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Film and the NRI Woman

This article is the first part of my film series where I will investigate the identity of the non-resident Indian (NRI) woman in the context of Bollywood and the classic film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ).

The Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, with about 25 million people around the world inhabiting countries like the US, UK, UAE, and Malaysia. This cohort is one of the most diverse diasporas globally as more and more regions of India are being represented abroad. This growth has led to the definition of the Indian identity becoming much more complicated. The group is so large and diverse that it becomes difficult to categorize all members under one singular umbrella. Thus, such a complex diaspora that traverses multiple continents calls for a need for something to maintain consistency for the diasporic population, especially in a global, hi-tech world. For Indians, one such mechanism is Bollywood.

Like all immigrants, the members of the Indian diaspora face a continuous battle between staying true to their native culture and assimilating into the new one. This tension manifests in various ways as they may be inclined to fit into the new country by familiarizing themselves with its popular sports, music, and literature while simultaneously holding onto their Indian customs and traditions.

They are ultimately stuck between identifying with their homeland where their ancestors have resided for centuries and an unfamiliar, foreign land that provides opportunity and security. Perhaps then, Bollywood, the Indian film industry, has an answer for what allows them to maintain their Indian identity while living overseas.

It has only been a few decades since Bollywood began making films centered around the Indian diaspora. Earlier films like Purab Aur Paschim (1970) portrayed the NRI as lacking values and alienated the NRI, signaling to the Indian population that moving abroad would cause them to leave their morals behind. In this way, the films were able to reinforce the value of Indian culture by showing the consequences of one deprived of it. While classic Bollywood films like Purab Aur Paschim showed those living abroad as succumbing to the debauchery of the West, more recent films have taken a twist. Most notably, Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted will Take the Bride), commonly referred to as DDLJ, presents an alternate view: Indians in the diaspora are able to uphold customs and values, perhaps even better than those in the homeland. In this manner, the film becomes an art form that can create binding ties in an increasingly global environment. By representing the shared traditions on screen through the characters and storyline, films such as DDLJ connect the viewers together.

Across the globe, people turn to cinema not only as a form of entertainment but also to learn more about different cultures. Films can even serve as a vehicle to help their viewers consolidate their own identity as they adopt the ideas and values they see on screen. This specific strategy is utilized by the NRI, who is constantly faced with an identity crisis and thus turns to Bollywood in an attempt to resolve it. In their place of residence, they may have trouble adapting to the mainstream culture and values. For example, an Indian-American first-generation immigrant may not be familiar with commonly used American pop culture references or English literature quotations. On the other hand, when they go to visit their homeland, they are instantly recognized as an outsider by their seemingly foreign mannerisms. For example, in the marketplace, the locals can immediately realize NRIs by their accent and clothing and will charge higher prices as a result. To best understand the conflict that the NRI faces, the Bollywood viewer needs to look no further than the representation of the NRI woman. The NRI woman is a prominent focus of several Bollywood films, including DDLJ, as audiences are fascinated by the intersectionality that is afflicted on her due to both her gender and NRI status.

This identity crisis for the NRI woman has been well represented in Bollywood. Such films highlight this particular group’s unique experience in the diaspora. Alongside DDLJ, films such as Pardes (1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), and Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) also focus on the struggle with identity that NRIs must deal with. The prevalence of Bollywood films featuring the NRI woman’s experience shows that although the NRI audience may have started off as a lucrative side market, it is now an integral piece of Hindi cinema. The entire Bollywood viewership has now become captivated by the struggle for identity that the NRI woman faces. The duality of identity leads to the question of what defines being ‘Indian’ in the diaspora. Some may claim that it is speaking the mother tongue at home, partaking in religious rituals, or even celebrating festivals like Diwali and Holi. However, these are only superficial characteristics. To many Indian immigrants, being truly ‘Indian’ is rooted in much deeper moral values like respecting parents and elders, being family-oriented, and prioritizing the importance of education.

DDLJ follows the story of Simran Singh, the main female protagonist. In the context of the NRI woman, the problem in DDLJ is that the traditional Indian father sees Raj, Simran’s suitor, as the sort of person he would not want his daughter to marry. The significance of moral values becomes evident in DDLJ, with Simaran’s father Baldevji’s first encounter with Raj and his friends. They decide to pull a mischievous prank on Baldevji who owns a convenience store. As Baldevji is closing, Raj goes up to him and claims that he has a searing headache and is in desperate need of medication. He references their common background, “an Indian must help another Indian in this foreign land.” Baldevji obliges but to his dismay, Raj grabs a case of beer and runs out before he is caught. Baldevji returns home fuming with anger and tells his daughter, “They call themselves Indian…No shame or respect for their elders.” In Baldevji’s eyes, being Indian means upholding specific morals, which includes showing reverence for elders. In contrast, he sees this mischief, and apparent lack of respect for an elder, as a consequence of the Western culture. He wants to ensure that his own daughter does not fall into such negative company. One may consider this an over-fetishization by Bollywood of things deemed to be stereotypically Indian, like familial loyalty. In Bollywood, to fetishize is to create a certain mindset that is not necessarily representative of the true India. However, though this obsession with respect may seem dramatized in films, it still pervades through Indian culture and ideals abroad. Bollywood takes advantage of this to appeal to Indian stereotypes that audience members abroad may be expecting. In a way, then, the film becomes a cautionary warning about what will happen to viewers if they go abroad. The film is using the NRI daughter to exemplify a nostalgic and traditional view of women in the culture. As a result, in the context of Bollywood filmmaking, the Indian identity for both men and women becomes synonymous with maintaining respect for others, specifically one’s elders. For example, in Western culture, most parents will usually continue living on their own after their adult children move out. However, in India, the parents expect to live under the same roof as their children (specifically their sons) for the rest of their lives. While most people are familiar with the ‘namaste’ greeting, a lesser-known gesture is ‘charan sparsh’ which is when younger people touch the feet of elders as a sign of respect. These are just a few of many examples displaying the deep reverence Indian culture holds for elders and family and interestingly, the prevalence of the joint family has carried over into the diaspora. Perhaps the prevalence of such a family unit helps to further promote values like respect for the elderly as they are in contact with them on a regular basis.

Being an Indian woman living abroad is a complex identity struggle. She tries to strike the balance between trying to assimilate into a new culture while simultaneously holding on to her original roots. Often, she feels torn, as societal constructs paint her to be the vessel of maintaining her native culture, and yet, she has to navigate her daily life in a new world. Bollywood films like DDLJ take advantage of this trope in order to relate to the values and mindsets of their diasporic audiences. While this might lead to better viewership and film revenue, on a sociological level, these films further complicate the NRI woman’s role, who continues to feel caught between two seemingly incongruent worlds.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will dive deeper into the role that NRI women play in preserving Indian culture within the family!


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