Dhruti Contractor 25, is a Public Health Prevention Service Fellow at the Centers for Disease and Prevention. Outside of work, she hopes to promote political awareness and activism through the Georgia Indian American Political Action Committee.    

Bollywood Stereotypes & The Image of the Indian American

The recent hype about Bombay Dreams on Broadway has made me wonder what influence Hindi film imagery would have on America’s opinion of Indian Americans, if any. Abu on the Simpons and the Indiana Jones version of India with Swamis and snake charmers seemed to add to stereotypes that already existed about our community. So what effect would something like Bombay Dreams have as it comes from something Indians created?

Respond to this statement: The influx of Bollywood images in US pop culture will help promote a better, more accepted image of Indian Americans.

Disagreeing with this statement is Umang Dosi Pal, a 25-year-old project engineer working for Becton Dickson in New Jersey. She is originally from Alpharetta, GA and graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2000. 

The fact that we finally have an Indian musical on Broadway is excellent, and I can't believe it hasn't been done before. Indian film stories have been made for Broadway. I believe more attempts should be made. The music has been highly proclaimed and is most definitely a credit to AR. Rahman.  

 I am not saying that Bombay Dreams is a failure as a musical. Bombay Dreams is based on Bollywood films, but it is almost a satire on stereotypical parts of Indian movies. Those of us who have been watching Indian movies our entire life can appreciate the humor of the light, insubstantial "poor boy meets high society girl" plot and the wet-sari scenes.

Americans will see this without having seen Indian movies and without knowing the part Indian movies play in Indian culture. We see substantial plots and more realism in American movies. Indians do not have the same expectation of a Bollywood film. They watch movies to get away from the harsher realities of their own lives. Bollywood films are the equivalent of American soap operas. I'm afraid that people will draw unrealistic correlations and ideas from the play.

It is an interesting look at Indian culture - but there is so much more to Indian culture, Indian music, dance, and story telling. I hope that Americans do not stop short of exploring this culture after seeing this musical. They definitely have not seen it all!

Lagaan as a film did a lot more to bring India to the forefront of the international entertainment scene. It was well done, piquant, and it had a full, rich plot. It was better as an introduction of Indian film and entertainment to the American audience. Bombay Dreams only succeeds in cheapening the experience.. 

Agreeing with the statement is Rahul Bali, who is a personality on News/Talk 750 WSB. He appears on WSB Radio as the producer of “Royal Treatment” and “Money Matters”, along with reporting on politics and economics. He is member of the Asian American Journalist Association and the Atlanta Press Club.  

To start on the more general topic of the image of Indian Americans, much of that image has been shaped by day-to-day experiences of Americans at work and school. That image includes the smart student, the hard working businessperson, the doctor, the super coworker, and the list goes on. 
So now, the question is “what is that image of Indian Americans with Bollywood filter by Americans. I think Indian Americans are a little too worried about pop culture images translating to everyday people. I don’t think people should worry that if I have a car accident I am going to get out of my car and start a dance number, along with Drew Carey-esque filling of the streets. It is no different than expecting my Chinese friends to do random Jackie Chan moves.
I went to the Indian Film Fest at the High Museum mainly with my non-Indian friends who wanted a taste of Indian cinema. My friends, along with most of the mixed audience quickly realized how “over the top” Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was. Again, no concern that people would see me singing in parking deck as we left. (Or chase a MARTA train…..BTW… the end of that movie, that had to be longest train platform in the world…..Sorry, just had to mention that.)
OK, so to the question posed originally. I believe that once the Bollywood musical influx ends and the comedies, dramas, and other films go thru the American pop culture filter, it will improve the image of Indian Americans. It will put Indians in roles other than the singer, dancer, fighter, or evil father. It will be Indians and Indian Americans in everyday roles, ala the Huxtables in the Cosby Show and Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night”. The upcoming “Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle” (Not Bollywood, but Asian) will be more than happy to take many stereotypes and blow them up. (Basically, two college guys being college guys….btw…they’re Asian.) I believe that eventually Bollywood films and American based Asian films will be able to place Indian Americans in more roles that will improve the everyday image of our people as a whole. 

There are valid points in both responses and their assessment of the effect of Bollywood here. As with everything, different demographics of America that will respond differently to such images. I like to think that whatever stereotypes are created about our Indian American identity or any identity, we change those identities with the people we associate with by simply being who we are. 

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