Indian emigration to British colonies, from Fiji in the east to Caribbean in the west, started in the nineteenth century. Those hundreds of thousands of emigrants remained almost nameless and faceless persons for Indian literature, arts and cinema.
Specifically, the Indian women sailing away to distant lands were a non-issue for Indian cinema. In 1982, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi showed glimpses of lives of those NRI women. Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006) and Rohit Jagessar's Guiana 1838 (2004), also touched on those lives.
That there were Indians living outside India, came into popular perception in 1977, when one of the famous Bollywood stars of that time, Mumtaz got married to Mayur Madhwani, a NRI settled in Kenya. Even if Madhwani was a millionnaire and that marriage did promote an image of NRIs as "rich people living in Africa", it did not fire public imagination in India. Perhaps, because Africa itself was not seen as a dream destination in the Indian psyche.
Bollywood had its own definition of NRI - an Indian going to a rich country like the US, UK or Australia. In popular cinema of post-independent India, these NRIs were mostly men, who came to India to get married to a traditional Indian girl.
In Nasir Hussain's Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon (1963), the America-returned Difu (Rajendra Nath) can be considered as the symbol of those early NRI men in Bollyworld, who wore hats and half pants, went around with tennis rackets and were a little stupid, though essentially benign. Another variation on this theme was the westernized NRI man, who loved his drinks and his white girlfriends, and was essentially a man without the Indian morals. A villain. The poor Indian girl with traditional values was usually forced by her family to marry such men. Subhash Ghai's Pardes (1997) used a variation of this theme.
NRI women were rarely seen on screen in those days. Often they were Anglo-Indian women with names like Lily or Mona, who smoked, drank and did cabaret dances. Manoj Kumar first presented such a woman as a heroine in Purab Aur Paschhim (1970), where Saira Banu played the role of Preeti, who eventually has to learn and appreciate traditional Indian values. Vipul Shah's Namaste London (2007) echoed a very similar representation.
The liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 changed the way NRI women were shown in Hindi cinema. Films about NRI families came in to vogue with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995). From DDLJ to K3G (2001), the boundaries for women in families of Indian origin were laid out. The women were expected to preserve the Indian culture, even while enjoying the luxuries of living abroad. So these women had arranged marriages and celebrated traditional festivals like Karvachauth. While these films were not so openly critical of western values as in Purab aur Paschhim, but they remained smug about the superiority of Indian values.
However in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), Karan Johar changed tracks. Suddenly the NRI family had to deal with adultery. In Dostana (2008), another film produced by Karan Johar, homosexuality came out of closet, even if hidden behind the glossy (and safe) sheen of two guys running after the same girl.
More recently, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu from the same production house portrays a female lead that has had six boyfriends, has had sex with some of them, but is not a big deal for her or for the story. She is bubbly, full of life and has the Indian hero still trying to woo her.
There have been other NRI films in recent years, from Neal and Nikki to Anjaana Anjaani, where the women are no longer guardians of Indian traditions. They are cosmopolitan women, their dress and behaviour can be like any American or European girl except that their surnames are still Khanna-Kapoor-Bedi and they occasionally sing songs in Hindi.
The stories of most of these films are "inspired" by Hollywood films, though most still continue to have some scene about a father or mother trying to fix some sort of arranged marriage for them. You can argue that they are essentially Hollywood films made with some Hindi and some English, dialogues and songs.
I have a sneaking feeling that on a rebound, the women of these films have discarded everything remotely Indian (except that they tend to fall in love with Indian-origin heroes, but that is the compulsion of commercial Hindi film story-telling). They go to Beethoven concerts, celebrate Christmas, and don’t feel obliged to perform pujas. They have overcome the taboos related to sex, and can drink wine or plenty of tequila shots. They can even have dads who wink at them and ask if they have slept with their boyfriends (as in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu), though they are not discussing their favourite positions for having sex. At least not yet.
If Hindi cinema has suddenly discovered the more liberated and independent desi girls, it means that there is a market for such films. Indirectly it is an acknowledgement that in the real world, in India and abroad, desi girls are living such lives or aspire for such lives.