Representations of Indian Diasporic Identity in "Bollywood/Hollywood" and "American Desi"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction

II. Laying the Groundwork

a Diasporic Identity?

b The Indian Diaspora in Canada and the USA

c Film-Synopses

III Indian Themes in the Films

a Family Ties and Values

b Community, Customs and Religion

c Everyday Life and Bollywood

IV Diasporic Identities of the Characters

a (Almost) Comfortable: Rahul, Twinky, Jagjit, Nina

b Struggling: Go, Sue, Ajay, Kris

c Indian at heart: Salim, Rahul’s mother, Sunita’s father

V Comparison of “Bollywood/Hollywood” and “American Desi”


I. Introduction

In the past decades, it seems that the impact of Indian lifestyle on our everyday life has grown immensely - from East German university studies who spent hours with swapping and copying Indian cookbooks and West German housewives engaging in yoga classes to today’s youths dancing to Bhangra music and internet communities dedicated to the discussion of the latest Bollywood films and Shah Rukh Khan’s hairstyle. India is “in”, and this is true not only for Germany, but also for other Western countries, like the UK, the USA and Canada. In those countries, more so than in Germany, the spreading of Indian culture is partly due to the presence of so many people of Indian origin.

Many of the bigger cities in the Western hemisphere feature neighbourhoods that with their shops, markets, restaurants and people remind you more of India than of the country you are actually in. Little India in Toronto, Canada, or the East End in London, England, are where Indians immigrating to those countries move to. Or that is what is generally believed. In fact, however, tastes and identities among Indians are as varied as with every other ethnicity. Some choose to try and live a traditional Indian life and participate actively in Indian communities; others shop for some of the ingredients - both culinary and culturally - which they like from back home to integrate them in their otherwise westernized lives. And there are also some who do not feel the need to connect with their old life at all and instead aspire to blend in with the crowd in their new home country completely. Diasporic identities are varied, because on the one hand, [e]ven within settled liberal democracies, the old assumption hat immigrants would identify with their adopted country in terms of political loyalty, culture and language can no longer be taken for granted[,]1

while on the other hand, many emigrants are desperately trying to take their old life in their home country with them. However, these are just the two ends of the scale:

“There is no longer any stability in the points of origin, no finality in the points of destination”2 and people might not only have one, but two or even more ethnic identities.3

This paper is trying to “locate the East and the West in the same person”,4 that is, in the protagonists of two recent films: American Desi (2001, dir. Piyush Dinker Pandya, USA) and Bollywood/Hollywood (2002, dir. Deepa Metha, Canada). Both were directed by NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and are set within the Indian Diaspora of North America. Bollywood/Hollywood is a romantic comedy/parody set in Toronto, Canada, while American Desi is a college comedy set among the Indian students of a typical American college. Both films deal comically with the difficulties that arise from living in two worlds, adapting to two different sets of values and the question of identity.

First, this paper is going to lay the groundwork by defining what is meant by diasporic identity, supplying some background information on the Indian communities of Canada and the USA and giving a short synopsis for both of the films. The next chapter discusses how certain themes of Indianness, e.g. family, religion and pop culture, are depicted in the films. Then, the - assumed - diasporic identities of the main protagonists are described. Finally, the conclusion will not only summarize the findings, but also try to find parallels between the films and their characters, as well as differences that might be connected with one stemming from Canada and one from the USA.

II. Laying the Groundwork

a Diasporic Identity?

To clarify what is meant by “diasporic identity” in the context of this paper, it is necessary first to define the term “diaspora”. The meanings usually given to “diaspora” are manifold. Its origin lies in the Jewish diaspora, which is a name for all the Jews spread over this planet due to having been repressed and persecuted over centuries. Since the term nowadays is also used for other ethnic groups away from their homelands and “this post-colonial sense of dislocation”,5 it is necessary to find some general attributes of a Diaspora, as Robin Cohen attempts to in his book Global Diasporas:

Normally, diasporas exhibit several of the following features: (1) dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically; (2) alternatively, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or to further colonial ambitions; (3) a collective memory and myth about the homeland; (4) an idealization of the supposed ancestral home; (5) a return movement; (6) a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time; (7) a troubled relationship with host societies; (8) a sense of solidarity with co-ethnic members in other countries; and (9) the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in tolerant host countries.6

Not all of these features apply to the diaspora explored in this paper, but Cohen’s list helps to acknowledge the inherent variety of both diasporas and diasporic identities. As will be shown later on, certain features from this list apply to individual members of - at least - the fictional Indian diaspora, i.e. characters in “Bollywood/Hollywood” and “American Desi”. A rather general definition of Diaspora comes from Jakob Rösel. He describes “Diaspora” as Gruppen, die ihr historisches und kulturelles Selbstverständnis und ihre Identität grundsätzlich aus drei Erfahrungsbereichen gewinnen: Sie stützen ihr Selbstverständnis und ihre Identität auf ihre Beziehungen zu ihrem Ursprungsland, zu ihrer lokalen Gemeinschaft und zum Gastland und schließlich zu den weiteren, der Diaspora zugehörigen, oft weithin verstreuten Diasporamitgliedern.7

For Rösel, as well as for the purpose of this paper, the term ‚diaspora’ encompasses groups of people living away from their original homeland, in the case of this paper, from the Indian sub-continent. The notion of diaspora includes a community felt with other Indians in the host country as well as in other countries and, of course, with Indians in India. The diaspora consists, in this paper, of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation immigrants, their families and local communities.

And, most important, it consists of individuals that each have their own sense of being Indian and what being Indian means for their lives. Their self- perception in connection with their Indian heritage is what - in this paper - is meant by their diasporic identity. This includes how they feel towards other NRIs, in what way they integrate the Indian culture into their lives, whether they feel comfortable living in the western world or dream of returning to India, whether they appreciate their “otherness” or try and hide it and other issues like that.

b The Indian Diaspora in Canada and the USA

Unlike adherence to an ethnicity, religion or diaspora, the nation-state is often too large and too amorphous an entity to be the object of intimate affection. […] Bonds of language, religion, culture and a sense of a common history and perhaps a common fate impregnate a transnational relationship and give to it an affective, intimate quality that formal citizenship or even long settlement frequently lack.8

Har Swarup Singh and Trishna Dey state that migration from India was generally a peaceful one, not fuelled by fear of persecution.9 The reasons for migrating were manifold, but generally had to do with better chances abroad. Their - somewhat partial - account praises the hard achievement and economic success of NRIs all over the world, boasting about an astounding figure:

To take an illustrative economic measure of success: Indian Diaspora globally accounts for an annual income of nearly $300 billion, or well above half of the Indian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $480 billion.10

They further stress the fact that the NRIs have maintained strong links with their Indian homeland, socially and economically, as well as on a more personal level: “They have consciously tried to instil in the future generations strong Indian values”11 The general assumption back in India seems to be that people of Indian origin living away from India are exactly this: non-resident, but 100% Indian.

The USA and Canada both have a history of being countries of immigration. In 1988, Canada passed the Multiculturalism Act; “making diversity a central feature in the Canadian national vision and an organizing principle of Canadian life and law”12 This finally ended an immigration system filled with racial quotas and other discriminatory categories.13 Indians have been immigrating to Canada before, but the official celebration of cultural variety certainly made things easier for all groups of immigrants, especially the visible minorities. So it comes as no surprise, that

[i]n the past quarter-century, Canadian citizens of Indian origin have entered every economic, social, political and cultural corner of this nation, with cabinet ministers, a provincial premier, and leaders in the worlds of finance, industry, the professions and academe. As a part of the Canadian population, they have become a component force in shaping future policies for their country.14

Toronto, where Bollywood/Hollywood is set, is often referred to as the “most multi-cultural” city in the world. In 2001, 42.8% of its population belonged to visible minorities, among them 253,900 South Asians, 10.3 % of Toronto’s total population.15

In the US, a major immigration wave of Indians began in the 1960s, when laws “did away with the national origin criterion and substituted merit in granting of immigration visas”.16 Predominantly professionals and students qualified for immigration. In the 1990s the US granted so-called H-1 B visas to IT- professionals from India, which led to another increase in the Indian population. Singh and Dey speak of an Indian Diaspora in the USA that “totals 1.68 million, double the 815,447 number at the time of the last census in 1990, and is now the third largest Asian minority in the US after the Chinese and the Filipinos.“17

While, as in Canada, people of Indian origin in the USA work in many different fields, from entrepreneurship to the arts, there is a difference from the way that Indians have been integrated into Canadian society:

Indians […] are much less represented in the political field.

The last nown figure was a Congressman, Justice Dalip Singh Saund, elected in the mid-Fifties from California. Since then there has been no Federal legislator of Indian origin; nor have there been any governors or cabinet members. In numbers the Indian population in the US is close to that of Nebraska, warranting three members of Congress.18

However, within the Diaspora, there is a lot of political and social activity, shown in the formation of language schools and multiple organizations dedicated to cooperation and communication among Indian Americans in various fields from religion to culture, domestic politics and economy.19

In both societies the Indian Diaspora is comparatively well integrated, reaching high positions in almost every field. However, they have not reached political success in the United States, which could lead to the assumption that their integration into the Canadian society is even more satisfying.

c Film-Synopses

In order to make the understanding of the following chapters easier, a short synopsis for both of the films is given:

Bollywood/Hollywood (2002, dir.: Deepa Mehta)

The main protagonists of Bollywood/Hollywood are Rahul and Sunita. Rahul is a well-off Indian-Canadian business man in love with Kimberly, a Canadian pop singer and admired and supported by his driver, Rocky. After the death of his father, who haunts him throughout the film, he is responsible for his family: his grandmother, his mother, his sister Twinky and his brother Govind. After his girlfriend dies in a tragic accident, his mother urges him to get married to an Indian woman, otherwise she will postpone his sister Twinky’s wedding to her Indian-Canadian fiancé Bobby. Since Twinky is secretly pregnant, the wedding has to take place soon and Rahul is hiring Sunita, whom he believes to be a prostitute of Spanish origin, to act as his future Indian bride.

Sunita is in fact really Indian. She became an escort - not a prostitute - to get back at her father who wanted to marry her off to an Indian wrestler. Rahul soon finds out that Sunita is Indian and not a prostitute and finally falls in love with her. After a drunken man accuses Sunita of being a prostitute, Rahul loses his faith in her and confesses to his family that he betrayed them.


1 Cohen, Robin: Global Diasporas. An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1997., p. x

2 Cohen, p. 175

3 vgl. Spencer, Stephen: Race and Ethnicity. Culture, Identity and Representation. London: Routledge, 2006., p. 191

4 Gangoli, Geetanjali: Sexuality, Sensuality and Belonging: Representations of the ‚Anglo-Indian’ and the ‚Western’ Woman in Hindi Cinema. In: Kaur, Raminder and Ajay J. Sinha (eds.): Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens. New Delhi: Sage, 2005. S. 143-162, p. 144

5 Spencer, p. 190

6 Cohen, p. 180

7 Rösel, Jakob: Antrag auf ein Graduiertenkolleg Kulturkontakt und Wissenschaftsdiskurs. Rostock: 2005.

8 Cohen, p. 195

9 vgl. Singh Singh, Har Swarup and Trishna Dey: Indian Diaspora in the United States. In: Singh, Sarva Daman and Mahavir Singh (eds.): Indians Abroad. Kolkata: Hope India Publications/Greenwich Millenium, 2003. S. 35-47, p. 36

10 Singh and Dey, p. 36

11 Singh and Dey, p. 36

12 Walker, James W. St. G.: The Canada Connection: Canadian Identity, Immigration Policy and the Indian Diaspory in Historical Perspective. In: Singh, Sarva Daman and Mahavir Singh (eds.): Indians Abroad. Kolkata: Hope India Publications/Greenwich Millenium, 2003. S. 66-79, p. 79

13 vgl. Walker, p. 67

14 Walker, p. 79

15 (07.03.07)

16 Singh and Dey, p. 39

17 Singh and Dey, S. 35

18 Singh and Dey, S. 40

19 vgl. Singh and Dey, p. 41

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Representations of Indian Diasporic Identity in "Bollywood/Hollywood" and "American Desi"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
HS Representations of Diasporic Identities in Film and Film Music: The Example of India
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ISBN (eBook)
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Representations, Indian, Diasporic, Identity, Bollywood/Hollywood, American, Desi, Representations, Diasporic, Identities, Film, Music, Example, India
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Susanne Opel (Author), 2007, Representations of Indian Diasporic Identity in "Bollywood/Hollywood" and "American Desi", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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