Over the past several years, a caring set of friends have indulged me by joining me for watching Bollywood films in local theaters. It is mostly mindless melodrama with song and dance where the formula is predictable enough that I often lean over and whisper the dialog that might be delivered in the scenes where the story twists and turns, with enough accuracy that it is almost pointless to be seeing it. As one of my friends asked, “how can you watch this cheesy stuff over and over again since it is the same nonsense with different actors in different costumes and settings?” My response “A girl needs romance in her life and if ShahRukh, Ranbir, or Ranveer are willing to dance in scenic locations, what can be a better escape from reality, from the comfort of a lounge chair?”
Escapist cinema literally saved me from the dark periods of not having a job, not finishing my Ph.D. as I dealt with a marriage falling apart, a sick child and no one to help. In that phase, thanks to the excellent collection of world cinema DVDs at my local library, I even caught up on all the classics from my mother’s era. Raj Kapoor was the greatest showman ever with socially conscious cinema wrapped in excellent stories with memorable songs. Shyam Benegal delivered powerful stories that one could not unsee for appreciation of the realities that reminded one of the sheer privileges of being able to experience India one didn’t know.
I could’ve been given several honorary doctorates in Hindi cinema if anyone gave degrees for such things. As my son started school, I also realized that I could easily take him along with the bribe of popcorn and not have to juggle babysitters that were needed if I chose a Hollywood film instead, because Hindi films are family-friendly. It’s a shame to call it Bollywood really since they make far more films than Hollywood but we live in a world where money is more valued than creative output.
I happily went to see live shows where my niece or nephew danced to Hindi songs with the common Bollywood dance schools that many Indian American kids were sent to by their parents. This past summer my friends took me out to a Bollywood live show at the Stanford Frost amphitheater where young adults told their stories of growing up Indian in the U.S., through songs from old and new films, interspersed with a narrative built around their memories of playing Angtakshari or arguing with parents to alternate playing Indian and American pop music on long driving trips, and dancing at family weddings. I was horrified that their stories didn’t have a voice from their parent’s generation and told my friend — they needed to talk to someone like us as they designed their show, if not have us on stage as part of the narrative for we were the adults in charge making the decisions that influenced them as kids.
This comment came when they chose Zeenat Aman as a feminist icon and played her song ‘Laila O Laila’ from the film “Qurbani.” She was a popular, hot and happening film star of my era whom we followed in gossip rags, for her tumultuous affairs and domestic abuse she suffered from her husband. She was nowhere close to being a feminist even though she wore the most daring for her time spaghetti-strapped dresses showing off more cleavage than other actresses.
My choice would have been Helen, who was mostly cast as a vamp, or the cabaret dancer the villain saw in the club where we knew he was a bad guy through her suggestive moves. She was a dancer who overshadowed all others of her time. Or Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi who may have dressed modestly in classic saris but okayed strong lead characters in memorable films like “Mirch Masala,” “Mandi” or “Godmother.” But I guess the children of immigrants cannot be expected to understand the culture of their parent’s homeland, and for them, Zeenat with her Western dress becomes the feminist icon, a step back for evolution for Indian women’s image in the world IMO.
My local YMCA has offered Bollywood fitness classes for several years so it is now mainstream locally with Americans of all backgrounds grooving to Sonu Nigam numbers. Of the day-long cultural events offered by the community at last weekend’s Diwali Mela, 80 percent of the program was Bollywood dance. I only watched a couple of Bollywood films during the pandemic and maybe over my escapist fixation but I find myself not celebrating this.
As an informed consumer, I find that spreading Hindi film song and dance as the majority, or popular exhibit of Indian culture, or even pop-culture, is equivalent to saying that the Jerry Springer or Days of Our Lives shows are representing American culture abroad. These shows do not represent America I know. When they are watched in India — they spread the wrong stereotypes of Americans. The same thing is happening when eighty percent of programming at a major community event shows kids doing pelvic thrusting moves and then growing up to choose Zeenat Aman as a feminist icon. It is a shame. It is a tragedy.
I am glad we brought some poems to take up airtime at the program. I also appreciate the welcome from the organizer and host, who initially gave us three times as much time as any other group and then added ‘take more time’ on the day of. May many more folks step up to bring a taste of the usual art forms that are a part of our day-to-day lives. The highly commercialized escapist Bollywood fare that has a purpose perhaps in a fitness class or a night to dance away at a club or as a fantasy escape or a maybe still a nice melody now and then, should not be confused with anything meaningful enough to be given 80 percent of our attention to in the attention economy world that is emerging as the brave new future.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is the founder of the group Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called “The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley.” She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She is the founder of the U.S. and India chapters of the International Humanistic Management Association.