Sunday, 19 February 2012

Immigrant identities, globalization & Bollywood

I wanted to write about the changing images of NRI women in some of the recent Bollywood films like "Ek main aur ekk tu" and "Anjana anjani". However, once I started, I found myself thinking about some of my travels to different parts of the world over the past 25 years and my encounters with immigrants from Indian sub-continent.

Thus, it has come out as a rather long-winded article, where it is about NRI women in Bollywood, but it is also about so many other things such as changing self-identities of immigrants, new technologies and globalization!

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Immigrants in a time warp

Till a couple of decades ago, leaving India and going to live in other parts of the world meant cutting off many of the ties with the homeland. Telephones were less common, and making a call often meant calling an operator and sometimes waiting for a few hours. Getting news from India was difficult. Letters took 10-15 days to reach the destination. It was the same for emigrants of other countries and continents.

In 1992 I went to Guyana for the first time. Guyana is in south America, next to Brazil and Venezuela. Colonial powers had divided that part into three countries - British Guyana with Georgetown as its capital, Dutch Guyana, also known as Surinam and French Guyana with Cayenne as its capital. I had gone to the British Guyana.

During my Guyana visit, I met the persons of Indian origin, whose grandparents or great-grandparents had been brought there from India between 1840 to 1920. I had some strange feelings when I met them. So many of them, especially elderly persons, seemed to be living in a kind of time-warp, anchored to India of old times when their ancestors had sailed off from India. Many of them spoke only in Bhojpuri. I think that they were a reflection of ghettoed lives they were forced to live by their colonial masters.

However, even the younger generations also seemed very much anchored into "Indian culture and traditions". They spoke English, they went out in the community and for work. They interacted with persons of other cultures and religions who compose Guyana - persons of African, European and other Asian countries' descents. Yet, in their private lives, these different cultural-religious groups hardly ever seem to mix with each other. Talking to persons of Indian origin, I had the sensation that for them being "Indian" was as important or may be even more important than being part of the multi-cultural society of Guyana.

One of my Afro-Guyanese friend with whom I was travelling for work, told me once that when we went around chatting and laughing together, people looked at us strangely and with some hostility because mixing up with persons of different races was seen as threatening by both sides.

Guyanese television had Indian channels that showed Bollywood films and songs, as well as programmes of prayers and religious talks by various swamis and gurus who regularly came from India. There were cinema halls showing Bollywood films. In 1994, I had watched Rajshri's "Hum aap ke hain kaun" in a cinema hall of  Georgetown. It had been running there for some months and the hall was full of persons of Indian origin.

I had also been to Mauritius. However, since pesons of Indian descent are the majority on the main island, dominate, so it did not feel like a ghettoed community. Still I could see many similitaries between Mauritius and Guyana, in the way Indian immigrants felt about their old traditions.

In those years, I had also visited some Italian, Japanese and German communities in Brazil. These encounters had many similarities to those with the "Indians" of Guyana and Mauritius - all the immigrants seemed closed in time warps anchored to their pasts in their homelands, isolated in some ways in their ghettoes that they safeguarded jealously.

Over the past three-four decades, there have been many reports of immigrants living in developed countries, who regularly send back money to support the "safeguarding of traditions" in the countries they had left behind. They have been blamed for all kind of religious and cultural fundamentalism, funded with dollars and euros. Sikhs in Canada and US, Muslim groups in UK and Germany, Jews in US and Europe, Hindus in USA and Australia, there are many examples of persons sending money to "defend their religions".

Perhaps this phenomenon of sending money to fund conservatives and orthodox groups in our homelands, has something to do with the same insecurity about traditions and cultures among immigrants, that makes us close inside our ghettoes?

Complex identities

Issues of race, culture and religion among immigrants are a complex area. I remember once meeting an Indian looking woman wearing a sari in London. I needed some information about a street I was looking for and she gave me directions. "Which part of India are you from?" I had asked her and she had responded to me with a bit of irritatation that she was from Kenya and not from India.

In "Imaginary homelands", Salman Rushdie had written of these homelands that we immigrants carry in our hearts. These homelands are no longer real because while we are away, our homelands continue to evolve and change. So when we go back, we find that the place does not match the image we carry in our hearts.

In the lands we have emigrated to, we are always "other", "immigrant", "Indian". And when we go back to our homeland for a visit, we are no longer completely Indian, we are the immigrants who live and belong to some where else.

National identity and role of women in India

Uma Narayan in her book "Dislocating cultures - identities, traditions and third world feminism" has an interesting chapter on "Eating cultures - incorporation, identity and Indian food". In this chapter she talks about the role of women in safeguarding traditional cultures among immigrants:
"Just as nineteenth century English memsahibs in India avoided Indian goods and dishes to maintain their "cultural distinctiveness", twentieth century Indian women in Indian diasporic communities are expected to safeguard the "cultural distinctiveness" of their communities by refraining from dating, from marriages that are self-arranged, and most stringently of all, from same sex relationships."
Uma Narayanan links this role of women to safeguard their traditional cultural values to the similar role of women in the nationalist movement for independence of India and quotes Partha Chatterjee on this theme:
"Indian nationalist project involved "an ideological justification for the selective appropriation of western modernity" that continues to this day. ..the twin moves involved in the nationalist project were "to cultivate the material techniques of modern western civilization" while "retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture". Learning from the colonizers "the modern science and arts of material world" was necessary to match the colonizers in strength to overthrow them. ..In the entire phase of the nationalist struggle, the crucial need was to protect, preserve and strengthen the inner core of national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizers must be allowed  in that inner sanctum. In the world, imitation of and adaptation to western norms was a necessity; at home, they were tantamount to annihilation of one's very identity. .. the home was the principle site for expressing the spiritual quality of national culture, and women must take the main responsibility of protecting and nurturing this quality."
Immigrants in Europe, North America and Australia, seem to be driven by similar motivations. So, children are expected to study hard and make careers in outside world. Yet, they are expected to not to date or marry outside their communities. This is especially true for women. "My big fat Greek wedding" explored this theme in a Greek community in America.

Similar issues towards arranged marriages to men from their homelands also hound Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant families. As many young women from these communities try to rebel against such marriages and families that resort to violence or even murder to "save family honour", the whole system of arranged marriages has come to be seen as "something barbaric and old fashioned, something against human rights" and other people often feel that "such marriages must be without love and are imposed on young people".

Immigrants in a new world

I went back to Guyana last time, some 4-5 years ago. In this visit, I felt that the younger generations had become much more comfortable with their Guyaneseness and there was a little more openess between races, cultures and religions among them.

For all these groups of immigrants, even more so for their descendents, I feel that the walls that used to surround these ghettoes have many more doors and windows today then there were twenty years ago.

I think that partly this change has come because of increasing possibilities of inter-continental travels and development of new technologies, especially internet. These mean that today we can always be in touch with what is happening in our homelands and we can go back and visit whenever we want. So now we can relax and enjoy being outside our homelands, in our new countries, to meet and experiment with the new cultures that surround us. We don't need to cling to "our" traditions and way of life with the fear of losing them.

NRI women in Bollywood

Bollywood or rather the world of Hindi movies understood these immigrant insecurities very well. Thus in nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties, heroes came back to India for marriage (heroines went out of India for studies rarely but they were also expected to follow this rule). Western culture was equal to villains drinking alcohol and women who were cabret dancers (played with wonderful aplomb by Helen) or vamps. Indians going out to Europe or America were cautioned against the "decadent western values". Manoj Kumar's "Purab aur Paschim" (1970) and a more recent, "Namastey London" (2007) epitomised this world view.

Films about NRI families came in to vogue with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995). From DDLJ to K3G (2001), the boundaries for women in families of Indian origin were laid out, in line with the ideas of "women's role in preserving our Indian culture". So they had arranged marriages and celebrated karvachauth. May be they were not so openly crticial of western values as in "Purab aur Paschim", but very clearly, they were smug about the superiority of "our Indian values".

However in "Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna" (2006), Karan Johar changed tracks. Suddenly the NRI family had to deal with adultery. In "Dostana" (2008), another film produced by Karan Johar, homosexuality came out of closet, even if hidden behind glossy sheen of two guys running after the same girl.

More recently, "Ek main aur ekk tu" from the same production house has a woman lead, who has had six boyfriends, she has had sex with some of them, but it is not a big deal. She is bubbly, full of life and has the Indian hero panting after her.

There have been other NRI films in recent years, from "Neal and Nikki" to "Anjana Anjani", where the women are no longer "guardians of Indian traditions". They are cosmopolitan women, their dress and behaviour can be like any American or European girl except that their surnames are still Khanna-Kapoor-Bedi and they occasionally sing songs in Hindi.

The stories of most of these films are "inspired" by Hollywood films, though most still continue to have some scene about a father or mother trying to fix some sort of arranged marriage for them. You can argue that they are essentially Hollywood films made with some Hindi and some English, dialogues and songs.

I have a sneaking feeling that on a rebound, the women of these films have discarded everything remotely Indian (except that they tend to fall in love with Indian-origin heroes, but that is the compulsion of Bollywood story-telling). They go to Beethovan concerts and wish each other "merry christmas", have no idea about "indigenous" words like deewali or puja. They have overcome all the taboos related to sex, can drink wine or tequila shots. They can even have dads who wink at them and ask if they have slept with their boyfriends (in "Ek mein ekk tu", conveniently a "christian" dad), though they are not discussing their favourite kamasutra positions for having sex, at least not yet.

For the persons who emigrated out of India in the second half of twentieth century, Bollywood films had been one of their main connections to India. In a world where links to the homeland were tenous, it was an essential lifeline for families.

Children growing up in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi emigrant families grew up on the Bollywood diets, with parents ferverently hoping that some of their "cultural values" will rub off from the films onto their impressionable minds.

What does this changing figure of NRI women in Bollywood mean for them? For immigrants families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that feel threatened by their encounter with the liberal and more egalitarean cultures of their new countries, these new cosmopolitan women of Bollywood, who have embraced western values, would be seen as an additional threat? However, for their children, growing up in closer contacts with these liberal values, finally Bollywood can be an ally that supports their desires to be "modern" and to get out of stifling grip of "traditions".

May be with the possibility of being in constant touch with our homeland cultures, families and events, there won't be need for Bollywood to play its earlier role of repsenting and preserving our traditions? At the same time, there are Bollywood fan clubs and dance groups of Italians, Germans and French. People experiment with Indian cuisine, dresses and mehndi. They are not looking for the new liberated and cosmopolitan Indian women in Bollywood, they are interested in traditions.

Will this ease of being connected to our homelands and cultures, also change the way immigrants have been funding orthodox and fundamentalist religious groups in their countries? I would like to believe that.

An interesting 1994 TED talk by Danny Hillis presented a new understanding about evolution. "We are in a transition period. Through new technologies, the multi-cellular forms of life are getting connected in a network, to start a new phase of evolution", he explained in this talk.

In this new world, perhaps the whole meaning of being an immigrant is going to change, when we physically leave a place but remain connected to it and to other people from our lives all the time. In the long run, this always connected world, how is it going to influence us all, NRIs living outside and other persons living in India?

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