Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film
Author(s): Jigna Desai
Published Date: January 2004
Beyond Bollywood? A review of Jigna Desai’s Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film.
By Annabella Geraghty (student on MA3076 Transnational Cinemas 2011-12)
As our world has become increasingly globalized and the borders increasingly faint, the emergence and popularity of transnational and diasporic cinema has become more and more prominent amongst film scholars and theorists. Bollywood, as the world’s second largest film industry has recently (1990’s onwards) started to enjoy a much more visible position on the international film market. Although in previous years Bollywood has been a renowned cinema amongst countries such as Russia and the Middle East it is only since the liberalization of the Indian economy has the Indian film industry really begun to tap into the vast diasporic and world markets. India itself has always had a turbulent and interesting social and political history, but the recent rapid influx of media (and exposure to the rest of the world) that came suddenly to the country with the liberalization of its economy has left a notable effect on its society and various social classes, something which is echoed in its films. This along with the countries strong and unique relationship with its NRIs (Non Resident Indians) that have formed disaporas across the globe (in total amounting to some 20 million people), make both its contemporary Bollywood and its diasporic films rich grounds for academic exploration and analysis.
Although a considerable amount of academic literature exploring the main features and recent developments of the film industry and its relationship with both the Indian diaspora and social/historical context does exist, such as Claudia Sternberg and Barbara Korte’s Bidding for the Mainstream? Black and Asian British films since the 1990’s[i], much of it is written from a broad and general perspective or in terms of the impact of Global Media. More recently published articles and essays however focus on these same subjects with a much more specified angle such as from a Gender studies or Diasporic role point of view. Although these articles have been compiled into books, such as Raminder Kaur and Ajay J.Singh’s Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens[ii] and Rajinder Dudrah and Jigna Desai’s The Bollywood Reader[iii] entire books focusing on the subject through a specific angle or specialized study are not as common. That is one reason why it was so refreshing to come across the book reviewed in this article.
Jigna Desai’s Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film is a very recent addition (2008) to the more innovative and focused explorations and critiques of the genre. The author is a well established scholar associate professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on Asian American, postcolonial, disability, queer and diasporic cultural studies and she has previously co-edited and published an article in the above mentioned book, The Bollywood Reader.[iv] She is currently co-authoring a book entitled Transnational Feminism & Global Advocacy in South Asia. In line with her work, Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film manages to successfully analyze the emergence, development and significance of contemporary South Asian diasporic cinema whilst integrating feminist and queer studies. As the author herself advertises in the first chapter, (through the relatable analogy of being an avid film fan, eagerly awaiting the release of a particular film or just having come across it in a store and taken home due to its interesting cover) the book has a crossover appeal and would be of value to both those interested in understanding gender and sexual politics within racialized diasporic communities and those with an interest in agency and subjectivity in globalization and late capitalism. The author also mentions what I concluded to be one of the main contributors to the overall merit of the book, the depth of its explorations which she summarizes as being available to the reader at the three levels. Firstly the book is a study of South Asian diasporic cinema (this includes its history, politics, aesthetics and in depth analysis of individual films, something which as a film student I found to be extremely useful in terms of exemplifying particular notions on social or political issues I was unfamiliar with). Secondly, the book intervenes in several established theoretical debates. And lastly it expands on transnational cultural critique. So as Jigna Desai says in her own statement of the book’s intent ‘Therefore, this book is about film, but not only film’[v] the book really does contain something for everyone.
Although the book paradoxically manages to simultaneously be specialized and broad at the same time, (providing something for everyone), its structure does not differentiate between the various layers but instead is divided into chapters based on gradual introduction to the subject and the various topics that lie within the author’s exploration of the significance of contemporary South Asian diasporic film. The chapters are then subdivided into categories which is the only measure put in place to avoid complete confusion. As there are so many vast subjects and angles included in this exploration, it may overwhelm the readers, however the author, in compensation, does produce a very thorough introduction and explanation on the book’s structure and, once this has been understood, it is fairly easy to navigate through the book’s chapters and sub-chapters to find the sections you wish to focus on.
It is well known that the selling of a piece of literature is all in the introduction and for me the success and tone and content of Beyond Bollywood was set and summarized in the book’s preface, “Brown Skins and Silver Screens”. It’s very personal and beautifully written introduction was both satisfying, captivating and refreshing (especially in comparison to the very scholarly orientated books available in the same field, which although share the same merit in terms of content often prove to be a difficult read). I derived real pleasure in reading how Desai’s book evolved from her search of the ‘beyond’ to her initial reactions to the film My Beautiful Launderette (Stephen Frears, 1985) which was her first encounter with South Asian diasporic cinema and one she describes as ‘….relishing the disorientation caused by this return of desire in relation to this new found pleasure’.[vi] What makes the book immediately appealing to students and readers who are not necessarily well-read in this field, is Desai's accessible style and the numerous references to contemporary films which serve to illustrate her argument. For example she goes on to explain how My Beautiful Launderette created its own, new way of representing Indians which enthralled her as her previous encounters with cinematic representations of Indians had been limited to ‘…the savage heart eaters of Indiana Jones or the noble-hearted survivors of colonialism in Ghandi, these Launderette owners and white boy-kissing brown boys captured some other understandings of race and culture, gender and sexuality, and identity and modernity than I had previously encountered’.[vii]
In the preface, Desai also introduces the problems surrounding the definition and genre of diasporic cinema which she identifies as being neither Bollywood nor Hollywood but at the same time also being both. This notion is further developed in the second chapter ‘Between Hollywood and Bollywood’ (pg 35) where she highlights how South Asian diasporic cinema is developing to negotiate both the dominant discourses, politics and economies of multiple locations. It also not only traffics between the two largest global cinemas (those of Hollywood and Bollywood alike) but also between the individual national cinemas of countries across the globe that are home to the Indian diaspora. This in turn raises alarm bells over the topic of national cinema and questions the portrayal of national identity as well as highlighting the issue of how diasporic cinema allows the ‘dis-indentification’ with dominant ideologies of a particular nation. The final major issue which Desai raises in this chapter deals with the understanding of how South Asian diasporic films constitute and contribute to the formation of the public culture of the Brown Atlantic, something which I personally feel is not explored enough in many other books of this field. Desai also makes it very clear what the focus is and which films are suitable to be used in her examples and why, which again is very helpful for anyone conducting research on a particular South Asian diasporic film and its relationship to social or political theories and ideologies.
Returning to the first chapter, which like the second chapter, is crucial in terms of understanding the book’s main themes and issues, (as they both serve as the authors introductory chapters) Desai speaks of how the role of cultural politics of film in terms of the production of diasporic affiliations, identities and politics is crucial to an understanding of transnationalism and globalization. Here I found her introduction to the themes explored in her work incredibly thorough, however the continuous use of quotes bordered on excessive and at times the number of other scholars opinions and arguments did prove to be contradictory and therefore confusing. Saying that, Desai does also manage to raise one very interesting point which I feel is vital in terms of the focus of her book. This issue highlights how the majority of diasporic discourses tend to eschew significant differences such as gender and class in favor of an emphasis on race and nation. The issues of feminism, homosexuality, marriage and NRIs in relation to India’s social and cultural politics is something Desai explores throughout the course of her book, culminating in its final concluding chapter: ‘Migrant Brides, Feminist Films and Transnational Desires’(pg 211).
Although I was already familiar with many concepts and theories from other studies, a couple of subjects that Desai explored I was not well acquainted with and found extremely interesting in terms of the relationship between films and society today. One such example was given in chapter 6: Homo on the Range: Queering Postcoloniality and Globalization in Deepa Mehta’s Fire’ (pg 159) where Desai explores the development of the role that the ‘new’ woman has to play in India’s thriving middle class. She emphasizes how the leap in media and globalization has raised the social expectations and demands that women successfully balance tradition with modernity to be more than just a house wife. Through the film Fire (Deepa Mehta, 1996) she exemplifies how the progressive power, although readily available to the men is not yet open to the women, leaving them with a lack of choice in their lives. She also notes that one of the contributing reasons to Indian society being anti homosexuality (and against the film Fire) is down to fears caused by cultural traditions (most importantly the traditional institution of marriage) gradually fading away in certain progressive classes of society, as younger generations become more sexually empowered and progressive.
Overall I felt that the book was extremely insightful, not just in its aim to incorporate feminist, queer and social and cultural politics in terms of their relationship to diasporic film and transnational cinema as a whole but also for the innovative school of thought employed by Jigna Desai which is not only enlightening (and has changed the way I will view diasporic films in the future-particularly those centered around family and marriage) but also in the way it has managed to set itself aside from its fellows as not only being distinctively different but also more contemporary and educating in relation to the times we live in today.
[i] Barbara Korte, Claudia Sternberg, Bidding for the Mainstream? Black and Asian British films since 1990s, Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2004.
[ii] Raminder Kaur, Ajay J. Sinha, Bollywold: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, Sage Publications Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2005.
[iii] Rajinder Dudrah and Jigna Desai, The Bollywood Reader, Open University Press-Mc Graw-Hill Education, Maidenhead UK, 2008.
[iv] The Article by Jigna Desai can be found on pg 229 of The Bollywood Reader and is entitled “Ever since you’ve discovered the video, I’ve had no peace”:diasporic spectators talk back to Bollywood Masala.
[v] Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Poitics of South Asian Diasporic Film, pg 1
[vi] Beyond Bollywood, pg vii (Preface)
[vii] Beyond Bollywood, pg vii (Preface)
3rd year student, Department of Media Arts
Royal Holloway, University of London
Filed under: Books