Connecting the Indo-Canadian Diaspora with India Through Films
Posted on Aug 1, 2012 / Author: Anita Singh / Tags: Education, Culture and Communities, Bollywood, Cinema, Diaspora, Film, India, Movies
Growing up in an Indian family in Calgary, watching Bollywood films was the highlight of family time. Storylines that revolved around love stories, family relationships and conflicts between rich and poor would provide a glimpse into the psyche that tied us to our Indian heritage and homeland. This connection is even more pronounced in films like Peepli Live, Taare Zameen Par and more recently, superstar Aamir Khan’s television series Satyamev Jayate, all of which connect the diaspora to India’s social issues – including women’s rights, mental illness, and rural development.
However, this perspective provides a one-way glimpse of the effect Bollywood has on the diaspora. It suggests that the diaspora creates an image of India through passively-received information from films. But this relationship is much more complex, requiring active involvement, inception, and integration by the diaspora community.
Early Indian films depicted the NRI (non-resident Indian) as a person that had lost their roots, philosophy, culture and language. Those that have watched movies such as Purab aur Paschim, or the more recent Pardes would recognize the stereotyped NRI - where cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking, hypersexualized women were partnered with greedy, individualistic, non-religious and yes, hypersexualized NRI men. Yet, these perceptions are quickly changing. As more Indians travel westward for school, employment or to meet family, the NRI is slowly becoming portrayed as a global citizen and a representative of India. Further, India’s two decades of economic deregulation has introduced western aesthetics and popular culture into the Indian mainstream. These changes have resulted in films that are more reflective of the diasporic experience. For example, the film Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham shows NRIs adapting to life in London while maintaining Indian religious and cultural values. In one famous scene, after rejecting his mom’s Indian interjections at the breakfast table – she is shown singing ‘Mere Desh ki dharti,’ a famous patriotic song – and choosing cornflakes over potato-stuffed parathas, Rahul and Anjali’s son sings the Indian national anthem during a school festival in a gesture symbolizing his Indianness, despite being born in the UK. In the same film, Hritik Roshan’s character single-handedly exemplifies the ‘new’ NRI - confident, charismatic, metropolitan, global, yet decidedly Indian.
More importantly, diasporic filmmakers have created films which increasingly reflect a truer experience of the diaspora within India. Films like Bend it like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, and Bollywood/Hollywood identify some of the major challenges of being a diasporic Indian, particularly in regards to the challenge of balancing Indian values with a Western lifestyle.
Finally, numerous Bollywood films have been shot in Canada in the last decade including Breakaway, Tum Bin, Thank You and Kismat Konnection. Meanwhile films like Dhobi Ghat, Mausam, Teri Meri Kahaani and Guru have held premieres in Toronto, including at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Recently, TIFF sponsored a tribute to Raj Kapoor, playing his yesteryear films such as Mere Naam Joker, Barsaat, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Mughal-E-Azam and Shree 420, introducing a new generation to films that laid the foundation for the Indian film industry. At the same time, a new residential area in Brampton has been christened “Raj Kapoor Crescent.” These developments have called attention to Indian films in Canada in a way never imagined before.
Bollywood’s acceptance of the diaspora has thus resulted in very real political and economic outcomes.
Increased exposure to Bollywood has resulted in films that have moved beyond simple content-based representation. The industry has now become a meeting place between Indian policy-makers and businesses, and the diaspora. For example, the Indian International Film Awards (IIFA) were hosted in Toronto in 2011 and brought numerous Indian celebrities and business people to Canada. Co-organized with Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, the FICCI-IIFA (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) Global Business Forum brought Indian and Canadian businesses together to discuss collaborations in education, clean technology and the environment, tourism, and media and entertainment.
A second outcome is the effect globalized Bollywood has on non-Indian communities in Canada. Because of the similarities in language, film has created a cultural unity between Pakistani and Indian communities in Canada. The Canadian census estimates that there are over a million South Asians in Canada, with 300,000 from Pakistan. Centred within communities in the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary, this community co-exists with its Indian neighbours in Canada. While there are numerous festivals and commercial areas that cater to the South Asian community as a whole, film provides a venue for the communities to engage on a cultural level, helping erasing the decades of animosity between Indians and Pakistanis in the diaspora.
Arguably the most important outcome of Bollywood’s increased globalization is the impact it has had on mainstream audiences. Canadians from all communities now easily recognize the sounds and colours found in Indian cinema. For these viewers, India has moved beyond its image as a place of poverty and illiteracy, and has transformed itself into a complex modern, technological and metropolitan hub, hosting cities equivalent to the likes of Toronto, New York or London.
The world is now singing ‘Jai Ho’ – the new anthem for India’s entry into the global consciousness.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.