When I visit Kolkata, I don’t pass for Bengali. My American accent gives me away: Stilted pronunciations, and even the way I carry myself, announce that I’m a Westerner. Out of pity shopkeepers knock a couple of rupees off the terra cotta Saraswati idol I want to buy, but chuckle at how I’m handling the figurine like a Westerner–running my fingers over the sitar, the crown, the face–as if inspecting the idol for the first time in my life. It’s foreign to me, this figment of my own culture.
I don’t know how to perform Indianness well. I’m not sure what it means to perform Indianness well, but know that when I do it, I do it poorly. When I speak Bengali–or even text or tweet its transliterated equivalent to friends and family–I forget certain words. I can only count to ten in my language. I can’t recite addresses in Bengali. I can’t tell you what my favorite Tagore poem is.
As with any culture, there is a prescriptive way to be Indian, a way to be Bengali. It is a way of being that passes litmus tests measuring customs and cultural competency. I fail most of these litmus tests. I know I fail because I am greeted by disappointed groans from relatives. I know because in mid-conversation, I’ll forget how to say certain words. Or, worse, I’ll be met with a gasp of shock when I do know how to say something. I don’t remember to perform the customary pranam–it usually takes a my mom or my dad muttering “Rohin!” to remind me, and even then I perform it with such awkwardness that the elder to whom I’m paying my respect feels bad and tells me I don’t have to. We are not taught to pranam in the West, where we are often discouraged from practicing our customs in public.
I had to learn to perform my Indianness in ways that would not offend white sensibilities. Go back far enough, and you’ll find that the world in which I grew up–where schoolteachers told my parents to speak more English at home to make sure I would be fluent–can trace this attitude back to the British occupation of India. We are still too quick to say “kids will be kids” when a white kid makes fun of a brown kid for his accent or the clothes he wears, or makes 9/11 jokes. We still like thinking of the Union Jack as synonymous with Kate Middleton, David Beckham, and well-paced television procedurals starring Gillian Anderson, not the legacy of occupation and the exploitation and enslavement of the subcontinent. We have become adept at brushing aside these things, things we don’t want to speak about.
But when I consider the gaps in my life, my ability to perform my culture and the ways in which I cannot pass, I don’t think about the British occupation. Instead I ruminate over the precedent for assimilation that occupation has set all across the West, so that I could be born in the U.S. and still be required to assimilate into a larger Western culture that has a historical precedent for oppressing mine.
One day in the early 1990s, I rifled through my mom’s collection of cassette tapes and pulled one out that read Madonna. The cassette tape cover featured a pop star named Alisha Chinai, wearing a floral-print crop-top jacket over a black brassiere, cross necklaces reminiscent of “Like A Virgin”-era Madonna, and fingerless leather gloves. Everything about Chinai’s look was a flawless adaptation of the Material Girl’s style. At age seven, I already knew who Madonna was; I knew what a force she was–but this. This seemed like a secret treasure. “She’s like the Indian Madonna,” my mother told me.
I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I certainly didn’t think about how the broader American culture was already taking and taking from me. As a child of the West, where people like me were invisible, I didn’t even realize that I had been absorbed into a culture that would forever be at odds with my success in life. I was interested in the prospect of an Indian pop star singing songs that were popular in the U.S. for reasons I couldn’t put into words.
At eight songs, Madonna contained Hindi-language arrangements of some of the most important gems in the performer’s canon: “Live to Tell”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Material Girl”, “Dress You Up In My Love”, “La Isla Bonita”, “Lucky Star”, “Borderline” and, of course, “Like A Virgin.” These classics had been transliterated and adjusted, and even with Hindi and English being so unalike, Chinai hit all the right notes. She turned in a collection that perfected what Bollywood as an industry was years away from doing: She successfully appropriated American culture and flipped it for an Indian audience, while remaining faithful to the original work.
When it was unleashed 25 years ago, Alisha Chinai’s Madonna began telegraphing an international tug-of-war that would position India to finally start taking from the West. Chinai’s Madonna would end up becoming the most wonderful accident: a frothy indictment of Western imperialism.
The West has a storied history of taking from India. The subcontinent was, of course, one of the very first things taken from us. Once we won our independence, many of us explored the rest of the world; we took our families and settled in the West. It was a land, a people, a culture that began taking from us the minute we set foot here. They initially took job opportunities from us, so we had to work ten times as hard to get a fraction as much–and were expected to perform this extra labor quietly. We gained a reputation in the West, then, as a model minority, reinforcing white mediocrity, becoming complicit in acts of anti-blackness.
They didn’t want us speaking Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Telugu–any of our beautiful languages–in public. They didn’t want us to retain a connection to lives outside what they could control. They said, “Maybe you should go back to the country you came from if you don’t like it here.” So I can’t read or write the Bengali language of the culture in which I was raised. Purists in the motherland argue that this inability to read or write my native language turned me into a “mongrel.”
The West took away our religion, giving us white hare krishnas. They took away our houses of worship. They replaced yoga with yogalates and chai with chai lattes. Bindis–the West took those from us, too. They took henna and our fashion–discouraging us from wearing saris, salwars, hijabs, kurtas in public, unless it was part of a ritual in which they too could partake. The West wanted their own to be donning kurtas for a winky photo-op. In taking from us, the West taught other more widely represented minorities that it was okay for them to take from us. Despite us being the land of Bollywood and Rabrindranath Tagore, the West’s institutions took away our ability to make art, requiring our experiences to be vetted by one of them in order to matter. They took our voices.
This crusade of taking has sapped our dignity. When caught red-handed, perpetrators today sometimes offer scraps. We get Apu on The Simpsons, Raj on The Big Bang Theory. We get widespread success for a film like Bend It Like Beckham, but only if the film’s white players enjoy more success than its breakout desi star. Not too long ago, when The Good Wife said goodbye to Kalinda Sharma after sidelining her for two and a half seasons, I thought, “Well, they took that away, too.”
They will continue to take.
The brutalities of colonialism take generations to scab over. These indelible marks are reminders of our strength; enough of us persevered to foster the next generation and the generation after that.
The schools that educated me did a lousy job teaching me what it actually meant that white people lorded over brown people–they couldn’t get it right with slavery or the Trail of Tears or Civil Rights, so how could they understand and teach the nuances of how the Indian subcontinent won its independence? I didn’t understand at the time, but this was the West’s way from taking from me at a very young age–taking the truth, my right to know my origin story, teaching me tall tales populated with fake folk heroes instead.
In the U.S., the way the history of colonization is taught seems to inure young Indian Americans to the atrocities committed against their ancestors by the British. We are taught all about the British East India Company and the British Raj–but we are taught that this colonialism was commonplace. Worse, we are taught that the consequences of this kind of oppression are no longer felt today. Perhaps we are taught this version of history because the earliest Americans were British. Whatever the reason, these experiences are relegated to a few sentences in our classes; we are not expected to meditate on them. Our teachers do not connect the violence of bygone eras to contemporary microaggressions–and worse, we are dissuaded from asking about them.
This means that kids grow up missing large chunks of their identity. We grow up divorced from the suffering of our ancestors. We become amnesiacs, in a sense–we are lost, trying to capture cultural identifiers in a mainstream educational and media culture that gives us few to none. This wilderness–cultivated by teachers and bullies and pop culture alike–meant that I was aching for something to give me hope: A cultural cairn to show me the right path amid a desolate landscape of jagged spikes and stones. Whatever this totem would look, feel, or sound like, it would be something created by my people and for my people; it would be resilient against any attempts to be co-opted by the West. It would be the kind of talisman that would connect me with the lived experiences of Indians throughout time–our victorious comebacks, our efforts to assimilate, and our painful past.
The taking I experienced was nothing compared to what the men, women, and children who came before me experienced. The violence has left the subcontinent in such ruins that many speak of reparations. At a speech given at the Oxford Union earlier this year, politician Shashi Tharoor pointed out how India’s share of the world economy was 23% when the British arrived, but had tanked to 4% by the time they left, because “India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.” Tharoor added: “In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the deindustrialization of India.”
While the British Crown did not take over India initially, it did become the torchbearer after the British East India Company–an unregulated private company–did the heavy lifting through a number of violent acts. In one case, Winston Churchill starved Indians in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, and four million Bengalis starved to death. He diverted food and resources to British soldiers, arguing, “The starvation of underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks.” This, in a time when some parents dumped children into wells and rivers to spare them a long slow death from starvation. People ate leaves and yam stems. Some families would beg for the starchy water in which their overlords’ rice had been boiled. Ordinary citizens turned into criminals to survive–this, because of an occupation that had depleted the country’s resources.
I mourn the ancestors whose lives may have ended too soon. But the damage in what was then the province of Bengal was just a sampling of what happened on a larger scale. British militants cut off the thumbs of Bengali weavers so they could no longer weave the textiles they were known for, then flooded India–and the rest of the world–with cheaply produced fabrics, causing the collapse of Indian manufacturing. In the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, General Reginald Dyer and his troops fired upon a crowd of nonviolent protesters, resulting in a reported 1,500 casualties. Much of the occupation was also defined by considerable economic violence. Revenue generated in India funded British bureaucracies; money made in the country wasn’t staying in the country. The British did introduce a robust railway and irrigation system to India, but it was all in the service of generating goods and wealth for occupiers. By not investing Indian revenue within the Indian nation, the British ensured that they were able to preserve a power structure which served only to enrich the Crown while strip-mining the subcontinent. It takes a fair bit of Googling to learn all of this if you are an Indian in the U.S.–our teachers will not readily tell us about these atrocities. They may not even know. Worse, they are unable to connect this history to our present-day realities.
The liberation of the subcontinent is worth revisiting. After decades of oppression the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was finally passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, partitioning British India into the independent republics of India and Pakistan. Under this act, a number of provisions went into effect, chief among them a clause prohibiting the British monarchs from referring to themselves as the “Emperor of India” and complete conferral of legislative authority under the newly created nations of India and Pakistan. The 1947 Act was the fruit of a war of attrition marked by a number of rebellions, protests, and subversions, with Mahatma Gandhi standing tall as one of the movement’s most visible leaders. The desire to sever India from its British overlords was a fight that united people from all religious, political, and class affiliations. Citizens of the subcontinent were no longer seen as subjects of white overlords, but as whole people. Indians took back what was taken from them. They began rebuilding.
Indians–both those who remain on the subcontinent and the rest of us who settled across the world–are a diverse people. We are split on Tharoor’s call for reparations. I see parallels between the facts he presented at the Oxford Union, and the ways in which the West has seen fit to grift intimate parts of Indian culture. Seeing how India has evolved and bounced back, how all of us–from Governor Nikki Haley to Jhumpa Lahiri–have come to assume key positions of influence in the global imagination, I am sure of this: our ancestors were right to fight. But the fight is never over.
I wouldn’t expect the British to fund even a single paisa in reparations. There isn’t enough money in the world to fund such an endeavor. Before we do that, Indians need to award reparations within our own ranks to make up for generations of caste-based abuses. We need to lead by example.
In the interim, we can try to claim what’s ours through cunning acts of cultural dominance. After all, Western acts of imperialism still continue. They change forms. The taking continues; it happens on a cultural level now. The colonialism has taken a slightly more humane form: No longer are generals cutting off the thumbs of Indian artisans–they are simply stealing pieces of our culture.
When Urban Outfitters sells $8 socks featuring the likeness of Ganesh, when a white person dons a bindi for sex appeal or “decoration,” it is the active devaluing of desi culture. Fashion trends, pop songs, film and television characters–so much of what is assembled for Western consumption co-opts and takes from Indian identity.
We are taught that the British colonialism was a bad thing in India, but some can still divorce that concept from the damage it did to many of our ancestors. When our culture is appropriated and monetized, our lived existence continues to be their cash crop.
Much of Bollywood culture is premised on jingoism, on the idea that India–and by extension, Indians–are the best in the world. It acknowledges how, as a people, we have been able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and forge promising new realities. I think of a song Chinai released years after her Madonna album, but before Madonna herself released Ray of Light–a track called “Made In India.” In the music video, Chinai is dressed up like a queen, turning away suitors who have traveled across the world to court her–only to end up in the arms of a brawny Indian he-man.
This song was a refreshing novelty for many of us in the West, a world where the “Made in India” label carried a much different connotation. In the West, “Made in India” is used to denote a quality of goods that are cheap and replaceable, the product of sweatshop labor. Goods that are “Made in India” are made, in this imagination, by anonymous brown people in a faraway land, the fates of who we can’t be bothered with so long as they’re supplying our consumer goods.
In my experience, the “Made in India” idiom is also how white Westerners have frequently belittled and controlled me–and reasserted their own superiority. In grade school, I shook their comfortable grip on life; lashing out at my genetics, my culture, helped them reaffirm it. Mostly white classmates mocked my culture by way of poorly performed accents; mostly white teachers dissuaded me from pursuing advanced-level language arts classes and intimated to me that they could never dream of visiting India, because of how exotic it seemed. Many of my progressive-minded friends would misuse “namaste” and spout hokum they learned from a hippie co-op yogi, relying on me as a fount of Eastern wisdom and mysticism (when asked to “perform,” I would instead repeat one of the refrains from “Kajra Re”–tere kare kare naina–and pass that off as “ancient Sanskrit wisdom”). But if Alisha Chinai, if the entire Bollywood industry was “Made in India,” then it makes sense why people with no culture would ape mine: They wish to stake a claim to something so exemplary.
“Made in India” also sets the stage for something to be colonized by a white person for Western audiences. Madonna is one of the worst offenders. In the run-up to her 1998 album Ray of Light, she took so much from the subcontinent: Henna tattoos, yoga, even Sanskrit. She was banking on Indian culture being a throwaway, inexpensive dupatta in which she could cloak herself to sell units. Many of us believed that in exchange for borrowing our heritage, Madonna would give us “visibility.” We were naïve. In hindsight, it’s no surprise this white woman had no vested interest in being our ally–she simply raided a culture she knew nothing about, wanting the trappings of Indian identity without any of the education or hardships.
Nonetheless, our community’s knee-jerk response was to celebrate Madonna’s imitation of Indianness. After all, it was still the 1990s–the medieval ages, before Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, and Jhumpa Lahiri had penetrated American cultural consciousness. We needed something, even if it was a white woman using our culture as a prop. It was better than being totally absent in the popular culture being sold to us.
We learned Indian languages were in fact acceptable to recite in front of Western audiences–so long as a white lady performed it as a novelty. Today white people co-opting the pretty affectations of Indian culture are still disregarding and even co-signing the brutal, tyrannical era of colonialism. These are acts that parallel the consumption and exploitation that marked the occupation, with white people profiting from the identity and traditions of Indians.
When I found Madonna in my mother’s cassette tape collection, I found my cultural cairn. If Madonna left me deflated, Chinai’s Madonna reinvigorated me. By transliterating some of the Material Girl’s most iconic hits, Chinai took from American culture and made it relevant to an enormous Hindi-language audience that might not have connected with the songs otherwise. It’s unlikely Madonna’s greatest hits made it into conservative Indian homes–in a way, Chinai managed to make Madonna herself irrelevant to the very audience whose culture the Material Girl would pilfer from years later.
One play-through, and this cassette tape suddenly made sense of the cultural gaps in my life. I felt less lost. Popular rhetoric had it that Madonna’s greatest hits could never be improved upon, yet here was a 29-minute piece of evidence that proved otherwise. In Chinai’s collection, Madonna’s inclination towards shock-and-awe had been airbrushed. Chinai’s “Like a Virgin”-inspired counterpart translates to “Look, Look”; “Borderline” becomes “Do Not Break My Heart.” The melodies are intact, but the messages have changed. (Of course, this is also how Bollywood connects with its audience–skirting taboo subjects.)
If it hurt to appreciate the hits of a performer who thoughtlessly took from my culture, Chinai offered another way to appreciate these songs. I didn’t have to like “Dress You Up In My Love” to like “Pyaara Awara.” After a heartbreak, I didn’t have to turn to “Live to Tell,” if “Tere Bina” was right there.
It’s unlikely that Chinai set out to address a paradigm shift. It is also unlikely that she realized how her work would inspire what would come next. Madonna was one of the more notable examples of how Bollywood found clever ways to co-opt American, and to a larger degree, Western culture–if only to pander to largely Indian audiences.
Perhaps my parents sensed that as I grew up in the U.S., I was participating in a world that hadn’t created adequate room for the culture in which I was raised. They knew I was living in a world that would seek to whitewash my existence. I ran the risk of being lost the very minute I was released into American culture. Maybe they knew and feared this. Maybe dragging me along to Saturday matinees of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Mohabbatein was their way of nipping it in the bud. These Bollywood blockbusters featured brown people as heroes and sirens. They offered brown people a chance to see ourselves represented as more than a plot device to champion white mediocrity–the only representation we had at the time in Hollywood.
It was important that as a kid, I was exposed to a variety of representations of brown people in pop culture and learned about an entire industry where people like me get top billing and save the day. While American pop culture viewed mine as nothing more than a culture to be appropriated, Bollywood was very hard at work rejecting this reality. With each Bollywood film I watched, I witnessed another phenomenon: A world where brown people used white people and culture as props. It was deliberate. Bollywood was trying to engineer films that appealed more and more to Indians who lived abroad. As a result, the cost of admission for Western pop culture into India, in many cases, was for it to be reinterpreted and reimagined through Bollywood.
As for why Bollywood tends to be viewed over-the-top by Western audiences, Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan put it well: “Our films have a lot of escapism… Many times the West [has] been somewhat cynical about the quality of our films. Perhaps they do not understand the reason why our films are made and why they have this particular nature.” Maybe the West doesn’t understand the hyperbole of Bollywood because it can’t understand the plight of a people that is, decades later, still healing. The bright colors, absurd plots, and frequent song-and-dance numbers represent an industry born out of a need to cope with rebuilding a nation without the resources poached by its conquerors decades ago. India is prone to protests and uprisings–and the escapism offered by Bollywood can be an analgesic, placating those who have been subjected to a rigged game.
Bollywood eclipses Hollywood, producing more than 1,000 films a year, and Bollywood celebrities enjoy tremendous reach–gaining access and building fandoms in the Middle East, much of Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many of these markets are also territories that at one point or another experienced Western occupation and, like India, are still picking up the pieces. Of course the florid excess of Indian cinema resonates with these audiences. For two or three hours moviegoers can be transported to another reality, where they can see people rather like themselves enjoy happy endings, instead of watching the same old white heroes and heroines of Hollywood.
Bollywood’s ability to leverage Western culture as props and take from white people for its own ends is necessary to the preservation of desi identity. When Bollywood is co-opted by a Western culture, its origins tend to be erased–thus, imperialism. When Bollywood co-opts American culture, it usually doesn’t erase the origins, but honors it. In 2001, Kal Ho Naa Ho, a rom-com set in New York City, licensed the rights to Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The film’s hero, Aman (Shah Rukh Khan), spends much of the film courting the no-nonsense Naina (Preity Zinta) and, in true Bollywood fashion, breaks out into a spectacle featuring a bhangra-infused rendition of Orbison’s 1964 classic: “Oh, pretty woman / walking down the street” is changed to “Pretty woman / dekho dekho na.”
This kind of homage surfaces again in 2005’s Parineeta, a romantic drama starring Vidya Balan and Sanjay Dutt, when the cast heads to Moulin Rouge, a 1920s-themed night club. In the film’s signature item number, “Kaisi Paheli Zindagani,” a prominent actress mimes playback vocals. When screen legend Rekha opens her lips to channel Sunidhi Chauhan’s vocals, the melody is instantly recognizable: It’s built on a sample of Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” The tribute to American culture is pushed further: The entire item number’s set is decked out in Jazz Age-era aesthetics, from flapper costumes to stage set-up.
The recognizability in these films is part of the gimmick, a wink at the alternate reality faced by NRIs (non-resident Indians) growing up abroad, who learn extensively about the history of Western culture, but rarely their own. These item numbers pay tribute to American culture, while celebrating Indianness.
This isn’t to say that Bollywood has never executed acts of Western erasure. Bollywood films frequently feature white women in item numbers whose sole purpose is to be fetishized. In 2005’s Pyar Mein Twist, Emma Bunton–known widely as one-fifth of the Spice Girls–features in an item number as an anonymous item number girl. Her appearance exemplifies an interesting, if troubling, way that Bollywood has co-opted Western identity. In an industry in which films are produced by, for, and starring brown people, whiteness is exotic. By dressing a British pop star up in a salwar kameez and presenting her as a supporting device in an item number, Pyar Mein Twist doesn’t simply execute a trite east-meets-west fusion aesthetic, it also flips the middle finger to the same people who had been ruling over the nation up until just 60 years earlier.
A similar act occurs in the 2009’s Blue, when Australian-born star Kylie Minogue appears in the item number “Chiggy Wiggy” opposite Akshay Kumar. The song itself features Minogue’s vocals with singer Sonu Nigam’s. In watching the events of “Chiggy Wiggy” unfold, initially it comes across as yet another display of brown people idolizing a white woman–until Akshay Kumar enters the scene and provides the necessary context for Minogue’s presence in the item number.
This performance represents something remarkable: How easily the largest film industry in the world is able to turn one of the biggest celebrities in the Western world into nothing more than a glittery prop in a four-minute item number.
When the West co-opts Indian culture, it hurts. It picks at the scabs, the decades of discrimination against Indian men, women, and children. When those participating in these acts do so ignorant of the history of the Indian people, it’s even more treacherous.
While I don’t agree with his politics, I understand why Tharoor lobbies for reparations from the British. The motherland was left in near ruins and nobody was held accountable for the damage. We could perhaps draw a direct line from the destruction caused by British oligarchs to the lack of infrastructure plaguing some of India’s biggest cities to this day. The damage done to one of the largest democracies in the world is something we can’t afford to forget.
Pop culture quickly mutates. I don’t want to wait for politicians to stop bickering to see how the reparations question metes out: With each passing day, there is another community of angry white people telling brown people, “No.” There is yet another white pop star pressing a bindi between her eyebrows, invoking an imagined exotic aesthetic. Indians around the world have been working overtime to penetrate the pop culture consciousness; at times it feels like the one thing we can do to be seen and heard. The only thing we can do to resist the status quo, the West’s desire to co-opt parts of our culture it knows nothing about.
It’s serendipitous that the 25th anniversary of the release Chinai’s Madonna falls in the same year Priyanka Chopra has successfully pulled off a Bollywood-to-Hollywood career transition. It is even more impressive to think of the efforts of other trailblazers in the arts–from Nina Davuluri to Jhumpa Lahiri to Mindy Kaling–who have, by pushing back against the status quo, allowed us to be regarded as whole, complete people in the West.
Performing Indianness, then, isn’t necessarily about how well I can speak, read, or write my language, but how well I remember, how well I can assert myself against people who expect me to assimilate. Now, in my 30s, I have Iearned what it means to take back in order to fill in the gaps in performing my culture. I don’t want to pass down this struggle to the next generation of Indian kids. Perhaps it is a struggle that can be weathered when Indian performers band together to create an transnational cultural leviathan that breaks down stereotypes and forces us to examine our historical past in order to celebrate our present-day accomplishments and roar into the future.
We’d be better off waiting for Godot than waiting for reparations. With accountability for occupation-era horrors being elusive, those of us who can afford to do so should live for the present. We should feel empowered to do what Indians do best: Making opportunities for ourselves where there are none. When Alisha Chinai donned that black brassiere to do her best Material Girl impression, she didn’t necessarily aim to make a perfect, necessary, definitive statement about Indian identity in a world that hadn’t yet made room for how beautifully rich such an identity could be. Nor did she realize that a single cassette tape forged as a tribute would itself become an iconic soundtrack of reclamation and pride: A roadmap pointing the way home for the rest of us.
Rohin Guha is an editor at The Aerogram. His writing has appeared at Jezebel, XOJane, Fusion, NPR, and others. He was once dubbed "The Gay World's Answer to Maya Angelou" by the blog Queerty. He lives a few towns over from Detroit, where he is hard at work on his debut essay collection.