Bollywood and the representation of Indian women in diaspora


The caricaturish representation of women through popular media have not only led to the lopsided knowledge production about women’s identity, it has also perpetuated and normalised their degraded representation, for global consumption. Popular media, specifically cinema has either directly normalised the act of representing women through the lenses of patriarchal social order or has indirectly glorified toxic masculine identity. If one takes the very construct of Indian (Hindi) commercial cinema, or Bollywood as a reference point, the perpetuation of the degraded position of Indian women is glorified through the silver screen. Indian cinema has invested itself with the rights of representing ‘Indian culture’, values and national identity (the dominant Hindu cultural representation) and this national identity, or ‘Indianness’, often gets enmeshed with the identity of Indian women, in tandem with the imagined, patriarchal nation. What is interesting to observe is the visual culture representing Indian women in the diaspora. When the immigrant women (especially those in the West; The UK/ USA) are represented in Bollywood, it strategically brings out the aspects of conflicting cultures; that of the West and of the East, producing a binary between the ‘too modern and not cultured’ West and the ‘cultured’ East; a rather superior identity of ‘Indian’ and the women in the diaspora become the bodies through which the presentation of ‘Indianness’ or the identity of the nation takes shape.  This essay aims to explore this articulation of culture, of nation and portrayal of Indian women in the diaspora through Bollywood, highlighting how the Indian cinema tends to reiterate ‘Indianness’ with a woman’s identity.

Bhaba in his work Nation and Narration opines that the operation of a nation and a nation-state is distinctively different. The nation-state operates through a set of legal functions, while the articulation or the narration of a nation occurs through common (dominant in most cases) cultural symbolisations, through the mobilisation of common emotions. In the case of India, a woman’s identity often finds itself in its complex association with a created identity of the nation, rather the dominant Hindu cultural nation. The identification of India with an Indian woman, Bharat Mata, the symbol of magnificence, of purity, thereby characterises women according to the dominant, socio-cultural norms, embedded in patriarchy, oftentimes limiting their choice to potentialise their actual identity through empowerment and agency. The characterisation of Ganga in Pardes (1997) can be used as an appropriate example in this regard. Ganga epitomises all things Indian. From her pristine chastity to her demure nature, who is the perfect match for her father’s NRI (Non-Residential Indian) friend’s son, Rajiv, lacking cultural values, who is enchanted by her ‘Indianness’.

The conflicting value systems of East and West are represented through the characterisations of the female protagonists in Bollywood. Such conflicts are highlighted in Pardes, where Ganga, the female protagonist, with her innocence which is a ‘gift’ of the ‘Indian value system’ is faced with the ‘impure’ American culture of partying and womanising which her fiancé practices, which is a threat to her womanhood, her identity. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the female protagonist Simran’s father reiterates this stance throughout the film. Simran and her family is based in London, however, the patriarch of her family is rigidly ‘Indian’, with her mother, confined to boundaries of the house which she turns into a home, having limited to no say at all in the matters of home and beyond (given the perceived threat of assimilation with her Western neighbours which can take away her Indianness), even with regard to her daughter’s marriage.

The dramatisation and normalisation of complexities in commercial Bollywood motion films, in all its sophisticated cacophony and clouting mystique, tends to result in skewed or inadequate representation of pertinent issues. As Bhachu, in the context of Indian women in diaspora in Britain observes, “For, as products of multiple local, regional, and national locations within Britain, and occupying differentiated ethnic, cultural, class, and economic niches, Indian women possess highly complex identities that are an outcome of precisely these experiences.” The plight of the Indian women in diaspora is marked by their battle with complex cultures and values, their relentless struggle with endogenous and exogenous identities which are flattened out by the dominant rhetoric of ‘Indianness’, with romantic music acting as fillers made to seem important.

Considering films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Pardes, the idea of ‘Indianness’ attached to the protagonists’ identity is preserved in the end. In the former, wherein Simran’s constructed identity and her thirst for agency clash throughout the run time of the film, enunciated through scenes wherein her mother, her younger sister and herself have to hide the fact that they enjoy Western music from her father, to pleading with him to let her go for a trip across Europe ‘alone with her female friends’ to the very right of her to choose her life partner culminates in a happy epilogue when she finally gets consent from her father to marry Raj. Raj (the male protagonist) is her lover, an NRI who seems Western on the surface but is actually ‘Indian’ at heart and can preserve her and her values, as he knows what the “izzat” (honour) of a “Hindustani Aurat” (Indian woman) means. Through its glamour quotient and its simple narrative style, these films produce an identity of Indian women in diaspora, an identity which has to adhere to Indian culture and which is at a constant threat from Western culture. It also normalises the unequal roles of men and women in family decisions, where Simran’s mother poignantly tells her how a woman can dream but not at a condition that the dream must be fulfilled, further glorifying it under the banner of ‘Indianness’.  As much as one may want to argue that the trends in Bollywood have progressed from the portrayals of characters like Simran or Ganga from late ‘90s or early ‘00s to ‘modern’ representations of Indian women in diaspora. However, films like Namastey London (2007) and Cocktail (2012) continue to reiterate the same notions. Furthermore, the strong popularity of Bollywood films among the diaspora continue to influence women’s identity. As Pandurang opines, it “allows for the continued internalization of patriarchal constructs and ensures that, while the new Indian citizen may be physically dispersed within the boundaries of another state, she will remain culturally part of the homeland.”

Contrary to commercial bollywood, the diaspora films by Gurinder Chadhha, Jag Mundhra, which do not garner commercial successes in the homeland narrate certain stories, cautiously and adequately highlighting the complexities that an Indian woman faces, in all its naked reality, without colouring it in the hues of glamour. Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (1993) underscores varied themes regarding a woman’s struggle, from patriarchal family order, to the question of a woman realising her own identity beyond the constructed confines of ‘Indian values’ to the incessant racism that South Asian women in Western countries face in their daily lives, without the glorification of Indian culture of silence and subjugation of women, without resorting to an ‘Indian’ man to preserve a woman’s dignity. As Chadha herself said in an interview, “I have enormous responsibility as an Asian woman and I take that very seriously. It is absolutely critical for me that in the films I make, the people, who are in the films, are able to relate to the film.

Bollywood’s portrayal of Indian women in diaspora is more of possession of their identities than of their representation. The home and the outside for the immigrant woman are terrains of complex relations, with inner struggles to articulate themselves. It is beyond the linear presentation of cultural conflict and the preservation of ‘Indianness’. Moreover, when studying about women, especially in the diaspora, it also needs to be considered that they are not a homogeneous cohort. As Ranjan notes, there is a “need to resist the homogeneous image of the “new Indian woman” which irons out differences of religion, class, caste, community and language”. What Bollywood very tactfully does is, it shrouds these complexities in the hues of glitz, without comprehensively delving into their reality and by submerging their complex identities into a glamourised idea of distinct ‘Indianness’.

Aindrila Chakraborty, pursuing Masters in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi




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