By now, I’ve gotten used to the stares. I’m walking down the Colaba Causeway in the more affluent neighborhood of Colaba, dodging tourists and street vendors. I’m conspicuously white and Western—a prime target for the Bollywood extra scouts. They’re not interested in my non-white friends, and are not ashamed to say so. I’m offered 500 rupees to be a Bollywood extra for a day. It’s not the first time that I’ve pocketed his business card, yet I can never seem to find the time to accept the offer. How did this happen? Why are Western Bollywood extras in such high demand? Moreover, why are so many Bollywood films not set in India, but rather, cities such as London or New York? In order to answer these questions, we must go back to the 1990s.
Originally established as a socialist democracy by its Constitution in 1950, India began a slow process of liberalization throughout the 1980s. Yet it wasn’t until 1991 when the market began to systematically adopt principles of globalization, or capitalism via a doctrine of international free trade. Instead of preserving its more socialist-oriented democracy, Indian policy opted for a more capitalist-driven democracy. Privatization of Indian television began during the Gulf War, when many Indians turned toward satellite television for news coverage from CNN.
Arvind Rajagopal, in this article Thinking through Emerging Markets, asserts an interconnection between political communities, media, and markets. He cites the expansion of television in the 1980s and 1990s as creating an “unprecedented set of connections across a society with deep, sedimented social divisions.” He further describes the process of consumer branding, as a means of “educating individuals into modern citizenship.” Advertisers look to the minority with the largest purchasing power, the urban, upwardly mobile middle class, and conceive their identity as “people like us,” or PLUS. In essence, privatization in India has created an emerging middle class with a new set of insatiable, coded desires. This new class of Indian global citizen, as well as the nation’s growing Diaspora, created a new type of demand from Bollywood’s predominant audiences.
Ravinder Kaur describes the Bollywood trope that emerged in the 1990s, with films like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1996) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). These films paved the way for a genre specifically targeted at Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). They dealt with issues of “family values, moral superiority, true (unpolluted) love, the sacrifice of individual desires for greater good of the family/community, and the struggle and victory of the Indian Diaspora in preserving their cultural universe through the Indian rites of passages in an alien environment.” In effect, these films reacted to the changing Indian audience, as represented by the urban upwardly mobile Bollywood consumer, as well as the NRI. As a new class of globalized Indian citizen began to grow, such films offered a solution to “Western assimilation,” with the films serving as lessons in the value of Indian tradition.
Diwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is one of the biggest Bollywood hits of all time. Yet again, it is a Yash Chopra production, boasting a cast that includes the infamous Kajol and Sharukh Khan. The two main characters represent very distinct performances of Indian identity, particularly, within the context of the Diaspora living in London. Khan plays Raj, a spoiled, rich British Indian who chooses a more Western mode of cultural expression. Simran, on the other hand, is more traditional, and has somehow managed to preserve her Indian culture, even while living in London. The two meet on a trip through Europe and, of course, must negotiate their cultural performances before they can eventually fall in love. It is a classic Bollywood tale of love and misunderstandings, complete with song and dance numbers, kitsch and valuable life lessons. Most importantly, it marked the response to a new Bollywood audience, one who lives in the liminal space where East meets West.