Depending on which films, TV shows or magazines they're viewing, Westerners may be left with contradictory impressions of India - as a nation with a thriving information technology industry, as a third-world nation overwhelmed by poverty and famine, or as a spiritual mecca with an exotic, mystical culture frozen in a more primitive time. Rini B. Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois whose research interests include globalization and theories of popular culture, teaches courses on Indian literature and Indian cinema and co-edited "Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora" (Anthem Press, 2010). Mehta spent part of this summer in Calcutta filming a documentary about globalization's impact on India's middle class. Mehta recently spoke with News Bureau arts editor Sharita Forrest about representations of India and its people in Western and Indian media.
How is India portrayed by the Western media?
In 1997, "Seinfeld" broadcast an episode that is known as "The Backwards Episode," because the scenes are shown out of sequence. In it the characters travel to India, and there are shots of an elephant and a storyline about terrible heat and George's fear of using the bathrooms.
"The Simpsons" had an episode called "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bangalore" first broadcast in April 2006 in which Mr. Burns, Homer's boss at the power plant, sent him to India to train some employees. India was portrayed as a very exotic place full of hard-working employees who revered Homer as a god. In return, Homer taught them how to stand up for their rights by forming a union, as if he were imparting culture to the natives in the manner of the colonizers 200 years ago.
A couple of months after "The Simpsons" episode, in June 2006, Time magazine ran a story titled "India Inc.," about India's becoming the next economic superpower. The cover photo showed a woman in ethnic chic finery wearing a telephone headset as if she worked in a call center - and there was a halo coming out of her head. Many Indians found this offensive.
There is a new show on NBC this fall called "Outsourced,," which will be about the culture clash that occurs when an American company transfers its call center and its manager to India.
What reaction do students in your courses have to these images?
When I ask the students in my Indian cinema class - who are part of the post-global generation, born after 1989 - if they think the Time magazine cover is offensive, about half the class think it's not. Among the class are students from India, second-generation Indian Americans and other Americans. A fraction of the students think it's better to be misrepresented than not represented at all.
With the coming of New Age spirituality and industry, people in the West developed a fascination with the spiritual side of India and ideas such as yoga and ethnic chic clothing. But the yoga practiced in the West is not the centuries-old tradition that is practiced in India. They are very different.
The Western media often seem to focus on famines and floods in India or about going to India for spiritual enlightenment, as Julia Roberts does in the film "Eat, Pray, Love."
Are these misrepresentations a new phenomenon?
Historically, in the European imagination, India was a place that existed outside of history. The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wrote that India - with its psychology, religion, caste-system, and holy men - existed in a dream-like state. However, India, like every other place in the world, has never existed outside of history as an exotic dreamland. It has had its own complex economic, social and political things going on regardless of whether the West was aware of it.
Interestingly, in the recent film "Slumdog Millionaire," which won several Academy Awards, and in the "The Simpsons" episode, which are disparate media products intended for different viewers, India is inserted into history through the West - through Homer's imparting ideas of unionization to the workers and the Slumdog's escape from his predicament through the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" TV show.
I teach a course, "Introduction to South Asian Literatures and Cultures,," which focuses on the ancient and medieval period of Indian literature. I begin that course with an essay titled "Ideology and Interpretation of Indian History," which shows that all the things the students are reading about ancient India are read in this way because that's the way Europeans have viewed things for the past 300 years.
Even if we're talking about the ancient Indian past, it is important for us to realize that it has been interpreted in a certain way that influences our way of seeing, and we cannot see ancient India accurately without this awareness.
The Indian epic poem "Ramayana," whose interpretation played a major role in the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s, is sometimes viewed as having a destructive effect on Indian politics, encouraging fundamentalism and leading to violence in real life. But even "Ramayana" has been rewritten over and over throughout history, evolving with the changing ideals of the listening or reading Indian public. It is important to read a text like the "Ramayana" with an awareness of this history.
What role does the Indian film industry, often called Bollywood, play in this? Are Hindi-language films changing these stereotypes or perpetuating them?
Previously, Indian popular films had a huge market in the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East but it has only been in the last 10 years that Indian films have reached theaters in North America and the United Kingdom.
Bollywood has never mirrored reality or been mimetic. It has always been an industry of fantasy, hopes and romantic desires.
Post-global Indian films represent a changed India to Westerners, with images that are very different from the ideologies that were seen in films of the 1970s and 1980s. First of all, Bollywood films have a target audience in the West now. And there is, of course, the post-global nouveau bourgeoisie in India that has a different self-representation in mind.
The India that these films depict is often "cured" of its socio-economic problems, which continue to plague the majority of the population in spite of the record growth advertised by the government. Certain problems like casteism, gender oppression, and the continued disenfranchisement of the poor are often bypassed. There has been a conscious attempt on the part of Bollywood to identify with the dominant paradigms of the West, by picking up issues like Islamic terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Bollywood also presents a picture of the West back to Indian audiences, and there is a new set of characters called nonresident Indians or NRIs that appear in quite a few films every year. The NRIs are Indians who live in the West and are considered part of the extended national family. They show that you don't have to live in India to be Indian. You can be Indian at heart no matter where you live.
Things have been changing but there are a lot of regressive images from the past there, too, that are packaged in a different way. Many regressive practices and ideologies are articulated and sometimes even justified in post-global Bollywood films and Indian television.
A number of soaps that ran on post-global Indian television for years, and had a significant viewership in the Indian diaspora, have been patriarchal and oppressive in an open, unflinching manner. And these images and ideas co-exist almost seamlessly with the representation of a fast growing technological and economic power, often dubbed as the "shining India." Whether this "mixed," paradoxical representation is inseparable from post-global modernity or is going to evolve toward a more progressive paradigm remains to be seen.