Intercultural Mission: A Bollywoodish Exploration

You don’t see how I see things?! Cultural blindness at the water cooler…

What follows is a conversation between two imaginary individuals: Ian, a white American, fan of Indian food and Bollywood, and Arun, an Indian expat living in the US. Both Ian and Arun work in the same office, where this conversation takes place.

Ian: Hey, Arun. Good morning. How are things, man?

Arun: Hi, Ian. All is well. Just glad that the US elections are over. The whole season was such a nuisance.

Ian: Yeah, couldn’t agree more. By the way, guess what I watched last weekend on Netflix?

Arun: What?

Ian: The White Tiger (TWT from now onwards). Have you seen it? I mean the movie, not the real white tiger. Or maybe that too.

Arun: Yeah, I saw it, the movie. Real white tiger? No. As they say in the movie, it comes out only once a year, right?

Ian: Hehe. Yeah. I really enjoyed the movie. I couldn’t help compare it with Slumdog Millionaire. But I would rate it higher than Slumdog, you know.

Arun: Really? And what would be your rating yardstick?

Ian: Well, Slumdog is good, but I think TWT is more nuanced: the village life, caste, poverty, lack of education, and the whole master-worker angle to it—it’s just so ‘real’, I think. What would you say? I think as an Indian you know better.

Arun: I like neither of the two.

Ian: Really? And why is that?

Arun: Because both the movies are made by Hollywood directors. They only show what they want to. I mean we have so much to give to the world: our festivals, colours, food, culture, yoga and to top it all, we are the largest democracy in the world, dude. But the Hollywood directors can’t see nothing. All that is rolling under their camera is an India reeking with caste, poverty, illiteracy, crowd and filth. I think the West is so obsessed with an India of its own imagination. So, I find the ‘poverty porn’ of both Slumdog and TWT quite unsettling, to be honest.

Ian: Yeah, I can understand what you mean. And I love yoga, and chicken tikka too. Wait, can they even go together? But hey, coming back to your point about the Western imagination, isn’t that how the ‘real’ India appears, at least to a foreigner? I mean, I went to India last year with my girlfriend to take up a course on yoga, and as much as I appreciate it, we both felt constantly insecure by a thousand eyes staring my girlfriend all over. There were no proper sanitary facilities, or any other basic facilities for that matter. If anything was rampant, it was beggars and, of course, cows. I mean, isn’t that what ‘real’ India is, behind all this façade of ‘development?

Arun: No, no, no. First of all, a non-Indian has no right to decide what ‘real’ India is. As an outsider, you should have observed the good things the country has to offer, but your Western lenses won’t let you do it. It is the same problem with Danny Boyle and Ramin Bahrani.

Ian: You mean I am supposed to wear a one-eyed glass? When I see poverty, it will be through my western lens, and when I see development, I will consider it real. Will that do? By the way, TWT is written by Aravind Adiga, an Indian, you know? I am sure he saw the ‘real’ as much as I did.

Arun: Yes, I know that. But how can just one Indian know how complex India is? He should have double-checked his facts with other members of the fraternity. And I wonder whether Bahrani has licentiously used the novel’s storyline. See, these novelists and movie directors go to extremes to bring in a ‘real’ feel to their stories, but in their passion they often overstate things. So, their stories cannot be trusted as ‘real’. As to your point about ‘one-eyed glasses’, I don’t think it is possible for you to see the ‘real’ without your glasses. What we can do is, perhaps, is that I lend you my Indian lens. May be that will help you see the ‘real’. Huh, enough about lenses, it’s getting philosophically hot in here. Let me rather move to another point that I was coming to before you cut me off, which is that contrary to this Western representation, we have many achievements to be proud of: we are the oldest surviving civilisation in the world, we have a booming IT industry, and we have recently responded much better to the whole corona situation than the US. We are on an upswing, you see. Development is not a façade. And you see, here is the thing – despite all that development, we have not forgotten our roots. If anything, there are more people doing yoga than ever now, including you. Now, compare that to your Hollywood, and the whole culture of materialism, cheap sex, lawlessness, and lack of spirituality here in the West. Don’t get me even started.

Ian:  Oh, oh, oh, I think we need to slow down here. I think these are a lot of generalisations in what you are saying.

Arun: Not at all. In fact, these are valid observations. I have been in the US for at least 5 years now.

Ian: Ok, so what do you think the US is like?

Arun: Well, where do we start? Oh, the recent one—your elections are a joke. They are a time-consuming, money-devouring circus.

Ian: I absolutely agree with you.

Arun: And then you have these young men and women addicted to sex and drugs. I mean, you see an average woman in the West must be sleeping with at least 15 men before getting married. You have broken marriages, and the problem of homosexuals and lesbians. Oh wait, did I just say ‘problem’? That can get me into a real problem. Well, sorry about that. I take my words back. What I mean is that you have crises of sexuality.

Ian: Hey Arun, I think you are right to an extent. But I also think that you are taking things a bit far, just like the novelists and movie directors you just blamed. For one, I agree that we have problems, but may be that’s because we put so much stress on the idea of personal freedom.

Arun: To hell with your personal freedom if all you get as a result is a broken society.

Ian: Well, I think not. But also, and secondly, there are Western women who are ‘moral’, stable, family-loving and not given to sex, you know. But I can see where you are getting this picture from. Being a Bollywood fan, I realise that it has a history of such representation of white women— often with “liberal” values and “loose morals”. And now, since you have most of your movies shot in the West, they depict well how Western woman roam around beaches in their bikinis, and how easy it is to woo them for a one-night stand. Of course, they can’t marry the hero, for that privilege belongs only to a traditional Indian wife, who has been guarding her chastity all over her life for an Indian man, who was busy wooing the white women until coming to his senses.

Arun: Come on, you are passing too harsh a judgment on Indian men.

Ian: Well, the point I was making was that you don’t know the ‘real’ America, my friend, as much as I don’t know the ‘real’ India. I think the West has much to give to the world too—the idea of personal freedom and discipline, cleanliness, availability of facilities, science and technology to give just a few examples. I mean why else would you travel half way through the globe, if not for a ‘better life’? But I think, it is your Indian lenses that don’t let you see many good things you could see in the West. How about you borrowing my American lenses for a while?

Arun: Hmmm…. Maybe you are right. We know so little of each other’s world. We need to explore more.

Ian: Yeah, maybe we should hang out together more often. Oh, that reminds me of something. I know this is a bit sudden to ask, but would you like to come to our church this Sunday? It may be a good place to pull down some caricatures and explore a little less-known side of America.

Arun: Well, so now you are evangelising me?

Ian: Haha… Maybe I am. But if hanging out together can help us pull down some of our cultural caricatures of each other, I am sure there are also religious caricatures that need to be pulled down.

Arun: Hmm… true. In that case, I have a condition.

Ian: Ok. And what is it?

Arun: You have to taste my homemade chicken tikka.

Ian: Oh, you make chicken tikka?

Arun: Yes, I do, and not American chicken tikka, the ‘real’ one.

Ian: Haha, all this conversation about the ‘real’ chicken tikka, the ‘real’ India, the ‘real’ America is really good. I am loving it. Sure, I would love the treat. And I will see you on Sunday.

Arun: Looking forward to it.

Ian: Alrighty. You take care, and have a good day!

Arun: Sure. You too have a good day, my friend!

PS: That Ian is a Christian and Arun a Hindu is another caricature that hopefully comes down one day, but you can ignore it until then.

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