The Decentralization of Cultural Identity and its Depiction in Cinema. Family and Migration on Film

Bachelor Thesis, 2021

32 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Methodology

3 Theoretical Background
3.1 Concepts of Identity
3.2 Impact of Globalization
3.3 Late-modernity and the Modern Subject
3.4 Idea of National Identity
3.5 Hybrid Identities and Translation

4 Analysis
4.1 Ashima's Translation
4.2 Duality between Gogol and Nikhil
4.3 Gogol's American Belonging and Strive for Cultural Purity
4.4 Clashing Cultures - Family Conflicts and Tensions
4.5 Clinging to Tradition - Gogol's Change of Heart
4.6 Embracing Hybridity

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

In a globalized world in which borders are increasingly being broken down and people are freely travelling and choosing where they want to live, a discussion about identity is likely to be inevitable. Arguably, the value of such a discussion is considerably greater in this day and age than it was in the past when identities were more well-defined. Sampson claims that identity, which in a manner of speaking can be perceived as synonymous with the term personhood, is an issue which has been generally viewed by self-theorists as a vital aspect of a person's life. The need for an organized sense of identity is necessary for an individual since such is viewed as the framework for well-functioning social relations (Sampson 1203). Sampson equates identity to the achievement of a “sense of continuity and selfsameness” (Ibid.) which then may beg the question of what result would be borne from the disruption of such sense. Hall claims that a disruption of a sort, or rather a fragmentation of identity has already begun shaping modern societies. This has led to old identities being replaced by new ones. Consequently, aspects of our identities such as race or ethnicity are put into question which leads us to reconsider our role within society (“The Question” 596). Hall expressly describes this as the “undermining [of] the frameworks which gave individuals stable anchorage in the social world” (Ibid.). This so-called decentralization of the modern individual however, is not only an immensely important topic of discussion for the contemporary understanding of modern societies (Ibid. 597). It is certainly also significant due to the fact that our exposure to this issue is ineluctable when considering our gradually globalizing world. Our identities are constantly called into question due to the inevitable contact we make with foreign people, cultures and values. This occurs through the exchange of ideas by means of, for instance, digital communication and of course by living together with or as migrated or immigrated individuals and families. The exposure to people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a defining characteristic of our modern world. The purpose of this paper is, however, not to just simply examine this shift during late- modernity. The interest rather lies in how decentralization is being depicted in cinema due to the probable link that exists “between film and culture and between film and identity” (Chow 82). This paper aims to gain an insight to how the issue of identity and decentralization is being mediated on screen. Thus, this thesis aims to investigate how the medium of film thematizes the issue of the decentralization of cultural identity based on Indian immigrant families in the film The Namesake by Mira Nair.

The intent behind this paper's focus on family is to include not only first-generation immigrants that undergo a change regarding their identity but also the likewise affected second-generation immigrants within these families. On that note, it is evident that, in order to answer the question of how film approaches the issue of the decentralization of cultural identity, an adequate case example is required to represent that subject matter sufficiently. The selected film The Namesake by Mira Nair possesses the vital attribute of showcasing a persuasive display of clashing cultural identities and puts emphasis on the topic of migration. Thus, the examination of this film will surely benefit the analysis of the subject matter.

2 Methodology

In order to adequately discuss the topics of this paper, it was necessary to first provide a sufficient introduction to identity as a term. Initially, I showcased different conceptions of identity and the different forms they have taken on over time. This section served to lay the groundwork for the overall discussion and entails a concise explanation of these concepts, as opposed to an in-depth historicization. Afterwards, the significance of globalization in regard to the shift in late-modernity has been illustrated due to it being one of the central causes of said shift. This is followed by a segment about the peculiarities of late-modernity and the modern subject. These two particular segments aimed to provide an explanation to the unique characteristics of societies in late-modernity. The intent was to provide a conclusive explanation concerning the nature of the modern individual regarding his or her identity. Lastly, Freud's understanding of the unconscious has been exemplified as one of several theories that have induced the notion of a decentered modern subject. Consequently, the topic of national identity has been discussed as it is one of the most relevant parts of cultural identity. This section intended to showcase the importance of national identities as well as give an understanding of the ways in which national identities are formed or imagined (Hall, “The Question” 613). Concluding the theoretical background chapter, the final section thematized the issue of hybrid identities, how globalization affects local identities, and the concept of Translation (Ibid. 619, 629).

Throughout this analysis, the issues regarding cultural identity have been pointed out based on several pivotal moments in the film. Editing techniques were pointed out which have been implemented in order to convey certain themes and messages of the film. Likewise, different ways of highlighting scenes such as close-ups and point-of-view shots, which were utilized in order to communicate characters' thoughts and emotions, were noted (Pudovkin 6-7). Furthermore it was discussed how the cinematography applies and utilizes contrast in particular to depict themes of cultural identity (Ibid. 10). The analysis was based on the film “The Namesake” by Mira Nair and is divided into five separate sections. The first section mainly focuses on the character of Ashima and her struggles as an immigrant of Indian descent who faces the challenges of beginning a new life in a different country. Following this, the second section thematizes the character of Gogol and his rejection of his Indian belonging. The third section deals with his sense of belonging in regard to his American identity and how he processes the hybridization of his identity. The fourth section focuses on the dynamics within the family and the conflicts and tensions that emerge due to different cultural ideals. Finally, the last segment illustrated how each character has come to terms with the fragmentation of their identities.

3 Theoretical Background

3.1 Concepts of Identity

There exists a lack of a generally accepted definition in academic literature when it comes to the term of identity which is why a sufficient introduction is required for that term ( Jones and Krzyzanowski 39). For that reason, an examination of different concepts of identity served as an insight. These different concepts of identity which Hall distinguishes have been briefly touched upon in simplified terms (Hall, “The Question” 597-598). However, before entering the first part of this segment, it is of great importance to mention that, although the forms of individualism have changed throughout time, this does not mean that human beings in the past were not individuals (Ibid. 602). It simply signifies that the overall experience of individuality was somewhat different to what it was during later ages (Ibid.). Also, in addition to the presentation of these concepts of identity, a brief coverage of the term of cultural identity was provided.

The three concepts that are being highlighted by Hall are the conception of the Enlightenment subject, the sociological subject, and the post-modern subject. The Enlightenment subject is primarily conceptualized as self-centered and essentially as an individual who represents itself through its mere existence and basic capabilities as a human being. During the subject's lifetime, there is no change occurring regarding its identity. Hence, one could infer that this concept does not take influences from the subject's surroundings into consideration. The second concept on the other hand, which is that of the sociological subject, describes the realization of the subject that there exists something beyond itself and that it is influenced and changed by it through constant interaction. Accordingly, the subject comprehends that the outside world or society may change the subject's beliefs, principles and outlook on various aspects of life. Unlike the Enlightenment subject, the sociological subject's identity is altered by its exposure to the outside (597). However, the presence of the outside, according to this concept , does not mean that the subject does not possess an “inner core or essence” (Ibid.) anymore. Furthermore, Hall argues that when the subject derives its self-perception and meaning from the outside, this then leads to the inside's adjustment and the subject's formation of its identity (Ibid. 597-598).

Thirdly, Hall outlines the post-modern subject is characterized by an absence of a single, fixed or permanently existing identity but instead by an identity that is always changing. According to this conception, it is not possible to constantly have an identity that is unified. While the Enlightenment subject emphasizes stability, the post-modern subject represents the constant incompleteness and fragmentation of identity. That instability is being precipitated by the fact that the post-modern subject constantly has several “contradictory and unresolved” identities which can lead to doubt or uncertainty (598).

Finally, regarding the term cultural identity, it needs to be noted that culture is an inherently complicated term but one may generally ascribe it to the characteristics or common behaviour of a certain nation or ethnic group (Benshoff and Griffin 13). When discussing the term cultural identity however, Hall suggests two different definitions. Firstly, there is the stance that cultural identity refers to a stable form of identity that is part of every individual of the same culture. Essential aspects that constitute that culture such as its shared history always deliver a reference point for the subject (Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora 223). Contrary to that definition, there also exists the view that cultural identity can certainly be subject to change as history takes place. This notion does not support the argument that cultural identities are already defined and unalterable (Ibid. 225).

3.2 Impact of Globalization

Perhaps the most significant cause for the transition in modern societies concerning identity during the late 20th century relates to the effects and impacts of globalization. According to McGrew, globalization refers to the distinct interconnectedness which occurs on a global scale and characterizes our modern world (470). Moreover, Giddens describes this as the “intensification of worldwide social relations” (qtd. in Pieterse 2). Additionally, McGrew states that it is a process which enables different kinds of occurrences at a certain part of the globe to cause massive changes elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, those occurrences can be of political, economic and needless to say social nature. Hence, things such as goods, opinions, ideologies and cultures of one place are shared all over the world (470). In a discussion about the transition of identity in late-modernity, globalization can be perceived as the driving force behind that particular shift. It was due to the rise of the globalized world that people began to encounter different cultures and develop a multitude of identities. Rosenau emphasizes this by arguing that individuals' travel is part of the reason for why identities are multiplying (23-24). When identities come into contact with the foreign due to the effects of globalization “the reflexive relationship between the local and global produces the hybrid” (Iyall Smith, 3). This issue of hybridization becomes especially relevant when considering the topic of migration which has gained increased significance due to the processes of globalization. Especially when considering how prevalent “forced and ‘free' migration” is in the post-colonial era, the importance of a discussion about the hybridization of identity becomes apparent (Hall, Introduction: Who needs ‘Identity'? 4).

3.3 Late-modernity and the Modern Subject

The most peculiar characteristics of modern societies are possibly their inclination to change and a lack of continuity. Marx adds to this by formulating this argument about discontinuity as “a constant revolutionizing of production” (qtd. in Hall, “The Question” 598). In order to better comprehend this change, it may be most helpful to explain the distinct structure of late-modernity by referencing the aspect of dislocation. Laclau makes the argument that modern societies possess a dislocated structure. This means that there is not a single center that constitutes society but instead society brings forth a plurality of diverse identities due to the influence of outside forces (40). As an example, he refers to the rise of capitalism as an instance that led to dislocation (Ibid. 39). Giddens claims that modern societies are subject to constant reflexivity within different areas of life. This notion of constantly resorting to revaluation and examination is one of the most significant differences between modern and traditional societies. In contrast, traditional societies are characterized by an adherence to existing values and traditions that from the past. The experience of the past is held in high regard and is therefore not viewed as something that is subject to change. Thus, traditional social practices are more common within these societies (37-38).

For the purpose of providing insight concerning the modern subject, Hall has attempted to provide several explanations for its decentralization. These theories are viewed as being greatly influential on late-modernity and the creation of the concept of the decentralized modern subject (Hall, “The Question” 606). However, of these theories, only Freud's understanding of identity and the unconscious will be highlighted here. According to Hall, this theory is based on the assumption that the subconscious determines the development of our identities. The subconscious mind hereby operates independently and alters the subject's stable identity. The process of developing an identity doesn't underlie natural growth but rather develops during interactions with others (607-608). The social aspect is heavily emphasized. Hall further states that this can be described by the example of a child that begins to form an image of itself by looking into a mirror and seeing its reflection. Essential parts of one's identity such as sexual difference are constantly being symbolically displayed to the child. Thus, when inevitably making contact with them, it allows the unconscious mind of the infant to form an image of itself. On doing so, the self, however, remains in a state in which it assumes different identities due to permanent contradictory feelings. Though, interestingly enough the experience of the subject is nonetheless that of a person with a unified identity because of the subject's need for completeness (Ibid.). Furthermore, the wish to seek a state of possessing a complete identity goes along with our desire to be perceived accordingly by society. However the concept of a unified identity is simply a fantasy which the subject tries to uphold (Ibid. 608).

3.4 Idea of National Identity

The established notion of the individual's desire to possess a certain image of itself becomes especially noticeable when discussing identity in relation to nationality. National identity is an intriguing part of culture identity because of how common it is for people to affiliate themselves with a certain nation and its culture. Surely, its value and necessity to the individual has to be noted as well (McCrone and Bechhofer 10). Gellner describes this national identity as an integral part of the subject's self-view by claiming that: “The Idea of a man [ sic ] without a nation seems to impose a [great] strain on the modern imagination.” (qtd. in Hall, “The Question” 612) Hall emphasizes this further by pointing out that national identities are entirely defined by how they are represented to us and therefore not something that are given or assigned to us at birth. A nation therefore should also be seen as a community that represents an idea which is embodied by the nation's culture. The citizens of the respective nation regard themselves as a part of that idea (Ibid.). It is also worth mentioning that the idea of national identities may also relate to the concept of group identities. Serp et al. claim that theorists generally differentiate between role identities, group identities and person identities. The difference between person identities and group identities, for instance, lies in that group identities derive meaning from the groups that the individual is a part of. Person identities however depend on meaning in regard to personal attributes and accomplishments to name some examples. A crucial difference between group identities and national identities relate to the notion that group identities are restricted to groups within a certain society (12-13). While this is a relatively broader outlook, national identities relate to nations specifically as the name implies.

To better comprehend national identities, it is important to briefly address in what ways they are formed or imagined. For that purpose, two different points will be provided. One view, which Hall refers to, relates to the narrative of the nation in the sense that we are exposed to a wide range of information concerning the image of nations. This can occur namely through sources of media, literature or history. As a result, different images, traditions and stories are conveyed. These serve as a means of representing the overall experience of those who can reconcile with the idea of belonging to their nation (Hall, “The Question” 613). Due to the fact that those national identities are based on an idea, the term “imagined communities” (Ibid.) can be used to best describe them. Another view on how national identities are formed, relates to the notion that people of the same origin possess an innate character or certain qualities that have always remained unaltered (Ibid. 614). Whereas the first explanation suggests that external factors are to blame, this particular perspective assumes that national identity is in a way inheritable.

3.5 Hybrid Identities and Translation

Hall argues that one of the consequences of the increasing globalization in modernity is that national identities are being replaced by hybrid identities (Ibid. 619). The collision of different cultures is what causes this hybridization in which a constant re-evaluation and adjustment of one's identity is occurring (Boland 5). Thus, hybridization could also be explained as “the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombined with new forms in new practices” (qtd. in Rubdy and Alsagoff 8) as Rowe and Schelling define it. It is closely linked to the processes of globalization since there is always an interaction taking place between global elements and local elements (Iyall Smith 3). While both influence each other, the end result is a completely new identity which adopts elements of both and therefore produces the hybrid (Ibid.). Lo uses the term “identity labels” (qtd. in Iyall Smith 4) to describe the mixture of cultural elements which are conceived by the individual (3-4). This again relates to the concept of an imagined community and how one tries to assign meaning to his or her identity (Hall, “The Question” 613). Arguably, these identity labels are needed to gain a sense of belonging to a certain culture, albeit a newly found one in the case of hybridization. On the contrary, Hall claims that it is also certainly possible that globalization leads to the converse effect, namely the augmentation of local identities. He reasons this by saying that individuals of dominant ethnic groups may view those new cultures as a potential threat and hence react defensively (“The Question” 627­628).

Nevertheless, Hall additionally points out that it may be wrong to assume that identities must always cement themselves somewhere. A globalized world does not mean that identities will just turn back to how they used to be or even fully adapt to the new predominant culture. There are certainly identities which try to regain the uniformity of their past selves. In place of assimilation, it seems as if there exist identities that lean towards Translation. This refers to those individuals who have come to the realization that the decentralization of their identity is permanent (Ibid. 628-629). According to Hall, they find themselves “dispersed forever from their homelands” and are therefore forced to adjust to the new cultural landscape which is an extremely difficult task in itself (Ibid. 629). Despite the several cultural differences in everyday life, these individuals have to maintain their original identities as well, since they hold a strong connection to the traditions, the way of life and overall culture of their place of origin. Since that translation is irreversible, they do not longer have one single home but multiple ones (Ibid.).

4 Analysis

For the purposes of this paper, it has been opted for an analysis of the film The Namesake by Mira Nair. This Hollywood production not only thematizes the difficulties of leaving behind one's family and familiar cultural environment but it also addresses the issue of growing up in a country with an impaired sense of belonging. In the course of this analysis, the focus has been put primarily on two characters. The characters in question are Gogol Ganguli and his mother Ashima Ganguli. However, Gogol’s later wife Moushimi Mazumdar has also been briefly analysed in the last section. The analysis has been divided into different sections that each correspond with the film’s course of events. The first part involved the depiction of the decentralization of cultural identity on the basis of Ashima’s character. Here, the beginning phases of the development of her hybrid identity were observed. Being an Indian woman who has spent her entire life in Calcutta, Ashima marries an Indian man named Ashoke who has been living abroad for several years. The main protagonist’s mother serves as a representation for modern day immigrants and illustrates the burden and struggle that comes along with such a transition.


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The Decentralization of Cultural Identity and its Depiction in Cinema. Family and Migration on Film
University of Bremen
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English, Bachelorarbeit, Migration, Decentralization, Family, Cinema, Immigration, migrants, immigrants, Hollywood
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Anonymous, 2021, The Decentralization of Cultural Identity and its Depiction in Cinema. Family and Migration on Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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