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Thursday, October 03, 2002

2nd October, 2002. Gandhi Jayanthi. Unwilling to face endless boredom in the ‘room’ that goes in the guise of a ‘home’ and desperately seeking a respite from constant work, I made my way to Rex on Brigade road to watch the latest Indo-American flick to hit town.

‘American Desi’ was a queer experiment for me. And pretty paradoxical considering the day. For here I was, a Hyderabad-bred, settled-in-Bangalore copywriter making my way to a film about an American-Born-Confused-Desi on the very day that is celebrated as the birth date of Gandhi, the Indian Brand.

While the former reflects the trials and tribulations of an American Desi, the latter stood for essential ‘Indianness’ all through his life, even at the risk of ridicule and ill-treatment in the eyes of the world.

Anyways, let me get to the point where the experiment turned queer. Ever since Nagesh Kukunoor made his ‘Hyderabad Blues’ there have been a spate of films dealing with the American Indian identity crisis. American Desi happens to be the latest of the lot.

While these sorts of films have grown into a genre of their own, there still remain some discrepancies. For one thing, the ‘americanisms’ portrayed in these films fail to remain uniquely American.

Let me give you an instance. The admittedly upper-middle-class, convent educated, well-employed audience at the Rex were absolutely at ease watching the movie (notice that I consciously avoid using the term ‘filim’ which the director sought to popularise).

The joke where the Indian TA went around asking for a ‘rubber’ was readily comprehensible to the audience. The references to typically south Indian eating habits were as distasteful to the seated masses as they were to the American students in the film. The take on the freedom to urinate in public in India elicited the desired response. As did the parental pressure in career choice conundrum.

In fact, one could go as far as to say that the situation the protagonist found himself in was not very different from that of scores of urban Indians in all major metros and bigger cities. Western music, western lifestyles, independence, abhorrence of ritual worship, shirking away from an open display of sentimentality and even the accent and slang are as common here in India as they were shown to be in the movie.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend to deride the film. In fact, I found it to be a pretty well made film that seems to have found acceptance at the box office, going by the long, winding queue at the ticket counter. My question is, why make movies to poke fun at something that is a normal evolutionary trend.

The statement I just made may raise the hackles of several people who believe in the glory of the Indian civilization and culture. I concede the point. But hey! What did you expect? A youth born and bred in the US of A is bound to reflect the value systems and mannerisms of the place. If they didn’t, that would be abnormal.

I’m sure that a lot of you, like me, have friends who get to the US on a project for a duration of 3 to 6 months and return with an accent, a conceited opinion of themselves, a sudden distrust of roadside food, a hatred of the ‘Indian poverty and filth’ and a whole load of such cultural baggage. This is found acceptable and even much desirable in the marriage market.

But when a non-Indian tries to assimilate the culture of the adopted land, we spare no opportunity to poke fun at them. Paradoxical that when our software industries, call centres and medical transcription units bend over backwards to cater with absolute servility to the ‘gora’ countries who dole out projects.

The Parsi community can weave themselves into the fabric of the nation like sugar blends with a glass of milk. This is acceptable and even appreciable. But the Indian diaspora must, and I reiterate, MUST remain rooted to uniquely ‘Indian’ value systems, cultural contexts, sentimentality and eccentricities. Irrespective of the fact that this will threaten their acceptance into the category of a truly global citizen.

‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ is a piece of wisdom we unfailingly dish out to any ‘gora’ who appears stumped by the Indian way of working and living. But preserve me must, and at all costs, our right to be ourselves (quirks, eccentricities and all) no matter where in the world we happen to settle down. Hypocrisy, if you ask me.

Wonder what Gandhi the Porbunder-London-Natal barrister would have thought of all this?


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