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Moving Towards Mainstream

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August 2002
Moving Towards Mainstream

It was a typical spring afternoon in Atlanta about three months ago, a bit of a breeze, not yet humid or hot, a white haze circling the limited skyline and the eternal frustration of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Booming beats emerged from the rolled down windows of a beaten Cadillac stopped at the intersection of North Avenue and Boulevard, the doors vibrating from the bass as a traffic light halted the avalanche of rush hour for a brief moment or two. Missy Elliot?s ?Get Ur Freak On? was playing on its radio, the song?s innovative rhythms and bass lines making the crown-shaped air freshener bounce on the dashboard. And, unmistakably, beneath the monolithic sound of the thumping bass, was a looped sample of a man?s voice singing Qawwali.

About two months after that spring afternoon, it was a brutally hot day in the Indian city of Hyderabad. Three Starbucks-styled coffee shops had recently opened in the city and one of them, on that summer day, became an oasis for college students from the area. As chilled frappes and mochas were served, with the students chatting away on their cell-phones, reading glossy magazines, or simply staring at each other, there was the constant thump of Paul Oakenfold, an English House DJ, in the background.

In this age of globalization, such transference of various art forms is to be expected. Yet, the presence of a somewhat obscure techno DJ in a Hyderabadi coffee shop and the strains of a traditional South Asian art form in a revved up Cadillac in Atlanta were enough to startle one.

The story here is not of Western influences in India ? which is pass� - but of exactly the opposite. Notwithstanding the interest in eastern spirituality and its accompaniments such as yoga, until the last decade or so, things Indian were a distant enigma in the American consciousness.

Could that be changing?

The signs are everywhere. From the corporate world to politics, the number of prominent Indian Americans has definitely increased. More significantly, there is a marked rise in Indian influences on popular culture. Bidis are as commonplace as clove cigarettes, bindis and henna are chic fashion statements, saris are exotic formal wear, South Asian restaurants are as ubiquitous as Mexican and Chinese, and Deepak Chopra is a virtual billboard on television.

It all amounts to a realization that Indian culture is no longer simply represented by stereotypes and caricatures such as Appu on The Simpsons, or by the garden-variety jokes of Indian convenience store clerks.

Anurag Mehta, writer and director of the film American Chai which won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2001 Slamdance Film Festival, said of this phenomenon, ?In the last three or four years, there has been a definite influx of South Asian-based culture and it is pretty encouraging.?

Nowhere is this more evident than in arts and entertainment. Lagaan, a film by Aamir Khan was nominated for an Academy Award and recently acquired distribution rights in the United States. Mira Nair?s film, Monsoon Wedding was an art-house phenomenon. Shah Rukh Khan?s Devdas has received glowing reviews in the western press. Jhumpa Lahiri?s novel The Interpreter of Maladies won a slew of awards and Arundhati Roy?s The God of Small Things claimed the Booker. London-based electronica artist Talvin Singh baggerd the coveted Mercury Prize, and the list goes on and on encompassing everyone from Rohinton Mistry to the British band Cornershop.

According to Dr. Jagdish Sheth, a professor of Marketing at Emory University in Atlanta, and an esteemed futurist, this new phenomenon is related to economics and geopolitics, and is growing as India becomes a viable and important economic and geopolitical ally of America.

Others like Mehta see it as the blossoming of a new generation, comfortable in both the western world and the culture of its heritage, finding its voice while creating a new and unique identity.

Geopolitics and Globalization

In Dr. Sheth?s view, after decades of being adversaries, India and the United States are forging a geopolitical alliance in order to contain China, which is a mutual enemy of sorts for both countries.

Besides political dynamics, Dr. Sheth attributes the new alliance also to two other factors: India?s vast consumer market and the lack of a language barrier.

The potential of the Indian market is quite alluring to American capitalism. ?India and China have been declared as the great new economic growth engines of the world,? says Sheth. India?s great population in combination with its large technocracy has attracted many a western company looking for new markets, new consumers and qualified labor. The investors? calculations are based on Purchasing Power Parity, an index that measures a nation?s population and its purchasing power. The index places China second, behind the United States, and India with its $3 trillion economy in fifth position.

The fact that a large number of Indians speak fluent English is also facilitating economic and cultural transactions. ?There is no language problem between South Asians and the United States, hence the diffusion of ideas will be much quicker,? Sheth points out.

As a result of all these factors, the exchange of cultural ideas and products between the two new allies is progressing at an astonishing rate.

?It is much as it was with the old alliance India had with the Soviet Union. During that period, when I visited Russia, I found that Russians knew more about Raj Kapoor than I did,? he notes with a bit of amusement.

The comparison of India?s current relationship to the one it had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War is apt. Indians now know as much about Oprah as Russians once knew about Raj Kapoor. Henna and tandoori chicken is almost as prevalent in the United States as MTV, McDonald?s and Coke are in India.

A Generation Finds Its Voice

The move towards the mainstream is also, in no small measure, a function of the second generation of Indians, who are much better assimilated, and are now finding their foothold in the workplace.

Most of the �migr� generation arrived in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their children, who grew up as Americans, are now arriving at a point in their lives where they can contribute to society. ?They have their own identity, a hybrid which is not a reflection of their parents,? observes Sheth.

These children are not midnight?s children. They were not born in the era of realizing nationalist freedom from colonial chains. They did not have the challenge of building a nation, they did not have to emigrate and start a new life, and they did not have to struggle financially.

This new generation is enthusiastically homeless. They are too American to be Indian, too Indian to be American; they are essentially children of no country, captains of no seas. Yet that description should not be taken to mean that they are aimless or lost.

Aneel Delawalla, a member of the Princeton South Asian Theatrics troupe, which writes and stages dramas about inter-generational and inter-religious relationships in South Asian culture once said in an interview, ?The first generation of South Asians have a more conservative outlook than those of the second generation who blend aspects of both western and South Asian culture. As members of the second generation, we have a unique perspective on both cultures. We are torn between the western views of our peers and the South Asian attitudes of our parents,? he said.

The question begs an answer; can the two worlds collide and still leave some semblance of a coherent identity? ?I think there is such a thing as an 'Indian-American' and I think it is pretty well-defined,? Mehta avers. ?We?ve grown up here, that by definition makes us American. We are bridging two societies; we?re taking the best of both worlds.? he adds. And there lies the reason why a film like American Chai is equally at home with Indian Americans as with the mainstream.

The movie is about Sureel, a college student who can?t tell his traditional parents he wants to be a musician, not a doctor. Sureel has a rock band and a girlfriend but eventually the band falls apart and his girlfriend dumps him. Soon, however, he falls for another girl and begins a search for another band. The parents, however, know nothing about any of this. The essence of the film deals with Sureel?s search for love and his own ambition, and whether he reveals his secret life to his parents. American Chai talks to both sets of audiences, Indians as well as the mainstream, interpreting for one, the other.

Although the entire oeuvre of Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul might argue otherwise, there is an identity blossoming and it can only be defined as 'Indian-American', which is both Indian and American in equal measure.

It is the identity familiar with the in-jokes of American elementary and high schools, the all-night parties at college, the identity that can become the networking savant working a room full of recruiters. It is the identity that can drop hip-hop references in conversation, and can share nostalgia about cartoons such as G.I. Joe and The Transformers, and the one that can speak of failed romances and others hopelessly tangled.

It is, however, the same identity that prostrates at the feet of elders without hesitation, the one that celebrates Holi with a childish glee, and the one that adores mom?s tandoori chicken. It is that unique identity that speaks one's mother tongue fluently, knows all about the latest Bollywood releases and goes to bhangra festivals on the weekends.

Simply put, it is an identity as comfortable in kurtas and chappals as it is in double-breasted suits or Nike sneakers. This new generation, colored in that identity, can traverse both worlds and bring with them an experience entirely unique and new.

The generation is now emboldened with the confidence of age and is aware of its power as consumers and producers of ideas. ?The second generation of kids are hitting that age where they can have things forced into the mainstream, by being in their early twenties and early thirties, they?re kind of fearless and confident. As a community we?ve hit that age,? says Mehta.

Saurabh Bose, a musician and DJ from Atlanta who is set to release an album on monsoon recordings next year, agrees. ?I attribute [the phenomenon] to Indians growing up in the west and coming of age at a time when many opportunities and outlets are available for cultural, creative as well as commercial growth.?

As Bose and Mehta point out, this new generation is liberated and thereby becoming more liberal. They can pursue the arts, cinema, literature, poetry, theater and whatever else that strike their fancy. And when they do, the stories that come out are uniquely applicable to both Indian as well as American audiences.

Doesn?t every teacher and aesthete instruct the rookie, ?Write about what you know?? What this generation knows is their identity, their life. And so they write about it. The generation is also quite confident and well connected so their work is noticed, critiqued, and eventually, perhaps shown and introduced to the mainstream.

As Bose says, ?We do have to keep in mind that just finding our voice isn?t enough. We need to have the means and the methods by which our voices can be heard by others. I think to a large extent, this has to do with how financially successful our parents have become since immigrating to this country.

?In such a consumer driven and capitalistic society, the power of the dollar often dictates what goes out over the airwaves and that power has been something that we haven?t had to struggle too hard to get. For example, if you compare how long it took African-Americans in this country to reach any level of mainstream cultural exposure and acceptance, it is remarkable how quickly we are commuting on this path,? he adds.

The Writing of a New History

Speaking of the appeal of Bollywood in the United States, Richard Corliss of Time magazine wrote recently, ?The Bollywood masala ? savory cultural stew ? restores melodrama to its Greek-tragedy and Italian-opera roots: melody-drama, in which emotions too deep to be spoken must be sung. Imagine Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich dancing around the utility company?s lawyers while lip-synching a tune sung by Faith Hill, and you have a hint of the divine delirium that is Bollywood.?

Adding a bit of wry understatement to Corliss?s analysis, Mehta says, ?Bollywood is still being discovered here. It?s still a bit of a novelty. There is something charming about it here.? The charm seems to be quite potent.

There is hardly anyone who knows more about this charm and has done more for perpetuating it in the American mainstream than the affable Kamal Dandona, founder of the Bollywood Awards. In less than half a decade, the Awards have established themselves as the premium Bollywood event in North America, essentially transporting the glamour and glitter of Bollywood to New York. This star-studded annual event has been a veritable catalyst for propelling the stock of Bollywood in the US. With guests ranging from Michael Jackson to Steven Seagal and Richard Gere, the Awards have managed to catch the fancy of Hollywood.

According to Dandona, Bollywood is definitely moving towards the mainstream. In a phone interview he said, somewhat in jest, ?CNN gave eleven minutes of coverage to the Bollywood Awards this year. Some say that?s more than what the Prime Minster of India has received all year long!? The coverage by CNN was not isolated either. All the primary media outlets from Time magazine and New York Times to ABC and Fox News had extensively covered the Awards.

Aamir Khan?s Lagaan, and its tale of colonialism fought via a cricket match, was not only nominated for an Academy Award but received a nationwide distribution deal. Sanjay Leela Bhansali?s Devdas, which Corliss dubbed ?splendiferous?, seems in line to benefit from the success of Lagaan. Art house fare such as Mira Nair?s Monsoon Wedding and independent cinema such as Mehta?s previously mentioned American Chai and Nagesh Kuknoor?s Hyderabad Blues as well as Bollywood Calling ?? have held western critics and audiences riveted.

The assertion that subjects presented in the above-mentioned films are compelling to western culture, if not utterly alien, cannot be denied. Which is why themes like arranged marriages in Monsoon Wedding and Hyderabad Blues or wrestling with the idea of pursuing one?s ambitions in American Chai, have found a place in the hearts of the American audience.

The theme of caste warfare has also captured the interest of the West. Arundhati Roy?s The God of Small Things and Rohinton Mistry?s A Fine Balance offer delicate and insightful examinations of this phenomenon. They are brilliant pieces of social examination and analysis, with a great sense of storytelling and detail.

Yet the argument made here cannot be misunderstood to mean that the West is interested in Indian culture only because it is different and tells them stories that they?ve never heard before in a way that they find appealing and accessible. Rather, it says that the culture has matured to a point and has discovered an identity so unique that by simply expressing what it knows in a language it has grown up with, it is tapping into an almost global phenomenon of cross-culturalism.

As the British music magazine NME wrote of the tabla maestro and musician Talvin Singh?s second album OK, ?It is true that this album is rooted in India, and it?s unashamedly the India of the syrupy Bollywood diva?.but OK contains music for an airport at the center of the world, where dub rhythms interface with smouldering New York jazz, where geisha choirs skat over cut-up beats, where the crisp urban breaks of Hoxton Square marinate in plaintive soups.?

The Mooring of Starting Out?

Perceptions and opinions vary widely as to whether this is truly the beginning of a permanent place for Indian culture in the western world or if it?s just a fleeting trend.

?At one point in the seventies, Indian culture was very trendy. It seems to be that way again. But for me and many others, I hope that this Indian renaissance doesn?t reach that saturation point,? opines Bose. ?Some people say it already has but I disagree. I hope it instead remains a positive, vibrant, underground force that is always steering our changing culture towards new horizons and new beginnings.?

Dr. Sheth believes that this phenomenon is not a passing cultural trend, but instead the beginnings of a permanent place in western culture. He attributes it to the blossoming of the new generation, with their unassailable confidence and insatiable appetite for expressing their identity. Kamal Dandona is also optimistic that the interest in Indian arts and entertainment is here to stay. As an insider who is at not only at forefront of this trend, but rather is a catalyst for the same, he perceives from his high perch the definite interest in Indian entertainment imports.

Yet, there are those like Nagesh Kukunoor who believe that we are at least a decade away from the kind of amalgamation or even transference of Indian influences on American arts and entertainment. Kukunoor, who made a bold and successful transformation from being an Atlanta based engineer to a critically acclaimed filmmaker knows a thing or two about this trend. His films such as Hyderabad Blues, Rockford, and Bollywood Calling, though specifically Indian themed, have had reckon with American critics as well.

Kukunoor astutely points out that the success our movies have had, including Monsoon Wedding, is in the Art-House and Independent circuits, which admittedly is alternative films rather than popular or mainstream. He contrasted that with the true mainstream success of the Hong Kong based Chinese filmmakers with their genre of martial art movies.

?But if a Monsoon Wedding can pull in $13 Million just with 50 prints, certainly the mainstream producers are going to take note and ask what would be possible with five hundred prints.? So according to him, while the moorings may be in place, we are still at least a decade away from establishing ourselves as a definite genre of movies not unlike the Chinese martial arts movies.

There, according to him, also lies the answer to the slow success of Indian themed movies. While action movies such as those offered by Hong Kong have a universal appeal, Indian movies require a little more cultural maturity and involvement of the mind.

Corliss of Time Magazine, who attended the fourth annual Bollywood Awards in Long Island, New York, mirrors the sentiment, ?Perhaps Devdas and other Bollywood films won?t mesh with our cultural prejudices. (All that singing! All that feeling! For three hours!?)?

Mehta merely hopes that the ?South Asian renaissance? will lead to a culture-blind acceptance of South Asians. ?Why can?t a South Asian simply be another actor in a movie, why must he always play the role of a South Asian, can?t he simply be a best friend or just another character? I hope that Indian-Americans can assimilate like Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, where we can keep our traditions alive but are simply just another character in the crowd. I think it?ll be a bit difficult since we physically look different but I think it can be done.?

This writer is certain there will some day, exist in some stupendous soul, a bit of Swami Vivekananda, a bit of Thomas Edison, a bit of Satyajit Ray, a bit of Gucci, a bit of R.K. Narayan, a bit of the Beatles, a bit of Ustad Alla Rakha, a bit of Timbaland. And with that, will come disappearance of stereotypes and the acceptance of a new and contemporary Indian identity.

What the American poet John Ashbery once wrote of his own aesthetic birth can be perhaps said of this entire Indian phenomenon in relation to its place in the American mainstream, ?This is the mooring of starting out.?


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