Category Archives: Bollywood

Themes of Honor and Shame in Bollywood Movies

Two huge Bollywood blockbusters just hit theaters in the last two weeks across the world. Both are selling out as crowds flock and millions of dollars have been made so far.

On the surface both films look quite different.

Padmaavat is an epic drama about two warring kingdoms, staged in the 13th century. It capitalizes on the glamor of the royal life in the prime of Rajput glory. It has clear protagonist (Queen Padmaavati and King Maharawal Ratan Singh) and antagonist (Sultan Alaudin Khilji). The basic thrust is that Sultan Khilji becomes obsessed with Queen Padmaavat and conquers her kingdom so that he can take her for himself. Spoiler alert- in the end, upon defeat of the Rajput army, the entire clan of Rajput women burn themselves alive to prevent capture by the conquering army, thus maintaining the honor of the community.

Pad Man, is staged in dusty streets of North Indian Varanasi, in modern times. The protagonist is real life inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham and the antagonist is society itself. He is a simple man fighting against societal norms to create low cost sanitary pads for women. The thrust of the film has created a movement across India to openly discuss menstrual health of women, a topic which has been taboo for millennia in the Indian subcontinent. He faces many obstacles, the biggest one being the sheer shame put on him from the community, accusing him of being a pervert, an adulterer and mentally ill.

However different these two films may appear, a common thread ties through both of the films – defending honor and avoiding shame.

In understanding the underlying motivations of societies, there are three worldviews:

  1. Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong.
  2. Shame-honor cultures describe collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community.
  3. Fear-power cultures refer to animistic contexts (typically tribal), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

These differing worldviews are what propel a number of our East/West conflicts and misunderstandings. Grasping the shame and honor context is one of the most critical pieces to understanding modern India, as we know it today.

Most of the Bollywood films have some sort of shame/honor theme. If you watch closely, even the most seemingly glitzy and modern Bollywood films carry this theme underneath the skimpy dancing and flashy cars.

Amidst the glamor of Padmaavat and the simplicity of Pad Man, these films show how critical these motivations are to Indians. However modern, anglicized and forward India may be on the world stage, lets not confuse the true underlying motivations of shame and honor that lay in the modern Indian heart.

 

Credit to Author, J. Georges, for definition of three worldviews.

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Firangi Bahu- Does This Really Represent Indian/Western Marriages?

Built on drama, jealousy, lies, and mistrust, Firangi Bahu was just like every other saas/bahu drama on Indian television, with one exception, a British bahu instead of a homegrown one. After one dreadful season, Sahara One cancelled it.

firangibahu-indianwesternThe show shows Camili (British born 20 something) who met Pranay (a wealthy Gujurati boy studying in London) and secretly get married after a whirlwind, short-lived stint of infatuation.

Pranay was a  babied son who didn’t know how to balance the challenges of family responsibility with having a love marriage. Camili was a naive but sweet spirited girl who desired to please people around her and fit into the conservative Indian Desai household she found herself a part of.

Like many other serials on Indian television, this show skewed several portions of reality. The show did a good job of breaking down negative stereotypes of Westerners, but unfortunately reinforced negative views of Indian families:

Exaggerated View of Dysfunctional Families

Fortunately, many foreigners who have experiences in India know that the dysfunction of the Desai family is not the reality for most Indian households.  This show had all the stereotypical “worst case scenario” characters –a vindictive older bhabhi who was trying to control and hurt others , a mother-in-law who was desperately trying to maintain power over a changing household, and an unsupportive and childish husband who was easily manipulated by catty female relatives.

This show was not unique, as many of the family serials thrive of jealous relationships, and mere emotional drama to keep ratings high.  Sadly, shows like this make Indian families look horrible to the outside world. I’m calling “bluff” on these negative stereotypes.

Inflated “Love” Story 

Pranay and Camili’s meeting and marriage was based on almost no true relationship, but pure infatuation. The scenes of their “love story” mostly consisted of bumping into each other at the train station followed by eyelash batting and romantic music playing in the background. Not much you can tell about a person by just batting your eyelashes at them.

Most of the successful Western/Indian marriages I’m aware of were based on two people having common interests, mutual friends, common values, and healthy friendships. Most couples get to know each other, spend time together in a variety of situations, and do their best to see the “true colors” of their partner before making a lifelong commitment.

Camili and Pranay got married without his family’s knowledge, which is also rare from what I’ve observed. From any cultural perspective, families are bound to be very upset if a young person does this. In my opinion, the characters started off on the wrong foot to begin with. Things are bound to get rocky when a couple doesn’t have a strong foundation or a shred of family support.

Excuses Abuse of Women:

A recent episode showed Pranay confronting Camili by grabbing her by the face, pinning her arm behind her back, and falsely accusing her of being unfaithful and getting pregnant with someone else’s child. I was a little shocked, although I know Indian television and movies show this kind of behavior all the time, and excuses it as just “the way things are.” I know this kind of abuse does certainly happen, but I especially want to emphasize that this is not the norm of cross cultural relationships.

Camili is a girl who had no father, was raised by an alcoholic mother and has now found a new variety of abusive relationships in her sasuraal.  In the West we call this kind of person someone with a “victim” mentality. Camili seems to be to be a woman in love, but someone who didn’t get the whole picture before diving into a lifelong relationship. She is now married to a pampered adult man who thinks it is ok to abuse and manipulate women in his life.

Pranay is portrayed as a “typical Indian boy” who loves his family and would do anything to protect their honor, even if it means rooting out people who attempt to dishonor their reputation. In the beginning of the show, Pranay was understanding, sensitive Camili’s family problems, and seemed to be an advocate for her finding acceptance with his family. His colors changed as soon as he was back in his native environment. As soon as he was faced with a major conflict, his prejudices and fears about white people all emerge and were acted out against his wife.

Most women I know who have willingly married their desi partner would not put up with this kind of abuse, neglect and blatant mistrust from their spouse.

firangi bahu relationships

Balance this Show with Real-Life Family Situations

I don’t believe this show portrays reality of most Indian/Western marriages. Camili is now stuck in an abusive family with a husband who treats her poorly. Of the desi/non-desi couples I know, these kind of dysfunctional situations are not the norm.

A family (from any cultural background) who mistreats their daughter-in-law with this kind of extreme abuse is unacceptable, and certainly not the norm in Indian families. I’d like to see a show which portrays real issues that cross-cultural Indian/Western couples face.

But functional, happy marries don’t make for good TV shows.

I’d also like to disclaim and say that the word “firangi” is not an accurate word to describe many of the non-desi wives of Indian or Pakistani men I have met. Firangi has a connotation of being a complete outsider and someone not to be trusted. The word “Videshi”, or just simply “Australian”, “American”, “Peruvian”, or “British bahu” are more appropriate. Its kind of like calling a Chinese or Korean person “Oriental.” It is degrading, antiquated, and inappropriate language.

Does Bollywood Portray Sex Slavery as Cute and Funny?

One of the hottest songs of 2012 “Fevicol” from Dabangg 2 shows item girl Kareena Kapoor Khan dancing with Salman Khan, in a neon lit Kanpur brothel. Available girls hang from every window and the clinking of payal can practically be heard as young girls follow Kareena in a seductive dance.  By-standing men throw wads of rupees in the air rejoicing. Kareena’s playful attitude and cute smile makes the whole scene innocent enough, but what is the underlying message that songs like this are sending?

The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Muzaffarpur, Bihar called attention to “Fevicol” as a harmful portrayal of women in an inappropriate sensual manner, as so many women fight sexual harassment and abuse in India.  The official claimed that this song was condoning overt sexuality at already troubling time for women, after the gang rape of a 23 year old in Delhi, which created a national uproar.

KareenaKapoorFevicol_IndiaProstitution

But where do these ideas come from? Does Bollywood gloss over the sex trade and try to make it look ok? Films like Dabangg 2 show a funny, vibrant and even “innocent” side of prostitution. All the girls are middle aged, beautiful,  flirtatious and willing. What about the millions who aren’t there by choice- those who are trafficked? There are all kinds of prostitution that exist in India, including what they fantasize in the movies, but this does not portray the reality for a huge percentage of women, girls and boys and even men trapped in the sex trade.

Most “sex workers” in India are under-aged, poor, and not there by choice. Some a trapped by poverty, some by pimps, some by abusive relatives, and some by mere shame. If only Bollywood films were to show 3 year old boys being sold, AIDS orphans digging through garbage, and pregnant woman selling themselves to feed their other hungry children, we would have a more accurate picture of what the sex industry really looks like.

There are a few moves like “Agneepath” that show glimpses of the reality of human trafficking. Also films like “Devdas” and “Umraao Jaan” show the pain and suffering of a courtesan life, even in the midst of glamour and riches. But the vast majority of films still portray the glitz and glamour of item songs, and beautiful 20-something girls willingly available, while the reality is glaringly different.

When considering patronizing films like Dabangg 2, and others which are openly glorifying prostitution, lets remember the reality of the sex trade in India. Even though Kareena plays it off as cute and funny, it certainly is not.

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

DowntonAbbey

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Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.

Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider

We recently started getting Hindi channels at home in the US. The other day I mentioned to another non-desi friend, that I had watched the Colors Screen Awards on my new channels.

Bollywood Female Actors at the Colors Screen Awards, January 2013.
Bollywood Female Actors at the 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards- January 12, 2013.

When I mentioned this, she asked me “Wow Jess, so do you know the actors and actresses enough to get all the nuances of an awards show?”
I replied, “Of course! You kind of HAVE to!”

As she asked this, I realized how much Bollywood matters to understanding modern culture of the subcontinent.

Bollywood is something that unites the nation. Indians from all over the country watch Bollywood- from Chhattisgarh to Chennai, Kashmir to Kerala, Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad in addition to their regional film industries. Bollywood brings together the many cultures and subcultures of India. To bring further unification, many stars even act in multiple cinemas (for example Ashwariya Rai’s work in Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi films, and Hollywood). The music of Bollywood represents many classical and fusion styles celebrated across the subcontinent. Sociocultural trends are addressed, and everyone from rich and poor pine for new spins on the classic “boy-meets-girl” love story that Bollywood does so well.

Bollywood is bringing together more international themes into stories, as the Indian diaspora is increasing in number across the world. The popularity of Bollywood across the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa has never been greater.

To contrast, in the US, if you don’t know who Orlando Bloom is, or Amy Adams, no one will judge you. It is perfectly acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have cable” or “I am more of a theater fan” and one is immediately excused from needing to know about Hollywood stars. While some people actually read People magazine and watch the Entertainment Channel, there is a large part of the culture that does not.

Unlike in India, if you confess to not knowing who Ranbir Kapoor is or Katrina Kaif, people will look at you as if you have a horn growing from your forehead. These actors are icons of success, beauty, wealth- and many Indians hold them up as icons to the world as national heroes. Nearly everyone in India has a TV, from rich to poor- and Bollywood is one of the major morsels of consumption via TV. Whether you like it or not, Bollywood actors serve as cultural icons.  They often set controversial cultural trends- inter-religious marriages, marrying someone much different in age, divorcing, deciding not have children. People watch Bollywood actors every move- and love to gossip and speculate on the lives of these cultural icons.

But if you admit that you don’t follow Bollywood, you are immediately labeled an outsider. And honestly, you kind of are an outsider. It is impossible to avoid the infiltration of the stars on every TV ad, billboards, blurbs of personal Bollywood star information on the national news, and in conversational topics as they take place in desi communities and homes.

If you’re interested in learning about Indian culture, don’t underestimate the power of film. Don’t risk being an outsider. Follow Bollywood.

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.