Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Watching MasterChef Australia in India

When we think of MasterChef Australia in our cozy suburban abodes, we momentarily forget monetary and lifestyle woes - it conjures up images of beautifully-plated food, of tears followed by happy endings, of cuddling up in front on the telly on a cold and windy southern evening. What we can barely fathom is that the aforementioned plating and pathos wins equal traction, and perhaps even more coolness points in an unlikely part of the world - India.

I first encountered season one on a popular lifestyle channel while visiting family in India a few years ago, and was more than a little amused that George's Greek-Aussie aphorisms had been lost in translation (the program was dubbed in American-accented English for the nation's urban youth audience). While conducting fieldwork for a television project last year, I shared an apartment with female undergraduates in Bangalore who were glued to the show, and even watched the kiddy version.

This year, I was pleased to note that the Australian Government had looked beyond cricket to source cultural ambassadors for the inaugural OzFest in The subcontinent. When a picture of MasterChef Australia judges Gary and George riding a motorbike on Delhi's streets appeared on my Facebook feed (as part of OzFest's updates), I realized this was a transnational meme worth examining, and tapping into further for understanding and facilitating inter-cultural communication. Star World, the English-language channel on which MasteChef Australia airs in India has arguably 'localised' the content by designing promos with ordinary people talking about their love of food, bringing judge Matt Preston to India to speak with clients, promoting Indian-origin contestants on the show, as well as showcasing ingredients and dishes at specialist stores. Still, my interviews with the Bangalore-based group of young females, as well as conversations with friends and family uncovered something beyond a simple appreciation of culinary skills or identification with participants of the same ethnicity. I knew all those high school mates suddenly carving time out of their busy Indian metropolitan schedules to blog about baking were telling a cultural tale potentially more interesting than the details of their recipes.

What I am suggesting here is not just Australia and Australian food have become overnight successes in contemporary, middle class, urban, youthful India. Rather, a very particular cultural product, by being representative of the diversity and tastes of its body politic (but not necessarily being politically correct, possibly due to its commercial format) seems to have transcended the geographic boundaries of popularity precisely due to its particularity. Most of those I talked to liked MasterChef despite the fact that many of the dishes plated by the contestants were unheard of in India, and a number of ingredients were either unavailable in smaller cities or just hard to find in corner stores. Perhaps they were seeking 'international' cultural capital by watching successive seasons, but their engagement with social media and support for participants is also indicative of an affective response and a building fandom.

Some of my respondents suggested that their male friends and colleagues were also watching the show. I found this of interest because gende roles remain entrenched in most sections of Indian society, and are often only marginally changed by increasing levels of education and economic growth. It remains to be seen whether future generations of urban and semi-urban Indian men will embrace a role in the home and the hearth, and if their female counterparts will encourage this shift. If the popularity of Julia Gillard's 'misogyny speech' amongst career-oriented Indian women is any indication, there may already be a wave of unrest that is likely to find voice as these women fight for, and win battles for equity and justice in both the personal and public spheres.

Speaking of the personal, the latest Aussie television export to India is the family drama series, Packed to the Rafters. The promo for the series, airing at the time of writing on Star World, shows well-known Bollywood director of transnational family sagas, Karan Johar talking about his own mother and siblings. It would be simplistic to jump to conclusions here about the universal trope of the family, but perhaps the Rafters may just become a household name in middle class India. We can only hope that Australian television audiences will similarly begin to welcome contemporary Indian cultural products without expecting it to be about Bollywood, curry or cricket. Many talented people of Indian origin currently calling Australia home, such as journalist Sushi Das, may just be the perfect intermediaries. As Das writes of British and Australian attitudes to migration in her recently-released memoir, 'Deranged Marriage', 'Multiculturalism is all very well, but if feel-good policies that promote the so-called melting-pot theory of people living side by side, sharing each other's cuisine, is all that it has to offer, then it's not much'. It looks like those of glued to MasterChef, whether in Australia or in India, may just have to get off the couch to at least invite our foreign-born neighbors or our male family members to watch with us. It may just lead to more.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Racism and Narrative, Diversity and Food

What happened in the vibrant Australian media sphere while I was conferencing at the Sorbonne, and skipping television in favour of ethnographic experiences in Parramatta?

A list that clearly reflects my democratic taste:
1. Simon Sheikh, National Director of GetUp!, collapsed on Q&A
2. Sophie Mirabella, Federal Liberal MP, was slammed for not assisting Sheikh
3. 'Dumb, Drunk and Racist' continued to get love and hate mail (feel free to correct me on this one)
4. 'The Shire' trended far more than 'Abstudy' on Twitter
5. Amina, the headscarf-clad MasterChef contestant, was eliminated from the Kitchen

If you notice implicit or explicit links between any of the above listed items, you would have guessed that underlying my democratic taste is a culturally diverse palate. This palate is in turn shaped by reading vast tomes of race, postcolonial and globalisation literature, and through sharing difficult and enriching 'identity' anecdotes with friends and colleagues. At the same time, most of the academic sessions on racism and multiculturalism that I have attended over the last couple of weeks have convinced me of the need to approach these issues via narrative rather than theory. Slamming 'white privilege' in the face of someone who comes from a working-class suburb or has just been retrenched will not go down well without context, history and experiential telling.

Case in point is the last item on the list, which happened to coincide with the large number of papers I heard on transnational versions of MasterChef, national cuisine and identity, and food and inter-cultural relations. Reality shows such as MasterChef, or films featuring central characters making beautiful food, or the experience of visiting a kebab shop in the middle of a riot are useful tools for broaching the subject of race in classrooms and public forums. Moreover, they function as clues and cues for large sections of the national and international media on representing diverse populations. Of course there will be plenty of hate mail, offensive online comments, and perhaps even a 'that was brave' remark or two from fellow storytellers. Empirical evidence, another kind of narrative, may come in handy on such occasions!

Take, for instance, the results of the 2011 Australian Census. I will not reiterate here what are now widely known statistics about the rise in Mandarin, Korean, Arabic and Hindi-speaking members of the Australian community. What did come as a surprise, however, is the subsequent assumption in the editorial of 'The Weekend Australian' which stated that these numbers are a testament to our tolerance, and prove that 'Dumb, Drunk and Racist' is a tabloid documentary. A News Limited publication referring to an ABC-comminissioned series as 'tabloid' is more than just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. What is more significant, however, is that it signals a popular perception regarding cultural and religious diversity.

The integration idea of the 1970s has clearly given way to ghettoisation (on all sides), and the rhetoric of tolerance. We don't seem to have moved beyond displaying our cosmopolitanism by eating butter chicken, or occasionally buying the sauce at Coles. My own experience of this dates back to my undergraduate days in the Adelaide University Union - interaction between local and international students was recognised as a glaring issue, but one that no side was willing to take a lead on. Almost a decade on, I heard the same problem discussed at the recent Asian Studies Association of Australia conference, where Dr Ken Henry shared thoughts on his 'Australia in the Asian Century' white paper. Let's hope this report is a narrative of policy as well as hope, and that it gives us both a framework for future action, and also a dose of much-needed initiative.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Enforced Televisual Domesticity

Was it just me, or was there a rather large dose of the Indian sub-continent on Australian television in the last month or so? Admittedly, I was much more of a couch surfer than usual due to a petulant viral infection that took its own sweet time to leave my body. In any case, I counted 'Bollywood Star' on SBS, a Hindu wedding-themed team challenge on Channel Ten's 'MasterChef', a long leg in Rajasthan on Channel Seven's 'Amazing Race Australia', and a still-going documentary titled 'Dumb, Drunk and Racist' on ABC2 that is centred around the experiences of four middle class Indians visiting Down Under. Perhaps this recent India overload is just fortuitous and I shouldn't over-think it. Still, if it is documenting Aussies visiting and sampling the new India, and Indians seeing Australia through their own eyes (not those of the increasingly tabloid news channels), then it is a welcome development.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Contemporary India and the Woman Question

A number of happenings in India of late, as well as reading Rama Bijapurkar's best-selling, We Are Like That Only is making me wonder if entrenched attitudes towards the fair sex, and women's own mindsets in the new middle classes are taking an adequately progressive turn. Before I carry on, I must admit that by virtue of growing up in the nation when it was transitioning to a global, capitalist modernity (and hence being on the cusp of the pre and post-liberalisation generations), I am both personally and politically invested in the woman question. It continues to be contested territory in many a developing society, and globalisation brings social and economic aspiration with a grain of human development index-defying salt.

Hearing about and watching the first episode of Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate on the issue of female foeticide via the Facebook posts of India-based friends has not been quite the mass solidarity high, but it nonetheless vindicates my choice to be an independent woman in the diaspora. While incredibly fortunate to be born into a family that values girl children and their education, I occasionally bear witness to pangs of nostalgia from parents and grandparents about 'simpler' times when they didn't have to worry about their daughters' marriage prospects and subsequent familial roles. This has often translated into implicit pressure to find or arrange a spouse since my early 20s, in the hope that the constancy of their pleas (and my own imaginary body-clock) will eventually make me relent. A number of women living in India would probably make pragmatic rather than romantic choices in such matters, and Bijapurkar labels this phenomenon a kind of 'womanism'. I am not sure if it is my exposure to western feminism, or my eternal idealism, but such an apologetic assertion of women's rights seems less than desirable to me. What stings even more, as Khan pointed out in his research for the program, and as Mitu Khurana (a doctor who was harassed by her in-laws into aborting her twin daughters, but stood her ground) makes evident in her blog, is that a better than average educational and social standing seem to make matters worse.

A piece in The Guardian on the Aarushi murder case, and what it says about the warped values of the new Indian middle class, is worrying. It is not my intention to steal the aspirational thunder of this particular yet heterogenous group, but exposure to the world of consumption and opportunity (primarily via satellite television) comes at a huge moral cost in a nation with a) a large population that bolsters a competitive attitude towards material and social wealth; and b) a historically huge income gap that make take centuries to be bridged, even at the current rate of annual GDP growth. That these personal/political battles are played out through the popular media on the bodies of women is a key issue that needs institutional and grassroots consideration beyond ephemeral news cycles highlighting particular crimes only until the ratings are favourable. I think India's middle classes are in need of a more open dialogue on gender issues; this would be a real test of their respectability.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Uncertainty isn't such a bad home
Beckoning to live
Recognise this moment
This barely-there breath
And the syllable it brings forth.

Transition is better than an airport lounge
You get to have your own home
Your very own view
At least for a while.
You rent a space in yet another city
Which lets you be
And may just shape your heart

As for the aching shoulders and long lists
Those too are temporary
Easily ameliorated
By a bowl of steaming pho
And its lasting flavour in your veins
Its textural memory forever yours
To keep and to give away
In your next breathful sentence
That befriends Uncertainty.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Bollywood Rom Com Goes Global, Truly Madly Deeply

I watched a Hindi film called London Paris New York (often referred to as 'LPNY') last night, and was pleasantly surprised with some of the more neo-liberal layers that the classical Bollywood romantic comedy has acquired in recent years. By this, I do not mean that the wooing dances have merely moved to shopping malls from the neighbourhood park, but that there is a certain degree of moral latitude displayed by the central characters. Nikhil (Ali Zafar) and Lalitha (Aditi Rao) have far more sexual agency, and personally-formulated professional ambitions than the characters in comparable films set in foreign locales, such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, to name a few.

The treatment of 'feminism' in the film, however superficial, is a welcome change from the girly girls of yesteryear who may be willing to defy parental control of their marital choices, but do not display any desire for participating in the workforce. At the same time, Aditi's push for equal rights and greater political participation need not kill feminine expression and romance. There is a telling scene in the film where, after spending a drunk (but chaste) night in a hotel room in Paris, Aditi has soiled her clothes and Nikhil offers her the choice of a feminine (pink) or a feminist (purple) dress. Although she chooses pink, I read this as a more complex decision than simply conceding to (and consenting with) the male gaze. As is typical of many contemporary street fashionistas, Aditi combines the silky pink dress with a tough black leather jacket and a short hair-do. She walks the city as though she owns it, speaks fluent French, and tells Nikhil (when he complains about Indian girls not paying enough attention to their countrymen once they are treated well by the 'goras') that perhaps Indian males have an inferiority complex. To my ears, conversations and scenes of this kind ring refreshingly true for contemporary Indians of a certain class living, studying and/or working overseas.

Of course all this means that the poor boy meets rich girl (or vice versa) story may be gone for good, at least for urban and semi-urban dwellers. While Nikhil is the son of a wealthy film producer, Aditi proudly declares herself a member of the educated Indian middle class. This difference is of enough interest, and again taps into recent changes in India's demographics as well as greater association of its middle-income groups with the overall narrative of the nation's growth. The lower classes, it appears, will have to make do without malls and multiplexes, let alone envisaging romantic sojourns in London, Paris or New York.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Asian Century and all that Jazz

I've had an overdose of this term since the beginning of 2012 (mostly in a good way). From my academic grant applications, to my formal and informal conversations with friends and colleagues, and even my leisurely viewings of Q&A on the ABC - it has been a hell of an inter-disciplinary discourse on the importance of Asia, and the decline of Europe. So far, so good.

On some occasions, the discussion wanders into perilous non-economic territory, and you begin to hear a degree of soft grumbling about the drop in the study of Asian languages in Australian schools. I distinctly recall a research scholar on a panel discussion show suggesting that we need to try and find a way of making Indonesian as cool as Japanese. Amen to that!

So it appears that we might begin to do something about Asian literacy. Perhaps a combination of institutional and grassroots endeavours is ideal. The higher education sector could lead the way, as indicated by a recent story in 'The Australian'. But the other side of the problem, as pointed out by  Jason Li in a remarkably cross-cultural keynote address, is being comfortable with Asia (and Asians) in Australia. In that respect, I believe, we have more pressing yet more easily addressable concerns. The framework of the multicultural talk-and-action in this country needs to shift from tolerance, co-existence and the occasional curry or yum-cha to much more engagement with each other's morphing communities (as opposed to stereotypes of frozen cultures).

Let me clarify my position on ethnic ghettoes by saying that all groups, white and non-white, seem prone to this phenomenon. In other words, there is no point getting into a blame game and, for instance, holding this or that international student group culpable. I have seen local initiatives work splendidly in forging inter-cultural links, and perhaps they need to stand up as models and show us the way. The Asian Century may sound like the grandest of narratives, but it needs to take off with the daily stuff.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Ageing Creatively

Unlike previous years on this blog when my musings on bygone months happened towards December, the last couple of years have been a bit of an anomaly. While I stopped blogging altogether after my PhD completion, and due to the pressures of sessional teaching in 2010, I resolved to rejuvenate this creative outlet (albeit for largely academic reasons) in 2011. In the first couple of weeks of 2012, I took it upon myself to read old blog posts and realised with some degree of surprise that it was not merely the content of my writing that had changed, but also the style and presentation. The new coloured background cannot compensate for the fact that, by and large, the creativity of my posts has been on a downward slide.

Perhaps this is reflection on my life too - more 'settled' now, at least intrinsically, and with less time and inclination to be an intellectual wanderer. However, this also feels like a bit of a loss, as though I cannot be silly and dramatic, and write freely in the third person about personal-political 'stuff' like dating across cultures any longer.

While the last year has been a gift in more ways than I can fully comprehend right now (both professionally and personally), I think I should make a bit more of an effort to use this blog as a creative outlet as much as an experimental intellectual space. Using pictures (as I did in previous years) is one way to accomplish this, but only when it feels natural. I also do wish I could write poetry again, however un-publishable, but perhaps that will also have to emerge in its own time. It could even be a new discourse for critiquing global media!