There is a certain section in India which insists on its cultural primacy. Members of this affluent and vocal slice of society do what other affluent folks do—they watch and listen to international artists like Coldplay, vacation in foreign countries, and hang out in trendy bars and swish malls. The cultural engine of India, Bollywood, which once depicted stories of the underdog and the romance between a poor boy and a rich girl, has long abandoned those tropes to pander almost exclusively pander to this audience. Every story is now urbane, about the existential crisis of poor rich boys and girls, and about discovering oneself on road and yacht trips in international locations.
Last year, this crowd were agog with the presence of Chris Martin, the lead singer of the British band Coldplay, in India. Not only did he meet top leaders like the Prime Minister of India and Chief Minister of Delhi, Martin also performed, without fanfare or announcement, an impromptu gig at a bar in New Delhi. But now the same people so enamoured of the band are crying themselves hoarse. They say that Martin and pop singer Beyoncé have stereotyped and culturally appropriated an idea of India far removed from reality.
One can’t deny the predictable clichés that abound Coldplay’s latest song Hymn for the Weekend. In the video, save the elephant and the snake-charmer, every tired cliché makes its presence—levitating sadhus, dancing peacocks, fire-eating acrobats, black and yellow taxis with garish interiors, rundown theatres and crumbling buildings. At the start of the video, Martin is featured like any other awe-struck tourist. By the end, he is literally soaked in its colours.
While the video is unoriginal and perhaps boring too, the protest about cultural appropriation is bewildering. The song is four-minute-long piece of pop culture. And it is the nature of pop culture to reduce societies and complex ideas into small easily identifiable sets of clichés. India is now a fairly important country and it will increasingly find itself on the world’s pop culture map, reduced to clichés just like this. Coldplay’s song is more a Western tourist’s wide-eyed view upon encountering the country than an exercise in deliberate humiliation.
There was a somewhat similar argument, around the depiction of poverty, when the film Slumdog Millionaire was released. According to that argument, the film was too transfixed by the grimness of India, and failed to represent urban life and offer a more complete picture. There have been similar popular international films about slum life in other countries too, like Amores Perros set in Mexico, and City of God and Elite Squad in Brazil. But you rarely heard of any protest there.
With this newly-minted section in an increasingly assertive country, it appears, if you do not incorporate them in your idea of India, it is apparently not India enough.
Our own culture industries are rife with stereotypes, often extending itself to racism, but you would be hard-pressed to hear a squeak about it. White women figure as oversexed dancers in Bollywood films. The film Fashion showed Priyanka Chopra hitting rock-bottom when she realises she had slept with a Black man. People from the Northeast will find little or no space in Bollywood films, but casting a north Indian actor (Chopra) to play a Manipuri boxer is perfectly reasonable. What about those cute little Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags that we see strung up in Indian homes and cars, with little understanding of their usage? Wouldn’t that fit in under the argument of cultural appropriation?
India is too large and unwieldy a country with too many narratives in simultaneous co-existence. Nobody perhaps will be able to incorporate them all. Certainly not a four-minute long music video.