Friday, June 15, 2007

Le Bollywood

What is it with the French fascination with Bollywood? Not that Bollywood isn't popular around the world but the French mania for Bollywood strikes me as, well, so French. First, there is the fact that France, unlike the United States or the United Kingdom for example, has no major Hindi-language film buff population. So, the Bollywood mania is almost entirely driven by what the French call français de souche, or native-born, culturally French people and not by immigrants from India. The small South Asian population in France (where there are only about 10,000 people of Indian origin as opposed to 2.2 million in the U.S.) is mostly made up of ethnic Tamil political refugees from the civil war in Sri Lanka, and while the Indian grocery stores, sari shops and CD vendors that line the Boulevard Saint-Denis (Paris' equivalent of Jackson Heights, Queens) all sport posters of Bollywood mega-stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, they also have plenty of posters up for Tamil-language film and music stars.
Yet, what other country, aside from India or perhaps South Asia, has featured its candidates for the national beauty pageant (for the title the French call Miss France, not Mademoiselle France -- but that will have to be the subject of another blog!) has had its bikini-clad young contestants cavort on stage to Bollywood music as flower petals fell on them from above?

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I almost fell down myself last year -- and I did have a hurrying commuter slam into me -- when I suddenly stopped my rapid walk down a long tunnel connecting one train line to another in the Paris Metro to gawk at an improbable series of huge posters advertising a "pizza Bollywood" which promised to transport the eater to Delhi in 30 minutes. (That's right, Delhi, not Bombay or Mumbai as it's called now where Bollywood gets its name from.) Even more arresting for me was the fact that this bizarre confection was being peddled by Pizza Hut, an American fast-food chain that has never, to my knowledge, tried to market a Bollywood Pizza in the United States. The clash of cultures in this one advertised product makes my head spin. I think it is fascinating that Pizza Hut's "local" marketing in Paris, France takes a detour through India, or through some strange French mass consumer notion of India via a uniquely French orientalized Bollywood.

Are you an American dreaming of visiting France? Well, if you log onto the official French tourism site in search of castles, wineries and museums and find your way to Lille, you'll end up in India. You might think you clicked the wrong icon or that a malicious pop-up or hacker has taken you against your will away from the land of Gauloises to the land of Charminars. Lille is well into a thriving love affair with Bombay and India that has brought authors, dancers, musicians and stands selling all sorts of Bollywood inspired kitsch to this gray, industrial city in France's far north. Hotted up by Bollywood, normally frigid Lille has become a destination for French people seeking the frisson of Indian exoticism.

And speaking of kitsch, it is astounding the number of times that word comes up in France alongside the word Bollywood (just as it does in the U.S in all fairness, but at least there is one less language involved) creating a clash of cultures (I count four) as dissonant as Pizza Hut's French Bollywood pizza, as in "la toute dernière tendance, le kitsch Bollywood."
Then there is Pascal of Bollywood (no, it's not Pascal de Bollywood), a French musician who, without knowing a single word of any Indian language, became an overnight sensation singing Bollywood film songs. Apparently, he did take some Hindi language lessons but only after recording a CD and garnering a bit of success.

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In large and mid-size towns across France, the Bollywood soirée has become popular, "Indian dress required," where patrons are invited to dance the night away to Bollywood film music. Again, we are very, very far from Basement Bhangra or the London Underground where proper desi DJs get a mostly desi crowd moving to a remixed beat and most of the young crowd are dressed in tight black slacks. We're talking about white French people dressing up like what they think Indians wear in order to transport themselves, on the cheap, far away from their hum-drum French reality (except these events are part of the French hum-drum reality but they don't know that) for a few hours in a land of Indian make-believe.
Somehow, all of this seems a very coherent outgrowth of 19th-century French orientalism. But how far France has come from the serious, recherchée decadence of, say, Baudelaire in search of profound out-of-the-French-body experiences via the exotic. This is orientalism refashioned for a 21st-century of mass consumer culture where even exhausted working-class mass-transit commuters ordering up cheap pizzas for home delivery or slouched in front of the soft-porn delights of a Miss France dance routine on their televisions can indulge in a little post-modern culture clash, a dose of Bollywood kitsch à la française.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Mob Rules, The Artist Quails, The Government Laughs

How to react to news received by frantic e-mail alert from friends in Gujarat, India about yet another attack by a frenzied mob against an artist? The mob rules in Gujarat with increasing frequency, dancing crazily at the end of a leash tethered to the office of the state's grand pupeteer and chief minister Narendra Modi. No intellectual, artistic or cultural achievement is safe: paintings on canvas, a documentary series taking up essential social issues, or, earlier, a professor of physics cowering in his home -- it doesn't seem to matter. All are threats to the ideologues whose grim antics serve the bachelor leader.

With orgiastic zeal, the mob shatters the quiet of a gallery or a home, hoots its hate, screams its red-faced outrage. It is the aggressor who is wronged, can't you see? It is the attacker who is the injured party!

At the same time, on another front, funds are withdrawn with cold calculation from a worthy project for no other reason than that the creator has dared to question the absolute power of the Gujarat's right-wing Hindu nationalist leader. This is what is happening to Mallika Sarabhai's SAT-Television project. (See more at This is what is happening in "shining India" today, the same India that wants to be recognized as a great world power!

Make money, keep your mouth (and your canvas) zipped, and just toe the official line: This is Modi's fundamental message to the people of Gujarat as the state is systematically cleansed of its ethnic, religious and artistic diversity; as all freedom of expression and political dissent is wiped out of existence.

In 1985 and 1986, more than twenty years ago when I myself was in my twenties, I spent a year in Baroda, India where my first husband was a visiting student on a Fulbright at the Faculty of Fine Arts. At the end of the academic year, his work was included in the group student show. It all went off quite uneventfully.

I remember the campus as an oasis of calm after the crush and din of the old city where we rented a room. The crunch of leaves under feet bare in sandals was the only harsh sound. All the students ambled about in handloom kurtas and block-printed cotton salwar kameez. At that time, the Faculty of Fine Arts was the very epicenter of contemporary Indian art. Bhupen Khakhar was at the peak of his career, and we went over to his place a number of times. Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh was my husband's advisor. Photographer and artist Jyoti Bhatt, a family friend, was someone we met several times. We became friendly with Ramnik Kaneria, Raghav Kaneria's younger brother, whom we had met in Paris when he was at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and I was at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes.

If there was any threat to the utter peace and merrily bubbling artistic ferment at the Faculty of Fine Arts in those days, I was not aware of it. So, when desperate messages came across cyberspace a couple of weeks ago recounting the mob's invasion of the annual student show, the arrest of of student exhibitor Chandra Mohan on the grounds his work was obscene and offended the feelings of the mobsters, the brave protest and subsequent knuckle-rapping of the dean of the school of art, how to stop the sinking feeling of "no, not this"?

I am passionate about all that is fabulously, wonderfully India and it breaks my heart to see the mob set loose, yet again, under the protective umbrella of leaders too blinkered, too repressed, and too addicted to their small pond of power to see past their own nose to the big, rough ocean of a world in which India must now navigate come what may.

So, will India sink or swim?

Some of us had hoped that it might soar.