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Movies and the Quest for Collective Identity in the Indian Diaspora

November 10, 2008 | By

Many of the films made over the past decade by Indians settled abroad on the cultural angst of the diaspora gives us a window into the schizophrenic cultural mentality of the Indian immigrant in the west.

“Who do you think you are ?” maybe the title of a celebrity genealogy show in British television, but in effect it is one of the most fundamental questions that any sentient being can face, the question of one’s identity. Identity may be individual as well as collective, the former in some sense unique to each of us and something that we imagine is independent of our social context. Moreover, identity need not be unique. At the risk of reiterating a cliché, every one of us slip in and out of many roles even in the course of a single day. All of these roles are an essential component of my overall identity, and though not always independent, are not in conflict with each other. However, none of these roles occur in a social vacuum, defined either in relation to our family or to the larger community in which we find ourselves embedded. Thus, our individual identities are intrinsically tied up with our collective identity. And in most societies, the community to which we are expected to give our allegiance is not our neighborhood, our extended family or our city, but our nation. Being an abstraction, the concept of “nation” is extremely fluid, and our identification with belonging to a particular nation as such depends on a collective willingness to believe in the existence of a community that is far bigger than the totality of every individual that we are likely to meet in our lifetime.

Sociologists have argued that the creation of such geographically widespread collective identities was possible only after the advent of the industrial revolution and the concomitant development of mass education and media (Gellner, 1983; Anderson, 1983). While, in the present time, national identity is often considered to dominate all other such group identities, it often cohabits in a competing (and sometimes in conflicting) relation with other pan-national or intra-national identities such as religious, linguistic/ethnic, class and (in the case of India) caste. In fact, the relation between ethnicity, nation and state is quite complicated. While most states (especially in the West) formed over the previous two centuries have been created along ethnic lines, so that these identities have merged, a nation is not the same as state, neither is a nation-state always comprising people of a single ethnic group.

Movies and the quest for collective identity in the Indian diaspora

The early films of Gurinder Chadha, Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and Bend it like Beckham (2002) have a more nuanced view about what it means to be Indian in an alien nation.

To see how conflicting group identities can result in divided allegiances and precipitate a crisis of self-identity, let us try to locate the fracture lines between such groupings. Seton-Watson has said that “…a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one” (Seton-Watson, 1977). Benedict Anderson would say that the nation exists when the people imagine themselves to belong to a community, assisted by the media. While denying the reality of the concept of nation, Anderson nevertheless admits the power of such collective imaginations (Anderson, 1983). Such national identities have often been created on the basis of existing ethnic identities, i.e., human groups believing in a common descent because of physical similarities and/or common customs or because of memories of colonization and migration. It often does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists as in racial identity (Weber, 1922). However, it is difficult to find a nation-state that is monolithic in its ethnic composition. Most such entities, although dominated by the elite of a particular ethnicity, will always have minority populations marginalized from the national mainstream. Even within a single ethnic group, certain communities could feel themselves ostracized on account of other allegiances, such as religion. Thus, ethnic groups, while their members may identify themselves as a nation, could in fact reside in a state that they may not regard as their own. While the examples that come most to our mind are the tribal aborigines or people colonized by their dominant neighbors (such as Kurds or Palestinians), the above features are as true for migrants who have moved from their original homeland to another state.

For diasporic communities, their divided loyalties between their ethnic identity and the nation-state in which they reside may reach schizophrenic proportions. Such identity crises provide an acid test for theories of origin of nationalist sentiment, as most such theories have typically developed based on the examples of European nation-states, and cannot explain why immigrants to a state would feel the need to preserve their previous ethnic identity. For example, Gellner’s explanation of the rise of nationalist feeling as a corollary of industrial development hinges on the assumption that, an individual will seek to improve his or her lot by jettisoning all previous allegiances and swear fealty to the newly risen national elite who control the means of production. While this may be satisfactory in explaining why the present-day Englishman does not have any attachments to either Saxony in Germany or Normandy in France, it falters when faced with the evidence of generations of south Asians settled in Britain staunchly supporting the visiting cricket teams from Pakistan or India. While the exclusionist tendencies of the mainstream society in the Old World may have provided the initial barrier to assimilation of immigrants considered too different from the local populace, we see desperate attempts at preservation of ethnic identities even among migrant communities of the “great melting pot” in the New World.

While the diaspora’s concerted attempts at retaining the links with their homelands may be seen partly as a response to the racism they encounter in their adopted nations, it is not sufficient to explain why the first generation migrants go out of their way to prevent their children from assimilating in the mainstream. In fact, the children of immigrants suffer a double displacement, despite being equipped to enter on a dialogue with the majority community on more equal terms. Not only are they considered “different” (although perhaps less so than their parents) and therefore, outsiders, by the local populace, they are equally strangers to the customs and values of their parents, often imposed on them at home. Children of migrants learn to live a split existence early on, conforming to different sets of cultural norms at home and outside. The response of these young people to such emotional stress can take many different forms, ranging from rebellion and outright rejection of their ethnic identity to outwardly conforming to the parents’ impositions while inwardly raging at its injustice. Often the precarious balancing of conflicting values results in a game of duplicity, with the parents kept in the dark about one’s life away from home.

And how do the parents keep alive their ethnic identity in the face of constant onslaught on their children by the culture of the dominant community? By focusing on the rites and rituals they consider an integral part of the life in the “homeland”. The power of symbols, be it religion, language or other kinds of cultural practices, in providing a sense of nation-hood to otherwise stateless communities (such as Jews before the formation of Israel, Basques or Lankan Tamils) is undeniable (Smith, 1991). It is as true for immigrants – witness, the rise of religious fervor among south Asian and Arab immigrants in the west. In the case of the diasporic Indian communities, the sense of national identity is a particularly interesting one, as it bridges several ethnicities (and sometimes, also nations – forging a south Asian rather than particularly Indian identity) often fostered by the common idiom of Bollywood movies. This is underscored by the fact that, not only are most major Bollywood productions exported to USA and UK, but more tellingly, over 10% of the total revenues of the Indian film industry is now earned in the west. This goes hand in hand with a greater involvement of the Indian diaspora in the political developments in the home country. Eerily reflecting the support to the Nazi party provided by the German diaspora (especially in South America), the recent rise of Hindu fundamentalist parties under the banner of Sangh Parivar has been fuelled to a large extent by support, financial and otherwise, from the Indian communities abroad. To an extent, it can be seen as the manifestation of a “besieged” mentality, the diasporic community perceiving itself to be threatened by assimilation in the majority culture of the states where they reside. Their chosen recourse is to support those voices in the Indian political spectrum which is most rabidly nationalist and shouts loudest about an Indian resurgence. It matters little that the specific “Indian-ness” that is being referred to is extremely troubling in its implicit exclusion of all heterogeneous elements that characterizes India. The Bollywood-ized India is an extremely limited view of India, predominantly hindu upper-caste and hindi-speaking. Further, as the divide widens between what the diaspora imagines their homeland to be and what it is in reality, the more they depend on the imagined nation-scape of Bollywood to justify their prejudices.

Movies and the quest for collective identity in the Indian diasporaGiven the significance of the diasporic support in fuelling the reactionary trends in Indian politics, we ignore their identity crisis at our own peril. Many of the films made over the past decade by Indians settled abroad on the cultural angst of the diaspora (for a list see Tummala-Narra et al, 2005) gives us a window into the schizophrenic cultural mentality of the Indian immigrant in the west. They give a glimpse of how the community is re-fashioning its identity, among the first generation immigrants as well as their children. The films differ a lot in their stance about how the diaspora should handle its identity crisis. On one hand, we have movies like American Desi (2001, dir. Piyush Dinker Pandya) that clearly opts for exulting in one’s Indian-ness, while at the other end, we have the early films of Gurinder Chadha, Bhaji on the beach (1993) and Bend it like Beckham (2002), which have a more nuanced view about what it means to be Indian in an alien nation.

American Desi centers around Kris, or, Krishna Gopal Reddy, the son of immigrant parents who has just entered college. The double allusion to the mythical Krishna in his name is deliberate, and visually supported by intercutting with oleograph-style pictures of Bal Gopal (which are seen as his mother offers a puja) providing a contrast with the baseball attired Kris. His obvious relief at leaving home is apparent as he shouts while driving away “I’m finally out of the house and I’m never going back.” This is an interesting contrast with Jess, the principal character in Bend it like Beckham who is torn between her desire to conform to her parents’ wishes and the need to follow her own desires. Kris, on the other hand, is overtly rebelling against the Indian cultural identity that had obviously been imposed on him at home. So much so, that when he finds out that his roommates at college are all Indians he calls his American best friend in desperation (“Get me out…..[My roommates are] all Indians. Every single one of them. This place smells worse than my house!”). However, his American best friend is too busy with his own life to come to Kris’s aid. When we later see how these Indian roommates pitch in to help Kris win the girl he loves, the subtext of the film (deliberate or not) becomes clear: an Indian can only depend upon his fellow Indians to look after his interests.

The film soon gets a romantic angle, with Kris meeting Nina whom he at first doesn’t recognize as being Indian. To Nina’s question “You don’t like Indians ?” we get the full explanation of Kris’s need to rebel against his ethnic identity: “No. I mean Yes, I do, my parents are Indian. But they always used to drag me to these cultural events when I was a kid, you know ? And man are they boring. And I finally thought when I came to college I’d be out of that stuff, through with it, you know.” Nina is the idealized second-generation Indian immigrant, someone who is equally at ease being an American and an Indian. In the film’s sub-text, she is the gold standard against which Kris is constantly being compared and found wanting. It is obvious that Nina is the “good girl” of Bollywood projected into the Indian diaspora, especially when she slaps Kris for kissing her. Her behavior has been consciously scripted to counter Salim’s allegation that “all Indian girls raised in America become corrupt.” When Kris watching a so-called Hindi film classic cannot stop himself from blurting out:“This is driving me crazy … hey, it’s been 10 minutes! Aren’t they due for another song and dance sequence. …Oh good! I was starting to get worried. …What’s this ? The next day or something ? They have all changed clothes…. I’ve seen porno films with better story lines, honestly!”, Nina retorts by saying: “Come on! Grow up! Can’t you accept anything Indian without insulting it ?” It is characteristic of the movie, that it equates criticism of things Indian with insulting Indian culture. Although not intended, it reflects to an extent the fragile ego of the Indian diaspora, ready to take offence at the slightest (imagined) slight to their much-vaunted Indian culture. Nina however does not give up easily, and tries to teach Kris the garba. The evangelical streak in her behavior appears when she says “I figured it’d be nice for you to learn something about your own culture.” To which Kris expectedly retorts “My culture, what do you want me to learn about my culture? That I come from a country where the concept of toilet paper is still a myth? That kids let their parents decide who they’re going to marry ?” But just as you feel that the director may be taking a balanced, nuanced view about Indian-ness you get hit by something that may have been tailor-made for the jingo-istic audience of a Sangh Parivar mela:

Nina: “Maybe I am just too Indian for your taste ?”

Kris: “Too Indian ?! Why does it always have to be about Indian culture ?”

Nina: “Because I am Indian. And since you can’t stand anything Indian, there’s no us.”

Movies and the quest for collective identity in the Indian diasporaBut why does Nina consider herself Indian ? What is the essential Indian-ness that she possesses and Kris does not? As the film makes it clear, this identity is strictly that of a north Indian upper-caste male. The women are present only to show the beacon to the lost males, there is no place for a serious meditation on gender inequality issues in the “feel-good-that-you-are-an-Indian” text of the film. True to its premise, American Desi has a contrived ending to please its intended audience (the first generation Indian immigrants and in India, the supporters of the political platforms they fund). But, to be fair, it does have a tongue-in-cheek allusion to being “Just like a hindi film! The hero beats the villain and saves the beautiful heroine” (as one of the characters say at the end).

While not scaling great heights artistically, American Desi nevertheless was a modest success in the box office. This is obviously a movie that resonated with the sentiments of the Indian diaspora. It is instructive to analyse it to find out what is the nature of Indian-ness that the community it portrays finds appealing. It is hardly the only diasporic film that completely ignores the diversity and cultural heterogeneity of India, the fact that it almost equates an appreciation of Hindi movies with Indian culture when the fact is that most of its Hindi movie allusions will be completely lost to a large section of Indians coming from India itself.

What makes the movies made by immigrant Indian directors so fascinating is their exploration of the processes underlying the adoption of one’s collective identity. The question of “what makes one an Indian?” is not just of interest to an Indian migrant in Brighton or Boston, but of equal importance to us, back in the “homeland”. Political compulsions both prior to and after independence, have led to the dominant political ideology that India is a single nation, when clearly it is a multi-ethnic state. We all have gone through indoctrination in our school texts about how India embodies “unity in diversity”. Movies of the Indian diaspora, by holding such machinations to critical analysis, provide a focal point for dialogues on how to arrive at a more pan-Indian identity without having to promote the interests of certain sections at the expense of others.


Benedict Anderson (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London, Verso, rev ed, 1991)

Katherine Fields (2005) “Bhaji on the Beach and American Desi”,

Ernest Gellner (1983) Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell)

Nenad Miscevic (2005) “Nationalism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Hugh Seton-Watson (1977) Nations and States (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press)

Anthony D. Smith (1996) “Nations and their pasts: The Warwick debates on nationalism, 1995”, Nations and Nationalism, 2, 358 – 365. (Available at

Anthony D. Smith (1991) National Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Pratyusha Tummala-Narra, Aruna Bewtra and Salman Akhtar (2005) “The Celluloid Ganges: An annotated filmography of the Indian diaspora”, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 2, 297 – 310

Max Weber (1922) Economy and Society, eds., G. Roth and C. Wittich, trans. E. Fischof, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Sitabhra Sinha is a faculty member of the Theoretical Physics group in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He is interested in film as a medium for exploring social perceptions of reality. He can be contacted via
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