Planet Bollywood
Bollywood Culture Binds Global Indian Diaspora
- Francis C. Assisi           Let us know what you think about this feature article

The success of Indian movies at the global level since the late 1990s has attracted much scholarly attention. And it is generally conceded that for Indian immigrants living across the globe, movies from India are an essential part of their popular culture. In fact, according to some social scientists, the most important "binding element" among diasporic Indians is Bollywood culture.

Scholars are quick to suggest that we should not underestimate the impact of Bollywood culture on the Indian diaspora.

For example, its a view articulated by a third generation Person of Indian Origin (PIO) R.S.Gowricharn, professor of multicultural and transnational studies at the University of Tilberg in the Netherlands.

Gowricharn, who is of Indo-Surinamese background, acknowledges that the Bollywood film is not only popular in India, but also among Indians in Asia (Sri Lanka, Burna, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Afghanistan), countries where Indians were sent as indentured laborers such as Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Mauritius, Fiji, and South Africa, and increasingly with the growing group of Indians in Western countries, especially England, Canada, Australia and United States.

It can be argued that people of Indian origin in the diaspora, living in different countries, share similarity of experiences while watching Indian movies, which thus contributes to the construction of a global “public culture” and an “imagined community.”

That’s also why Alpa Patel acknowledges: "I watched Bombay cinema (the populist term, "Bollywood") from a very early age while my parents raised me in Edison, New Jersey (a town that eventually gained repute as a "LittleIndia.") In fact, how I learned Hindi, the main language of the Indian continent, was via watching Bollywood films as I read the English subtitles. Thus, one of the central access points into Indian culture, the culture of my parents, was via watching these films and learning a language I understood only in a very particular manner.”

In a feature story on Bollywood in the February 2005 issue of National Geographic, Suketu Mehta quotes, a CEO of a film production house saying, “For the diaspora the only connection with India is Hindi films. Hindi film is India for them.”

Scholars are arguing that Indian popular movies are one of the most significant and visible components of Indian popular culture both at home and in the diaspora Indian movies epitomize what some have described as the cultural “flow” of images across the globe, a characterizing feature of globalization, albeit in a direction counter to the normative west to east media flows.

And Anup Kumar of the University of Iowa who recently completed a dissertation on Bollywood and the diaspora says: “Historically Bollywood movies have had limited audiences in countries outside India, but in the last two decades as a consequence of globalization, revolutions in ICT and significant increase in the size of the Indian diaspora, filmmakers in Bollywood have been making films keeping the diasporic audiences in mind. The paper argues that Bollywood is just symptomatic of a larger phenomenon of media organizations fromIndia, China, and the Arab countries reaching out to émigré audiences in the West, constructing ‘deterritorialized imagined communities’ and ‘hybrid identities’, in the post-national context of globalization that is free of the geography of nation-states.”

The question now arises whether these Bollywood movies play a role in constructing a global Indian identity.

At least one recent analysis by a scholar suggests that Bollywood movies constitute an element of public culture for the Indian diaspora and to some extent by the diaspora from the Indian sub-continent. He says that Bollywood movies can be seen as a counter-flow of media products from a developing country to the more developed west. And even though this counter-flow of media products (news, movies, television shows, etc.) from the homeland to the diaspora sustains itself using the same systemic structures of globalization that operate in cultural flow from the West to a developing country, and functions through the principles of free market economy and technology diffusion, it is significantly different from the perspective of its audience demographics.

Gowricharn relates an incident during an academic meeting on the Indian diaspora held in Prague, which expands on the notion of Bollywood in the diaspora with telling effect.

"In the corridor of the conference building I met a shabbily dressed Indian; we were finished with our presentations and we had nothing much to do. "Let's go for a walk" he proposed. During the walk he expressed his need for coffee and we went into a cafe. In the meantime he had established that I was not a "real" Indian and thus the inevitable question came: "Where are you from?" After I had explained to him that I was a third generation descendant of "indentured coolies", living in the Netherlands and doing research on minority elites there, he told me that he was a first generation Indian who lived in the USA. He was a professor of Asian American relations at a university in Boston.Nothing unusual in that, for we were fellow congress attendants and all of the participants worked at a university.

"At a certain moment, he interrupted his story and started, while he was drumming on the tabletop, singing a song of the famous now-deceased Indian singer Mukesh. I was familiar with that behavior of Indian men in good cheer, especially after a drink. I also recognized the melody; it was a song that had been popular in my teens. But more took place at that table. I realized with a shock that this strange man and I, due the melody, had comething in common, that we originated more or less from the same culture of which the melody, the words, the language and the singer were characteristic elements. We were not connected by the fact that we were social scientists, but by Bollywood. Because of that Bollywood song, I felt a cultural kinship with this man."

Gowricharn goes on to explain that communities of Indian origin consider themselves as one large civilization of which the Bollywood culture is an intrinsic part. However, he says that this Bollywood culture is no longer just part of the Indian diaspora but extends itself to the whole northern coast of Africa, parts of Black Africa, the Middle East and even Eastern Europe.

Thus, the success of Bollywood not only encompasses people of Indian origin, but also a major part of the world population.

In the case of the Indian diaspora there is another interesting phenomenon taking place.

For example, says Gowricharn, “Shifts are taking place among the Indians in the Netherlands, which are directly related to the influence of Bollywood. The Indian Dutch community is increasingly orientated towards India, which has led to an increasing number of journeys to India. It could be pilgrimage to the ancestral land, or it could just be tourism. The interesting thing is that since much of Bollywood culture is also available through England, the Indian Dutch community is also becoming orientated towards England, with, as a consequence, an increasing number of journeys especially to London and Birmingham.

“Purchases for a wedding, a Bollywood star performance, or simply staying in London’s Southall, which is dominated by Indians, have become normal motives for Dutch Indians to visit England.”

This fact, says Gowricharn, indicates the development of a new transnational community, which no longer consists of a migrant community in Netherlands and Surinam, but of a polycentric community consisting of Netherlands, Surinam, England, and India – with its most important binding element, Bollywood culture.


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