Friday, 24 May 2013

I'll have a Brown Cosmopolitan, thanks: Musings on Bollywood, Australian multiculturalism, and the Asian Century

British Indian Artist Anish Kapoor's exhibit at the MCA
When I announced to strangers more than a decade ago that I had flown all this way to embark on a degree in media in Australia, I was sometimes asked if I was doing that to work in Bollywood. I always felt a tad uncomfortable with that suggestion, but didn't have the conceptual armour at the time to name my discomfort and shame those assumptions.

More inexplicable however, is the inadvertent conjecture of many a colleague now that having a background in film studies implies I have an automatic expertise in Bollywood. I was recently introduced by someone in a professional setting as an 'Indian film and television academic'. On hearing that, I wanted to cast a magic spell and make Deepa Mehta's 'elements trilogy' appear from ether. I also felt an excruciating urge to explain that studying South Asian diasporic cinema for my doctoral project implied looking at the influences and production contexts of these crossover directors - a vast body of global work ranging from the more traditional arthouse fare of Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray, to the avant garde films of feminist film makers such as Trinh Minh-ha and Pratibha Parmar. Just in case my explanations fell short, I wished my Honours supervisor could be summoned to produce an on the spot reference to attest to the fact that I wrote a first class thesis on Jane Campion's film 'The Piano', and Gail Jones's novel 'Sixty Lights'. While I have since written one paper that critiques the representation of Indian female journalists in Bollywood cinema, and co-written another one that considers the implications of having stereotypical Anglo characters in Bollywood films set in theWest, I would hardly call these definitive of my career, or unproblematic additions to the growing worldwide canon of 'Bollywood Studies'.
If this is not my primary area of interest, and given that I have programmed for mainstream Australian film festivals in addition to being engaged with South Asian cultural communities in Australia, why does the current Australian obsession with courting Bollywood bother me? Perhaps I am one of the biopolitical subjects described by Dr Goldie Osuri in her wonderful article on Bollywood in Australia. Perhaps I am so tired of being typecast and being expected to play native expert (not just getting away with 'native informant' status after a PhD), that I feel compelled to write/talk back. As someone who has dabbled in creative practice, I also feel an urge to write/talk/visualise myself into being in a way that both the Australian media sphere and most Indian films set in Australia have failed to do. I want to encourage professional creatives in Australia to produce their own stories instead of waiting for Bollywood to come up with the right script, or for Screen Australia to realise they have a diversity problem. Easier said than done, but the growing number of recognised Indian-Australian writers might be the perfect collaborators for innovative screenplays.

What does the notion of being, and wanting to be around 'brown cosmopolitans' have to do with Australian multiculturalism and the Asian Century? As Dr Osuri mentions in her piece, contemporary manifestations of Australian multiculturalism are increasingly neo-liberal, with state and national tourism bodies courting Bollywood productions to help sell particular icons of 'Brand Australia'. Add India's own neo-liberalism to the mix, and you have a lethal combination - Saif Ali Khan in an ultra-modern apartment with a sea view and a sports car in spunky Melbourne. I am not suggesting that this kind of wealth and lifestyle is unattainable for the average Indian-Australian, but that it is certainly not the lived reality (or lived memory) of most of us. While we mostly applauded when 'Bollywood Star' made an appearance on SBS and the judges told off the 'goras' for not knowing the difference between 'Monsoon Wedding' and Bollywood, the pedagogical mission does have its limitations. Cast an eye out to see what other 'ethnic' communities have done to be creatively visible in the Australian media landscape, and you come across the path-breaking 'Salaam Cafe' or the controversial but ratings-winning 'Once upon a time in Cabramatta'. Why do the self-representations of the Indian communities living in Australian still have to be defined with or against the trope and perceptions of Bollywood?

I think Indians in Australian have come of age in all sectors - corporate, academic, and creative. The time is ripe to chart our own paths, fight our own battles, tell our own stories, and use the interest in the Asian Century to demand (and work towards) more genuine engagement with all Asian communities residing in Australia. We need to produce our own Deepa Mehtas and Jhumpa Lahiris, and not just be content with a visiting Bollywood celebrity.