I intended to start this with a brief bio and then move on to the point of the post. When I tried, however, it became clear that the two are inseparable. That's because the issue that prompted this post has taken several years to assume an identifiable form and can't be explained in isolation from the experiences of those years. Also, if I ever had an internal editor, he died decades ago, so consider yourself warned.
I'm Kiwi born and bred, raised for the first eight years of my life by my Anglo-Indian sole parent father, living next door to an Indo-Fijian Gujarati family. So, although I'm not Indian and have never been to India, I've grown up with India always a part of my experience. I think it's safe to say that not too many gora primary (elementary) school kids in the provincial New Zealand town I grew up in the 70s knew the difference between chappati and parathe, could count to 10 in Urdu, instinctively heard and spelled "partition" with a capital P (I still do), had a father who insisted that the only proper utensils for eating curry and rice are fingers, or attended gender-segregated screenings of Indian language films. India is part of who I am, just as Partition is why I am.
So, although I don't make any claims to be Indian, or an insider, I'm not entirely a typical outsider either. I neither sneer at India with the smug superiority of the xenophobe (or the orientalist), nor drool over it, looking at Bhaarat Maa through gulabi glasses.I love the land in which I was born, the only part of the planet I've ever lived in, but I have no affection for, or fealty to, the geopolitical entity which issued my passport. I also perceive the republic of India as overcrowded, corrupt, riddled with gross inequities perpetuated on the basis of wealth, caste, creed and (especially) gender, and growing a frighteningly virulent, rabid patriotism. Even though I've never been, I believe it to be dirty and smelly and chaotic and frustrating. I also know that I would really, really, really like to be able to make use of my eligibility for OCI and live there for a while.
I first got into Hindi films seriously about eight years ago, when I decided to teach myself Hindi. The first three that I remember consciously choosing to watch myself were Lagaan, Earth:1947 and K3G. Since then, I've built a small collection of around 85 Hindi movies, and probably watched another 250 or so. Over that same period of time. I've done quite a bit of one-on-one tuition and mentoring with different members of a Panjabi family I've come to know quite well.
All of this exposure to North Indian culture has been enriching. I've learned a lot more about Indian food, and culture, and have been privileged to have been largely accepted by many of my town's desi community as at least an honorary "gora Hindustani". Perhaps 5% of my town's population is Panjabi, and many of them have become friends to varying degrees. This has meant lots of good food, good music, help with my Hindi and Panjabi and a deeper, more realistic understanding of India, albeit from afar. It is has also left me wondering about an interesting feature of desi fandom.
In many aspects of its culture, India is famously syncretic. Despite the sectarian divisions and the blood spilled in the name of religion, syncretism is deeply embedded in Indian faiths, with an enquiring interest in different belief systems being common (my Dad's father made a hobby of studying India's religions as he travelled around what is now Pakistan in his railways career). Likewise, Indic languages are as welcoming of imports as their distant English cousin - "shuddh" Hindi being about as mythical a beast as "pure" English, and Hindi movies, or at least filmi songs, are often really Hinjabi. Much is made of India's tolerance of diversity, and there is much that supports that claim. Which brings me to the point.
All generalisations are dangerous. That said, it does seem that in many areas of life, Indian enthusiasms are extremely exclusive. The primary focus of this observation relates to Bollywood fandom, and the way in which this exclusivity marks that fandom as different from cinematic fandom outside India. Before I expand on that, though. It's worth noting that this extreme exclusivity is not confined to filmi fandom. If cricket is India's national religion, then even in the pantheon of the first 11, it seems that being a real fan of one player requires that one contemn all the others. YouTube comments are infamous for being vitriolic and vicious, but even there Indo-Pakistani arguments set new lows in reflecting this mindset that praising anything requires condemning everything else. It's not just a cross-border issue, either. I still remember my shock at hearing two young Muslim friends of mine from Poona denigrating Kerala's literacy rates. This young couple were urbane , well-educated and amiable, and quite ferociously patriotic Indians. I had raised the subject of Kerala's literacy rate in a complimentary fashion, and expected them to praise it as an Indian success story. Instead they derided it, saying, "that doesn't count because it's only in Malayalam". To them, the only literacy that counted was in English or Hindi. Conversations with my Panjabi friends on a range of topics have often brought up other instances where praising something to do with India was inextricably linked with belittling or attacking somewhere else.
Those examples aside my most in-depth exposure to the way in which Indians express enthusiasms has been in the area of Hindi cinema. In this field, the notion that enthusiasm requires exclusivity seems to be axiomatic. If you're REALLY a Rafi fan, Mukesh is muck, and Talat is trash. If you're a Lata fan, Asha is just a wannabe, a reproach on her didi's fame. If you are a true Dev Anand devotee, any Kapoor is crap.
The comparisons I just made reflect my own strong preference for Hindi movies from the 50s and 60s. Although I don't have much experience with films from the 70s or 80s, I do know that the same exclusive devotion is evident among fans of those decades. I also know that it is very definitely in evidence among fans of films from the 90s onwards.
From childhood I have been a contrarian, and this trait has manifested itself in my filmi preferences. I am an Asha fan through and through. I like Esha Deol, and Deepa Mehta ("Fire" is still the ONLY depiction of Sita's Agni Pariksha that I don't find repellently and intolerably misogynistic), and I can use both to illustrate the issue:
Esha is probably not a great actress, and I don't know enough about Indian classical dance to know whether she is really any good at Odissi. But I do think that the fact that she trained in such a demanding discipline reflects well on her dedication and motivation, and filmi actresses with a dance background are very rare these days. Despite this, when she was active in films, and even now, she is still the subject of viciously personal attacks. Nothing she does is exempt from crude, hateful commentary that goes beyond even the scorn heaped on her brother Bobby.
Likewise, Deepa Mehta's films are controversial, and it is easy to understand why her particular perspective on Indian culture is so unpopular in India. Earth was notable not only for Nandita stealing my fan heart (and never giving it back), but also for being my first introduction to the filmi expression of the defensive nature of this exclusivity. What I find hard to understand is the often heard dismissal of Mehta as being "not Indian". While that's technically true in terms of citizenship, the idea that someone who was born, raised and educated in India, and did not leave to live elsewhere until after completing university, is a foreigner with no right to comment, seems bizarre.
At around the same time that Esha made her first foray into films, Kareena Kapoor was also relatively new in the industry, and she too was another favourite villain. Jumping forward a decade, we have Katrina Kaif, castigated and pilloried for everything and anything she does, but especially it seems for being prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve her ambitions, and above for all for daring to be firangi and successful, despite bad Hindi. That last (firangi and bad bad Hindi) stirred something atavistic in my A-I soul, predisposing me to like and defend her.
The two key elements that strike me as different about expressions of fan support in the realm of Hindi cinema are the ferocity of personal animus and the way that such contempt is seemingly viewed as a requisite to prove your worth or merit as a true fan of whoever it is you support. I have been a member of one large Bollywood forum for many years and have read and commented on many different Bollywood blogs. In all of these venues, both of these distinguishing features of Bollywood fandom are clearly on display.
It seems that true Bollywood fandom involves twin rites of passage: first, pick your idol. Next attack anyone and everyone else. The first step is of course intrinsic to fandom, by definition. The second appears to be unique to Indian fandom. In blogs, on the one forum I frequent, among my many Panjabi friends ,and on twitter, Desi fandom is almost universally paired with ad hominem attacks on those perceived to be rivals to the object of that fandom.
This exclusive devotion manifests itself with a selectivity of criticism, that is amusing to an uncommitted fan. Katrina Kaif is pilloried for being an outsider who got to the top by cynical and allegedly amoral manipulation of personal contacts and rumours of other behaviour considered disreputable. She is further mocked for cosmetic surgery and for being single-mindedly wrapped up in achieving her ambitions. The same actions taken by others are considered permissible, the same sorts of rumours made about others (for example SRK) are considered cause for a thermonuclear flame war.
It's not the monocular devotion to an idol that I find unique to Indian fandom, that's part of what being a real fan is all about. It's the idea that such devotion, requires truly vicious personal attacks on others, that anyone working in the same field as your idol is by definition a rival, a threat, and someone to be taken down. This even manifests itself in the promotional campaigns and launch date machinations and contortions, all of which reflect an assumption that people will only go ONE film on an opening weekend and/or that if they don't go to it on the opening/holiday weekend they won't go at all.
What makes this Desi exclusivity particularly interesting is the way that it seems to be contagious, even for non-Desis. On the Bollywood forum I frequent , even neophyte Bollywood fans from many different countries quickly get into the habit of being spiteful and nasty about those who are not the object of their devotion. One fairly recent member is a devoted fan of Madhuri Dixit and seems like an amiable and pleasantly spoken person, except when Katrina is mentioned. Then malice and viciousness that seem uncharacteristic are the norm. All this from someone with no personal ties to India and less than 12 months experience of serious BW fandom. Likewise, some non-Desi bloggers have, in addition to their personal favourites, selected one or more filmi personalities as their targets of choice, and never miss an opportunity to attack them. This has caused me some difficulties in the past, as I have occasionally made the mistake of attempting to discuss the inconsistencies inherent in this approach with its exponents. For example, querying why Katrina's changing her name is somehow sinister when few BW stars haven't done so.Or why Esha (and again Katrina) exploiting family connections to get a start is evil when the entire industry is an insider's club/khandan. Fandom is a faith, and as an many expressions of faith, rationality plays little part.
If anyone at all has made it here, to this final paragraph. I can only say, did you have nothing better to do? Nevertheless, your masochistic devotion to finishing this amorphous ramble is appreciated. Any comments or expressions on this notion that Desi fandom, and particularly Desi filmi fandom has a uniquely exclusive quality, will be even more greatly appreciated. Salaam alaikum, noho ora mai, and bahut, bahut shukriya!
- Sirf Ek Hai - There can be only one?