Movie Talkies

Why NRIs Love Bollywood

My Name is KhanThe universal appeal of Bollywood is quite evident. War correspondent Jason Burke said, "It seemed that the greatest bulwark against the resurgent Taliban was not the US-led 'Operation Mountain Thrust' but the extraordinary popularity of Bollywood soundtracks." During his stint in Afghanistan, he recalled the frustration of the Afghan fighters in Tora Bora when their shortwave radios tuned into "the drums and the flutes of local traditional music" and their complete "joy if they found Bollywood soundtracks".

Joyce Mariel, spokesperson for RTL2 in Germany, said, "Despite the cultural differences that separate people from the West with people from India, there are the feelings of joy, pain and passion which bind people together and moreover, people can relate to human failings and feelings which are the same everywhere."

The response to the Bollywood 'effect' can be understood in context to globalization. Bollywood has internalized and internationalized the film-making process in its quest to become a global phenomenon.

Karan Johar took a cue from the phenomenal success of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, directed by his childhood friend Aditya Chopra. In the film shot across London, Europe and India, the young Shah Rukh (Raj) and Kajol (Simran) fall in love while on a month-long Euro trip. Despite strong opposition from Simran's father, Raj decides to win over her entire family than elope and get married. Although the protagonist is exposed to a Western upbringing in London, he adheres to the "Indian tradition" of seeking parents' blessings to wed his ladylove. As of April 13, 2007, the film's initial theatrical release lasted 600 weeks creating a world record (IMDB).

In 1998, Karan Johar produced and directed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a "puppy love" story where the main characters play basketball and convey how the essence of "Indian culture" does not change even after Oxford education. The film performed exceptionally well in the domestic as well as the foreign market. After the success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dharma Productions scored with one hit after another; Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna Na (2006).

The theme was consistent; nonresident Indian (NRI) protagonists dealing with intricacies of life, shot against the picturesque settings of an international backdrop in either London, New York or Miami; issues of love, friendship and kinship at its core. The wedding extravaganzas, the colorful song sequences, the elaborate dance numbers choreographed to perfection, costumes designed by leading fashion designers, flawlessly packaged with heightened melodrama and plentiful with lessons on "Indian values" and morals — they all worked.

The attraction that these films held for the South Asian diaspora was evident. Suketu Mehta, explains,"The diaspora wants to see an urban, affluent, glossy India, the India they imagine they grew up in and wish they could live in now. They want love stories with minimal conflict, even between rivals."

Karan Johar managed to create a sense of nostalgia for Indians living abroad and the conflicts that they experienced either in the past or were experiencing with their children. The second generation immigrants, torn between expectations of parents who desperately try to cling onto their roots and their own experience of growing up in a foreign country that is their home, watched these films because they could identify with the characters.

Conflicts faced  by Indian immigrants especially the romantic ones is the consistent premise of Johar's plot, love is central to each of his stories and the dilemma and the struggle of the lovers always make for an excellent selling point. Karan Johar has skillfully managed to blend the traditional and the Western influence and create an "Indian identity" that is salable to the Indian viewer, the South Asian diaspora and even a wider international audience.

Faiza Hirji comprehensively summarizes it thus:  "Bollywood has managed to arrive at a compromise that allows it to assert and affirm traditional values for fans within India and across the diasporic community without becoming mired in what seems like an increasingly fruitless (my emphasis) attempt to deny the significance of all-pervasive symbols of Westernization."

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