Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why another (Finnish) white girl watches Bollywood...

Katrina Kaif - whitest girl in Bollywood?

This post is basically a response and thoughts inspired by this brilliant post by Filmi Girl titled "Why a white girl watched Bollywood movies". Instead of simply answering the question by listing things she likes about Hindi cinema, FG takes it deeper and further and I love that - basically picking apart our status as foreign viewers to a cinema that draws from a cultural background we don't belong to, while also acknowledging Bollywood's current status of worldwide popularity.


Like Filmi Girl, I have to admit to early exoticism. When I first 'discovered' Hindi films (like Columbus 'discovered' the Americas - generally I am not this careful with implications of language but in this post, the topic requires it), they were many things to me but mostly they were "something different". They were colours and romance and melodrama, and told stories of a culture I'd never really looked into that deeply. But I like to think I got over that.

There are problems with exoticism, especially in the way it ties to Orientalism. I'm not too familiar with Orientalism but what I do know if it is that it's a Western-constructed view of the "Orient" as a place of mystique and spirituality as opposed to the "Western" rationality and secularity, of course setting aside the rational, scientific and non-spiritual pasts and realities of cultures that the West regards as the Orient (I believe Amartya Sen wrote about this in The Argumentative Indian). You see this kind of thing among some Western Bollywood fans, and I always want to believe it's a passing phase; this idea that Indian people are so much more spiritual and their exotic amazing religion(s) are so much better than our own drab sects of Christianity. I won't deny the importance of religion to an Indian Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Jain - but it's not like people from the so-called "West" don't carry crosses, say "oh god!" or say prayers at church. So how come doing a puja, wearing a turban or saying "inshallah" make people more spiritual?

I also really dislike elevating Indian culture to a weird, high status and alongside such beliefs, making a personal hierarchy of cultures in your head, usually placing your own at the bottom, disregarded as "boring". There's nothing wrong with respecting and being fascinated by another culture - many people make careers out of engaging in different cultures, translating cultural symbols or living and working in a culture that's not their own - but to see it as better than anything? It doesn't feel right. Your culture is what in part made you who you are. Your surroundings, your first language, your religion (or lack thereof), all of these things matter. I just feel sad for people who want to be Japanese because they enjoy Japanese culture, or desire to be South Asian because they love Bollywood. Nobody needs to feel proud of their own country in nationalistic fervor or think their culture is perfect, but at least recognize what made you who you are, instead of abandoning it in order to become a 'wannabe' of another culture.

Othering and Objectifying

Tough topic. I used to worry a lot, back when I was really Bollywood-crazed, whether I was fetishizing Indian people. Nowadays, the worry seems a little silly to me. I think a part of fetishizing a portion of people, like a certain race or ethnicity, is to not see the individuals in that group as individuals. To a guy who fetishizes (East-)Asian girls, every Asian girl is just that .. Asian. His ideas about what she might be like are not fueled by desire to get to know her personality or thoughts, but simple, often racist stereotypes about Asian women. I don't recognize this line of thinking in myself. In my experience, I am attracted to some people, and not to others. The only difference from pre-Bollywood me and current-me and our tastes in men is exposure - I couldn't name 3 hottest Indian guys in 2003 because I quite frankly hadn't been exposed to many ..or any for that matter.

I could write an essay on the increasing level of objectification of both males and females in pop culture all over the globe but I don't have the brainpower or the time right now. Let's just say I'm not fully embracing it, but sometimes I just sit back and go, "Yes, X looked great in this movie. And I loved it for that."

Cultural appropriation

I think my approach to this is a little different from Filmi Girl's, simply because she's from a culture whose symbols and language has become a global phenomenon. I on the other hand, am from a small country with a culture that's not too well-known internationally. You know, you go to any semi-industrialized country and ask them if they know where Coca-Cola is from, they'll probably know. You do the same for even the most global Finnish brand names and they might blink and then say "Japan?". So I understand culture as a sort of personal commodity, something one feels protective over. You don't want people to misunderstand or misrepresent your culture, steal something you feel is a part of it and claim it as as their own. You don't want people to watch a movie you've loved since childhood and go "This is weird!" or mock it.

(By the way, I'm not saying Americans can't feel this over their own culture, but in some ways, the way their popular culture is marketed worldwide and their movies watched, it's a very different business.)

I think the key word is respect. I don't include a disclaimer to each of my posts about how I claim ignorance on knowing Indian culture and how it is completely possible that being a member of the culture would radically change both my view and my understanding of a movie - but that's a part of why I usually emphasize how personal my views are on any topic. Even if I use terms like "worst movie ever", the subtext is "worst movie that I've seen so far, in my personal opinion" - I'm not stating a fact there. I never want to claim expertise over somebody else's culture because I'd never want anybody who isn't Finnish (or hasn't lived in Finland for a really long time, and gotten to know the land and its language and people) to claim expertise over my culture.

Filmi Girl has a good point that Bollywood has hardly been a purely regional cinema, which is a fair point. On the other hand, it has to be noted how large a part these films play in Indian people's own identity sometimes, whether they live in India or are NRI, even whether they watch the films or are just living in the culture that watches those films. I recall reading a story of somebody who grew up in 1970's Bombay, and remembers quoting Sholay with his friends .. without having actually ever seen the movie. You can take Bollywood out of India, but you can't take India out of Bollywood.

I'm lucky enough not to have gotten hatemail from people who feel like I'm enroaching on their cultural turf in some way. More often people of South Asian descent are just curious; how did you get into Indian movies, do you know so-and-so actor/film? Or then they're weirded out ("But those films are crap!") or happy, or nonchalant.

So why does a white girl watch Bollywood? Hopefully not because it's exotic and Other, not because she wants to become Hindu or Indian, or learned "Namaste" from a yoga class but because it's interesting, and it's what she likes. And as she consumes this now increasingly global form of entertainment, she remains respectful of the culture it stemmed from, willing to admit ignorant mistakes she might make, and most importantly, interested to learn more.

And hopefully she will stop writing posts where she refers to herself in the third person, because voi hyvä Jumala ("oh good God!" in Finnish), that's just a show of bad writing acumen.

PS. University swallowed up my life. Post on Kanthasamy ...later!


Filmi Girl said...


I love it!

I totally see your point about not wanting people to mock something you find meaningful and I think that American genre fans could probably identify with that - seeing beloved books become terrible movies for example.

This is definitely something that needs more exploration because too often you DO get fans who find "their culture" not authentic enough and cherry pick things from everywhere else.

Unknown said...

Wow! That was an exhaustive post. I never thought there would be such internal conflict for you guys while watching Indian movies. I enjoy watching 30's & 40's black & white hollywood; but beyond the fabulous entertainment they provided i have never thought anything more about it.
For me personally, its always amusing to see non-indian people 'discovering' the cinema we grew up with & watching it with fresh pair of eyes. I always enjoy reading your take on our movies.
The only thing i am not crazy about bollywood becoming popular outside india is the fear that it will become a wannabe hollywood clone. Over 80% of India's population is poor & filmmakers increasingly making movies that cater to the elite of India & audience abroad is something i'm not yet comfortable with.
But other than that i feel the more the merrier :-)

veracious said...

Filmi Girl - Yeah. Another "unwritten" disclaimer on my blog is that I typically mock with love. Or if I'm snarking a bad movie, well, it's a bad movie. In that instance separation of the background culture and film itself has to be made. It's not like saying "I hated this Indian film" is to say I hated all of them; though dislike of some Indian movie may sometimes come from not really understanding some cultural value behind a plotpoint ..but in that case I am open to hear why others view it differently.

And yes so much to people cherry-picking. Pet peeve. :)

Kiran - I don't think it's an internal conflict for everybody. I'm an over-thinker by nature, when I get in the mood. But what it is, I think, is just that you want to consider feelings of others, especially when Indian movies in the Western world generally are pretty mocked and looked down on ("those silly Indian films with the dancing and the melodrama!").. So when you're a fan, you get defensive about it and you don't want to be regarded as one of the mockers by Indian people who love their country's films.

But you also don't want to be one of those people who go nuts over India, chanting Hare Krishna here and there (Neo-Hinduism I think some call it), exoticising it to the extreme, trying to emulate it. I don't know, perhaps you have never met one of those annoying white people who think India is sooooooo amazing but whose interest in the country and culture in the end is pretty superficial, willing to watch the movies, wear the clothes and eat the food and wax poetic about how Indian culture made them more spiritual.

Um I gotta stop ranting. Like I said, pet peeve.

More the merrier indeed. I agree with you on how especially Bollywood is geared towards NRI's and elites nowadays. Tamil/Telugu films less so ..perhaps?

Unknown said...

I usually do not share my love of movies with others. I feel it will be way too jarring for them to understand the kind of movies i watch.
You are right, i have never personally met anyone who was exoticising Hinduism. Usually people ask me questions like if thats a tattoo or a dye on my hands. When i explain that its henna, they are satisfied.
Now with the Indian diaspora spreading everywhere, i think the magic of exoticism is being cut down a bit. Anyway one person's exoticism is another persons everyday mundane life :-)
Regarding Tamil/Telugu i see the things changing there too, though not as briskly as bollywood. Already nonsensical english lines are being inserted into lyrics. I hope they realize they are not going to be good at this sort of a thing & revert back to old ways :)

Anonymous said...

Darn you and Filmi Girl. Now I feel the need to write a post. xD But if I do, it definitely won't be as thought-provoking. Just because my thought process (or lack of) when entering the wonderful world of Bollywood was a bit different. :p I kind of feel like the odd one out. xD

Filmbuff said...

A very apt article - sums up my situation wrt movies made in other countries (France, Italy,etc) including hollywood

MinaiMinai said...

Bravo! Lovely post. I couldn't agree more. I especially loved the line "your culture is in part what made you who you are." I am reminded of people who will say things like "I was born in the wrong country!" or "I am an Indian at heart!" Though it's said often in jest, there is an element of seriousness to it. But what these people forget is that if they had been born Indian, Indian "culture" would no longer be "new" and "fascinating"- it would be the way things are! I admit I definitely had some elements of feeling that India was better at x, y, and z when I first became interested in the region, but now I feel my love for India has actually strengthened my appreciation for my own culture and allowed me to understand it by being confronted by differences. Personally, I've found that my western sense of individualism is a sacred, core value that I cherish, no matter how much I may fancy the collectivism of certain eastern cultures. :) And that, I learned, through my culture! Okay, I'm done. Loved your post!

ajnabi said...

I very much enjoy reading your take on this, especially from the Finnish point of view. You're right in that Americans can't quite identify with the cultural appropriation thing, although with training we can learn to be sensitive to it. :-)

I might go ahead and write a fourth in the series.

veracious said...

Kiran - Anyway one person's exoticism is another persons everyday mundane life :-)
This is very true. I appreciate the internet for letting me communicate with foreign people so much because I now understand a bit how Finnish culture looks like from the outside, with our long words, our relative stoicness, our sense of humor.. Things that I'd regard as pretty ordinary have become more special now that I know not everybody lives like we do in Finland. I wonder if you can exoticize your own culture.. :D

rhilex - I'll go read your post now!

Filmbuff - Thanks!

MinaiMinai - I think exoticization also clouds one from seeing a culture in a wider pespective. Like if you just see the shiny things you find so amazing and different, you don't see the issues, the challenges, the struggles people face in a culture. Not to say I'm anywhere near well-read on Indian culture but that's my feeling anyhow. Thanks for reading!

ajnabi - Yeah.. I don't feel very protective over Finnish popular culture because I don't, for example, love any Finnish bands but I have some stuff I do get defensive about. So I can somewhat relate to some Indian people's fervor when it comes to their nationality or culture (even though some of them, admittedly, are just plain nuts).

Nicki said...

Wow, you ladies have some really good posts on why you guys love Indian cinema.

While I think you wrote an awesome post, I think it's said that you had to justify yourself :(

Fortunately for me, I haven't gotten hate mail...yet....

Ness said...

Another really interesting post - this and Filmi Girl's post are both very thought provoking and intelligently argued.

I think you sum up my point of view best with this: "So why does a white girl watch Bollywood?...because it's interesting, and it's what she likes".

Sometimes it can be as simple as that I think.

Anonymous said...

why does anyone care why a white girl watches bollywood because you like it duhhh???

quite intelligent post over nothing, if people give you a hard time over what you're watching then screw them, what was the need to explain yourself, would people ask or care why a black girl listens to country music again (bad example perhaps) i'm tempted to read this post as the superiority complex white folks often have of themselves, do indians who watch hollywood or british films feel the need to justify their love but yet because i'm WHITE i can do a post on why i like a film of a 'lesser' respected film genre

I would like a reply and you not deleting this comment is a great show of character

veracious said...

Sigh. Okay, last comment I'll make on this thing.

It's not about justifying that I like Bollywood. It's about examining the possible issues that arrise from consuming popular culture from a country whose cultural identity can be closely tied to that popular culture. It's about respecting that, and respecting the people whose cultural traditions this popular culture draws from.

It's not the same with a lot of American pop culture because that is aggressively marketed and a part of globalism.

We all have a right to purchase any DVD we can get our hands on, watch any movie we like. That's not the issue. The possible issue is how we do it. Do we respect the culture that produced the movie or the music or whatever, or do we mock it? Do we look down on it or do we see it as equal? That's the kind of things this post and that of FG's was trying to address, consider culture as a personal commodity for somebody who belongs to a culture, but also see the worldwide consumers of the popculture products. Obviously it's not an easy thing to discuss.

Anon, this is far from being a post written from a white superiority complex - if you understood it like that, I'm sorry, not my meaning at all. This isn't a post to justify my like for a lesser artform because I don't consider Indian cinema any lesser than cinema from anywhere else in the world; in fact Indian cinema is quite a lot more accomplished than a lot of other cinema.

Perhaps the title of the post should be altered. Not "why" a white girl watches BW, but "how" she does it.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written!

The more you observe anything/anyone, the tougher it often becomes to adjectivize it/them. So the fetishizing is bound to go down at some point, unless the interest remains only superficial throughout.

As for cultural appropriation, I can see what you mean. But then, it is entirely possible that a guy from UP will watch a Thamizh movie and find some things to be wierd. I don't know if your being a foreigner has to have anything to do with it.

Having said that, I do agree with your point on respect. It is far easier to laugh at or mock something that is alien to our experience -- it's sort of like a defense mechanism to deal with our own discomfort, I think. But the tougher thing is the right thing to do here.

veracious said...

Thanks, Ramsu. Good point about the cultural variety within India. It's not completely unheard that a Northern Indian person would not have respect or understanding of an South-Indian film..