Brown Girls On Bollywood

Girls On Film takes a look at Indian cinema by investigating its impact on three South Asian film and image-makers. Zarina Muhammad, Sanaa Hamid and Kiran Rai (KayRay) are all women of diaspora. Their work questions and explores their cultural heritage, their desire or separation from the motherland. And while they challenge representation here in the UK and America, we take a closer inspection of gender representation on Bollywood screens.

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Let’s take a minute to look at world cinema. It is safe to assume that any non-English language film is considered foreign and outside of the mainstream. White, English speakers dominate film audience and tend to construct the status quo. So outside of this, is there a foreign language hierarchy? Yes, there is. South American, European and Japanese filmmakers tend to maintain popularity and set the tone for “must-see” film, think Pans Labyrinth, La Haine and Top Boy as prime examples. Indian cinema as the most produced cinema in the world, with audiences doubling that of Hollywood, is still frightfully unknown to many film enthusiasts. Caught up on Bollywood stereotypes, many are unaware that Bollywood itself is a small fragment of Indian cinema, produced solely in Mumbai, in the language of Hindi. While Hindi acts as the lingua franca in India, there are approximately another 122 major languages within India, according to the Census of India 2001. Indian film therefore, is produced on a regional basis in its particular regional dialect, the most popular of which are Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam (Mollywood), Tamil (Kollywood), and Telugu.

 People think of Bollywood and picture love songs in fields of flowers with flowing dupattas, but there is a level of artistry and story-telling in Indian Cinema that doesn’t receive the same level of appreciation that Western cinema does.”

So why aren’t we more aware of the South Asian film industry that fights in the ring with Hollywood heavyweights? “I’ve always thought of Bollywood being this little insular thing, by Indians for Indians. It is popular across Asia and the Middle East but there are times when it seems like one big Indian in-joke. A lot of it, I think, is this preconception that Bollywood is just women in wet sarees dancing round trees.” Zarina tells me. Sharing her opinion Sanaa elaborates, “People think of Bollywood and picture love songs in fields of flowers with flowing dupattas, but there is a level of artistry and story-telling in Indian Cinema that doesn’t receive the same level of appreciation that Western cinema does. Not to mention I can look up to women who actually look a lot more like me!” Zarina, a self-acclaimed “professional angry brown girl” is quick to point out the lack of critical attention the genre receives. “I’ve complained about this so many times, but in the St Martin’s library there are a grand total of 6 books on Bollywood. There is an academic black hole surrounding it, and it’s deintellectualised a lot.” Considering India produced 1602 films in 2012, over the US’s 476, it does seem unevenly recognised by academics.

As daughters of diaspora, these girls are seeing Bollywood through a unique lense. Western feminist ideals collide with female fetishisation on screen and the white male gaze subjecting their visual identities IRL. It’s a cocktail of uncomfortable questions. Zarina’s work in particular seems to challenge these issues head on. “There is a kind of cultural burglary that happens when the West is inspired by cultures perceived as other. Like, The Guru, a Hollywood film that makes a mockery of many things; but to be honest, it’s a matter of agency. Moments where the West has been inspired by Bollywood have always been stereotypical.” Taking ownership of Indian images, Zarina chooses to manipulate popular scenes from Bollywood cinema and lace them into the tapestry of her mixed identity. Her edit Chaiyya Chaiyya manipulates a scene from the 1998 Bollywood hit Dil Se.. and makes the two protagonists look like they are dancing in a club, as apposed to aloft a train roof hurtling through Tamil Hadu. The music video Zarina directed for the rap duo, Swetshop Boys, is another example of her tying Bollywood with international themes. “The way diasporic Indians watch Bollywood films is very specifically different. Bollywood isn’t a representation of India; it’s an idea of India; it’s a fictional space that reflects preconceptions of a geographical territory. I think when British Asians engage with Bollywood it becomes, to some extent, a performative measure in which we act out our ‘Indian-ness’ and the conception of Indian culture outside of India in itself becomes performative.”

Popular Indian narratives may often isolate the western viewer, as our individualistic lifestyles tend to reject tradition and familial pressures. However, for many Asian girls, these themes are still relevant and, in some cases, indicative of their own values. “There are a lot of issues rooted within the narratives about family, social status, gender roles and marriage that I really connect with. Especially the (few) female-narrative driven films recently such as Queen and Highway, in which the storyline is not depended on a male character. “ Romance isn’t considered as an isolated genre in Indian Cinema as much as it’s trivialised in the West, using typical “chick flick” and “romcom” terminology. Instead, much of Bollywood is masala, which means a concoction of separate genres merged into one, similar to the spices in a curry. Famous western examples of masala cinema include Slumdog Millionaire and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge, as both were heavily influenced by the Indian tradition of combining a love subplot with violence, comedy and drama. For those viewers without heart, the destined love affairs may be hard to stomach. But, there are more contemporary examples, such as the aforementioned Highway, which is subverting romantic plotlines in keeping with India’s more progressive cinema. Without spoiling the end, Zarina tells us, “I found it really heartbreaking. It was a really brave, quite political move that felt more genuine and sincere [than your typical they-end-up-together ending.]”

Female representation in Indian culture is often a subject of heavy criticism in other countries across the world. Aside from cinema, heartbreaking incidents such as the 2011 Delhi gang-rape, and subsequently Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter, now banned, have shone an ever-bright spotlight on issues such as rape, harassment and sexism on India’s streets and screens. In Dr Chandrika Kaul’s essay, ‘Some Perspectives on Issues of Gender and the Indian Media,’ she critically addresses the relationship between Indian news media and film.

“The popularity of films, newspapers and television in India prompts speculation on the social consequences of such media portrayal: it is potentially very damaging. Not only is a patriarchal world order reinforced in the press, on the screen and in television serials, but the existing dichotomy of sex roles is perpetuated … The relentlessly negative representation of women in India’s media has had the effect of validating women’s inferiority as real and natural. The end result can only be a progressive debilitation of women’s self-image.”

“Those images of womxn all over India protesting for their rights still send shivers down my spine.”

“The media has a huge influence on how we view people and issues. For a lot of people in India, it is the only way they can see what other places actually look like. It is easy for us to question and critique everything that happens in the motherland. However, they don’t see what is wrong with the way womxn are represented in Bollywood, or the self-hate that has been manifested in their consciousness.” Kiran explains. “Film has the ability to change our perspectives on so many things whether we think it does or not. And that is exactly why some films are banned in India because it is feared to have people with a mind of their own without any manipulation. India’s Daughter is a film that opened that dialogue. Those images of womxn all over India protesting for their rights still send shivers down my spine.” Sanaa adds, “There is obviously a lot of problematic things about Bollywood, such as the way stalking and harassment is normalised as “courtship”.” This type of “courtship” can often be uncomfortable for western eyes and this is explored in Anne Marsen’s directed video Brookwood, a guerilla style music video for Bachna Ae Haseeno, shot in Mumbai. The video ‘Brooklyn meets Bollywood’, explores a hipster’s reaction to unwanted male attention, and how this male bravado can often disguise genuine feeling.

Emphasising on Bollywood’s problematic elements, filmmaker and actress KayRay directed and co wrote her short film Kirpa, on the familial pressures placed on young creatives of Asian descent.“It was inspired by fragments of my own experiences as a struggling Panjabi female artist along with so many South Asian women I was surrounded by. It is a constant battle that a lot of the diaspora faces, juggling between our families desires vs. our own. Our parents, left everything they knew, came to a country where they felt unwanted, worked hard labour jobs, all to provide a comfortable lifestyle for us. The misunderstandings that surface in these relationships are based on the different life choices we [as young adults] make. Our parents, unfortunately, did not have a choice.” It was because of the generalisation and westernisation of Bollywood, KayRay steered away from this genre of film and geared towards telling the stories of the diaspora as a filmmaker, especially the lifestyles of Sikh, Punjabi women in North America.

As an actress, it is hard for KayRay to accept the “overly-sexualised” women in cinema, and the “glamourous sidebars” as Zarina calls them. Female representation in Bollywood seems to be a personal issue amongst young Indian females, but the dialogue seems to be growing. KayRay describes in one tumblr post “I quickly realized how sexism/ shadism/ lack of minorities plays a huge role in the overall Bollywood industry. I even boycotted Bollywood for a while, because I became so passionate about how the womxn in Bollywood were perceived, treated.” She adds, “It also gets tiresome when people keep boxing in young South Asian actors to ONLY Bollywood, as if we are not capable of anything beyond. Yet, being on a Bollywood set, I remember being an extra and seeing the white womxn extras getting priority over all the other people of colour extras, having to be in the front of each scene.” It sometimes seems as though the film industry as a whole, is perpetuating the struggle of racial minorities, even in their home countries.

Zarina’s video series and cultural think tank NOT YOUR PRINCESS JASMINE investigates the treatment of Indian women against the male gaze. When analysing the women within Indian cinema she informs, “With Bollywood, there’s less scope in female representation now than 50 years ago. When you look at films like Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan, Mother India, Sahib Bibi aur Gulam, Devi (The Goddess by Satyajit Ray), Devdas, pretty much any film from the Golden Age in the 50s, they had these amazing meaty female presences. But now that item girls are a thing and modern heroines are kind of able to perform in a way that is actively for the male gaze of the audience and the camera, female roles are more flimsy and insubstantial. There are always exceptions, but on the whole female representation has actually got worse. Definitely in the sense of the ‘exotic eastern woman’, which I think Bollywood is more keen on playing up to now. I think it is westernisation. Bollywood became aware of the fact that people saw brown women through the lens of Orientalism and played along. The female presence in contemporary Bollywood is now either Westernised or exotified. It’s a lose-lose dichotomy.

Ethnographic Selfies, a series by Sanaa Hamid reacts against “the oppressive colonialist gaze” women of colour have historically been subjected to. Using archival imagery from the Royal Engineers Museum, Sanaa inserts moving images of herself “into a historical space where the practise of photography was a privilege, and was dominated by the white male.” From behind her Photo Booth camera, Sanaa has taken steps to reclaim ownership of female non-white identity. “I am very wary of the white viewer, but I made the decision last year that I don’t make work for the white/ western viewer. I’ve had white people make incredibly problematic statements about my work, from a completely false and sometimes offensive perspective, and I just got to that point where having to educate and endlessly explain the whole context before showing my work became too exhausting.”


“I want to turn the art world into a clique of badass brown chicks that bitch about “white people, white walls and white wine” in a way that would make Basquiat want to be us.”

It is finally time to see women of colour making space for themselves in the vacuum of art history that has dehumanized minorities and fetishised eastern women in paint, in photography and nowadays in video gaming CGI. Zarina is passionate about the type of access she allows to her work. “I never subtitle my work anymore, not in English. I don’t want to translate it so that there’s a separated question of access: who has access to the work’s meaning now? And is it the same kind of person who has access to meaning when it comes to more traditional or historical forms of art? I want to lock out the white-middle and upper class that demands access to cultural meaning and flip the notion that artistic meaning is this thing that’s understood by a select group. I want to turn the art world into a clique of badass brown chicks that bitch about “white people, white walls and white wine” in a way that would make Basquiat want to be us.” Take a look at her latest NewHive, The White Cube, if you don’t believe her.

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There will always be a level of separation between different cultures. However it is time that more shame and scrutiny should be placed on western robbery of Asian cultural signifiers. There is an ongoing battle for cultural ownership in film and fashion, but what’s more is the battle for recognition amongst Asian women in creative industries and society as a whole. Forget the notion of “giving people a voice,” it’s time to start listening to those who are already picketing at your white fences.

Any last words Zarina? “I want to show everyone in the entire universe Mughal-e-Azam. I think it is THE most beautiful film ever made.” Well, you heard her, go watch it.


Images and Video courtesy of Zarina Muhammad, Sanaa Hamid and Kiran Rai

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