Does it matter if our tradition has been purposefully constructed? If so, how can we get to the roots that it was built from?
The Creation of Indian Diasporic Culture Through Hindi Cinema
Big budgets, melodramatic storylines, and a star studded cast have become a quintessential part of Hindi cinema. So much so that, as a first generation Indian-American, it’s easy to forget that this hasn’t always been the Bollywood signature–it’s the Karan Johar signature. In the first decade of Johar’s career as a writer and director, each of his films became the highest grossing Hindi films outside of India. Judging by the universality of their subject matter, this is no surprise. Each film centers around conflict within traditional Indian families, traditional monogamous relationships, and the power and complexities of love—whether romantic or familial. For a country with a population of over one billion people who speak hundreds of different languages and have dispersed all over the world, Karan Johar created stories that seamlessly weave together our diverse DNA. Making his directorial debut in 1998, his now iconic style of filmmaking coincided with intensifying global attention to the possibilities that lie at the intersection of capital and culture.
Chapter Two of Bollywood and Globalization, written by Sangita Gopal, delves into the relationship between Karan Johar’s movies and nostalgia. She states that “if Hindi films are notoriously long, the ‘KJo’ film is even longer; if the relation of Hindi cinema to reality is weak, the ‘KJo’ film intensifies this artifice; if Hindi cinema is star-driven, the ‘KJo’ film is star crazy; if the fragmented form of Hindi cinema enabled it to connect with adjacent economies like music and fashion, the ‘KJo’ films strengthens this dispersal and activates multiple revenue streams by turning itself into an intermedial phenomena; if the Hindi cinema sought to conquer the nation, the ‘KJo’ film is set on world domination).”1
The meaning and power behind religion and myth is rooted in our own cultural imaginations, which allows people to so strongly, and often easily, believe in them. In the same way, KJo films amplify the essence of Indian culture into an Indian imagination. They fill the hole caused by a perceived loss of community and social cohesion in the face of modernity. Hindi films have created a collective script to abide by in order to reclaim some concrete notion of Indian culture and take solace in a decided tradition.2 If non-resident Indians weren’t sure how to keep their culture alive for generations and generations after immigrating elsewhere, the KJo film provided a good place to start.
Looking to create a semblance of the culture and community they left behind, Indian immigrants congregate in front of the big screen. The theater presents a place of community in which we can not only experience, but create our culture without judgment. The etiquette in a fully Desi populated theater is not to show respect for art through silence, but through enthusiastic expression. Excitement and emotion are not reserved for the trailers and credits, but for the very moment. The songs are meant to be sung and the story is meant to be worshiped.
Living in New York, I reluctantly make a trip to Times Square every so often because it is the only theater in the city that consistently reserves a screen for Indian films. I arrive at each screening hoping to feel the same way I did as a kid when these movies created the basis of my relationship with my culture. However, instead of bringing me closer to my culture, the theater has become the place that makes me question it. I arrive each time hopeful that this movie will be the one to reestablish my connection to my roots, but instead end up thinking instead of feeling, reckoning instead of healing. The new movies are fine but I hesitate to call them good. In my experience, a Hindi movie has only done its job when I feel the urge to bow down to the screen.
I attempt to settle my doubt by rewatching a film I’ve come back to over and over again: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (directed by Ayan Mukherjee, produced by Karan Johar). It has all the makings for a classic Hindi film: catchy songs, fun dances, an attractive cast, and a will-they-won’t-they love story you root for till the very end. The two main characters, Bunny and Naina, complicate what would otherwise be an overdone masala movie by representing the tangles of modernity and tradition.
Bunny wants nothing more than to break free from the restrictions and rules of a traditional life where you study until twenty-two, have a stable job at twenty-five, marry at twenty-six, have children at thirty, and retire at sixty–just to end up waiting for death. He prioritizes his passion, ambition, and hunger for a good time over traditional notions of success. Naina is similar in wanting to break out of her seemingly depressing fate—one where she never gets to have fun because she’s too busy studying to become a doctor. She forces herself out of her comfort zone to try to figure out what she wants as opposed to what her parents want for her. In doing so, she comes into her own while accepting that she eventually still wants the stability of settling down.
The difference is, Bunny never wants his ride to end. It takes more than just falling in love with Naina for him to realize that spending time with the people you love is an opportunity just as irreplaceable as it is fleeting. He lets go of her to continue pursuing his dreams of traveling the world. What follows is a reflection on the excitement he once felt to leave his home country, compared to the emptiness that now follows him. In the years he has spent traveling alone, he became too busy to look his loved ones in the eyes—a way of avoiding looking at himself. When he chooses to go home one last time with nothing left to lose, it becomes clear that living life on your own terms doesn’t guarantee you’ll come out of it unscathed. There will always be loss where there is love.
For the diaspora, the inseparable relationship between loss and love is at the core of our identities. Growing older and attempting to understand how this relationship plays a role in my life has become a source of gnawing internal conflict. As Svetlana Boym states in her essay, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” “Inability to return home is both a personal tragedy and an enabling force.”3 The distance I have from the India my parents grew up in intensely fuels my love for my own Indian identity. I used to think that it was enough to bridge that distance by immersing myself in the movies and the music. I neglected to realize that they were only transporting me to a version of India absent of reality and brimming with aspiration. Consequently, my growing appreciation for Indian culture and tradition is coupled with an unraveling of what I have thought it to be. After all, how can a nation of one billion people have a singular tradition?
In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani—before the two main characters can claim their happy ending—the myth of the KJo movie must fall apart. Love cannot conquer all unless they have first grappled with what they want, who they’ve been, and who they actually want to be. It is not as simple as the union of two souls or in my case the union of two cultural identities. As one takes a closer look at the other, they are forced to take a closer look at themselves. Naina’s witnessing of Bunny’s reckless freedom encourages her to take control of her life. Naina’s appreciation of the moment she’s in, no matter how mundane, tempts Bunny to reevaluate his perspective that the world abroad has more to offer than his home in India. The balance I strike between being Indian and being American leaves me with the choice of what I want to keep, what I want to leave, and what I cannot ignore about these two seemingly opposing parts of myself.
Given India’s diverse population and growing diasporic web, this balance is uniquely mine to decide. As I have begun to question what Hindi films have meant to me, it becomes impossible to ignore that my mother tongue is not Hindi but Malayalam, that my father tongue is not Hindi, but Tamil. As Hindu nationalism becomes the dominant belief system in India, I am forced to confront that the Indian culture I most actively partake in is a North Indian one—despite being South Indian. My pride and struggle as a minority in America is directly opposed by my identification with the culture of India’s supposed majority—despite the fact that to call it the majority is blatant erasure of languages, religions, and people that have long lived on the land that nationalists consider to be “Hindustan.” This forces me to confront how my connection to India’s majority is enabled by the privilege I possess as an American, while the culture of a Hindi speaking, upper caste India is technically not my own. But what is mine? My identity and my race have progressed into an intangible and at times incomprehensible form, only able to be grounded by the company of other Indians.
Together we attempt to create a culture that is equal parts authentic as it is an escape from the inevitable complications that arise when embodying a dual identity. This experience is so notorious that it’s been given a label: ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). Upon moving to America, we inevitably find each other and build an extended family of Desi’s who left their own homes as well. We learn how to sing carnatic music and dance bharatanatyam. We attend events with the rest of our town’s Desi population for Diwali, Holi, and Navaratri. We compete on Bollywood dance teams from adolescence into college. We spend parties, family gatherings, and karaoke nights trying to harness the magic that makes Shah Rukh Khan the biggest actor in the world for ourselves. Just as KJo created an ideal and exclusionary template for what Indian tradition might be, we created an Indian-American continuation of his invented tradition. As Gopal states in Bollywood and Globalization, “Rather than opposing tradition since it no longer wields any real power, the young invest in it with sentiment. Thus they don ethnic gear and dance at festivals, perform rituals and mimic gestures that memorialize tradition from a vantage that is utterly contemporary.”4
My sense of undying loyalty and commitment to my Indian-American identity is always accompanied by—though often fought with—my awareness that my cultural identity is constantly in flux. To be devoted to such an innate part of myself without ever being able to fully see it for what it is, feels the same as trying to fathom that we have somehow ended up alive on earth in an infinite universe.
- Rini Bhattacharya Mehta and Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande, eds., Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora (Anthem Press, 2010), JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gxp6bs, 17.
- Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and its discontents,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 2007), 14, Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A168775861/AONE?u=nysl_oweb&sid=googleScholar&xid=004d993a. Accessed 19 Dec. 2022.
- Boym, “Nostalgia,” 16.
- Gopal, Bollywood and Globalization, 27.