Bollywood and South India: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?

As an Indian-American with a hybrid identity living in the US, I love Bollywood. There are great films out there that fall into the category of meaningful, thought-provoking, and inspiring cinema, while others are cute, entertaining romantic comedies. However, as an Indian classical dancer with origins from South India, I have a problem with the way the Bollywood industry portrays all things related to South Indianness or South Indian classical arts.

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For example, let’s take the latest music video release from the upcoming film Kapoor & Sons called “Let’s Nacho”. The first 20 seconds of this song features Tamil lyrics and background dancers with Kathakali esque makeup and white veshti/dhoti miserably trying to put talam and trying to play what looks like a glittering mridangam. Appreciation or appropriation?

Recently, the phrase “cultural appropriation” has been being thrown all over the internet in response to Coldplay’s latest music video featuring Beyonce and Sonam Kapoor, as well as the latest episode of Fuller House. But when Indian people do the same thing to people from their own country (mind you, South India is another region of India, not a different country), somehow it seems more acceptable to audiences. From actors playing South Indian characters overdramatizing a Hindi accent in films to the extraction of essential elements (like face makeup) from South Indian classical dance and placing it out of context in a club number like “Let’s Nacho”, Bollywood has a history of mocking South Indian culture. Many old and recent films – Padosan, Nayee Padosan, Chennai Express, and Dilwale – have been guilty of this mockery.

chennai-express

One typically does not see North Indian classical dance styles like Kathak incorrectly portrayed in Bollywood. On the contrary, after watching Madhuri Dixit in Devdas, everyone wanted to learn Kathak and dance like her! Alas, only Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Carnatic Music, and the like fall prey to being “exoticized” in Hindi cinema. Indian classical dance is a sacred and deeply spiritual art form and as a student and practitioner of it, it saddens me when aspects of it are simply thrown into club numbers that I would have otherwise enjoyed if it weren’t for the appropriation.

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Just as Indianness is not a costume in the West, South Indian culture should not be seen as a costume in Bollywood. Hopefully, one day, Bollywood will understand, respect, and stand by this sentiment, going beyond the stereotypes to learn and absorb all that Southern India truly has to offer.

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3 thoughts on “Bollywood and South India: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?

  1. Lori says:

    There is nothing sacred in Bollywood. They have misappropriated everything from everywhere (including the north) and every once in a while, they will do a nice, semi-accurate depiction of something.

  2. jayabala bala says:

    Hello Aishu,
    Well said about Bollywood films making a mockery of South Indian dances and South Indian characters overdramatising Hindi accent etc. Somebody has to point out this aspect in Bollywood films. I am also of your opinion. While showing Kathak dance the technical aspect is well looked after. Aishu, you have proved once more as a good writer by boldly pointing out the flaws in the film.All the best for you.
    Jayamma.

    Sent from Bala’s iPad

    >

  3. V Sivakumar says:

    Aishu: Good job, well conceptualized and written. You have expressed the feelings of many people like me in this piece about how bollywood is making a mockery of the sacred art forms of S. India. Thank you.

    Hope you are doing fine as also appa/amma at Djakarta.

    Am bringing Jayamma/Balu thatha with me on 3/16 to DC. Hope to see you all then.

    Best

    Sivakumar mama

    ________________________________

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