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.