, exploring new artistic and social horizons, became marginalized.
Now, the industry is on the verge of yet another wave of commercialization, for the worse. Hollywood is smarting from the realization that only four percent of the Indian movie market has been captured by the United States. And it seems to be aiming for at least 90 percent.
What I worry about is not just the commercial exploitation of a homegrown industry, but about cultural invasion as well.
It is said that during the British occupation of India, the cream of India joined forces with the cream of Britain to rule India’s underclass.
It is alleged that the Brahmins of India felt a kinship with the Brahmins of England. Britain and India were two class-oriented societies: ours due to caste; theirs due to the aristocracy. So the Indian upper class vied to learn the Queen’s English, join the civil service, and hobnob with the British upper class at the Brahma Samaj or the Cricket Club, while losing sight of the needs of its masses.
Now, the same tendency can be seen among the celebrities and the elite of India, who, while moving closer to America, are moving further and further away from India’s poor.
During the colonial era, Gandhi’s “Swadeshi” movement struck at the heart of this tendency of Indians to idolize the West and led to the rebirth of our national identity.
Today, the stakes are higher. Hollywood represents a slice of the new media-industrial-governmental complex, which is consolidating power in the hands of a few conglomerates while brainwashing the public and destroying creative, democratic, independent thought.
Today Sony Pictures India, tomorrow Fox-Doordarshan News?
I am terrified at the prospect of India selling its unique Swadeshi industry of Bollywood, which has given pleasure and inspiration to millions for a century, to a Rupert Murdoch or a General Electric. What is in danger is not just our cinema but also perhaps our intellectual freedom.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|