I’m old enough to remember a time when a single Desi presence on television (Vijay Amritraj, anyone?) was enough to bring the entire immigrant community to a standstill. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, in the U.S. Midwest, other Indian immigrants regularly found my family by stumbling upon our last name in the phonebook. Passing a fellow South Asian on the street or in the grocery store would result in enthusiastic introductions, exchanges of phone numbers and recipes, invitations to tea or home cooked dinners.
Although our communities have grown to astonishing numbers over the decades, I still engage in “Desi-Spotting” – a clever term coined by Columbia University journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan. Perhaps it’s an old habit, but I’m not the only one. South Asian-Americans in the public eye are discussed and debated, beloved and hated by fellow South Asian Americans: from the politics of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to Bend it Like Beckham star Parminder Nagra’s appearing on ER, from Archie Panjabi’s groundbreaking role on The Good Wife, to Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s win for short-subject documentary at this year’s Oscars for her film about acid attacks in Pakistan, Saving Face. Despite my concerns about America’s fondness for films about victimized brown women, while I was watching the telecast I actually tweeted: “Hooray Desi filmmaker representing at the #Oscars! Nice Salwaar Suit my sistah!”
So, while I hadn’t been tuning in to NBC’s Broadway drama Smash, I actually started watching last week because I heard there was a Desi guy on the show. And as it happened, I was just in time, too. Because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this week’s huge Bollywood number.
Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with Bollywood movies. As a Bengali, and not Hindi, speaker, I grew up in a household where Bollywood movies weren’t regular fare. Over the years, I’ve actually seen the “Bollywood-ification” of our diasporic communities as a negative thing–a homogenization, commercialization, and dilution of a heterogeneous and complex region with not one but dozens of languages, varied cultural practices, and many rich, classical traditions of literature, film, dance, music and art. Yet the nuances of our regional languages, histories and customs seem at risk of being forgotten under the blinding lights of Bollywood’s pop-culture machine. And of course, the violence against women, the oppressive gender roles, the rabid nationalism, the homophobia, the heteronormativity in (some) Bollywood movies–yea, I’m not a big fan of all that, either.
It also annoys me that the world’s concept of India is filtered through the surreality of Bollywood. It would be like South Asians imagining the U.S. solely based on images of Las Vegas or something. It irritates me that when I travel abroad, European and other vendors often yell “Hey Bollywood!” or even “Amitabh Bachchan!” (the name of a legendary Bollywood actor) after me. It astonishes me that a white American woman familiar with Bollywood movies recently asked me, “Is India really like that?” When I asked her for clarification, she said, “You know, all that singing and dancing.”
Yes, I wanted to say. The streets are filled with scantily dressed actors and actresses who break into song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. Courting couples regularly travel with less attractive same-gender back-up dancers. Heck, the whole country is wired so that no one has to speak, but we just lip-synch to really catchy playback music.
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