Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cultural Appropriation is not an art


Coldplay made an "exotic" video along with Beyonce and a micro-second appearance by Sonam Kapoor. Now, I might be surrounded by socially-aware friends, because most of the people I know are speaking against it, but YouTube is filled with people, especially Indians, telling how the video is not offensive and people should stop making fuss about it.
For those of you who have not seen the video, it features Chris Martin walking around the street, mainly in the dented and slum areas of India, singing, “I’m feeling drunk and so high”, while small kids dance around him and Holi colors fly high . Then something more interesting happens. He walks up to a small theater that is running a movie “Rani” (written in Hindi because that’s exotic) and our very own Queen Bee is doing some weird hand motions on a green screen, and sporting an overly done Indian attire, while too stubborn to let go off her blonde dyed hair.
Yes, the video is offensive and let me explain you why.

For generations, Indians have been mocked in the US for sporting a bindi or wearing Indian attire. So much that they were called “Dot Indians”.  They still do. Forget yesterday. Take any current American movie or a sitcom and you’ll notice how  Indians are mocked for their accents, their dressing sense and their food. As funny as Koothrapali is to Indians, he is still shown wearing tacky sweaters on top of his shirts because Indians are not supposed to know what goes on what. Indian food is always said along with the word ‘diarrhea’. Indian women are still stared at on the streets while in their Indian attire. Not just Indian, but most ethnic cultures have been mocked and caricatured in the western countries.  In the same timeline, they also want to use this very specific culture and its traits as a fashion accessory, when they want to. From music festivals like Coachella to music videos made by the entertainment Industry, you will see the usage of bindis, sarees, bridal dresses, etc. being sported in the name of fashion without actually understanding or respecting what it means to people who wear them in real life. That is called Cultural Appropriation and it’s offensive as hell.
I am no protector of Indian culture. I couldn’t care less if a bindi is sported by Beyonce, Iggy Azalea, or a cat. Just because I am an Indian, I do not have the rights to tell you what to wear, for I am not a tad bit responsible for building up this rich culture, but what I am asking is for a little bit of respect. Respect for my countrymen who had fought many battles to build up this rich history and culture that you easily mock. Please, don’t use other cultures if you don’t know what it means to its people. Most of the times, I feel proud when I see Indian culture being adopted by westerners. It creates a mutual bond. But that’s when they actually like it and try to learn the idea behind it, not when they use it as an accessory to lift their own personality or to feel exotic or to sell their art.
The second reason this video annoys me is because every time westerners want to portray India, they would not go beyond slums, dirty roads, poor people and some colorful festivals. Showing developed cities, educated youth, or modern infrastructure wouldn’t be entertaining now, would it? There has to be some random poor people dancing around them while they take a proud white walk on the dirty streets of India. It makes them feel good about themselves.
And if you think this issue is too small to talk about and that we should focus on wars and famine, as a lot of empathetic individuals would say, go find an answer to give to the Indian-American girl who was bullied and pushed around because she wore a bindi and a Punjabi dress for her birthday, to school. A lot of vital issues stems from smaller issues. No issue is a small issue.

It is okay to be a Beyonce or a Coldplay fan and still find this offensive. You don’t have to defend them shamelessly because you like their music. I am (was) a Coldplay fan and I liked the audio. I wish Chris Martin had not gone for an easy sell-out, like everyone else.
So dear Indians, if you think this is not offensive, speak for yourself. Don’t say, “We Indians love it and don’t find it offensive,” and give a wrong message. Just because you are an Indian, you don’t have the right to be not offended on behalf of 1.2 billion people.
And to you Americans, it’s 2016 and we Indians have gone way beyond our snake-charming and elephant riding days. Pull up your creativity socks and try to meet us where we are.

A class on sociology

Marc Andreessen's tweet on India and Zuckerberg's pushy attitude with Free Basics is just another example of how rich white men think of India as a poor, third world nation, incapable of taking care of itself.
Last year, an Australian cartoonist made a cartoon about Indians munching on Solar panels.
Not a long time before that, during our successful Mars mission, an American cartoonist portrayed Indian scientists in the form of rural man with an exhausted cow.
Now let’s hop on to a completely different topic and reflect on some of the most popular Indian characters on TV.
Apu Nahasapeemapeilon (The Simpsons) is an Indian, voiced by a white actor! I don’t even need to mention his insulting, stereotypical character traits.
Then there is Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali (The Big Bang Theory), who is a genius astrophysicist, but cannot talk to women without getting drunk, wears tacky three layered clothes even in summer even though he complains about India being hot and crowded, all the time and Skypes with his annoyingly caricatured  parents who watches Doogie Howser in Delhi (seriously, which middle age Delhite watches Doogie Howser?! But because it makes a joke, it works)!

Venkat Kapoor, an important Indian character in the book, The Martian, is replaced with Vincent Kapoor, in the movie. Vincent Kapoor was played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Not to mention, he still played the character Hindu. Because it was too hard to cast an Indian actor?
And almost all Hollywood movies with Indian backdrop has the same old typecasts with a overused formula for locations.
Few weeks back, I had written a post against Coldplay’s video and to my surprise, almost everyone on internet was defending it.
Yes, India is not just about advanced infrastructure or educated youth. It is not wrong when we say, India’s heart lies in its villages, but I am still against the portrayal of India in this video and many other, because If they can manage to present western countries without stereotyping them, they sure can find ways to portray India without depending on the classic poor-dirty-uneducated version. Why don’t we see Kangaroos jumping around everywhere, when we see portrayal of Australia on TV? Do we only see pubs, buses, and telephone booths when they show London? Do they show snow everywhere when they shoot scenes in Canada?
No. They don’t.
All these countries are treated as countries and not as a cultural-exhibition experience. Yet, when they show India, they pick the parts that are more sell-able. I don’t want them to show pubs or malls. There are many ethnically rich places in India that are not just dirty streets and slum areas. Snowy mountains of North India, luscious foothills of East India and the tropical beauty of South India are never explored. Northeast India is never in the picture, because they wouldn’t ‘look Indian’. It all ends on fake, doped sadhus doing rope tricks, roadside entertainment, some of which are hardly found these days, half naked skinny kids dancing around muddy streets and Holi colors.
The only time we are correctly brought into limelight is when we make any technical advances in the field of science, which too mocked in various ways (the cartoons above).
Now how is Andreessen’s tweet related to all these? Let me explain.
These little things, when seen individually are not offensive. That is why a lot of people don’t get when people raise their voices against them. They look normal. But when you see the big picture, it tells a very different story. These little things when fed to Americans on TV, it helps them build conceptions about India and Indians. Conceptions helps us in coming up with conclusions and those conclusions ends up being the lenses we view everything through. A lot of poeple are surprised when they see pictures of the Lotus temple or the beaches or the snowy regions of Kashmir.
Television is a very important medium to explore the world and its people, without even leaving your living room. We cannot travel all around the world, so we build our conceptions about other countries and their cultures over what we see on TV or read in papers.
That’s social psychology.
Like I said in my last article, as far as India or Indians are concerned, like many other Asian countries, it has some very specific traits that lingers around its portrayal, which they are not ready to change, because it’s something that sells.
If we spend our whole life watching Friends, we’d come to think it’s normal to have a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan without a handsomely paid job. We’d come to believe that it’s possible to see six white friends sitting at a New York’s coffee shop all day, and not spot a single Indian around in all the 10 years they are sitting there. Both of the scenarios are next to impossible.
So when I say that cartoon with the rural Indian man is offensive, it does not mean I am offended by dhoti or poverty in India, I am offended by the imperial mindset behind it that has a very strong and stubborn negative perceptions about India and Indians. They know it’s not correct, but it still goes on, ready to be distributed on every doorstep, in every living room.
A four minute colorful video is not the end of the world, but it’s the tiny bricks of misconceptions that starts building on its foundation. The cartoonist who made those cartoons probably grew up watching videos like this. We don’t find anything wrong with the video, but we sure would hate the cartoonist for reflecting their build-up perceptions.



I am such portrayals because all these little bricks falls harder on the tender mind sitting in the other corner of the world, thinking this is what India really is. I am against it, because someday that little mind will grow up to be a powerful businessman or an entrepreneur or the president and start dictating what’s good for India and what’s not. I am against it, because that very person would tell the world that the poor, uneducated India was better under the slavery of Britishers. Because that very same mind will consider India as a third world nation to market his business in the name of philanthropy. Because that very mind will feel the need to babysit a developing nation.
Things are changing, though. You’ll notice powerful, non-stereotypical Indian characters on TV now. Aziz Ansari’s character from Parks and Recreation is one such brilliant example. Actors like Sendhil Ramamurthy have strictly refused to accept offers of stereotypical Indian roles. It’s also because of this fight, people have started to recognize the wide, extensive culture, that’s not just limited to a couple of ideas. This small changes, all because of the voices raised against this idiocy for decades.
TRAI’s decision to support Net Neutrality and refuse Free Basics is one such victory of recent times.  It was the combined efforts of that same “educated, elite, urban youth” that saved the nation from operating under foreign power. Any entrepreneur will henceforth think twice before assuming it’s a cakewalk to dictate what a developing nation should and shouldn’t have.
In the cobweb of sociology, it’s all related. Small or big, it will all come around. Cultural Appropriation or stereotypical portrayal of characters does not just affect NRIs, it affects everyone, from every class, from every country.

And if you don’t get this, you don’t understand how sociology works and if you don’t understand sociology, then you are a mere sheep, following the easy path, aimlessly. You are the one who defends a pop-star shamelessly and then question the audacity of an entrepreneur for assuming what the pop-star has shown, as reality.
Stop following. Start thinking.

Live long and prosper