The Bollywood Cliffs Notes: Returning Home



There is a new genre of Bollywood film that is emerging that does not speak to the Diaspora, but deals with issues of Indian identity within national borders.  Films such as Chak De! India (2007), Life in a…Metro (2007), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) explore modern Indian identity on Indian soil.  Moreover, these films do not follow the common Bollywood formulas, and they lack the popular song and dance numbers that ensure national commercial success, particularly in terms of horizontal marketing.


Life in a…Metro follows the lives of seven modern Mumbaikers, or residents of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay).  It explores the lives of the urban elite, who are learning how to balance traditional Indian values in an increasingly modern city.  All of the action takes place within the city, and deals with controversial subjects such as extramarital affairs, sex before marriage, and homosexuality, the latter of which was illegal in India until July 2009.  The film features stars such as Irfan Khan and Shilpa Shetty, the latter of whom having garnered international fame after winning Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother.


While Life in a…Metro is significant in its serious approach to issues that could otherwise be considered taboo, it still focuses on a very particular circle of wealthy Mumbaikers.  There is a glaring absence of the poverty that is visible from a typical Bombay street.  For a film that attempts to redefine the Bollywood archetype, it chooses to push the boundaries within a specific set of limits.


I discussed Chak De! India in an earlier blog entry.  The film portrays the way through which disparate parts come together under the united label of “India,” using the formation of a national women’s hockey team as a metaphor for the nation.  Whereas most of the action takes place in Delhi, the team consists of young women from all over the country, all of different ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds who speak a variety of Indian languages.  The film explores the struggle to form a cohesive team, despite their differences.  In one of the opening scenes, the coach, played by Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, asks the women to state where they are from.  They start to respond with their respective states, but he is not happy until they finally answer “India.


What does the growing popularity of such films mean for India’s current national consciousness?  Additionally, how are these films received in the West, and, in turn, what type of identity does this construct for India on the international stage?


An article from the London Globe called "Bollywood goes Global: Indian cinema increasingly popular in Britain," cites Bollywood’s growing popularity in London as that which transcends the usual Diaspora audience.  It talks about Bollywood’s move from “certain film stores in the Indian areas of London” to frequent showings in The Empire and the Prince Charles theatre in Leicester Square.  It asserts that it is not only the Diaspora, but  “the international, cosmopolitan, ready-to-embrace-all-cultures Londoner is getting addicted to them as well.”  The article correlates a growing interest in Bollywood to the industry’s trend toward becoming more “realistic, serious, and bold.”  The Age, an Australian newspaper, boasts about Bollywood's blockbuster success in an article called "Chak de India! Fans feel good about a love shared by two nations, Chak De India."


In the United States, the only Indian films to be nominated for an Academy Award have been Mother India in 1957, Salaam Bombay in 1989, Lagaan in 2002, and Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2008.  Again, these films represent the return to the “authentic” Indian experience. Salaam Bombay portrays the life on the Indian streets.  It follows the stories of Indian street kids, as well as that of sex workers and those involved with organized crime.  Both Lagaan and Mother India address nationalist issues in relation to the creation of an autonomous identity from the British.  Thes films emphasize India’s strength, determination, and triumphant spirit in the face of colonial powers.  The latter theme is also explored in Chak De India, as Team India prevails against the undefeated Australian team to win the Women’s Hockey World Championship.  Slumdog Millionaire faced controversial reactions by Indians who were unhappy with the way in which India was portrayed.  Please see my article entitled The Bigger Picture for more details.


Whereas the trope of the Bollywood Diaspora film is most popular within the Diapora community, Western recognition of Bollywood, from the UK, US, and Australia, seems to be most dependent on the theme of Indian “authentic” experience. Whereas Bollywood Diaspora films posit the Westerner as wanting the non-resident Indian (NRI) to assimilate to their culture, in actuality, the film audience in the Anglophone West would like to consume a product that they deem as “uniquely” Indian, or one that explores Indian identity within Indian borders.  Yet, the imagining of India incorporates many different ethnicities, religions, languages and, these days, nationalities.  Consequently, the quest for one “authentic” India will be hard to find.


Nevertheless, films like Lagaan and Chak De India are progressive in their artistic achievement, inspiring message, and international acclaim.  Whereas multinational business and advertising are trying to mold consumers into “people like us,” American film critics and British audiences are validating Indian films that evoke a return to tradition, as well as India’s diversity.  Moreover, there seems to be a convergence in interest between the Anglophone Western urban art world and that of the Indian quest for authenticity.  The latter leaves even more questions unanswered.  Do films like Lagaan merely alleviate British guilt about its previous treatment of Indians?  Do such films absolve accountability?


Films such as Life in a…Metro seek to break the current Bollywood mold and, specifically, it posits Bollywood as a voice for Mumbaikers as opposed to that of the Indian Diaspora.  Yet, there is an absence of some of India’s more pressing issues of poverty, issues that appear in films attracting international acclaim, such as Salaam Bombay (1988) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).


Regardless, it is important for the West to view India through the new Bollywood lens, as is represented in Chak De India.  Before such films, the West was exposed to an Indian identity encompassing only a minority of the nation.  Films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge represented Punjabi culture, a trend that still exists in today’s Bollywood blockbusters.  Films that acknowledge India’s diversity and consequent quest for peaceful coexistance, as well as those films that celebrate India’s cultural history, are significant in imagining India in a globalized world—not only for Indians, but also for its growing audience overseas.    



Bollywood, India