The word diaspora originated from the Greek verb ‘diaspeiro’, meaning ‘to scatter’. It refers to the movement of a group of small population in a distanced land away from their original homeland, like the expulsion of Jews from Europe or the migration of the people from East India, known as Bangladesh now, to India. Diaspora people are often filled with a real or imaginary sense of displacement and, therefore, are tormented by the ghosts of the past, with nostalgia, and with desire for desi culture. They experience a sense of dilemma as they try, on one hand, to maintain their traditional, old ways of lifestyle, and, on the other, to forge a new identity in the new land as it suits them best and help them to blend into their new surroundings by adapting those new ways of lives. The concept of diaspora, thus, enables us to study the gradual emergence of a new identity out of a national identity in a foreign land.
For instance, in the United State of America, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act enabled Indian immigrants to gain recognition as citizens, and gave a boost to immigration. Accordingly, movies based on immigrants are a way to reach people of all kinds irrespective of their age, race and education. Soon enough, Non Resident Indians, or NRIs, with their attempts to create a home away from home, became a new epitomes of traditional Indian-ness as well as a wealthy cosmopolitanism with new emerging value system and culture. Movies made on them seem to elaborate Homi K. Bhabha’s notion of nation as described in The Location of Culture as “the difference of space returns as the Sameness of time, turning Territory into Tradition, turning the People into One” (Bhabha). These movies also focus on the idea of the coming together of traditional Indian values and modernity while building an ethno-history. These are apparent in Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s 2002 movie Bollywood/Hollywood. Through a close analysis of this movie, I am going to explain the emergence of this new value system and identity of the migrated people, born out of the struggle between their dependence on their past traditions and their attempt to welcome the traditions of their ‘new home’.
Many influential scholars have pointed out that the renowned Straight-line and Linear Assimilation theories, proposed by Warner and Srole in 1945 and Gordon in 1964, are not relevant to the modern, contemporary patterns of migration. Richard Alba and Victor Nee in Remaking the American Mainstream explain that these theories of assimilation are generally formulated on the assumption that assimilation in foreign society is possible only when the migrated people “unlearn” and abandon their own cultural practices. This process has been defined by Carola Suarez Orozco as “unilineal acculturation – where the bargain was straightforward: please check all your cultural baggage before you pass through the Golden Gate” (Suárez-Orozco). In other words, in order to assimilate in the foreign society, one must get rid of his past emotional, cultural, national baggage and accept the foreign culture as it is.
However the situation has been changed gradually due to the rapid migration of Indian people to Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and many other countries. Accordingly, it is important to rethink, with reference to this new process of assimilation, the concept of acculturation, one of the main aspects of acculturation is the importance of the individual as well as collective choices immigrant people make. These processes can also be understood in the light of Portes’s and Zhou’s Segmented Assimilation, Glick Schiller’s, Basch’s and Szanton Blanc’s Transnational Communities, and Gibson’s Assimilation Without Accommodation. These concepts go back to the experiences shaped by the nostalgia for the past, hope for the future, the idea of the ‘motherland’ and the ‘homeland’, the difference of the cultures, and the hybridization of it.
Bollywood/Hollywood focuses on these aspects. As Rahul Khanna, the hero of the movie, says, “what we have here is a Bollywood Hollywood state of mind; our lifeline is Indian, we sort of depend on it to define us.” This expresses essence of the movie as well as its dilemma. Deepa Mehta through this romance comedy criticizes traditional Indian stereotypes. The movie centres on the character of Rahul Seth, portrayed by Rahul Khanna. Rahul is a young, rich Indian living in Toronto, Canada who has been compelled to marry a ‘nice’ Indian girl after the death of his white pop-singer girlfriend Kimberly. The mother also threatens him that until Rahul has found a bride the wedding between his sister Twinky and Bobby will not take place. The situation becomes more problematized for Rahul when he finds out that Twinky is pregnant and therefore the wedding must take place soon. Rahul then goes to a bar and meets Sue, portrayed by Lisa Ray. Rahul hires her to pose as his fiancée. Gradually he discovers that Sue is originally Indian, her name is Sunita and eventually falls in love with her. However the situation becomes tensed when Rahul is told that Sue was a prostitute and being hurt Sue leaves him. Rahul confesses to his family about his plot and when his mother is forced to cancel the wedding, she gets to know Twinky’s wedding has already taken place. Rahul’s understanding grandmother persuades him to go after Sue and voice his love for her. Rahul proposes her for marriage and after initially turning him down, she accepts him and thus the movie ends on a happy note.
Here, Rahul, the symbol of the modern generation NRI, seems to suffer from the age old problem of identity crisis while he is trying to forge a new ethno-identity, free from the ‘baggage’ of his tradition. As, according to Indian values, the children must obey their filial duties, Rahul feels obliged to fulfil his promise to his father on his death bed that he will make his family his priority and marry a ‘nice’ Indian girl. His inability to fulfil his promise as he is still in love with his dead foreigner girlfriend Kimberly, and his sense of duty towards his family make him suffer from , to quote Sue’s words when they first met in a bar, “existential angst.”
Along with presenting the cross-cultural identity crisis, Deepa Mehta also seems to poke fun at the Indian tradition of arranged marriage, and excessive interference in one’s personal life. The stock character of Rahul’s dominating mother, portrayed by Mousumi Chatterjee, adds colour to the movie. Ruby, Rahul’s mother or ‘mammi ji’, reminds one of the stoic character of George in 1999 British comedy-drama film East is East who is hell bent on marrying his sons to some Indian girls even if his sons don’t want that. Like George, Ruby also wants Rahul to find an Indian girl, who, according to the ‘tradition’, doesn’t drink, or “take up guys.” She doesn’t seem to have any problem if her son fools around a with foreign girl in his apartment or, in her own words, “love nest” but, ironically, when it comes to marriage he must marry a girl of her choice to protect the image of the family. This desire of Rahul’s mother to go back to the past seems may be related to Derrida’s concept of mourning. Derrida observes in To the Memory that we first meet Hamlet when he was mourning for his father, which, being a prop of ‘prosopopeia’ which personifies an absent speaker, means that “we can only live this experience in the form of aporia: the aporia of mourning and of prosopopeia, where the possible remains impossible” (Derrida).
True mourning becomes problematic as we don’t accept the reality or the present truth. This problematic moment, in a way, centres on, to use Ricciardi’s phrase, ‘the temporality of memory’. This may be taken further back to Freud, according to whom, in some persons, this same effect produces melancholia. Also, as Angelika Rauch has claimed:
…unincorporated suffering or unbound affect turns a person’s history into pathology…and implies an uncompleted process that awaits belated completion, before it can be incorporated into the self. Before such a completion of experience in the present, that is, before the affect can be bound in a belated image, the subject vis-à-vis her desire remains fixated on the past. This desire may be turned into a compulsion to repeat for the sake of bringing about the satisfaction of a merger between affect and signifying image. However in the absence of this synthesis, the subject remains in a melancholic state, not able to detach from what is lost and experienced as traumatic, and hence not able to interpret the past constructively” (Rauch).
This explains Rahul’s mother’s and his grandmother’s inability to forego their past values as to them this lack is a prime, ontological lack of core value systems which cannot be replaced by the new sets of value system. Now one can question, whether they really want to accept the reality or not.
In the movie, this desire for the roots is also shown through the luxurious ceremony of an Indian wedding: the manner of dressing, the gorgeous sarees and suits, the ethnic make up along with bindis and jhumkas, Bollywood style songs and dance, and the use of folk songs. Mehta uses the motif of the sangeet ritual, which is a part of North Indian weddings, to depict the attempt of the NRIs to create a home away from the home. This can also be seen as creative of a binary opposition, a marked sense of ‘Otherness’ which almost verges on the process of creating stereotypical notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’1. If we recall the second meeting between Rahul and Sue when Rahul gives her instructions on how should an ideal Indian girl behave, we will see how stereotypical and superficial these concepts are:
Rahul: “We don’t shake hands, we greet by folding them [hands] like so and say, namaste…and don’t look directly at anyone. Always low your eyes.”
Sue: “What century is this?”
Rahul: “We are.. trying to preserve of what we can of the whole country”
Hence, Sue represents the acculturated immigrant who is forging a new identity for herself out of pre-existing value systems. Despite her American accent, her lifestyle, her manner of dressing, she remains essentially Indian in her love for Rahul’s family without thinking about the reciprocation of that love. The process of acculturation becomes complete through Sue’s character, whose absence forces Rahul to come to term up with reality and admit the truth behind their relation in front of his family, which then, as we can see when his grandmother persuades him to seek her and propose to her, also forces his family to accept reality. In this way, Bollywood/Hollywood is representative of the process of acculturation, the way to forge a new identity out of the two different cultures, as the essential values in both cultures remain the same.
1 Along with dealing with this theme of diaspora, Mehta also beautifully shows what people think of India and Indians. To many of the foreigners, the concept of being Indian almost intuitively evokes the image of saree-clad figure wearing bindi, or rich curry full of spices, or a persuading mother, worried sick about her son’s marriage. This movie also criticises these stereotypical ideas through the character of Sue.
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Bijuri Dey is a final year postgraduate student of English at the Department of English, University of Delhi. She graduated from the University of Calcutta, and her interests vary from Modern poetry to Cultural Studies to Indian aesthetics and Indian writing in English. She may be contacted at email@example.com.