The Cool Ambassador

"Have you seen Bluffmaster ?," asked my Indian-American friend's 9-year-old son. "No," I said, as I racked my brains to remember if there was a Dev Anand film by that name. "You must have heard the song Say Na Say Na," he went on. "Say Na to what. Well, no," I said. Then it dawned. This was a new Bollywood film.

I didn't recall hearing of it when I departed Mumbai and India a month and a half ago. On my return now, I learn the film had opened on the box office a few weeks after I left. So, I was not that off. Yet this young boy from a little town in the American Midwest knew all about Bluffmaster.

He has visited India only once when he was three. His parents, both academics and US citizens, have lived in America for close to two decades. That makes him a second generation Indian-American. He loves his Sony Play Station but is not obsessed with it. He plays baseball and basketball at school. And knows the games as well as their leading lights.

Acceptable Amalgam ?

He can reel off names of all the states that make up the United States and their capitals. He demonstrates with finesse, the arms-out, three-finger pose that rapsters use. He usually ranks on the top percentile of his class and is learning to play classic music on his violin. And yes, he adores Bollywood.

The little fellow is not alone. Thousands of children of Indian extract across the world dote on Bollywood films and music. So much so that their own parents are amazed. Not too long ago, they collectively wondered whether their children would ever pick up anything Indian. And they lamented how they would permanently drift away from their roots.

Their children today appear to have an acceptable cultural amalgam of western and Indian. That makes them similar to the post-MTV youngsters in urban India. But the many youngsters I encountered were not just Bollywood buffs. They were raving fan of the popular Indian Idol show and of contest winner Abhijit Sawant. He even has a DVD of Sawant and other Indian Idol finalists.

It's Cool

Bollywood created the original, celluloid connect with India's 20 million diaspora. Now, live television is building links with all of Bollywood's extensions; music, stage shows and of course contests such as Indian Idol. The result is an interesting and promising connect with the Indiabeyond the celluloid, one of middle class existences, dreams and aspirations.

While they are drawn to it for obvious reasons, the young diaspora connects with Bollywood for reasons other than their parents. While the oldies often watch Bollywood films for sentimental reasons, the young diaspora likes it because it's cool. In my friend's house, Himesh Rishamayya's Aashiq Banaya causes the kids to leap up from their couches. Play Kishore Kumar and you are rewarded with a chorus of groans.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) produced by Yash Raj Films in 1995 is regarded as the initiator of Bollywood's modern connect with diaspora. The film had a diaspora theme which perhaps did the trick. It didn't make as much as money as it could though, thanks to piracy, a continuing scourge. A Bluffmaster may not have a diaspora connect at all. But is already drawing attention with the young there. Because of the songs and of course Abhishek Bhachan.

Post Dil Chahta Hai

This suggests Indian entertainment has more options to reach out than ever before. This new market is asking for cool and global products. Its not asking for exclusively tailored (or hopelessly contrived) products for its perceived tastes. That segment may continue to exist. But the young diaspora seem pretty clear about what they want. Some call it the post Dil Chahta Hai (2001) era.

India produces between 800 and 1,000 films annually. Some 3.1 billion tickets were sold in 2004 but revenues were only around $1.16 billion (Rs 5,800 crore). A Hollywoodblockbuster in a good year can return as much, if not more. Expected revenues for Bollywood in 2005 are around Rs 6,500 crore. So, the revenue potential is huge. If the industry can mine it.

The figures are not available here but the international sales component for Sony and Zee, particularly in Bollywood linked programming must be rising. All advertising is local. Salman Khan for instance endorses a popular phone card to call relatives and friends in Asia.

Homogenous Global Culture ?

But a audience connect that goes beyond direct celluloid would surely mean greater opportunity for the content content. Particularly when some of it becomes real time and on-online. The way it has in India. The contests already see aspirants from the UKand the US. In time, the young diaspora will effectively decide and drive ratings from their drawing rooms. Like you can for Britney Spears.

Last month, I met Geoffrey Jones, an energetic Harvard Business School Professor who counts, among his many academic interests, diaspora communities and their contribution to the global economy. He's also studied the India's IT phenomenon by developing case studies on people like Mphasis Corporation chief Jerry Rao. And one of his most recent case studies (authored with two other profesors) is titled Can Bollywood Go Global ?

The study concludes by asking some interesting questions. It says Bollywood's prospects internationally rested on the future of global culture itself. Was the world heading for a homogenic culture in entertainment ? Or was the global culture becoming more diverse ? Some answers are there to see. India's young diaspora has redefined its cultural menu. To some extent they will pass it on to their peer groups.

We Invented Antakshri !

Sipping coffee in a somewhat functional but tastefully done up upper West Side apartment in New York, Alok, a PhD from Stern University who works for a management consultancy is watching Indian Idol. He is not exactly a die-hard fan. Nor is this writer for that matter. Alok's visiting parents had subscribed to Sony and Zee, the two channels most Indian diaspora are hooked to. We watch as a young girl with folded hands profusely thanks the country for voting her to the top. The tears of joy and gratitude seem real.

Alok's wife and he talk about how their Guyanese maid, whose great grandfather left India for good, is a Bollywood addict. As is, I learn, another cousin's son, who is a second generation American studying a PhD in a humanities subject at Columbia University. Alok says India should have pioneered this competition model and held on to it, rather than the other way round. "Its not too late even now," he adds.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times (Bombay edition) on January 17)

This writer would be most keen to know your reactions/comments on this issue and the following questions. The answers will help put together a forthcoming piece !

# Do you agree with this writer's suggestions ? Is there a new connect with the young Indian diaspora ? Or, is it old wine in a new bottle ! Is it good, bad. What are the fall-outs ?
# Do overseas parents have less to fear about losing their cultural connect with India ? Or is it the wrong kind of connect ?
# What do trends like this mean for India and Indian culture as a whole ?


Hi! Govind

A few thoughts on your post:
I guess each generation defines what its cultural anthem is going to be. Like you mentioned this generation, most of it second generation, connects with things Indian either because it finds them “cool” or because there is a genuine interest in knowing about the culture. However I feel Sentimental reasons also play a part. During the recently concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Hyderabad there were many youngsters who wanted to reach out to their roots and I am told were very keen on working at the grassroots level with NGOs. Their way of connecting with their past? Maybe, maybe not. But it shows a fount of enthusiasm that can be tapped for India’s good. Imagine getting people to travel to India in their Break year and teach in the rural areas. Something like this, on a sustained basis, would really be good for us.

I work for Mr. Anant Pai (a.k.a. Uncle Pai of Amar Chitra Katha comics) and we have just done a programme for a NY based channel targetted at the Indian diaspora. One component of this programme is a quiz based on Indian history, culture and mythology. The channel felt a programe of this nature would have its share of viewers. I am mentioning this in the context of your assertion that: “Its not asking for exclusively tailored (or hopelessly contrived) products for its perceived tastes.” While I am a hardcore quiz enthusiast myself, I cannot for a moment imagine a quiz will fall in the cool bracket. So will it still appeal to the kids out there? I guess we will know the result in a couple of months when this show airs. But somehow I have a feeling [or maybe hope ;-)] that a programme of this nature will work too.

This current generation is growing up in a totally American milieu but with a fair dose of “Indianness”. I have a feeling that due to this, this generation might actually prove to be an ambassador of Indian culture in the US. And who knows it might just become cool to groove to Indian/Bollywood music even in the American mainstream. What this could lead to is probably a greater acceptance of India and its standing in the world.

And hey while we are at it why don’t you take a look at my blog: and fell free to comment. I have just started out and am feeling my way through the blogosphere.

Anonymous said…
Maybe it has more to do with Information Technology and the Internet. We can drop the C from ABCD. Kids won't get a warped image of India from their homesick parents.
Anonymous said…
Govindraj, the connect has always been there, except that it has been taking new shapes and forms each and every cycle. For example, one of the primary reasons why Raj Kapoor moview were famous in Russia in the 60s was because of the minimal Indian diaspora present there at that time. Same case with Rajnikanth's movies becoming famous in Japan. Its just old wine in a new bottle.

However, I dont think the indian diaspora would actively want to strengthen their connections with the indian roots. Such decisions are almost unanimously taken by the second and third generation people of indian origin, and ultimately it results in a case of 'outta sight outta mind'.

The other scenario you might want to consider is establishing and maintaining connections such as Bollywood, Navratri or Diwali, but hesitating to identify oneself as a person of Indian origin.
Even today in the UK you can very commonly find second and third generation indians who refuse to recognise themselves as people of indian origin. They do celebrate in indian festivals and watch hindi and punjabi movies, but call themselves 'pure englishmen'. Hows that??

- PK From B
Anonymous said…
Hi Govind

I must also say that because of their kids, indian(-american) parents have also started taking a liking for bollywood. Many parents I know here in the US disliked hindi films. However, they have become hooked on indian movies, and music because of their kids, even though many do not completely understand Hindi.

At at the same time, there has been a transformation in bollywood. Good quailty movies such as Black, Swades, Bluffmaster are been produced that makes watching Indian movies entertaining.

On the downside, it is disconcerting to see the vulgarity in some movies and music videos. My American friends are astonished with the amount of skin shown in regular indian cable channels.

I think connecting with things Indian can do without those vulgar music videos!

Inspite of having spent most of my life outside India, I have a genuine interest in the culture and connecting with India. I was also introduced to India through movies, Big B was my favorite actor, but I have learnt much more about India than just Bollywood. And with my kids, maybe Bollywood might be a door to a (larger) India. Interestingly, "Small B" is my son's favorite actor and my son has began to understand and speak a little bit of Hindi.
Anonymous said…
I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that Bollywood seems to have become more accessible to Indian American children. A cousin of mine based in Pennsylvania, who isn’t into Hindi movies, recently remarked, “Man, I saw this filmi magazine the other day and all the actresses look like white girls”. So true! I never thought of it that way. So if the locales have changed from Borivali or Andheri to Switzerland and Australia and the actors/actresses look more like white people instead of wearing the crass costumes of the 80s, I guess it is easier for children to identify with Bollywood. Sure, there’s no sex scenes as yet but at least, they are not as coy as showing flowers or apples or whatever props were used to show a couple getting intimate.

Also, there is a new sort of coolness in mixing pujas/family values and what-have-you with having a girlfriend/rebellion/living in. Many of the movies do reflect the actual society that we live in today.

Another point: your cousins and friends are probably the product of new India where they are more educated and aware that children need not be pushed into Indian roots, culture and values. If it is presented as a choice and if it is acknowledged that their kids are American and not Indian, the children seem to always have a healthy individuality and curiosity about their roots.

Lastly, let’s not forget the role of the Internet and globalization. Ooh, I hate that word but it does its job. If white people dance to bhangra and know of Bollywood, then you know things have changed. With “My big fat Greek wedding” to “Monsoon Wedding” to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” where you suddenly hear a voice in Hindi crooning in the background, there is a need to know more about other cultures. And that curiosity and knowledge, no matter if it’s Bollywood, is never bad.
Anonymous said…
Nice article.

What I would like to submit is that the disapora connection with Bollywood is not a new phenonmenon. In some ways it is old wine in new bottle. To use a restaurant term: the plating and presentation of the dish is far more appealing today than it was before.

What is perhaps new is the ubiquitous nature(sp?) or the instant access to movies and TV channels today. You can subscribe to them and watch them almost in real time. There is no lag period even in terms of content. And, this instant availability is largely due to technology. Naturally this easy accessibility has led to an increase in the number of people watching Indian TV programs and movies.

Films and film songs play a pretty dominant part in our lives, and this is not a new phenomenon. This has been the case for the past 50-60 years. Listening to film music was and continues to be a favorite pastime. Those of us who grew up before the network TV era, listened to Vividh Bharathi and the "farmaish" section. First, there was radio, then tapes, videos, CDs,TV,satellite TV, Internet, KaZa, etc etc.

And those people who migrated from India to other parts of the world carried their entertainment in different forms. From the 1960s through the 1970s people carried tapes or took with them those huge spool tapes (anyone remember them?). And then with the introduction of video tapes movies became easily available to the diaspora community. Hence, the rise of video lending libraries in many Indian dominated neighborhoods. Typically grocery stores doubled as video library and this trend continues.
Sometimes in the 80s half hour segments about India started airing on TV community TV chaneels or International channels. And not surprisingly quite a bit of time was devoted to film and film songs. And in the last few years because of Dishnet and other providers TV channels like Zee, and others have become available to desi community in USA.

Indian film makers were perhaps not aware of the huge potential that overseas audience had in terms of revenue collection. But, distributors certainly did and they have been screening films in the US from the 1970s. Somewhere along the line producers woke up to the fact that their overseas distributor was raking in a steady and rising income, while the producer and his domestic distributors were not raking in the moolah. Producers woke up rather late in the day to this realization, and from 1990s onwards they have tailored their films to the NRI audience. And by doing this they were able to charge more for their overseas distribution rights. I guess this gave birth to those genre of films often labelled as "NRI" movies.

I guess what surprises people when they visit the US is the instant access to Indian film and entertainment combined with a keen interest displayed by the younger generation.

If you were pleasantly taken aback by this phenomenon, you might be pleasantly taken back by the Bhangra music phenonmenon, and that is a whole different story.

Anonymous said…

the need to connect - i think it's a cycle as with most other things in life. i know somebody who's a second generation american indian (if that's how it is put)..35 years old and can't talk one sentence in tamil or hindi. i also see some people his age, could we brand them as the kids of few who left india about 30-40 years ago; well these parents didn't have the time/didn't see the need to inculcate the indian-ness in their kids (for no fault of anyone who takes this in bad light..this is my disclaimer)...also a question of many folks had the opportunity to watch dd in the 60s, 70s or 80s abroad. with the newer channels coming in, and also being in business (as against dd), they've managed to reach out to the diaspora and hence the interest on the part of the kids.

like they say, if anything is thrust on kids, they wouldn't want anything to do with's the watch television (indian) cos they want to and not cos they're asked to..

some parents have taken an active interest...which again is because of the getting their kids to learn more about india..whether it be mythology, a musical instrument etc.

this again is a function of mr.sharma-next-door's-mother-in-law staying with mr.sharma and spends her time teaching kids to play the violin...if you get the drift.

again based on the kind of people i've seen go was an elitist thing...people used to go abroad (excluding the middle east) for higher studies ala the phds and the MS et all...opportunity/access was restricted to a few.

the mass of people that go abroad these days are more the average arumugam's and average anita's (and i mean no dis-respect..honestly the bulk of the workforce/students in the US belong to this category save a few).....and these folks see the need to connect with their "roots" more than those of the earlier period.

i'm not sure if this is going to be a lasting phenomenon...safely attribute it to a cycle :)

btw : haven't seen you lately on tv 18. looking forward to catching you again on television. you do a great job.
qaminante said…
I can't comment on the diaspora aspects except to say that it is not just a matter of what young Indians born outside India learn or like about their own culture, but of the way elements of their culture seep into the general culture of their country of residence, and affect what other young (and older) people see as "cool" or at least, interesting. Maybe only the immigrant community listens to Asian radio stations in the UK, but they are surely not the only ones to catch "Desi DNA" on BBC TV, non-Bollywood films made by people of Indian origin (Monsoon Wedding..) and Bollywood-inspired stage musicals (Bombay Dreams in London, and something called Bharati which is coming to Brussels in April). All of these seem to me both to demonstrate an overspill of this sort and also to increase the globalization effect.
I don't know whether the video will work on this link (which has to be put back together in one line) but if it does, this might amuse you:
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