The United States and Britain now account for 55 percent of international Bollywood ticket sales. Many films are being produced to reflect the tastes and life experience of what the Indian government calls non-resident Indians, suggesting that Bollywood itself is shaped by global media interests. Historically, immigrants abandoned contact with their mother country as they entered into the new world, but now, they maintain virtualbut very realconnections with the world they left behind.
Aswin Punathambekar, a recent graduate of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, has interviewed Boston-area South Asian immigrants, documenting their engagement with Indian-produced media. Bollywood films have become central references as these immigrants talk about their childhood, their travels to America, their local communities, and their child-rearing practices. As one participant explained: Youve grown up watching the movies and you continue, thats all.It doesnt matter what the story is like. I like to see the dresses, the salwar designs, everyday life, even if it seems like a fantasy.” An Indian mother says: Its up to us to keep things Indian here, and the movies help. Indian parents watch the videos with their children, using them to inculcate core values and traditions as a bulwark against Americanization.
These efforts to preserve local traditions, ironically, also serve the needs of collegeeducated westerners, searching for exotic difference. Call them pop cosmopolitans. These are the folks who rush to the opening of the newest ethnic eatery, attend art movies, and listen to world music. But Asian media content is also entering American youth cultureand not just among Asian-American kids trying to reconnect with their roots. First, it was Hong Kong action flicks, then animated series from Japan. Soon, more and more American youth will listen to Indian music and watch Indian movies. Cosmopolitans seek to escape the gravitational pull of their local communities in order to enter a broader sphere of cultural experience. The first cosmopolitans thought beyond their villages; the modern cosmopolitans think globally.
As the immigrants have created a technological and cultural infrastructure that sustains their ties to India, the Internet, satellite television and DVD rentals enable the flow of those materials beyond their own communities. Perhaps the pop cosmopolitans stumbled into an immigrant grocery store in search of ingredients for a favorite curry and left with a few videos. Perhaps an Indian-born friend invited them to one of the culture shows where college students perform both classical Indian and modern Bollywood dance. Perhaps they happened onto a Bollywood website or flipped across an Indian-language cable station. At Netflix, the number of Indian titles available far outstrips the selection of European art films, reflecting the desire to tap the Indian market but also opening them to people to who would never venture into an ethnic grocery store.
The immigrants are seeking nostalgic return, the pop cosmopolitans are seeking exotic escapismyet they depend on each other. The pop cosmopolitans increase the profitability of showing Indian media in the West. The infrastructure created by the immigrants supports the cosmopolitans need for new content. Suddenly, everyone is having Bombay dreams.
Warren Elliss Two-Step, a recent cyberpunk-themed comic book, takes this process to its logical extreme. It opens with a lavishly colored sequences as the residents of LondonSouth Asian and Anglo alikesing and dance around their neighborhoods, engaging in what he calls street Bollywood. Ellis exploits our familiarity with the iconography and references even as he spoofs our growing enthusiasm for cultural difference.
Goodbye, Gershwin. Hello, Rahman.