Share Your Thoughts

Even the most generous among us are snobs about something. Maybe it’s your unparalleled biryani recipe; maybe the tennis shoes you wear. Maybe the class you fly, the car you drive, highbrow magazines, or independent movies.

“Snobbery” does suggest an objectionably condescending attitude toward those who don’t share your perspective, but it also connotes expertise, “discrimination” in a non-pejorative sense of the word. If you don’t hold anything above anything else, if you haven’t cultivated a taste for some things over others, if you can’t distinguish between what you like and what you don’t, what you deem worthy in relation to the worthless—well, then, let’s just say you’re very unusual (and I don’t believe you, anyhow).

Of course it’s important to behave decently—to not succumb to snobbery—but it’s also important to reflect on those ideas, products, habits, and lifestyle choices we each hold dear, hold above all others, and which condition the stories we tell about ourselves and the way we represent ourselves in the world.

I’ve always been a snob about Indian classical dance and Indian vernacular movies. Perhaps you, too, have had to dispute the mainstream representation of all-things-Indian as starting and stopping with bhangra and Bollywood. It’s a tough battle to fight, and I take no pleasure in shutting down the classmate who, on hearing of my mohiniattam training, eagerly describes the “awesome Indian dance, with all this jumping” she saw performed at a wedding.

“That’s not classical,” I say, shaking my head.

Devdas? Lagaan? “That’s not India.”

I was asked recently to recommend an Indian movie to a friend who’d never seen one. I thought about suggesting a Malayalam art-house picture or a classic Satyajit Ray. Then Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) came to mind: Kajol, Shah Rukh, that iconic train scene …

“Repping” Bollywood had once been anathema to me, but the list came quickly: DDLJ; Roja (1992); Baazigar (1993); Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994);Rangeela (1995); Khamoshi (1996); Gupt (1997); Satya (1998).

These were films I’d watched growing up, the ones for which I’d giddily bought the soundtracks, on cassette tape, no less. This was Bollywood as I’d first learned it, the “Indian movie” that I now desired to share with the uninitiated. Later, I looked up the films, curious to place them in context. Baazigar was 16 years old? I clicked in disbelief as I perused Wikipedia.

Then I realized something truly startling: I had seen each film without having understood a word. This was before the ready availability of DVDs, before the Indian grocery store started giving away pirated pre-releases as shopping incentives. The films screened in theaters weren’t subtitled then. And I, like many Indian Americans in diaspora, didn’t know Hindi.

Sure, I nudged my mother incessantly, asking the urgent, “What happened?” “What did they say?”

“Shhh,” she’d respond, “I’ll tell you during the songs.” Dutifully, she would whisper bits of plot, clarifications, explanations—no, she was not his wife-to-be, but his brother’s; yes, his father had held secrets from the company and now was going to pay the price. I would blink my understanding and then settle in for the next scenes, the tears and fights, the chaste romances, the apologies to elders and romps through the Alps.

But if “seeing” a movie requires having “understood” it, if there is more to cinematic aesthetics than color and sound, then I hadn’t actually seen those films that I was now recommending.

All Indian Americans and Indians in America become, at moments, ambassadors for India, regardless of their relationship to the putative homeland, whether or not they have ever even visited the country. This is the “burden of representation” that has been discussed often in these pages. Those of us who are racially, ethnically, or nationally marked are constantly asked to speak to that marking, produce our difference, or account for those whose shared difference we seem to represent (though “difference” always presumes the existence of the one from whom we are different, the normal, average, or standard “one,” and who can still claim that unenviable position?).

We speak our difference in numerous ways, from the serious stuff of choosing life partners and educating children to the mundane business of what we wear, eat, listen to, or watch. As participants (even reluctant or unwitting) in American consumer capitalism, we speak our difference with our dollars, too, from the decision to live in a particular suburban enclave to the weekend excursion to see an Indian film.

Like many desis, I watch the occasional Bollywood blockbuster, but I have maintained a largely ambivalent attitude toward the industry. I don’t decry the traditionalism, chauvinism, and plagiarism of recent Bollywood any more than I do the spectacle, superficiality, and violence of popular Hollywood—nor do I champion it. I am familiar with famous names, but can I tell a Shahid from a Ranbir? No.

And yet the older I get (I am not “that” old, but old “enough” for nostalgia), the more connected I feel to the Hindi movies I experienced as a child. The more Bollywood—along with the classical dances I have studied, Malayalam I tentatively speak, and my family’s home-cooking—comes to index something meaningful about my identity as an Indian in America, the more I am willing to acknowledge the representative power of the lowbrow.

After years of protesting the representative hegemony of the Bollywood film, I have somehow internalized the object of critique. It’s not the ostensible “values,” not the predictable plotlines, not even the lessons I might have learned from any of the films (I rarely learned lessons; I couldn’t even follow the dialogue). So perhaps it’s something else: the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies the watching of a three-hour film; the buzz of gossip in five languages during intermission; the warmth of my mother’s shoulder as I whisper my confusion; the singularity of my experience as an Indian in America, watching a movie in a language I don’t speak, and still recognizing it as my own in some ineluctable way.

I don’t understand a word, and yet the film tells me what I need to hear.

I don’t speak the language, and yet somehow it speaks me.

I never claimed this culture, and yet, persistent, it makes its claim.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.