Jan 12, 2010

Bollywood cosmopolitanism

1,5 years of books, libraries, lots of films and great conversations have ended. For now at least. A few months ago i finished my masters dissertation called: Bollywood cosmopolitanism. An exploration of belonging through popular culture. If interested, it is fully downloadable here. (don't mind the Dutch, the dissertation is in English)

Roughly, what i've done is the following. I have studied the recent history of popular Hindi film, for a broad context of what i'm talking about. Especially the changes since the early nineties, when the term Bollywood was 'invented' worldwide, where the movies have become more cosmopolitan. The movies deal often with NRI's struggling with their identity, and Indians fly all over the world to do business.
Then instead of focussing on the changes in movies (tons of people have written about it), I thought it would be interesting to write about the experience of of the viewers of films. I wanted to know if Bollywood helps young viewers in Bangalore to construct a sense of cosmopolitanism. In other words, if it gives them a feeling of belonging to a local and a global community at the same time.

Most analysts think that Bollywood is not able to help in catering a new lifestyle for the globalized youngsters in big Indian cities, because most of the typical Bollywood movies show a sort of 'Hindu conservative cosmopolitanism'. This means that on the outside Indians can be 'global', they have all the material luxuries of the Western life, but on the inside, the heart, the values are Indian. So, it is Indian in global clothes. (phir bhi dil hai hindustani!) This is a construction that is not threatening to viewers. Because the Western and Indian values are not really conflicting; in the end it is the Indian pride (Hindu mostly) that matters.

My interviews with youngsters in Bangalore shows that this view is too simple. When talking about movies they see recognize this morale in movies, but they themselves think of it in more complicated terms. Today's youngsters know that movies are just that, constructed images, and not the same as reality. Instead it helps them to think about their lives in new ways. And this is sometimes indeed a matter of conflicting values. They would also like to wear clothes like in the movies, but they understand perfectly that they have to fight with parents over that. And this is not always resolved as in the movies.

Living in the Indian city is a juggling of values (in the villages probably as well). Modern values, traditional values, traditional versions of modern values or modern interpretations of traditional values. Etcetera.
And Bollywood is a buddy to help thinking and laughing about this complex process.

Water (2005), by Deepa Mehta

In The Netherlands i thank god for Belgian state-run television. They still show good film in its entirety, no commercial breaks, and with full end credits. Whereas here in Holland you have to work your way through diapers and insurances every 20 minutes in order to watch a good film.
Last Sunday, Belgian channel Ketnet/Canvas showed the film Water, the third in Deepa Mehta's elements-series (after the other must-sees Fire (1996) and Earth (1998)).
Water deals with the life of widows in India, who, according to the ancient lawbooks of Manu, have to stay single and 'pure' in order to achieve salvation. This literally means that these women live in extremely poor and dingy ashrams, doing nothing but waiting to die. (at least, that's what the movie shows) It is believed that when they, or their shadow, touches another person, this brings bad luck. Besides that it was common for little girls to be married off to an older man, and then have a life without childhood.
Water beautifully shows the loneliness and isolation these women suffer. Water, the holy element for many a Hindu, the bringer of life, is also the seperation between the poor woman and the rich man who uses them for prositution. And it is the element that can make a beautiful woman drown herself out of despair.
Of course, things have changed. The movie is set against the backdrop of Ghandi coming to rise against the British, and Raja Ram Mohan Roy passing the widow- remarriage act. But if it was up to many a reactionary Hindu in India right now, time is to be turned back to the golden days of Manu, where women were still men's property. Not surprisingly, a group of fundamentalist Hindus have put Deepa Mehta on their 'hitlist'. (although this was mainly because of Fire, which supposedly dealt with lesbianism)
The film left me moved by the great acting of the little girl Chuyia, and her interaction with none other than John Abraham (whom we now know as a six-packed Bollywood star from Goal). But I think the main character was the ashram's moral centre Shakuntala. She was the only one divided in her faith, confused between tradition and modernity. It is her indicisiveness, stubbornness sometimes, which is the best representation of India's society. Choosing for individual freedom can not come without pain, without loss.