Rant: Bollyface

I only just came up with “bollyface”, which is a shame because it may have been a better headline than “Desi Beats the Videshi Heart”. Then again, unless you know what blackface means, bollyface makes no sense and I’m told blackface isn’t very common knowledge for many of us in India. So briefly, blackface refers to the theatrical makeup that was used to create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. I think it became popular in the 19th century. As Manthia Diawara puts it, “What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.” (The quote is from Diawara’s “The Blackface Stereotype“, written in 1998. Well worth a read.)

Bollyface is what I’ve written (or ranted) about at the website News Laundry. Click on link to see the Chanel photos and Leno talk about the Nano.

Desi Beats the Videshi Heart

Last year, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld presented Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2012 collection at the Grand Palais in Paris. Among those in the audience were Bollywood actress, Sonam Kapoor and Hollywood actress, Freida Pinto. Lager’s collection was titled Paris-Bombay. On the basis of just these bare facts, one would think this is an example of a post-colonial triumph; proof that India is indeed shining. Who’d have thought that the legendary Lagerfeld would turn to India for inspiration?

It turns out that he didn’t.

Paris-Bombay was the stuff of Lagerfeld’s fantasies. Lagerfeld told the press that he was inspired by India despite never having visited the country because it is a land where “even poor women own three gold bracelets” and “even the poor have dignity there”. When asked by a reporter why he’d chosen an imaginary India as his muse, Lagerfeld said, “I’m against reality” by way of explanation. A couple of weeks ago, Chanel unveiled the ad campaign for this collection. It shows the models sporting piles of dreadlocks and doing awkwardly lazy mudras with their hands while striking what Lagerfeld probably imagines is an Indian pose.

Perhaps this is the result of having studied post-colonialism — I was young, it was a different century, foreign universities had super-fast internet. I have no regrets and only the vaguest of memories of what was taught in the lectures — but this exotic India (redux) is disturbing, particularly since it’s popping up regularly.

Two days ago, the official channel for Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s Emmy-award winning series – Jay Leno’s Garage  uploaded a video titled ‘From Bollywood to Hollywood’. It opened with a shot of sherwani-clad boys and girls wearing sparkly ghagra-choli. They danced, and then Leno appeared wearing a sherwani. Why? Because the car that Leno was featuring on Jay Leno’s Garage was the Tata Nano. At one point, Leno asked how many Bollywood dancers can fit in a Nano and all of these shiny happy people piled in. That’s the shot at the end of the episode: a bunch of dancers crowded inside a car. Hello India, the land of crowds and Bollywood.

Earlier this month, TIME magazine released a list of the best movies of the millennium. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’sDevdas, which managed to make an already weepy, melodramatic and deeply-flawed story even more weepy, melodramatic and deeply-flawed, came in at number eight. For the magazine’s film critic, Richard Corliss, who is one of Bollywood’s more staunch fans, Devdas is “visual ravishment, with sumptuous sets, fabulous frocks and beautiful people to fill them”.

Your average Rajdhani … er, dining car.

One could point out to Mr Corliss that they are saris, not frocks, but the India that has caught the fascination of the West has little to do with fact. For example, filmmaker Wes Anderson imagined an India in which a train called The Darjeeling Limited travelled through Rajasthan and had on it women staff who were happy to oblige Jason Schwartzmann’s character when he needed a shag to lift his spirits. In Lagerfeld’s idea of India, the poor have dignity and three gold bangles. To drive home the point that the Tata Nano is an Indian car, Leno needed a bunch of brown people to dress up in Bollywood outfits and break into a dance inside a car showroom; in case Leno wearing a sherwani and saying it’s an Indian car didn’t make the Nano’s ethnic heritage adequately clear. When Ashton Kutcher got into trouble for painting his face brown and pretending to be a Bollywood producer, a proudly-brown American friend of mine and I had a disagreement. He found Kutcher’s performance offensive and likened it to the blackface tradition. I argued he was overreacting and seeing racism where only stupidity existed. Approximately a month later, I’m not so sure.

There are probably many who will think I’m behaving like I’m the black hole of fun. Lagerfeld’s eccentric; Leno’s cracking a joke; Anderson’s stuff is always surreal; Corliss is entitled to his own opinion. Given all the decades that South Asia and South Asians were ignored or depicted as the corner shop owner whose head bobs as he speaks in a singsong accent, it’s understandable that we feel a zing of excitement when there’s a dash of brown in predominantly white cultural bastions.

Until a few years ago, desi-spotting in American and European arts and culture was almost like going on a treasure hunt. It happened very, very rarely. It was inconceivable that a girl from a far-flung Mumbai suburb could star in an Oscar-winner and be cast in a Woody Allen film until Freida Pinto did it. Who would have thought that an upcoming Bollywood actress like Sonam Kapoor would be on Chanel’s guest list? How about the fact that a mainstream TV series like Glee would have an Indian-American school principal with an un-Indian name like Figgins? India has finally arrived and is not known for being a land of squalor and inequality. Why behave like a grouch and focus on the laughable examples of interest in the region? Because they seem to hint at a new version of the Orientalist imagining of exotic India.

What appears as India on television and computer screens is trite, spectacular and over-the-top. The message it sends isn’t harmless. This Bollywood-inspired India suggests brown people don’t have the finesse or intelligence of white people, who can appreciate how ridiculous brown people’s behaviour and creativity is. In his superb blog post Victor Vazquez of the hip-hop crew Das Racist, defined blackface as “a ghoulish, inaccurate caricature of black morphology that distorts and makes alien the black body and the black image…but more insidious is the long, storied history of its use in the United States (and elsewhere) to disseminate/reinforce racist notions of black puerility, vulgarity, laziness, hyper-sexuality, pettiness, criminality, etc., etc.”.

Looking at cultural offerings like Paris-Bombay and Jay Leno’s Garage, it seems that’s exactly what’s being done to South Asians and our culture, but using Bollywood (rather than face paint) as the starting point for the caricature. For years, spirituality was what made the India exotic; now it’s being over-the-top á la pulpy Bollywood in a way that’s almost as foreign to most South Asians as it is to non-South Asians. This is what’s being used to demarcate us from them.

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5 thoughts on “Rant: Bollyface”

  1. Food for thought indeed. I’ve noticed this trend too — not sure if it was unleashed by Slumdog Millionaire or what.

    One thing I will say is that Karl Lagerfeld is certifiably insane. Which is not in any way to downplay how offensive he is — but he definitely does not speak for white/European (or ANY decent) people.

    The rest of the people you mention should definitely know better.

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