Bollywood Internationalism and The Borderless Kingdom

The East Indians in Trinidad in 1935 made a connection between Indian movies and India. This connection continued through the years to the present day. They were not alone in this kind of Indian connection as other East Indians in other parts of the world particularly Guyana, Suriname and South Africa and other countries where East Indians were indentured and where Indian movies were shown made similar connections with India. In other parts of the world, numerous Indians in a second wave of migration after indentureship settled in other countries such as England, Canada, USA, Holland and other such countries. They were in turn joined in these developed areas by a third wave of migration made up of descendants of the indentured immigrants from the Caribbean and other “indentured” countries. This mixture of people of Indian descent, estimated at around 20 million people, had Indian movies as a major common factor in their lives in addition to other imports from India.

During the colonial era in India, there was a one-way flow of information into the subcontinent from the Western world. Invariably this also had an impact on Indians living in the diaspora. Indians within India and in the diaspora seemed to have accepted the image of India and that of the Western world created by the colonial masters. The export of Indian movies to Indian diaspora countries led the way in changing how People of Indian Origin (PIOs) viewed themselves and Indians in general. Diaspora Indians helped to change the image of India and Indians abroad and image was later reflected in Indian films.

After the 1940s with the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, and with India becoming the first independent nation within the British Empire, there was a gradual change of information flow patterns. Moreover, with the economic development of India, especially in the technological area, and with Bollywood movies becoming a major export after independence, the two-way flow of information was expedited and bolstered mainly by Bollywood movies in a kind of reverse cultural imperialism. In the natural scheme of things, information flowed from the West to India in a sort of Colonializing manner. The strong connection between India in terms of the culture and language, family and other aspects of living and the diaspora, is in fact a corollary of the transnational life of the Diaspora Indians that had as its core approach ‘Indian filmdom’ that lent itself to a commonality that was recognizable among the disparate sections of the diaspora and was indicative of a common bond that bound all Diaspora Indians as no other factor in Indian life had. It not only bound them one to the other but collectively to India.

Indian films therefore has had the effect of blurring national boundaries of the diaspora children of India, so that when Indian filmdom began to spread its wings globally and cornered a larger slice of the global cinema market, it not only provided, but reinforced the question of identity of the Diaspora Indians in the global setting and thus issues of nationality, patriotism and other identity coded symbols became of paramount importance to the settler country.[i] Most settler countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, saw the local East Indians as identifying with India, because of the language, culture and traditions, and the Indian movies rather than with facets of their own ‘adopted’ country. This identification with India by the East Indians in Trinidad may have caused the then Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams to state that ‘There can be no Mother India for those who came from India. There can be no Mother Africa for those of African origin.[ii]

The blurring of boundaries in the globalized Indian diaspora setting was caused mainly by Indian movies and the use of technological advancements such as Internet, computer, high-end cell phones and other such gadgets that subsequently gave rise to such issues as Indian identity and belongingness in the settler countries. The average Diaspora Indian could be anywhere in the world and still have a huge “slice of India” with him right in his home. He could review the latest Indian movie, download any Indian song, read any Indian newspaper or magazine or journal, watch any Indian movie, get any video song of his favorite stars or politicians all from the comfort of his home, a feat still far removed from the average Indians in India but which was common to most of the Diaspora Indians. The early East Indians in Trinidad, who saw the arrival of Indian movies as a ‘slice of India’ coming to them in Trinidad, would be wonder-struck today at the latter-day Diaspora Indians who now have many ‘slices of India’ such as magazines, newspapers, novels, radio stations, television stations, DVD movies, ‘Indian movie on demand’ and of course the original cinema at their fingertips

The Bollywoodization of the Indian diaspora has in some ways, created a kind of borderless overseas Indian state made up of disparate communities in the global community linked primarily by the Indian movie — the main cultural export of India in the global world since Indian independence.

The estimated 20 million Diaspora Indians, known as Non Residential Indians [NRIs) and People of Indian Origin [PIO’s], some first-generation, second-generation, third generation or even fourth-generation of  ‘Kala Pani’ Indians living in several countries or states is linked together by the Indian movies as if they were not separated by the global state borders or the waters. This researcher here stresses the point that no matter what the calling of the individual, what the station in life, what caste or other differences, Diaspora Indians are linked together by the Indian movies and its spin-offs. To the Diaspora Indians, Indian movies are regarded as cultural ambassadors, linkages, that culminate in a degree of convergence that contextualizes not only the presence of the Diaspora Indian but the Indian at home in India also. It does this through an amalgam of various techniques that is peculiar to the Indian movies, such as contextualizing the narrative with transnational Bollywood content that appeals to the Diaspora Indian overseas. Within recent years there has been a trend among Bollywood producers to develop narratives that portray Indian values peculiar to the Diaspora NRIs and PIOs and their descendants abroad to the extent that identity within these Diaspora focused Bollywood films assumed a transnational outlook, as it projected itself through the Diaspora lens. In that way the Diaspora flock assumed a celluloid reality on the silver screen and Indian fans living in India also got to view how the Diaspora Indians live.

Indian films earn a vast income from the Diaspora market in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Europe, Canada, the West Indies including Trinidad and other countries. It is a fact that today, the Indian Diaspora market is now the major source of income for many Indian producers. Therefore, it is understandable that they would make efforts to tailor many of their movie offerings to the Diaspora Indian market. Recent market surveys indicate that while some 14 million cinema tickets are sold in India for Indian movies on a daily basis the income from the Diaspora market accounts for about 65% of Bollywood’s income.[iii]

These Bollywood movies have become the single most potent bond that joins all Indians of the diaspora, including Trinidad among themselves and with India individually and collectively. This is perhaps, the Naag Mani, the most treasured link with India among Indians of the diaspora everywhere, because it portrays a sort of Pan-Indian value system that finds favor with all Diaspora Indians, regardless of caste, color, religion, regional origin, language or other divisive elements. There is no doubt that among the majority of Diaspora Indians, Indian movies form a major pillar of their very identity and existence.

Indians overseas today live in a kind of borderless Indian transnational Bollywood state, a de-territorialized non-geographic state that while it is global in its own setting it is sustained mainly by the flow of movies from India. Indian embassies and Indian missions also contribute to this transnational dialogue in a major way by organizing film festivals, trade fairs and conferences. This transnational dialogue rests on the major pillar of Bollywood films and its spinoff products such as clothing, jewelry, food, magazines, music, songs and other similar items that flow from India to the West.

Indian movies have become the mainstay culturally between the People of Indian Origin (PIO) living in USA, Canada, England, Holland and other countries and India. Even second and third generations of East Indians from the Caribbean and elsewhere, in the second wave of migration from Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname also found Indian movies a major link between themselves, India and other Indians in the diaspora. Indian culture in the diaspora was indelibly linked to Indian movies. Ruben S. Gowricharn, Professor of Multicultural and Transnational Studies at the University of Tilberg in the Netherlands, a third generation Indian, who is of Indo-Surinamese background, in an encounter at an international diaspora conference with another Indian, this time a first generation Person of Indian Origin (PIO), in the following episode demonstrated how strong the bonding between Indians and Indian movies and songs can be. He related an incident during an academic meeting on the Indian Diaspora held in Prague, which articulated the point:

                                           In the corridor of the conference building I met a shabbily dressed Indian; we were finished with our presentations and we had nothing much to do. ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he proposed. During the walk, he expressed his need for coffee and we went into a cafe. In the meantime, he had established that I was not a ‘real’ Indian and thus the inevitable question came: ‘Where are you from?’ After I had explained to him that I was a third generation descendant of ‘indentured coolies, ’ living in the Netherlands and doing research on minority elites there, he told me that he was a first generation Indian who lived in the USA. He was a Professor of Asian American relations at a university in Boston. Nothing unusual in that, for we were fellow congress attendants and all of the participants worked at a University. At a certain moment, he interrupted his story and started, while he was drumming on the tabletop, singing a song of the famous now-deceased Indian singer Mukesh. I was familiar with that behavior of Indian men in good cheer, especially after a drink. I also recognized the melody; it was a song that had been popular in my teens. However, more took place at that table. I realized with a shock that this strange man and I, due to the melody, had something in common, that we originated more or less from the same culture of which the melody, the words, the language and the singer were characteristic elements. We were not connected by the fact that we were social scientists, but by Indian (Indianness- my emphasis). Because of that Indian song, I felt a cultural kinship with this man. [iv]

Gowricharn’s anecdote demonstrated the power of the songs from Indian movies and its impact on individuals in terms of space, time and memory. Millions of diaspora Indians the world over connect through the various linkages provided by Indian movies.

 It does not matter how far East Indians live from each other, or what part of the globe they live in, they are connected to one another through the telephone, through the Internet, (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs etc.), through the cinema, through the music and songs that are played on the radio stations [and internet radio stations] and otherwise but most of all they are connected through the Bollywood movies. Perhaps they are connected more by a psychologically directed cultural bond that has an interconnectedness that is related to the overall aura created by these Indian movies and the music and songs that emanated thereof. The easy availability of these movies and video compilations of Indian film songs give the Indian community an anchor from which they saw themselves and the rest of the national community in terms of their own identity and their relationship with the rest of the national community

Trinidad East Indians have become part of this borderless Indian Diaspora state, linked by Indian movies across the globe through DVDs, cable TV, Internet and the cinema. This transnational borderless state has come to symbolize ‘Indianness’ among Indians everywhere so that they can connect with each other wherever they are through the Indian movie in a transnational dialogue that never seems to end. East Indians in Trinidad know that they are connected to ‘Indianness’ everywhere more particularly, they are connected with the ancestral homeland, India, through the Indian movie and with each other through blogs, chat rooms, Internet and other such devices.

This Transnational cultural phenomenon that significantly ties in with Indian films in Trinidad constituted a major plank in the evolution of the East Indian identity in Trinidad, which emphasized the perception that Indian movies in Trinidad was in itself a catalyst for various activities in the creation of a new social and cultural identity of the people of East Indian descent here in Trinidad in their evolutionary journey that was linked not only to India but to other Indian Diaspora entities in the Caribbean and across the globe.

END NOTES


[i] Settler countries refer to those countries where East Indians settled in all waves of migrations.

[ii] Williams, Eric. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. 1964.pg278

[iii] http://mutiny.wordpress.com/2007/02/01/bollywood-vs-hollywood-the-complete-breakdown/

[iv]. Assisi, Francis. ‘Features – Bollywood Culture Binds Global Indian Diaspora.’ Planet Bollywood. 25 June 2009 <http://planetbollywood.com/displayArticle.php?id=051806123941