Some weeks ago, in a hazy stupor brought about by midterm-induced burnout and exhaustion, I made the pivotal decision to watch Chandramukhi, a 2005 comedy-musical horror film directed by P. Vasu and starring the acclaimed action-comedy star Rajnikanth.
For Kollywood, the Tamil-language equivalent of Bollywood cinema, the bar for absurdity is high; however, Chandramukhi, a film about the vengeful spirit of a queen subject to forced immolation by a jealous king, clears the hurdle to win gold.
On its face, my motivation to watch Chandramukhi for the second time in my life rested solely on the urge to sit through a nearly three-hour film where an actor pushing 55 in 2005 punches people hard enough to send them through two car windows and can read minds with his telepathic prowess. More fundamentally, however, my intention was to mend the deep gash in my very confused cultural identity as an Indian person born to Karnatakan and Maharashtrian immigrants in the United States.
I had watched this strange film once before — around the age of seven, when, as with most South Asian kids, I would sit with my parents on an ugly shag carpet and consume their television and movies without a question. I would be walked through the occasional Sanskara, or rite of passage, without the slightest idea of what they meant. I would be spoken to in Hindi or Kannada and understand, but could not — and still cannot — respond in anything other than English as I have no grasp on the words spoken by the communities from whom I’m descended. And, of course, I ate the best food on Earth without inheriting the skills to make a decent batch of idli.
Now, weeks after I lucidly watched Rajnikanth roundhouse kick six people simultaneously, this time as a thoroughly assimilated American, I am still unsure of what has been going on in my head as I tear through the romance classics I have grown up watching — Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Saajan (1991), and Jab We Met (2007), most of which starring actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, were the first on the list.
Am I experiencing a reclamation of a culture that I’ve lost to the overwhelming pressure to assimilate, or am I reconstructing a facsimile of a culture that never truly was mine? After all, if I sauntered into a room claiming I had adopted a South Asian culture that has been evolving for millennia simply because I’ve watched a few 90s movies, that might lead to some skepticism. I know firsthand that many South Asian people raised in the United States feel this void of culture churning in our stomach, ready to creep into an existential crisis.
Do we have an obligation to uphold some sort of cultural legacy? Are we permitted to dive headfirst into the culture of our parents and grandparents this late in the game? Did I not work hard enough to sustain that culture within myself? Maybe the answer to all these problems is a simple “you do you, magu.” Is that enough, or will we forever be cursed to live in a giant stand mixer, waiting to smooth out into a salient political and social home?
Had the University of Connecticut not had such a robust community of South Asian students, faculty and staff, I might have scrambled to order a cheap salwar kameez on Myntra or AliExpress and romp around donning an imitation of a cultural identity that I seek to emulate. Fortunately, however, second-generation South Asians are certainly not alone here. Yearly, there is a wide array of activities offered to help students get a taste of home or “reconnect with their roots,” the latter being an appetizing but complicated effort for students such as myself whose parents have been disillusioned with the idea of carrying on culture writ large since before I was born. Regardless, an environment that puts forth Garba parties, Diwali and Holi celebrations scratches much of that itch preventing me from knowing my Desi-ness.
While I have no trouble enthusiastically embracing the aesthetics, the tastes and bits and pieces of the language of Desi culture, you can’t engage in a cultural spelunking without crossing some jagged edges. For that, I had to look no further than my newfound love, Bollywood films.
Bollywood, Kollywood and other large South Asian cinematic outlets are rife with transmisogynistic, ableist and Islamophobic representations of characters to domestic audience that is 80.5% Hindu and a global audience with little to no insight into what Indian culture truly is.
Mainstream depictions of women as lacking agency or the ability to act independently of male characters; of people with disabilities (usually portrayed by nondisabled actors) as unintelligent, the subject of physical comedic gags or sob stories; and of Muslim Indians and Pakistanis as less moral than Hindu characters or outright evil, completely incompatible with Hindu society or aligned with orientalist and racist stereotypes generated by Western imperialists; and more harmful stereotypes degrade the diverse range of marginalized groups in South Asia.
Obviously, South Asian cinema isn’t the only international medium that apologizes for oppression; Western media has more than enough to answer for in that department. My concern is that you cannot fully recognize the worth of a genre or culture without maintaining a critical perspective of it. When done en masse, criticism of an institution is what allows it to evolve and remain compatible and valuable to the communities that practice it.
It’s in that spirit that I continue to binge Bollywood films, learn the vast history of South Asia, interface with my family living in India, and tap into the ongoing social and political struggles occurring within the country such as the one-year-long farmers protests against the liberalization and monopolization of Indian agriculture.
If you are experiencing a cultural crisis, remember that you are not an imposter for dipping your fingers into the lives and practices of your ancestors. It can be as trivial as watching some movies and stumbling over learning Kannada in private, or as deep and significant as adopting a spiritual practice. The goal of self-discovery is to become a more well-rounded human being, and there is nothing about experiencing another galaxy of lives, stories and struggles that will inhibit that journey.