Can Bollywood be an International Diplomatic Currency?

The stereo in the car blasted a Hindi song. The six of the seven of us crammed into the car started singing along with it. We knew every word, every nuance that went with each word, and every gesture used by the lead characters from the film that the song was in. All six of us were beat when we got out of the car. Singing ‘chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe’ at the very top of your lungs while traversing the valleys in Los Angeles can do that to you. There were also silly grins accompanying the blood and sweat that had gone into our loud singing.

That’s when the seventh stunned human being, who was accompanying us, quietly asked me, ‘I didn’t realize all of you were Indians?’

The six of us looked at each other for a quick few seconds and burst into laughter.

‘What’s going on?’ Andrew asked confused.

‘Well . . . we’re all not Indians. There are three Indians here and three Pakistanis.’

‘But dude . . . I thought Indians and Pakistanis hated each other.’

I can bet anything that a lot of my fellow Indians and Pakistanis in the US are not just great friends but they also get asked the same question that Andrew asked above. Thing is, one of the bigger truths for the immigrant Indians is that they are part of a more-than Indian or American identity; they are also part of the South Asian community.

Immigrant Indians are also very different from their Indian counterparts. The diasporan Indian community is very close to the diasporan Pakistani community. Take away the geographical proximity between the two countries in South Asia, the angst of Partition, and place them in a neutral North American location. You will see that these two traditional neighbours-turned-enemies are much friendlier because people from both communities are immigrants and share a common experience. In this neutral location, Indians and Pakistanis are able to move past their traditional assertions of identity and ascribe to themselves a shared sense of an ‘immigrant pan-Asian identity’.

For the diasporan Indian then, films like Jodhaa Akbar are not just good Bollywood films but are films that carry a message. Films like Dil Se and Jodhaa Akbar, basically love stories between Hindus and Muslims in India, have also created a strong ‘pan-Asian’ identity within the diaspora. Like a Pakistani friend of mine once said, ‘India and Pakistan could learn a lesson from us. In a very neutral territory of Arcadia, Los Angeles, there are really no differences between us. We watch films together, we hang out, talk and so on. We share the same lives. And why not? India and Pakistan were one and the same once, right?’

If my Pakistani (and Afghani and Middle Eastern) friends can recite dialogues from popular Bollywood movies verbatim and sing along with film music, then Indians such as myself still remember dialogues from some amazing Pakistani TV serials that came out in the 1990s. VHS cassettes of Pakistani TV shows such as Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinare used to sell like hot cakes back then. Even today these shows create the same magic that they did then. In all seriousness, take away the non-stop politicking between the Indian and Pakistani governments, and you will see that the average citizen of either country has no issues with the other. Is there a way this could be leveraged by the leaders of both states, given the high level of popularity of Bollywood films and Indian TV shows in Pakistan?

Turns out, there is even a precedent set before for India and Pakistan to follow.

In a thought-provoking article, ‘Bollywood vs Bin Laden’, Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst with the Reason Foundation and a columnist with the Daily, draws relevant parallels. Citing the example of what Beatles and rock and roll did for communism, Dalmia hopes that Bollywood will replicate the same for Islamic terrorism. She argues that the West won over Russia not just by the economically debilitating arms race that Reagan forced on the Russians, but by winning their hearts with ideas. Dalmia adds that living good lives was the best revenge that the US could have ever wreaked on the Russians. America and the Americans’ endless party left Russians wondering about the efficacy of communism. Where were the good, rich and free lifestyles that Americans seemed to have?

Where was the fun that America and democracy seemed to be having?

How could they, the communists, get in on the action?

This is an excerpt from Roopa Swaminathan’s ‘Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power’.

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