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.
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.