Ethno-entrepreneurship gets cracking as the well-settled generation of Non-Resident Indians begins to accumulate culture.
Invented India has begun to encroach on the cultural landscape of London. The West End musical, Bombay Dreams, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar), The Really Useful Group and Shekhar Kapur, has begun its run at the Apollo Victoria where tickets range from £14 to £40. The musical track of Monsoon Wedding is selling briskly at Tower Records on Piccadilly Street. At the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the exhibition “Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood” opened on 26 June and will continue till 6 October this year. Tube stations across the city sport posters of one or another Bollywood-related ‘event’.
In this new outbreak of culture, India has been abridged to a caricature from Bollywood, whose allure now matches that of yoga as a niche-market commodity. The crowds that throng to rediscover India are not drop-out flower children looking for karma, dharma, ganja and themselves. It is a clean-cut mob of Anglo-Saxon yuppies seeking ethnic discovery, and angst-ridden, identity-starved British Indians who are never allowed to forget the roots they cannot have. The first generation Indian immigrant was too preoccupied with the accumulation of assets to be diverted by trifles. For the well-settled generation that has come of age, it is time to balance the account and accumulate culture. Pedigree is the wannabe’s sign of arrival, and this ethnically pastless generation has turned to the figments of Bollywood imagination to invent the realities of its forgotten homeland. In the process, this enforced nostalgia gives ethno-entrepreneurship a promising bottom line.
Bombay Dreams is inspired by the colour, magic, and profligacy of Bollywood aesthetics. The musical deals with the contradictions between the reality of Mumbai, the relentless city, and the illusions of Bombay, the tinsel town. Its score is by AR Rehman, whose music for the film Bombay sold 50 million copies. The story is based on a book by Meera Syal (of BBC2’s Goodness Gracious Me). The lyrics are by Don Black and the director is Steven Plimlott. The enormous star cast includes Raza Jaffrey, Preeya Kalidas, and Dalip Tahil. It has been advertised as “a fusion of fantasy and glamour, epic spectacle and heart-aching romance”, which promises a “uniquely new musical voice for the West End”. There was a time when the Hindi film was the cultivated Indian’s guilty secret. Now that it has arrived in West End, alongside The Full Monty and My Fair Lady, and been certified by London’s cultural establishment, it has not only invested the emigre bourgeoisie with cultural refinement, it also seems to have released the rest of us from the burden of our erstwhile guilt.
If Bombay Dreams is only a relatively tame replica of some of Bollywood’s more egregious follies, the exhibition “Cinema India” is rather more insidious as an exercise in presenting an escapist history of Hindi cinema. This exhibition is part of the British Film Institute’s ImagineAsia project and is only the second event to be held in the V&A’s new Contemporary Space Exhibition Gallery. But it is not just the history that is all wrong, even the atmosphere is. The opening on 26 June betrayed the desperate immigrant longing for cultural respectability. The attempt was clearly to create an ‘Indian’ ambience at the venue. No mean task even for the well-versed, the attempt proved to be far too ambitious for those who undertook it at the V&A. Nonresident nostalgia invariably reduces India to some familiar and ostentatious denominator, which in this case proved to be the garish New Delhi marriage hall, decked in marigold.
Marriage and marigold are prominent artefacts in that peculiar traffic of values and other intangibles between Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and their market-led cousins in urban north India. The former give the latter lustre and leverage in the neighbourhood by the mere act of expatriate existence. The latter in turn organise standing ovations for the former on their annual pilgrimages home and give them cultural ideas of recent vintage, which on reaching England become Indian practices of great antiquity. Both Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham, two recent NRI productions influenced by this traffic, owe their content and success to the affluent and flamboyant urban north Indian marriage.
With such a customised pedigree, manufactured from the raw material of life-cycle rituals, it is not surprising that the organisers of “Cinema India” felt compelled to dress up the V&A like the venue of their kin’s marriage, complete with a decorated car, and an overdone ethnic programme card with tassels, announcing the details of a variety show. For a card of modest proportions it managed to convey a great deal of pointless information, including the florid assurance that visitors are “very welcome to Cinema India”, which could be accessed “via the marble steps in the main entrance”. The card also hinted at dire and nameless consequences for those who defiled the inner sanctum by carrying the alcohol being served near the marble steps into the exhibition area. The cultural programme itself consisted of dance performances, rangoli art design, the screening of the film Sholay, more dances and a recital of “Indian instrumental and percussion music” by Davinder Singh.
The selective appropriation and packaging of such cultural paraphernalia was just a prelude to the more audacious tailoring of Indian cinema to suit the sensibilities and needs of expatriates on a homebound historical junket. “Cinema India” proved to be an exhibition mainly of Hindi film posters. The history of Indian cinema had quietly but drastically atrophied into a potted history of Bollywood billboards. The idea was to recreate various visual images as works of art inspired by ‘Indian cinema’. Painters of larger-than-life hoardings were flown in from Bombay to give live demonstrations of their otherwise invisible craft. According to Divia Patel, curating the exhibition, these “hand-painted wall-murals”, as she called them, are becoming extinct as ‘Indian cinema’ went global and began to embrace computer-generated images taken directly from film stills. The aim of the exhibition was therefore to also recognise and preserve both the art and the graphic artists, before they disappeared from history. “Cinema India” was clearly then a three-month long cultural preservative, permitted ingredients only.
If this exercise gives short shrift to the wide regional diversity of Indian cinema, it also makes a hash of presenting Hindi cinema by imposing on it a tailor-made path of evolution. The pattern of the exhibits implies a steady linear movement that culminates in the eventual convergence of Bollywood fantasy and expatriate desire in the more recent genre of films, whose milieu is the Hindu NRI paradise.
The posters fall in five chronologically- arranged typologies. The first section, “Towards Independence, Images of Nationalism from 1913 to 1947”, takes the viewer through the early stage of film advertising, the transition from text to image-based publicity, and ends with posters depicting the nationalist movement. This is followed by the next typology, i.e. the post-independence period, stretching from 1947 to the 1960s, which is described as a “layish and innovative” phase, with “stunning imagery reflecting the epic character of these blockbuster films”. Much space is devoted to Mother India (1957), which was nominated for the Oscar. The rationale of this typology is beyond comprehension, and seems to have no real function other than serving as a contrived chronological filler in an exhibition hurrying towards a more narcissistic purpose.
This narcissism begins with the third section titled “Internationalism and Images of Youth 1960s- 70s”. This is where NRI pride in its newly adopted icon begins to bloom. This allegedly is the phase when India began to look beyond its national boundaries and films reflected a more international outlook. Consequently the classic films of this period, we are told, emphasised youth culture, fashion and romance. The striking psychedelic poster for Bobby (1973) is supposed to have captured this cosmopolitan ethos. Films that do not fit this bill obviously had to be excluded. The fourth phase is designated “Crisis in India, Images of Violence and the Rise of the Male Hero 1970s- 80s”. The films of this period are .said to reflect the turmoil of 1970s India, a time of political unrest and increasing levels of urban poverty and crime. The exhibition describes the posters of this period as heralding a new era of design, dominated by images of violence and weaponry along with complex montages of portraits and figures. Sholay (1975), it is claimed, was a landmark film of this genre and the distinctive typography of its advertising was particularly influential. Other commercially successful non-violent films like Basu Chatterjee’s Chotisi Baat (1975) with a mild-mannered, lower middle class hero (Amol Palekar) out to woo a bus-commuting lower middle class working heroine (Vidhya Sinha) just cannot figure in the pre-fabricated typology of the exhibition. This section also applauds the rise of one of Bollywood’s most essential and endearing elements, Amitabh Bachchan, and the posters take time off to chart his ascent. Customised history has no place for the numerous other Indian actors or actresses who despite their outstanding performances did not quite make it on the expatriate horizon.
The culminating genre is the technically slick Bollywood film, which the exhibition chooses to classify under the rubric “Global Perspective Films”. These films, like Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge, signal the arrival of the choclate-box expatriate hero committed to nationalism, machismo and orthodox family values. This is the moment of celebration and the entire period leading up to this is just the pre-history during which Indian cinema was preparing itself for the historic revelation of the “global perspective”.
Clearly the global perspective Hindi film is the vehicle in which non-residents wish to launch themselves in the culture market. Films belonging to this category create the essentialised India that matches the make-believe Indian-ness of expatriates reclaiming their roots. The hunger for material and spiritual comfort is fulfilled in these films, which reconcile NRI paradoxes by simply refusing to admit uncomfortable social realities. Poverty, caste, Islam and all the other inconveniences of modern expatriate life are extinguished to present Hindu family sagas, which extol an idealised upper-caste life. If the new genre of Hindi films tampers with the realities of Indian sociology, the exhibition plays havoc with the realities of Bollywood history for the same self-serving purpose of promoting the NRI way of life.
Of all the variety of the enormous number of films rolling out of Bollywood, select films are picked up and made to fit a narrative that is both thematically and chronologically convenient. Through this selection and presentation, the exhibition contributes to making the pre-history of Hindi cinema acceptable. Censored out are the Dada Khondkes, Dara Singhs, Jayshree Ts and Govindas.
The thematic sections of the exhibition are equally stereotyped. The section titled “Love and romance”, is a carefully sieved choice of Bollywood figures to be showcased to an international audience – Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman and such other polished figures. The section on women claims that in films of an older vintage, the vamp donned Western clothes and the heroine was clad in chaste outfits, whereas today, it is the heroine who wears Western clothes. There are any number of older films which decked out the heroine in Western clothes. The section also omits to mention that in both the old and the new films, by the last scene, usually, the heroine switches to a traditional wardrobe. Accompanying all this window-dressing are wall projections of clips of fight routines and song-and-dance sequences, which complete the picture of ‘Indian’ cinema’s unique virtues.
And, lest it be mistaken that NRI culture is only about Bollywood aesthetics, the exhibition also features cinema-inspired art by representatives of high culture like the eminent painter Ghulam Sheikh, Catherine Yass, Annu Palakunnathu Mathew and Adam Bartos. This section sounds more like a whispered aside to the Anglo-Saxon cognoscenti that Bollywood creativity has the endorsement of genteel folk. The presence of Satyajit Ray and a few other urbane film-makers among the exhibits serves the same purpose. In all this gilt-edged packaging of Hindi cinema, the exhibition, quite apart from its deliberate exclusion of details that do not validate its stereotypes, also chooses not to draw attention to aspects of the exhibits that range from the scandalous to the offensive. It had no comment to make on the fact that the Urdu script has, in recent years, disappeared from the poster (and in the rolling credit) and that Sanksritised Hindi rather than Hindustani is the language of today’s hero. Nor does it seem to be aware of the strong critiques that have been emerging on the more repellent social aspects of the new clutch of expat-oriented films (for example, see Himal, August 2001 and March 2002). It is also noticeably silent on the possible connection between underworld funds and the financing of the slick new films in which principled NRI boys and girls gambol. Shorn of its dark and realistic side, the Bollywood film appears in a sanitised form to fulfil its historic mission of dignifying the arriviste immigrant with contemporary art and ancient culture.
The ambience of the V&A and of the new genre of films have to be similar if the “marriage, marigold and rangoli” leitmotif of Indian-ness is to be perpetuated. To create an acceptable broad-spectrum commodity called ‘India’, it becomes necessary to minimise the definition of an otherwise complex entity by restricting it to some essential attributes that have been made prominent over a period of time. These include ‘traditional clothes’, dances forms that incorporate folk and western traits, baroque edifices which house the protagonists, garish ornamentation, extravagant rituals, unrelenting opulence and loyal family retainers. It matters little that all these caricatured claims on history are unrecognisable to the average Indian, whose culture this is being marketed as.
If this represents a kind of cultural confluence, NRI affluence also ensures that it is a specie of economic convergence. At the exit are some smartly-dressed youngsters handing out cards advertising Café Lazeez, “London’s premier Indian restaurant group”. The exhibition, it turns out, is sponsored, along with Cobra beer, by Café Lazeez, Sippy Films Private Ltd and Sholay Media and Entertainment. Clearly the corporate merger of curry and Sholay is a savvy one and in the process Indian culture, whatever that means, has been rewritten to mean Hindi films premiered in London, ‘masala raan’ at the Café Lazeez, and Cobra beer, made in England. The effort to create this hyper-idealised Indian form is enabled by a conjunction of economic and cultural motives. The visual spectacle produced by the Hindi film in the age of globalisation caters to the cultural gluttony of the NRI and the commercial gluttony of Bollywood. And as a windfall gain, multicultural Anglo-Saxon aesthetes have also lent their voice to the chorus of approval for the most visible art of the Subcontinent.