Indian Identity as Cultivated Through Bollywood

As Americans our freedom is frequently taken for granted. Our country is one whose history is well known and well-documented in books, movies, and various other formats. However, most importantly, we understand, because of this frequent exposure to nationalistic media, just what it means to be an “American”. Nevertheless, there are many other countries throughout the world that do not have the strength of a recognized, for lack of a better term, “cultural identity” that most Americans do. One such country worth mentioning is that of India. With a colorful history, our understanding of the country begins long before its independence was declared in 1947. In fact, it seems that many Bollywood films deal with the country and its inhabitants’ understanding of what it means to be Indian as a result of its recent independence. Although under the rule of British Colonial forces for over a hundred years, there is a thoroughly established Indian culture. However, having been independent for less time than the British government has ruled them, the topic of an independent and thoroughly Indian identity is crucial in the world of Bollywood film and manifests itself in a variety of ways in the film industry.
The first understanding of the Indian identity is perhaps the easiest to grasp, and that would be the very explicit mention of being Indian. It wasn’t a simple declaration, but rather it was an association of the character or characters with a particular set of morals and/or values that are understood to be uniquely Indian in nature. For instance, in one of the more contemporary examples of Indian cinema, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989, Dir. Mirza), the main character is by and large a poor excuse for a human being. Through many Bollywood films, audiences that live outside of India can come away with a very basic understanding of some of the values of Indian culture. For instance, the mother figure is frequently the subject of adoration. She shows kindness and wisdom, while remaining virginal and pure in the eyes of the viewer. Salim’s treatment of both of his parents is unorthodox to say the least, and certainly appalling. Through displays of general disregard for anyone else’s wellbeing, the audience watches as he meanders aimlessly through his life of petty crime, but by the film’s end, we see a reformation of the character of Salim. In an effort to make good, he declares, “My name is Salim! I am Indian and I want to live with dignity!” Although it is not long before he is struck down, the notion of being Indian and living with dignity are paired together with an implicit understanding that to be Indian, one also must live with dignity. While some may see this as an idealized representation of the Indian identity, it cannot be ignored that the visibility of Indian ideals and Indian culture is undeniable progress in formulating a visible Indian identity in the world of Bollywood.
Another example of the assertion of the Indian identity in connection with specific values, and even more so the idea of being independent, can be found in Lagaan (2001, Dir. Gowariker). In this film, a tribe of Indians is pitted against British Colonial forces in a high-stakes cricket match. In the film’s end, even though they began with no understanding of the game, the Indian tribe wins, but not through conventional means. While the game is understood to be unfair in the beginning, with the British having the advantage, the passion of the tribe is a driving force. There’s nothing for the British to gain in the game, except to revel in the further oppression of the villagers, whereas essentially, the freedom of the Indian people in this village is at stake. Furthermore, they collaborate using their various skills and roles in the village to create a formidable cricket team. These roles, such as farmers and doctors, are seen as having their own set of merits that the British are without. In effect, the film rather plainly states that the Indian villagers way of life can even triumph over the oppressive leadership of British Colonial forces. Although Salim is never pitted against an outside force, his declaration of his Indian identity is understood to be a victory over the poverty of his area and the success of the villagers against the British is an unquestionable accomplishment. While there are many factors that contribute to the eventual outcomes of both of these films, the culture of India is inescapable force in both of these protagonists’ success.
However, even within the country of India, the importance of identity is unparalleled. While it is not as overt as the declaration of overall Indian identity, it is an essential part of the structure of the country. Just like the United States is made up of Americans, there are a variety of ways to be “American”. A person can be from the South and be an American, just as someone from the North can be an American, but the two can still have differing mores and mannerisms. The same can be said for the people of India. However, rather than come right out and say it, it is frequently something that is communicated through dress or speech, among other things. For instance, in films like Lagaan rather than use exposition to illustrate how different members of the tribe are coming together, they capitalize on their differences thus making the exposition unnecessary. This is achieved by showing the Sihk member of the team in his traditional garb, which is clearly different than the dress of some of the team members. However, other differences may be in the language alone. This does not escape the attention of Indian audiences who can hear and understand that a different dialect is being spoken, but for the sake of foreign audiences, sometimes the differences must be spoken out loud. One such example is Mughal-E-Azam (1960, Dir. Asif) in which one of the supporting characters explains that he is a Rajput. To Indian audiences, his yellow attire as he prepares for battle would have been a clear indication of his belonging to the Rajput clan, but for outsiders, this announcement is necessary to the character’s motivation. It helps the audience to understand his willingness to die for a cause he so firmly believes in and even his general sensibilities, such as the dismay at Anarkali’s forwardness to reply to Saleem’s note. These sorts of characters, although clearly Indian, represent the spectrum of the Indian population and illustrate that India cannot be summed up as one thing. Even within this one country, there are so many different sets of values and traditions that the necessity for an identity beyond that of merely “Indian” is almost painfully apparent.
Bollywood is one of the most visible representations of Indian culture. While it may not be as strong as actual education, the concept of using film to expose a certain set of ideals or thoughts is an age-old technique. However, with films such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Lagaan, and Mughal-E-Azam we see many forms of identity. With salim’s story, we see identity as an instrument of power. Only Salim can define himself and try to make good on his declaration in the name of India. In Lagaan, identity is seen as a struggle against an outside force to assert one’s independence and its culture. Finally, with Mughal-E-Azam we see the breakdown of Indian identity into something far more complex than the nation of India. We see the complexity of tribes and dialects, being woven together to create an intricate tapestry of religion, language, and customs. Although the three films are in many ways, very different from one another, each brings a complex country, that began only decades ago, into focus.


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