Bollywood Primetime: Can One Big Dance Number Smash Racism?

By Guest Contributor Sayantani DasGupta

I’m still thrilled when I see Desi (South Asian, South Asian American) faces in the mainstream U.S. media.

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.

But all that complaining aside, it’s not like I haven’t seen Bollywood movies. Of course I have. They’re fun, and fanciful, and (often) deliciously escapist. Some recent favorites are the awesome cricket romp Dil Bole Hadippa starring Shahid Kapoor and Rani Mukerji (Bengali girl in da house!), and the fun wedding planner-themed Band Baaja Baaraat, another Yash Raj production starring Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma. And sure, I’ve been known to dance to Bollywood songs at weddings. And I love the kitschiness of Indian street art visible in those omnipresent movie posters. To tell you the absolute truth, when I’m in India, I make it an absolute point to catch up on the latest Bollywood stars and starlets by reading several issues of Filmfare and Femina. (Serious cultural research, I tell you!)

So I actually got excited when it became clear there was going to be an all-out Bollywood number on this week’s Smash. If not only for the Bollywood, but for the general Desi culture spotting. Katharine McPhee sporting a bindi! Captain Hook from Peter and the Starcatcher(Christian Borle) wearing a kurta! Anjelica Huston in a dupatta! And Debra Messing seriously rocking that green lehenga-choli!

But even before the South Asia-meets-Zumba number started, there were some major cultural missteps. Dating couple Dev and Karen (South Asian British actor Raza Jaffrey and McPhee) had taken snotty movie-turned-Broadway-star Rebecca (Uma Thurman) out to an Indian restaurant. When Thurman’s character starts stressing about a peanut allergy and Indian “curry” containing peanuts, Dev reassures her, “No, that’s in Thai food.”

Now, I’ve had plenty of peanuts in Indian food (the potatoes in a masala dosa, korma, or even some birianis), but I was willing to let that one pass, because I assumed that Rebecca didn’t really have a peanut allergy and anyway, no one would let that major a star actually anaphylax on set, right?

But then, despite Dev insisting the restaurant was South Indian and not North Indian, Karen starts dishing out what looks suspiciously like chicken tikka masala and offers Rebecca the “saag paneer.” None of which is actually South Indian fare, but again, I was willing to let all that slide. Picky, picky, what does it really matter, right? And to tell the truth, I was actually pleased to hear someone on prime-time television differentiating North and South India–making clear that there are regional differences and that we’re not all one big homogenous culture and country.

Katharine McPhee. Courtesy: Broadway.com

Until that dratted dance number. I was humming along, enjoying the costumes and choreography–but then I did a really annoying thing. I started actually listening to the lyrics. What was with all the 1001 Arabian Nights references, I wondered? And that arms crossed, neck wiggling genie-esque dance move? Was that an Aladdin-style magic lamp in Borle’s hands? I mean, really? That’s when I started having flashes to growing up in a much more homogenous America–when not only were the differences between South Asians irrelevant to most white Americans, but so were the differences between South Asians and Middle Easterners, Latin@s, and frankly, any “foreign” brown skinned peoples.

I’ve since found out the name of the “Bollywood” song, an original composed by the show’s songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is actually called “One Thousand and One Nights.” Which, again, is odd, because it references a text that isn’t Indian, and has nothing really to do with being Indian. Using those images is just as lazy and stereotype-driven when it comes to South Asia as it is for any other region.

Unless, that is, Shaiman and Whitman were the same mean boys from elementary school who would “namaste” their palms above their heads and do belly-dancing moves whenever I walked by–to the tune of that na-na-na-na-na snake charmer song. In which case, they might still be friends with those other kids who went up to me saying “woo-woo-woo,” with their palms against their mouths, not really caring that Christopher Columbus had been wrong when he called the Native American peoples Indians. If so, I have a bone to pick with them that’s perhaps even bigger than their arrogant lack of cultural research.

Ultimately, Desi-spotting is still a community sport because, although things are improving, there are still so few positive representations of South Asians and South Asian Americans in the media today. The writers of Smash had a chance this week to expand and complicate the ways that our communities are perceived, but instead they decided to go the way of a gross generalizations. Hey Smash writers, it’s 1975 on the phone, and it wants its racial generalizations back.

So I’ve come to realize that simply seeing more brown faces in the media isn’t enough, if it comes with the same old hackneyed stereotypes and inaccuracies. (For a refresher on modern-day “friendly fire” racism, kindly refer to this “Sh** White Girls Say … to Brown Girls” video). From the schoolyard to the television screen, we brown folks are tired of all being lumped together in a big bowl with curry (belly dancing?) on top.

In the end, Bollywood numbers may be fun, but racism isn’t. Like, Jai Ho, y’all.

  • connie (Anjuli)

    This is a wonderful post!!! You’ve done a great job of pointing out the BIG issues– being lumped all together. My husband and I are still shocked when  people ask where we are from and we say “Singapore” and they respond (here in the US) “Oh isn’t that a part of China?” OR “Wasn’t that the place that was returned to China?” HELLO_ have you looked at a map lately??? ….OR when they talk very slowly to my husband….because they think he might not understand….when I’m thinking, “Hey buddy- come over to Singapore for awhile and we can teach you a thing or two about efficiency!” ha ha!

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  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

     I agree – they have a South Asian actor Raza Jaffrey playing a boyfriend, he has a nonstereotypical job – in a mayor’s office – seems like he’s a regular ordinary character, not someone who’s there to “be” a stereotype. And then they give this poor chap (who can really sing and dance!) a number full of ridiculous stereotypes. Could they not hire some South Asian writers or consultants as well? Seems like such a waste. Thanks for the comment and link – looking forward to checking it out.

  • Ash

    Just wanted to chime in to say that it’s great that the folks on “Smash” tried to differentiate between North and South Indian culture (especially important w/r/t food) but depressing that the didn’t actually ask a South Indian person about their cuisine.  The characters should have gone out of dosas!

    Also, love love love Rani Muhkerjee.   I’ve watched a few of her films, and her characters often have strong feminist leanings (esp. in “Dil Bole Hadippa,” her speech at the end almost made me cry!) and are proud of their Indian heritage (“Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic”).

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks for the comment Ash! I agree – when Dev said they were at a S. Indian restaurant, I was expecting the waiter to bring out those LOOONG paper masala dosas or something. But alas, no.
      Have check out “Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic” but will do, thanks for the rec. And yes, being Bengali as well, I have a fondness for Rani as well!

  • http://mssngLnk.com/ notaquarterback

    What I appreciated here were your suggestions of favorite Bollywood movies. I immediately Netflixed them after you wrote, because I’ve wanted to watch a few and didn’t really know where to start.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       glad to hear notaquarterback, they aren’t perfect by any means, but certainly colorful, fun and escapist!

  • Anita

    April and May have been great months for me. I found brown female friends in my small, poor Korean city and I found this blog! I’m not saying I can’t be friends with people of different backgrounds (I question anyone that only hangs out with their race in this day and age … ahem … Girls…HBO…) but there are some things that you need a Desi friend for! 

    Another side note, do you ever find yourself in that weird in-between place? Let’s called it the Island of Misfit PoC. I was born in Canada to Tamil-Sri Lankan parents. I’ve never been to Sri Lanka and I speak Tamil very poorly. I’m not accepted as a Canadian because I’m too dark and I’m not accepted as a Sri Lankan because I’m too Western. This feeling of not belonging is something I struggle with a lot.

    To the point, I agree with you that we need more representations of South Asian people in the media. I think this is particularly important for the thousands of Desi people growing up in North America. I grew up thinking I was ugly and weird. This was cemented by the fact that I was in ESL, even though I was born in Canada and had the same speaking ability as my peers (albeit with an accent). Bollywood representations are a step in the right direction but I would love a show about people of color doing normal things – believe it or not, we have boyfriends, we drink, we too can sing and dance and act. That’s why I love the “oppressed brown girls doing things” tumblr. At the same time, it’s also important to put the stereotypes out there because some of them are seriously affecting the lives of brown men and women. There is a culture of secrecy, of patriarchy, of heteronormativity and on a light-hearted scale, of cheapness (hello! I am so guilty of this! not that it adversely affects my life). The important thing is that these discussion feature people of color. I am so ready for a change!

    Wow, that was a lot. I’m sorry. I’m hyperventilating because I have someone to talk to! On the internet … maybe they were right about me being weird.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1130483506 Cleo Hines

    Lol @ “Is India really like that?” Some guy asked a cousin of mine that when we were in the quad at school one day discussing Om Shanti Om, (and Deepika Padukone and the fact that I wanted to marry her and have her babies), my cousins response? “How the f%&k should I know, I’m from Jamaica!”

    I’ve been watching Smash because I absolutely adore Katherine Mcphee’s voice, but when I saw the promo for that episode, I think I literally did a physical cringe and decided to stay away from it, cause I just knew somehow that it would be all kinds of fail, and I get so tired of being the chick that sits there going “No!….wtf!”. Seems it was a wise decision, cause I probably would have been beyond pissed at the cultural conflation, cause you know what? It’s really not all that hard to get any part of any culture right with a bit of research, so that’s just bloody lazy on their parts. Though not Desi, I’ll admit to being totally and absolutely addicted to not just Bolly films but Tolllywood as well, and having grown up watching a lot of Indian cinema, I don’t really remember that many song and dance numbers in the old films, but that’s perhaps a child’s memory? Or maybe the grandparents were into the serious stuff? In any case, it’s a guilty, escapist pleasure that I indulge in at every op.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Cleo! And yes, I support your Deepika Padukone admiration! :) (as well as Katherine McPhee’s voice) A lot of the old Bengali or Hindi films (Shammi Kapoor? remember “Junglee?”) my parents watched had songs but usually very longing-filled and romantic and not many dance numbers as I remember!

  • Anonymous

    I feel you my sister.  It’s the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when someone starts speaking to me about RHOA as I would know.  The stereotype and violence against women in the media has to stop. 

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       thanks Katherine – for the read and tweet! I agree!

  • Anonymous

    Sayantani, you articulated everything I felt about that part of the episode (although I disagree with you about the peanuts.  It was like the writers  thought they should demonstrate the diversity of the Indian diaspora, but then changed their minds halfway through the scene and stuck to the stereotypes that non-desi America would recognize.  Also the lead-in to the song was ridiculous.  I appreciate the variety of musical styles that are featured on the show, but surely there could have been a better way of bringing Bollywood into it.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Ashpatash — you disagree about the peanuts? That Indian food (at least Indian food in Indian American restaurants) sometimes has peanuts or that Uma Thurman’s character was allergic to them? :)

      • Anonymous

        I agree that Indian snacks tend to have peanuts, but dishes not so much (at least, not in the dishes my family cooks). :)  And regarding Sendhil Ramamurthy who was mentioned farther up in the comments, what always drove me nuts about one of the first Hero episodes was that one of the scenes was supposed to be in Chennai, but all the signs were in Hindi.

        • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

           Hindi signs in Chennai! I totally was bugged by that too!!! and I thought I was the only one who was driven nuts by stuff like that!

  • Anonymous

    Sayantani, you articulated everything I felt about that part of the episode (although I disagree with you about the peanuts.  It was like the writers  thought they should demonstrate the diversity of the Indian diaspora, but then changed their minds halfway through the scene and stuck to the stereotypes that non-desi America would recognize.  Also the lead-in to the song was ridiculous.  I appreciate the variety of musical styles that are featured on the show, but surely there could have been a better way of bringing Bollywood into it.

  • Mickey

    Great article! Don’t forget Sendhil Ramamurthy. He is super gorgeous! And I totally agree with you about how people regularly lump Middle Eastern people with South Asians without doing any research. SMH

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Absolutely Mickey – all this lumping together is a bit old, no? And I see you Sendhil Ramamurthy from Heroes and raise you Naveen Andrews from Lost!

      • Mickey

        And let’s not forget Jimi Mistry (East is East, The Guru), Ian Aspinall (East is East, Holby City), and Kal Penn for good measure. :D

  • Mickey

    Great article! Don’t forget Sendhil Ramamurthy. He is super gorgeous! And I totally agree with you about how people regularly lump Middle Eastern people with South Asians without doing any research. SMH

  • Suepeaers

    While I agree with your general thoughts, 1001 Arbian nights was originally written in Hindi. It was a product of the Mughol Era when there was a large Arabic influence on Indian culture. 

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks for your read and comment, Sue! While absolutely, South Asia has a long and rich history of Mughal influence and Islamic culture — I’m not sure that 1001 Arabian Nights was originally written in Hindi (or at least, I wasn’t aware of it). Per Wikipedia (not a fantastic source of knowledge, I agree), it was originally written in Arabic. Will you share the reference if you have it? but regardless, it’s very difficult to say “this stereotype is MINE and this one THEIRS.” Stereotypes are stereotypes, and lazy ways to represent communities regardless! :)

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks for your read and comment, Sue! While absolutely, South Asia has a long and rich history of Mughal influence and Islamic culture — I’m not sure that 1001 Arabian Nights was originally written in Hindi (or at least, I wasn’t aware of it). Per Wikipedia (not a fantastic source of knowledge, I agree), it was originally written in Arabic. Will you share the reference if you have it? but regardless, it’s very difficult to say “this stereotype is MINE and this one THEIRS.” Stereotypes are stereotypes, and lazy ways to represent communities regardless! :)

    • Guest

      1001 Nights was absolutely not written in Hindi. It pre-dates the Mughal era by at least 400 years. Some scholars think it was influenced by South Asian stories (written in Sanskrit) that use similar plot devices. But no, definitely not written in Hindi (originally). 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FIN6IQP2R5QWALHVUDALMTLXAM MST2010

    Don’t forget the colorism in Bollywood movies.  Most South Asians I know are brown-skinned, but when you turn on when of these movies, darker-skinned people are nowhere in sight, unless they’re playing buffoons or servants.  The women are really light-skinned and European-looking. 

  • BrownGirlInTheRing

    Great article! I did want to mention that not all Hindi cinema is chock full of the song and dance numbers. It may be plentiful but there have always been films that exist within the Bollywood ‘mainstream’ that don’t follow those schemas. It’s kind of like your point about Vegas – we don’t necessarily look at Hollywood film through that optic. It would be nice to hear about how Bollywood (and Tollywood, Kollywood etc) cinema is fairly nuanced as well – especially when presenting (valid) critiques about how people keep inscribing us with these generalizations.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Agreed BrownGirlIntheRing! Thanks for bringing that up! I was absolutely referring to mainstream Bollywood films! But ultimately, it’s an industry that produces a variety of types of films… it’s just what we (South Asian and non South Asian alike) think of when someone says “Bollywood,” right?

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Agreed BrownGirlIntheRing! Thanks for bringing that up! I was absolutely referring to mainstream Bollywood films! But ultimately, it’s an industry that produces a variety of types of films… it’s just what we (South Asian and non South Asian alike) think of when someone says “Bollywood,” right?

  • Anonymous

    “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.”

    I laughed out loud when I read this. I think this is what rubs me the wrong way about Bollywood films, the random musical numbers. I don’t know much about Bollywood history and the only exposure I’ve had has been through US distribution company which will only pick films they feel will appeal to US audiences. This severely limits the image of Bollywood movies and can lead to people in one country (this one) believing this is the reality of another culture (South Asian). 

    Then again, the random musical numbers in Bollywood movies could be a huge part of South Asian culture that is an actuality. You know black people are always dealing drugs, playing basketball, looking for a man and making bad ass kids. At least, that’s what the movies have taught me so it must be true. 

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Iamjustsyd — don’t believe everything you see in the movies!

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks Iamjustsyd — don’t believe everything you see in the movies!

    • Anonymous

      That bit made me laugh, too.  I realize that sometimes people are just ignorant and curious, but really?  You should ask her if she’s ever seen Chicago (Richard Gere, Catherine Zita-Jones, etc.).  Because actual Chicago is JUST LIKE THAT.

  • kurochan26

    You’re not alone. While I’m not Indian — I’m actually Haitian-American — I did notice all the Arabian Nights references in that dance number and was disappointed. I can’t claim to be an expert on Indian culture, but if I could pick up on those discrepancies, than the show’s producers should have been able to as well.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks kurochan26. Yes, it seemed a bit absurd – especially in 2012, and when the show is set in very multicultural NYC!

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

       Thanks kurochan26. Yes, it seemed a bit absurd – especially in 2012, and when the show is set in very multicultural NYC!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sayantani! I loved this post. I’m a self-identified Desi of Sri Lankan origin, and my current research is particularly concerned with the conflation of South Asia and the Middle-east (I also grew up in the Middle east for a while). I’m also interested in Desi diasporas and understanding desi-ness as a politiczed identity. I would love to talk with you more. My email is natassja.gunasena@gmail.com, if you would like to chat :)