Srimoyee Biswas writes "mere inclusion of characters is something that cannot be the sole way to ‘fight’ appropriation. The need for discourses to not merely remain subaltern but to slowly exist in their own right is important"
From the nervous Rajesh Koothrapalli of Big Bang Theory who suffers temporary muteness upon coming in contact with a woman and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of The Simpsons, a typical Indian immigrant running a convenience store next door- to casual references of an Indian fellow having a strong South Indian accent mashed with references of loud Bollywood songs seems to makes up for the quintessential idea of the subcontinent to the white western man. As much as we as Indians can deny it- these stereotypes of reducing an entire subcontinent into an amalgamation of poor people, loud music, poverty and stingniness with the aspiration to somehow immigrate to a ‘whiter’ country to have tax and health benefits is indeed problematic, especially if you are addressing a multitude of people in India.
Cultural Appropriation can be defined as the need to ‘appropriate’ or reduce a larger and more complex notion like culture into rigid stereotypes or binaries and thus in turn labelling an entire diaspora according to the stanrdards set by the perception. When the question posits ‘Can India fight cultural appropriation?’ it can be difficult to tackle- as it is not only appropriation of the country but even within the country which posits questions regarding its double standards. With Meenakshi Sunderashwar hitting the largest streaming platform, Netflix a row has already broken out regarding how a ‘north Indian’ director and cast can never capture the intricacies of the Tamilian culture reducing them to an ‘engineering sterortype’ and a ‘fan of Rajnikanth’.
So this problem is not simply something that can be mitigated or nipped off the bud simply with more content being delivered in the mainstream media. In India especially the fight extends beyond representation. It encompasses dimensions of caste, class and gender along with ethnic and regional identity which acts as integral components. The north east is a prime example that has been on the receiving end of such appropriation. The region much like its geography has often lacked representation in Bollywood films and even though films like Mary Kom that conveniently featured a north Indian actress and an elaborate prosthetics department to ensure she looked more ‘north eastern’ in all the shots. This mere tokenism to perpetually pat oneself in the back for having ensured they did their job inadequate representation of the Indian populace through cinema should not be gratification enough. While we have had Patralekha and Geetanjali Thapa making it to mainstream understanding ethnic connotations is important to fight with the stereotypes that entail. Daisy Hasan in a paper wrote, “The overt nationalism and patriotism of Hindi films have little resonance for separatist groups that are culturally and politically at odds with the idea of being a part of India. Films that depict wealthy, upper-caste, North Indian, Hindu families showing them conduct detailed Vedic rituals and weddings thus “‘presenting a nostalgic vision of ‘Indian culture’ and ‘family values” (Ganti ibid., 51) have been thought to be far too ‘foreign’ for local tastes” and it is an important point of introspection. From this very statement once gleaned during my “critical discourse on regional films’’ undergraduate elective intrinsically acted as building a bridge between regional supremacy and caste supremacy.
Mainstream media, in any form and not just Bollywood but as common as LIC advertisements restrict to portray a quintessential Brahmanical marriage. A kanyadaan and a lavish wedding- which most of India is actually foreign to but intrinsically aspire to have. The normalising of a savarna idea of aspiring a ‘vegetarian- temple going lifestyle’ is also almost painted with a rosy tint as a means of proving ‘pureness’. Defiance is only entertained when it comes with a helping of a saviour complex from a man. A case on point would be the ending of DDLG. The entire notion of a woman wanting to marry a man of her choice, much to the displeasure of her family is something that remains the recurring plot point throughout the movie. The open challenge to go beyond an arranged marriage is something glorified and an open act of love which is something common and acceptable in tribal communities with dormitory systems. This glamorisation as people calling the movie ‘an epic feat of love’ is also coming from a point where upper caste ways have been normalised. There is gender stereotyping and cultural appropriation too where a sanskaari saree clad woman is somehow determined to be a very good wife while the rambunctious, loud, ‘ill-clothed’ woman is nice as an emotional lesson but not as a long term partner- something Cocktail, a successful well-received Bollywood movie vouched for.
So mere inclusion of characters is something that cannot be the sole way to ‘fight’ appropriation. The need for discourses to not merely remain subaltern but to slowly exist in their own right is important. The appropriation with mainstream needs to be checked not merely through censor boards which ensures cuts on viewership but actually assess and deeply impact the need for a more cohesive idea of viewership which merely doesn’t limit itself to slang or nudity. The recommendations by the Shyam Benegal committee call for a more comprehensive approach while ensuring films that are viewed commercially should be appropriate enough to the audience. India has come a long way in terms of academic studies being conducted to view the fringes not simply as elements of study or as mere ‘data’ but more experienced ethnographers are viewing them in their entirety. Probably there will be a time to where India definitively does mitigate its internal conflicts of portrayal to tackle the more white-version of tackling and being reduced to migrants. But closer home, it will be important only when someone re-visits Peter Brooke’s Mahabharata one also has a chance to read Rustom Bharucha’s critique. When one watches a performance of Yakshagana, they need to equally understand the caste politics involved with Theyyam. If someone happens to glorify Durga Puja one should equally be aware of Mayurbhanj Chauu’s roots and lastly when one does look at Mary Kom as a quota to suffice for their northeastern appetite of movies- to take time to understand Aamis and Axone.