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The Evolution of Cinema’s Desi Girl: At Home and Abroad

The Evolution of Cinema’s Desi Girl: At Home and Abroad

March 14, 2012

Hindi cinema’s NRI woman has gone through a drastic evolution over the decade.

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.


  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    02.04.12 11:30 PM
    Thanks icyhighs. I am not sure if film have to be really "real", they have to seem real or may be seem plausible. Plus there are so many genres of films, so not all want to be real.
    For me, the period of Bollywood cinema that liked most was seventies and eighties, the time of Hrikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar and Basu Chatterjee. That was real enough for me. :)
  • icyhighs
    02.04.12 02:48 PM
    Interestingly, despite the changes in portrayal, Hindi cinema continues to be behind the times in depicting contemporary life, be it of men or women. The shift you talk about is a shift only over time. Viewed in isolation, Hindi films are still gratingly unreal in reflecting today's society.
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    28.03.12 10:32 PM
    Thanks Feluda. With time NRI market that watches Bollywood has changed and so Indian films are catering to them.
    About middle class looking western culture as superior, I feel that it is more complex issue and needs to be reflected upon. I am not sure if it is correct to put it that way. It is rather children growing up in middle class homes who are thinking differently? :)
  • feluda
    28.03.12 07:26 PM
    really good read. a lot of the hollywood-isation of bollywood cinema, and the aspirational westernisation you see in a lot of modern indian cinema must also be down to bollywood trying to appeal to the nri market abroad, as well as the middle classes at home who have always seen western culture as superior. bit of a shame that modernisation has to mean 'westernising'.
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    14.03.12 11:09 PM
    Thanks to everyone for your comments and observations.

    @Harry: I have my ideas about what is good and what is not, but while writing it, I did try to be non-judgemental. To each his/her own!

    @Veby, @Arnab & @Jyoti: I agree. The change in India is perhaps even more striking, especially for some segments. It comes out very clearly in some Bollywood films. For me Sweety (Priyanka Chopra) in Kaminey was like dynamite, complete eye opener!

    @Vivek: I agree with you but I think that in spite of everything, the image of Africa remains negative in India. Part of it could be racist. But I have never heard anyone saying that they dream of going to a country in Africa (except for South Africa).

    @Satish: I am sorry I didn't get your point about Sonam Kapoor, may be because I am not much familiar with her films!
    14.03.12 09:53 PM
    @ Sunil

    I liked the way you have wrote the article, but and this is big but. Are we (NRI's) changed for good or bad by emulating like westerners. I am not being rude or racist, just an observation.

    I am not saying do not buy best stuff invented in west or do not adopt the social change which are meant to be good for us, but the things I am saying is, do we need to be like westerners, when it comes to drinking culture as good change.

    We NRI's Should be selective in adopting all the good things that other culture's have to offer, and leave the rest which cannot be integrated in to our culture. This should be our mantra.

    If drinking is considerd good thing as a change then I feel sorry for the remainder of the Indian population who still believe it's worth preserving our culture, even in west and still be proud of it. If you think it's step in right direction for our female NRI's to drink, then I feel sorry for you and your future generation.

    I am not saying drinking is bad when it's done in privacy. What I'm saying is, I have seen the drink related problems in UK and believe me the things I have seen should not be emulated at any cost, by men or women, especially our NRI's. By saying this I am not passing any judgement on any body.

    As a doctor I hope you understand on what I am saying. By endorsing drinking as a good change, in our women or men, is as good as saying, I LIKE AIDS.

    We should be proud of who we are and don't need to be like anyone or anybody else. The last and the least if drinking is considered a good thing as a social change in India or Indians, then I'd rather not be good.

  • veby
    14.03.12 05:08 PM
    Interesting!!!! But not jus female NRI, domestic birds are getting bold too !! It shouldn't be a wonder if even in your small township in the country you receive a-wine-this-evening invitation from lady residing next to you( the one to whom you are pretending like an innocent child so far)..But I think it's good!!!
  • Vivek Iyer
    Vivek Iyer
    14.03.12 11:22 AM
    Interesting piece :)

    Africa has a healthy number of NRIs, and arguably all of them are well to do, with a good number of millionaires to.

    Just one correction, Mr. Madhwani is based in Uganda and not Kenya.
  • Jyoti
    14.03.12 11:19 AM
    Not only for NRI females but woman living in India have also seen a huge transition in cinema. Be it a movie like 'Fashion' where Priyanka Chopra is a model who drinks, smokes, have sex with many people or movies like "Break ke baad" where the lead actress drinks more wine and beer than the actor, the Desi Girl is no more the girl who survives to preach Indian values. She is a good girl, but have life of her own and never refrains from enjoying it to the fullest. A positive move I would say!
  • Arnab
    14.03.12 09:02 AM
    An interesting observation and very well written, I did notice this paradigm shift in the female leads of today's bollywood and had this change in mind but I wish I could write it so well like you did.
  • satish
    14.03.12 08:21 AM
    Good recap are forgetting caricatures like 'Masters in Ethical Hacking'--Ha Ha--Ms.Sonam Kapoor...

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