Can I Be Him for the Weekend?

Even before I saw the latest Coldplay/Beyoncé video, I had learned of the outcry against their cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of India. So I watched it, ready to roll my eyes at the blatant stereotypes and stew in my outrage.

Here’s what I saw:

  • Indians can dance
  • India has beautiful ordinary people
  • Unlike in Bollywood films, women don’t wander the streets all scantily clad.
  • Beyoncé honestly didn’t impress. She looked out of her element and more awkward in her mediocre attempts at “Indian hands,” and looked like she was trying too hard with the massive cleavage in her clothes.
  • And finally, Beyoncé’s soprano is no match for Lata Mangeshkar’s. No, Bey, you are no Nightingale.

Now before you get all up in arms about how I’m defending this cultural appropriation, might I draw your attention to Bollywood films? Specifically, I’m talking about the portrayal of second-generation Indian immigrants living in the West (both these are in England, but the crap flows to America as well) in the movies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, for short) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (KKKG). I know these are older examples, but they are currently available on Netflix, so they continue to perpetuate the stereotypes.

Take the time to watch the videos if you want to know what I’m talking about:

“Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaen” from DDLJ and-

Kareena Kapoor’s depiction of “Poo” (are you kidding me?!) in KKKG

I can almost imagine the director’s instructions to the actors:
Shah Rukh Khan, for DDLJ, Just throw on some Western clothes and do Western things. You know, play rugby in the rain, drive a go-kart, race an airplane, dribble and shoot a basketball. Yes, that’s what all Indians do when they leave India; that’s how they assimilate.

Kareena: dress in skimpy clothes and talk like Alicia Silverstone from Clueless (or try to, anyhow). That’ll differentiate your Western persona from your true, pure, Indian self.

And Kajol: the ‘good’ Indian girls out West have no fashion sense (curtain fabric vest anyone?) and often dance around their bedroom in their bath towel. Oh, and be sure to jump on the furniture (wearing your shoes!). They do that all the time.

Seriously? I hate watching Bollywood films set outside of India because I know when I go visit I have to encounter all the stereotypes that Bollywood is setting about “my people,” second generation Indian immigrants, whose culture they truly know nothing about and yet freely appropriate.

And yes, I believe the immigrant culture is being appropriated by Bollywood, because, by your own definition, the irresponsible disrespectful representation seems to pluck stereotypical tropes and convey them as truths, ignoring the nuance in the quest for easy laughs.

I cringe just as much at both sides of appropriation, finding both Western and Bollywood artists equal offenders. Indeed, Priyanka Chopra and Pitbull’s song “Exotic” is in its own special category. I believe this video officially made it socially acceptable for anyone to use ‘Indian hands.’

And yet, perhaps as someone in the middle, I can also see past the offense and recognize the beauty, the tribute, the attempt at honoring another culture. It is so easy to cast aspersions, so much harder to simply put down our shields and welcome the opportunity for cultural exchange and dialog.

Because folks, standing on a soapbox can get mighty lonely.

Nivi Engineer is a novelist and playwright in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a mom of three boys, and escapes the never-ending sports calendar through reading. This month, she's learning that the capital of Tajikistan is Dushanbe. And now, so will you.