Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
Fan Mail: A Dossier
As part of this issue’s focus on culture and cultural politics in South
Asia and its diaspora, we solicited our readers to submit brief personal
reflections on cultural figures and works that matter to them. The following
pieces came in response to that invitation. We have called this special
section (only slightly flippantly) “Fan Mail,” because we are conscious
of the variety of ways in which culture and politics intersect in our
experience. Our critical, intellectual, and political responses to art
and culture tend to co-exist and intermingle with emotional, passionate,
or enthusiastic responses. In each of these pieces our contributors
write both as critics and activists and
as fans, telling us why works that matter are also works they love.
Or, in some cases, works that they love to hate!
Coming to America, Coming Home
By Sharmila Rudrappa
Its been six years since I've been back home to India and a lot has changed. Mass consumerism for the middle class masses. New cars for our bada babus. Housewives walking around with mobile telephones organizing their kitty parties. Night clubs where girls and boys gyrate to the latest techno. Computers on every middle class desk. Ammas and Appas daily e-mailing their diasporic daughters and sons.
Thes times are about rediscovering nation through the west. Like all else, Hindi movies too have changed. As I grew up in Bangalore I watched with bated breath movies like Yadon ki Bharat or Deewar where brothers are separated by some villainous gang with henchmen named Johnny or Tom, mother blinded, father killed, heroine almost raped, interspersed with much singing and running around trees. The bad brother either dies or is reformed by the good brother. The family is united against all odds. Even though the state machinery is non-existent and the cops always arrive after the heroes have beaten up the bad guys, India as a nation prospers because families are together.
Today, my niece's cultural diet is comprised of films like Aa Ab Laut Chaley where the main protagonist, Akshay Khanna, is an only child raised by mother and grandfather. He is educated but can’t find any job in India. So he goes to America (where else?) to become a self-supporting man. Not being a computer engineer, he gets no job. Instead he finds two friendly New York City cab drivers and becomes a cab driver himself. The two avuncular cab drivers, one Pakistani and the other Indian, are housemates living in much peace and happiness. Forget Partition, nuclear weapons or the Kashmir issue; the only thing that upsets our happy-go-lucky cab drivers is an Indo-Pak cricket match. Our hero quickly falls in love with a damsel in distress (Miss World Aishwarya Rai) who happens to be his passenger. They sing nostalgic songs about the motherland while running around the World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and up and down Broadway. Our hero eventually finds his long lost father who'd abandoned his family to become rich in America. The now millionaire father expresses remorse in letting his love for money become larger than his love for family. He misses his Indian wife and his nation. All is forgiven and they return to India as one happy family.
Whereas in previous films the outside world was an ominous threat to Indian integrity--Johnnys, Toms, foreign smugglers, blonde Helens dressed in skimpy clothes, foreign whiskey--in today's movies the outside world is integral to the recovery of the Indian family and nationhood. It is not as if the West is suddenly rendered “good.” It is no longer embodied in the figure of the vamp because the heroine is westernized herself and finds her ethnic identity when the hero reforms her into a good bahu. He meanwhile attains his desi dream only by coming to America. Every middle class neighborhood in Bangalore has at least 4-5 offspring in the U.S., and movies such as Aa Ab Laut Chaley are only an idealistic reflection of the changing boundaries of the new Indian family and Indian nationhood.
Sharmila, a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, filed her piece from Bangalore.