The Indian Diaspora Through the Eyes of Bollywood

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by Mayura Iyer

As the largest filmmaking industry in India and the world, Bollywood films play an integral role in Indian society. Through its films, Bollywood has portrayed Indian society for generations, especially for South Asians living in the diaspora who wish to reconnect with their “Indianness.” However, the lens that Bollywood casts back onto this diaspora often imposes socially regressive views on women (both in the diaspora and in India) by creating a distinct dichotomy between the “traditional” values of India and the “liberal” values of the West.

The rapid increase in popularity of Bollywood films among Indian women in the diaspora put these films in a critical position for influencing the identities of this demographic. Through these films, we are able to realize a “sense of Indianness,” which allows us to relate to these films and identify with them. Diasporic Indians, including second-generation India- American women, use these films to establish a sense of commonality that unites them together as strangers in another country. This is partially accomplished by giving the diaspora a glimpse back into their homeland, which helps them cope with the sense of loss caused by dislocation from one’s culture and tradition. For example, in “Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham” (K3G), during the song “Bole Chudiyan”, Rahul, Anjali, Rohan, and Pooja celebrate Karva Chauth away from home, which allows us to revel in our nostalgia for our timeless Indian traditions.

On the other hand, Bollywood has increased its representations of the West and of stories of diasporic Indians, creating another avenue by which we can navigate our hyphenated identities through these films. This can be seen in how a lot of Indian films are now set in large part or entirely in the West, outside of India. “Dostana” is entirely set in Miami, “Salaam Namaste” is entirely set in Australia, “Kambakkht Ishq” is set in the U.S. and partly in Italy, and K3G is mostly set in London, reflecting a general trend of modern Bollywood films portraying diasporic Indian life.

[Read Related: Is Bollywood’s ‘Khabi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ Socially Conscious?]

Additionally, Bollywood films have begun to address more themes of sexuality in their films. In the film “Dostana,” Bollywood addresses notions of homosexuality, premarital sex and the idea of “casual sex” (i.e. one-night stands).

Similarly, in the film “Salaam Namaste,” Bollywood introduces the idea of cohabitation between unmarried couples, premarital sex, pregnancy and children outside of marriage, pro-choice and pro-life debates surrounding abortion, and contraception.

As these films begin to incorporate more of the West into their stories, they also attempt to make their stories, heroes, and heroines more palatable to the Indian diaspora. However, Bollywood frequently uses the increasing sexuality of its films as an attempt to relate to Indian women in the diaspora, relying on the assumption that these women will only be able to relate to this hypersexualization. This is based on the erroneous notion that, by leaving India, these women have essentially left their traditional roots, and therefore are now more “sexualized,” having lost their true Indian virtue by leaving their homeland. The Bollywood film industry assumes these viewers will not be able to relate to the chasteness and innocence of traditional Bollywood films, where the characters are always traditionally dressed and modest. In this way, they assume that the lifestyle of Indian women in the diaspora cannot possibly be as “pure,” “chaste,” or “traditional” as Indian society because they are too Westernized.

[Read Related: What Are Our Favorite Bollywood Films Teaching Us About Rape Culture and Consent?]

The increased sexualization of Bollywood films is parallel to the increased setting of Bollywood films completely in the West. This implies that the sexualization of these films is not appropriate for the “traditionalism” of India, and therefore, in order to express these new themes of sexuality, the films that tackle these themes must take place outside of the “traditional” Indian realm. Thus, we frequently see Bollywood films taking place in the West and featuring diasporic Indian women who are highly sexualized – and their sexuality is put in direct contrast and separation from the “traditionalism” of homeland India. One of the most egregious examples of this is in K3G, where the infamous Pooja moves to London with her sister and brother-in-law, and morphs from a traditional Indian girl into “Poo”—a hypersexualized, boy-crazy, midriff-baring Westernized woman.

The idea of India and the “East” as a land of pure tradition versus America and the “West” as a land of progressive (and, in some views, morally inferior) values isn’t new and has been perpetuated over and over again in the postcolonial era in various forms. However, when Bollywood films create a space where India is only portrayed as traditional, it creates a false image in the diaspora – a nostalgic fantasy of purity and tradition amidst a land that is consistently portrayed as sexualized and decadent, while the real India continues to grow as a culture beyond the imagined traditional and colonial paradigms assigned to it. In this way, the glimpse back into the lost Indian homeland of the diaspora that Bollywood provides is largely imagined.

This dichotomy between diasporic, “Westernized” Indians and “traditional” homeland Indians is harmful to both women in India and women in the diaspora. It treats women in India as only traditional and women in the diaspora as only Westernized and ignores the reality of their experiences. There is no room for nuance or multi-dimensionality in their identities. It also sets impossible expectations upon Indian women in the diaspora, who, in navigating their hyphenated identities, are being told that to be desirable, one must swing one way or the other—be overly “Westernized” and sexualized or be “truly Indian” and traditional.  

[Read Related: What Has Bollywood Taught You?]

However, there are some films that have begun smashing preconceived notions of Indianness and Westernness and preconceived notions of women in India versus diasporic Indian women – “Queen” and “English Vinglish” come to mind. The portrayals of these women in Bollywood movies are a reflection of deeply-held opinions within Indian society, and films like “Queen” and “English Vinglish” shouldn’t be the exception – they should be the norm.

While Indian women in the diaspora might relate to Bollywood films by reconnecting with their homeland and by relating to portrayals of diasporic Indians within these films, the Bollywood film industry ultimately reinforces colonial stereotypes that trap diasporic Indian women within fragmenting binaries of Western “progressiveness” and Eastern “backwardness.” If Bollywood wishes to break out of these pervasive binaries, it must recognize that both Western and Eastern societies and Indians within them are not one-dimensionally conservative or liberal, that there are aspects of both in both societies. It must learn to address issues of sex, homosexuality, and other taboo subjects within India, rather than escaping to Western countries to do so.

Furthermore, it must learn to not portray second-generation and diasporic Indians as purely Westernized or perpetually nostalgic for a “traditional” India. As a significant cultural marker and a pervasive cultural entity, Bollywood has a large impact on all of its viewers, especially in the diaspora. If Bollywood can recognize the pervasiveness of the stereotypes it reinforces and seeks to dismantle these stereotypes within its films, it can break down the binaries that separate India from the diaspora.

Mayura Iyer

Mayura Iyer is a graduate of the University of Virginia and is presently pursuing a Master of Public Policy. She hopes to use her policy knowledge and love of writing to change the world. She is particularly interested in the dynamics of race in the Asian-American community, domestic violence, mental wellness, and education policy. Her caffeine-fueled pieces have also appeared in Literally, Darling, BlogHer, and

By Mayura Iyer

Mayura Iyer is a teacher, writer, and education policy activist who serves as the co-Guest Submissions Editor for Brown Girl … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Editor by profession, writer by passion, and a mother 24/7, Nida is a member of Brown Girl Lifestyle's editing team … Read more ›