We Asked the Desi Diaspora to Review Bollywood Characters Portraying Desis Abroad

“The binary depiction of Indian as good and Western as bad is such a tired trope in Bollywood.”

28 May 2021, 4:13pm

Hollywood has been known to stereotype India and its people — be it with tacky accents, overusing the yellow filter to add grime to scenes shot out here, or imagining it as a land of exotic mysticism. 

But Bollywood — India’s $2.83 billion Hindi film industry — is also guilty of painting a clichéd picture of the West, and Indians who live abroad. 

For decades, non-resident Indians (NRIs) have either been portrayed as caricatures, villains, or sexually loose and morally bankrupt desis who had lost touch with their roots. While their melancholic longing for the land their ancestors lived in or their cultural jingoism might’ve worked with audiences in India, how does the desi diaspora — the largest in the world — find its own representation in Bollywood? We asked them.

Tina from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
The plot: After reading the letter her mother Tina (Rani Mukerji) had written for her before she died, Anjali (Sana Saeed) decides to bring together her widowed father, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), with his true love who is also named Anjali (Kajol).

“So many NRI characters go to Oxbridge, the way Tina did. But as someone who lives here, and was rejected by Oxbridge, I have to say that not all of us end up in the most prestigious universities, and it should be okay to show that side too. With Tina’s character, I could barely tell she’s an NRI. I can’t recall her talking about any influences from the UK. The thing that angers me about her character is that she has to prove her Indianness to random boys in college. I’d be fuming if anyone dared to question whether I’m ‘Indian’ enough — as if there’s even a strict definition of it. Instead of challenging Rahul when he questions her Indianness, Tina just belts out... a national anthem type song? Very strange behaviour. The binary depiction of Indian as good and Western as bad is such a tired trope in Bollywood.” - Richa Kapoor, 21, a British-Indian from London, UK

Almost everyone from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
The plot: Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) meet during a trip across Europe and the two fall in love. However, when Raj learns that Simran is already promised to someone else, he follows her to India to win her and her father over.

“My father is a survivor of partition and my mother, a daughter of an indentured labourer who travelled to Fiji from India a hundred years ago. Bollywood is the golden thread that has connected us all, across oceans and continents. In the mid 1990s, we in London jumped with joy when Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released in theatres here. To depict Indian families growing up in another part of the world, the film portrayed an accurate example, at the time, of the values, the desires, and the complexities of that subtle balance between two cultures. Today though, while things have progressed, Indian characters I know from the wider diaspora never quite make it to the screen. 

I’m happy to see more films where NRIs are depicted as more than just two dimensional characters — a richness, dynamism, and more importantly, a vulnerability of universal narratives are beginning to emerge.” - Ajay Chhabra, 50, an Indian-Fijian in London, UK

Pinky Shah from The White Tiger
The plot: Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver from a lower caste, works at a politically powerful family’s household where he uses his wit to plot his way to the top.

“Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ character in the movie, ‘Pinky Madam’, is a complicated one. But for anyone who’s a first- or second-generation immigrant from India, we all know a Pinky. She comes from a family who has worked their way up to success in the U.S., and she profits off their hard work. Bringing her idealism back with her to India, she picks holes in a system that works in her favour.  

But despite all of her talk of equality and education, when it comes down to taking responsibility for her actions (caution: spoiler ahead) she flounders as we see in the hit-and-run scene where she kills a child. The film, and the book it’s based on, encapsulate the reality of coming back home and turning a blind eye to things that don't please you. It's a raw interpretation of a feeling many of us experience, but Chopra Jonas effectively breaks the allure of the diaspora. Pinky's disconnect to the reality of life in India and Balram is eye-opening in a way that seems entirely accurate.” - Jaysim Hanspal, 23, a British-Indian from London, UK

Jasmeet/Jazz from Namastey London
The plot: A man takes his British-Indian daughter Jasmeet AKA Jazz (Katrina Kaif) to his home country, India. There, he arranges her marriage to Arjun (Akshay Kumar) who doesn’t speak English. Jasmeet attempts to outwit them, but Arjun quietly and patiently hatches his own plan.

“I don’t like how Jasmeet/Jazz was portrayed. The film makes it seem like Indian-origins folks are bad for choosing their western identity. But the truth is, living with dual heritage is not as easy or convenient as Bollywood showcases. Jazz realises her Indian values, or sanskaar as they say in India, at the end of the film. She then goes back to calling herself Jasmeet and moves to India. That’s so unrealistic. If a man came up to me and asked me to move to a different country with him, I wouldn’t just agree in a heartbeat. Bollywood films also unfairly presents western influence in a unidimensional way through risqué fashion, parties, lots of drugs and sex. Lastly, Bollywood needs to understand that not all NRIs are light-skinned and rich.” - Maansi Kalyan, 26, a British-Indian from London, UK

“What the film got right was that the merging of two identities can manifest into living a double life for some NRIs. We see that through Imran, a British Pakistani who attempts to hide his drinking, and his English girlfriend Susan. Here, he is engaging in things that are forbidden by religion and by his father. I think Bollywood tends to display racism in its most extreme form — where it is outlandish and direct. Here, Jasmeet’s British fiancé’s dad literally quotes Winston Churchill and refers to Indians as ‘snake charmers.’ Imran is asked for a certificate to prove he’s not associated with terrorists. Not to say these things may never happen, but in my own experience, racism and prejudice, particularly in the UK, is a lot more subtle and usually communicated through micro aggressions.” - Anas Data, 22, a British-Indian from Bradford, UK

Mohan Bhargav from Swades
The plot: Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), a successful Indian-American scientist at NASA returns to an Indian village to take his childhood nanny to the U.S. to live with him, and in the process, rediscovers his roots.

“Swades is hailed as a film which captures the essence of yearning for your homeland. There are long montages of Shah Rukh struggling to find enjoyment or fulfilment in his life as an engineer at NASA. While this kind of black-and-white division between the East and the West can make for a feel-good cinematic narrative, it doesn’t reflect the nuances, challenges and joys of immigration. A more realistic depiction would have included the main character setting roots in his new home and struggling to navigate his identity. But realism is not what Bollywood is known for; it’s known for its ability to evoke emotions and Swades certainly does that.” - Ghazal Abbasi, 23, a British-Pakistani from Yorkshire, UK

Meera and Veronica from Cocktail
The plot: Veronica (Deepika Padukone) becomes friends with Meera (Diana Penty) and then Gautam (Saif Ali Khan), and eventually both move into Veronica’s apartment. Everything is going great until love, relationships and sex complicate things.

“I think Meera’s character representation was pretty positive in Cocktail. The journey of Meera going to the UK was a journey of self-sufficiency. It wasn’t her marriage, but the new environment that allowed her a space to explore herself. She was further empowered by Veronica, another NRI, and as she settled into her new life in the UK and became more independent. With Veronica, there was a bias towards the fact that she lived a chaotic life and it comes off as she wasn’t Indian enough. However, I think the bigger explanation for her behaviour and choices was her lack of relationship with her parents.” - Fatima Zehra, 23, a British-Pakistani from London, UK

Rizwan Khan from My Name is Khan
The plot: Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), an Indian Muslim man, moves to America to live with his brother (Jimmy Shergill) and marries Mandira (Kajol) who has a son from a previous marriage. Rizwan also has Asperger’s and is arrested mistakenly in connection to the 9/11 attacks.

My Name is Khan wasn’t only true for Indians, but to anybody who was brown, Arab or has a Muslim-sounding name. Post 9/11, Islamophobia became worse. There are various accounts of white people having been blatantly racist towards Sikhs because they couldn't tell the difference between a dastar which Sikhs wear, and a skull cap worn by Muslims. 

In this aspect, the movie shows an accurate portrayal, although killings in the name of the same is not something I'm familiar with. Hence, while the stereotype stems from a fraction of the reality faced by NRIs in the U.S., I do feel that the stereotype was pushed further with the president himself addressing Khan as not a terrorist. But at the end of the day, it’s a movie and dramatising the same is what makes it a successful one, so I understand where it comes from. 

Advertisement

There are inaccuracies too, of course. Like riling up a mob in a mosque, or screaming that you’re Gujarati and not to be mistaken for an Arab or Muslim, is very dramatised and exaggerated. From what I'm aware, the NRIs and other foreign communities have this bond from the shared history of innocents being persecuted.” - Mohaseb Noushad, 24, an Indian from Dubai, UAE

Poo from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
The plot: Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), the adopted son of business magnate Yash Raichand (Amitabh Bachchan) leaves the family after his father forbids him from marrying Anjali (Kajol), who comes from a working-class family. He moves to London with his wife and sister-in-law, Pooja/Poo (Kareena Kapoor Khan). A decade later, Rahul’s younger brother (Hrithik Roshan) comes to London hoping to reunite his family.

“This film definitely romanticises Indians living abroad. It makes it seem like it’s the easiest thing in the world to migrate to the UK and live your best life. In reality, if you take over your school’s annual day and perform the Indian national anthem among a majorly white audience, you're more likely to be judged or shut down than applauded. The character of Pooja/Poo isn't that far removed from reality, although it is definitely over the top. Whitewashed desis who grew up abroad aren’t hard to come by, although it's not always necessary that they will only hang out in cliques of fellow desis. 

In terms of the moral connotation of being Indian, I think they do portray both sides well in the film based on how Khan’s character chides Poo for her fashion choices while the women in the house let her be who she wants to be. 

At the same time, it's a little annoying how Poo does a complete 360 when she falls for Rohan, and then goes to India to be the ideal bahu (daughter-in-law) or whatever. No one can tone down their complete personality that fast, and it's giving off the message that you need to be sati-savitri (loosely translated to morally pure and coy) to be with an Indian guy from a so-called good household. - Snigdha Bansal, 23, an Indian from Amsterdam, Netherlands

Follow Jaishree on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

bollywood, movie review, Indian diaspora, Amitabh Bachchan, kareena kapoor, desi diaspora, shahrukh khan, bollywood actors

More
like this
I Help Connect People With Their Dead Loved Ones
We Spoke With a White Influencer Who Got 18 Surgeries to ‘Become Korean’
Stunning Camera Phone Photos of Joy Amid the War in Yemen
Grieving Without God: How Atheists Deal with Death
Her Brother Died. The Government Says She’s ‘No Longer Welcome’ to Ask Questions
I Studied Phalluses For 30 Years. This is What I Learned About the Erect Penis Symbolism.
A Concussion, a Death and Calls to Reform Sumo Wrestling
This Is How I Manage ‘Severe PMS’ That Makes Me Wanna Die