From Indo-chic to Ethno-kitsch:
an angsty review of a record review

        by ananya mukherjea

Since I wrote about Indo-chic for the first episode of Make, I've had several conversations with various people about what it is that really bothers me about exoticism. My students talk about this in my Asian Studies class almost every week, and everyone I know who's read the Indo-chic thing has a different perspective on the topic. It's so hard to really get at the heart of the issue, but it remains lodged, like a thorn, in my side. It's interesting to me because my response is not just about pop-cultural appropriations, it's the residue of centuries of inter-cultural confrontation. Given that, then, why is it so damn difficult to articulate a nuanced discussion of the complexities of the Orient (as an intellectual and political product, that is, and not as a part of the world)? It's an issue on so many levels--economic, social, personal,etc.--and there's a constant clashing between the rigors and strictures of so-called traditionalism vs. the ease and frivolity of consumerism/"modernity". Consumerism is truly a beautiful thing, the way it makes anything easier to swallow and to dispose of once the thrill is gone.

I recently saw a review in The Activist that particularly got under my skin and put a slightly different spin on the matter. The Activist is a generally smart and critical (maga)zine put out by the young Democratic Socialists of America. It's well worth spending an afternoon over, so I was all the more disturbed to find something in it that got my back all up and defensive. The piece was a review of the compilation CD Bombay the Hard Way which features remixed music from Bombay's industry films set for non-Indian, "developed economy" listeners. I had heard the CD several weeks earlier over lunch at hippie-chic Kate's Joint in Alphabet City and had bristled at my discomfort: I was pleased to hear Hindi music in a non-Indian space but unhappy that it was clearly novel and amusing but not "real" music for the lunchers around me; it wasn't something of which to consider the quality but to consider the quirkiness. Like the earlier fascination with Japanese pop, the majority of non-Indian listeners don't take the music seriously enough to criticise or enjoy it in any complicated way. Maybe that's inevitable with unfamiliar sounds, or maybe it's inevitable with unfamiliar pop-cultural products. If that's the case, though, why bother listening to it at all?

Luckily, Kendra Marley of The Activist has an answer. She writes, "Cheesy 70's action flicks set in Bombay (and other exotic locales), replete with sitar-heavy soundtracks, flash across crackly TV screens in the dingy Indian restaurants scattered along East Houston in New York City. So the kitsch appeal of an album comprised of soundtrack gems from the golden age of those Brownspoitation Bollywood films is undeniable...." Kendra goes on to mistakenly call the Hindu diety Ganesh, "Dinesh," and to make a somewhat obscure reference to the cultural capital Bombay the Hard Wayoffers its consumers. Cultural gaffs and lack of conceptual clarity aside, the disdain and ridicule in Kendra's tone are unmistakeable, and I find it hard to accept that this is a progressive review for a socialist paper.

Let's start, for example, with the term "Brownspoitation"--coined so cleverly for this review itself, no doubt--I must admit that I don't quite understand it. Kendra Marley seems to imply that Hindi films have been produced largely for non-Indian audiences, making an issue of the brownness of the film stars who are sexually exploited in the movies. It's true that Hindi film producers make a mint by exporting their movies to the Middle East, to Russia, and to Africa for consumption by members of the "diaspora" as well as by people whose connections with the subcontinent are far more tenuous; and the mythic exotic allure of Indian women contributes to the transcultural appeal of the Hindi film. Still and all, Indian starlets are, primarily, meant to seduce Indians (their co-stars, the film-going public, rabid fans, etc.) and exotic appeal hardly plays a role in that. "Brownsploitation" is clearly a reference to Blaxploitation films which provided a cult genre for white America, just as Bollywood is doing now, and were also never taken seriously. For the majority of cinema enthusiasts in the U.S., Blaxploitation means formulaic plots, Pam Grier's bodacious body, and the theme to _Shaft_. It means "loud" 70's clothing, "outrageous" afros, side-burns, and "novelty" music that's good to dance to. That fact that Blaxploitation films, music and stars gave Black America a self-mediated pop-cultural representation, in a mass media landscape dominated by white architects, is too often overlooked. "Blaxploitation" was defined in relief, as Black people were defined by contrast to a white-dominated U.S. In the case of Bollywood, we have a thriving, prolific film industry revolving around the concept of producing Indian stories featuring Indian characters for Indian audiences (who, let us recall, number something close to 1,000,000,000--not the margins in this part of the world). Prioritising the American-eye view of that phenomenon is at least faintly insulting and, moreover, arrogantly naive.

Beyond this, I take issue with Kendra's whole positioning of Bollywood films as offering the exotic. That's only the case when the films are taken in a non-Indian, U.S. context. Granted, that's exactly the facet off which _Bombay the Hard Way_ is playing, but that exotic edge is not a native aspect of the movies. The "exotic locales" chosen for film-shoots are, surely, chosen for their picturesque qualities but, as well, for their recognisability. Viewers on the subcontinent recognise Bombay, yes, but they also recognise forts and know the characters have gone to Rajasthan or recognise wheat fields and know they're in Panjab. The "golden age" of Bollywood was marked by the emergence of such legendary figures as Amitabh Bachchan and the actress Rekha who were cool, clever, and full of pathos, pride, sex, and power. There's a familiarity and sure-footedness about the India represented by these mega-stars, and reducing them to cheese and flash belies all that.

The reductiveness is key to the whole tone of the review, though, which locates Indian-American culture amongst the "dingy" and the kitcshy. Bollywood stands in for all popular Subcontinental culture the same way elephant-headed Ganesh stands in for all Hindu-dominated Indian culture--from the outsider's perspective at least. India, itself, is poverty stricken, and the low-brow Indian food joints on Houston that are frequented by taxi drivers and others are characteristically "low-class." This brings to mind the fact that--in England--Indians and "Pakis" have merged to become a single stereotyped, maligned immigrant group while "Indian take-away" has become the standard stand-in for cheap, low-quality food. There's apparently something particularly tawdry about India--not unlike the way Mexico and Mexicans have been portrayed in the U.S. (think about the use of phrases like "el cheapo motel"). So, what is so attractive about kitsch?

I'm not saying that the average Hindi film needs to be recognised as great cinema. Indeed, most are centred on stereotyped characters, cheap sex and violence, and formulaic plots--just as in Blaxploitation films, but also just as in mainstream Hollywood. Why does all of Bollywood qualify as kitschy while only individual Hollywood movies do? Why does this reviewer--whose familiarity with the scope of 70's Bollywood is presumably limited--feel so free to classify the whole decade of work as cheesy and kitschy?

I certainly feel strongly that it's a good thing to be critical of popular culture and the mass media. There's an overwhelming trend towards the mainstream in such channels, and that trend needs to be redirected. I am definitely critical of the sexism, classism, homophobia, et al that shows up in the majority of Bollywood films and in the industry overall; but, I would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that, somehow, millions and millions of people find these movies to be compelling, and exciting. Those of us who have pretensions to progressive and critical intellectual endeavors (and I'm condemning myself along with everyone else) sometimes have a tendency to arrogance, a mis-guided certainty that we're above the allure of the slick and popular. That supercilliousness, though, bleeds over into a sense of superiority about the majority of consumers of pop-culture. It's good to keep in mind that people love things because they get some kind of meaning or enjoyment out of those things and, so, the significance behind popular culture is not to be dismissed.

Shah Rukh Khan--the current king of Bollywood--explained in an interview with an Indian film magazine why he chose to turn down offers from Hollywood. He said that he was a respected and admired figure in Bombay, someone who had starring roles and fame and, beyond that, artistic integrity. In the U.S., he would just be a cheap stereotype--playing flat roles that any guy with a certain ethnic look could. The idea was that Bollywood was a lower-level stardom than Hollywood, and Khan made the point that it was a far greater realm for him than any other. I think this is the sort of subtle point I want to make--that India and all things Indian have meaning and relevance beyond what folks in the States think of them.

Last year, the Asia Society hosted a Hindi film festival. They selected some of the most legendary of Hindi films from the 30's through the 90's and showed them in their great hall, introduced by rambling, long-winded scholars "on Hindi film." Outside, in the lobby, a photo exhibit of Bollywood sets decorated the walls for people to gaze at while they lined up and ate the "Indian snacks" that were provided. A whole slice of Indian social life in one compact package. It was hard to tell if the whole phenomenon was more impressive to viewers or campy--or, perhaps, both. The film festival itself, and emost of what the Asia Society represents, in fact, smacks of an intellectual tourism and voyeurism. While it's difficult for me to express what exactly about tourism is so hideous, I can only say that it seems horribly dingy, cheesy, and tawdry. This practice of "peeking into" other people's worlds and lives and thinking you can actually learn something of value--take away "cultural capital," as it were--is bizarre. I love to travel, just as all my lefty, over-educated friends do. There's a distinction, though, between making your own thoughts vulnerable and spending actual, reflective time with other people in their worlds, and taking an abstracted, curious look at what they do. My review of Kendra Marley's review is that it's just not very well-thought out and that we would all do well to seek self-reflection above comfort and certainty.

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