Consuming Bollywood

Gender, Globalization and Media in the Indian Diaspora

by Anjali Ram (Author)
©2014 Textbook X, 217 Pages


Consuming Bollywood is a major activity in the Indian diaspora and the revenue generated from diasporic audiences is growing exponentially. By combining extended qualitative interviews and textual analysis, this book provides an insightful analysis of how the women who are socially located in the Indian diaspora use the spectacle of Bollywood cinema to renegotiate cultural meanings of home, gender, belonging, and identity. By taking the experiences and interpretations of diasporic women as central, this book substantially adds to the literature on gendered and transnational identity in the context of migration and globalization. Furthermore, it considers the emergence of Bollywood as a potent global brand that is reconstituting cultural identities within a transnational, neoliberal, market-driven economy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • Reflecting on My Research Routes
  • Bollywood and the Indian Diaspora
  • The Method Question
  • 2. Reading out of Place: Global Media and Diasporic Identity
  • The Interpretive Turn in Media Studies
  • Inside Texts and Out-There Readers
  • What’s in the Bollywood Name?
  • Out of Place – The Diasporic Condition
  • 3. Mediating Memories
  • The DDLJ Moment
  • Sites of Public Commemoration
  • India Day Celebrations: Memory and the Universal/ Particular Dialectic
  • Diwali: The Gendered Nature of Commemoration
  • Sites of Recollection: Personal Memory and Indian Cinema
  • 4. National Texts and Transnational Identities
  • “Indias of the Mind: Imagining the Nation through Bollywood
  • The Temporal Dimension of Identity Construction
  • Marking the Boundaries of Identity
  • Karva Chauth – The New Traditional
  • 5. Gender and Viewing Pleasures
  • “I like that about being Indian”: Engendered National Discourses
  • “I feel like he is boy next door:” Pleasurable Negotiations
  • Reading Rekha: Transgressive Representations of Gender in Indian Cinema
  • 6. Gendered Transitions: From Mythic Nation to Consumer Nation
  • Rehearsing the Purab aur Paschim Polarization
  • From Mythic Nation to Consumer Nation
  • Kal Ho Na Ho: Unsettling the Prototype of the Gendered Nation
  • Dostana: Blurring the Boundaries of Desh/Pardes
  • 7. Gender, Performance, and Bollywood’s Commodity Culture
  • Bollywood and the Making of Cool
  • Bollywood Brands and Bromances
  • The Global Indian Woman as “Angrezi Ethnicity”
  • Bollywood at Home and in the World
  • References
  • Index

← viii | ix → Acknowledgments

It is with much gratitude that I acknowledge here the intellectual, emotional, and editorial support given to me by many people. I thank the women who generously allowed me to interview them. I am grateful for their willingness to share their thoughts, opinions, interpretations, pleasures, and meaning–making around Bollywood cinema with me. I am also very grateful to the many members of the Indian diasporic community in New England who in many informal ways allowed me to understand the breath and depth of Bollywood consumption and related identity practices. I thank Mary Savigar, Sophie Appel, and all the editorial staff at Peter Lang for their patience and steady guidance throughout this project.

I thank David Descutner whose spacious intellect, generous spirit, and unmatched wit started me on the path that eventually led to this book. I also thank Jenny Nelson, Roger Aden, and Claudia Hale for their conceptual guidance and solid academic support as I developed this research. I thank Roxanne O’Connell, Kamille Gentles–Peart, and Teal Rothschild for being such great colleagues and fellow scholars-in-arms. I am grateful to the Foundation to Promote Scholarship and Teaching at Roger Williams University for support in the form of course releases that enabled me to complete this project. My thanks and appreciation especially to Ruma Sen for being a co-conspirator in watching, dissecting, arguing, and speculating endlessly about SRK and Bollywood. Ruma’s movie passion combined with her intellectual incisiveness paved analytical pathways for which I remain deeply and incalculably grateful.

I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to my partner, Sunil Bhatia. His encyclopedic knowledge about all things big and small about Bollywood, Indian politics, and cricket is rivaled only by his theoretical depth, critical sensibility, and deep compassion. In addition to acting as a living compendium of both popular culture and high theory, Sunil believed in this project whenever I experienced multiple writing crises of faith and energy. Without his abundant enthusiasm and a “can do,” “always will,” “chak de” attitude, I might never have crossed the finish line. I am immensely grateful to Anusha and Amit, the twin joys of my life who act as daily reminders to carpe diem. To Amit, whose intense curiosity and rhetorical prowess inspire me to think outside the box and try to get ahead of the game (or I will never catch up to him). To Anusha, whose remarkable powers of ← ix | x → concentration and sharp logic encourage me to set the bar just a bit higher every time.

Finally, I dedicate this book to my mother, Radha Gopal Ram, whose undaunting courage, unwavering strength, and spirited self-reliance have acted as beacons of inspiration and motivation throughout my life.

← x | 1 → Chapter 1


Somewhere between 2012 and 2013, the Indian cinema industry reached its 100th anniversary. The sticking point about the date is with regard to whether Shree Pundalik (1912) or Raja Harishchandra (1913) deserves the honor of being the very first Indian movie made.1 The latter made by Dadasaheb Phalke is widely regarded as the first feature film to be made in India. Regardless, of the debate, the fact that Indian cinema is as old, if not older, than Hollywood, whose first feature length film is dated to 1914, is testimony to the power, longevity, and scope of Bollywood.2 To add to the commemorations, Bollywood’s star player, Shah Rukh Khan, completed two decades in the industry in 2012 and celebrated his command over the silver screen by playing DJ for the day on a BBC Asian Network Special radio broadcast much to the delight of his Asian British fans.3 Another more somber commemorative moment in 2012 was marked by the passing away of Rajesh Khanna, the iconic superstar of the 1960s and 70s. Musical tributes and film retrospectives celebrating his work materialized over the summer across India. Even the Indian Congress took a moment to mourn Khanna’s passing during their monsoon session.4

I allude to these recent commemorative events to underscore the fact that Bollywood is hardly a newcomer on the mass media stage. It has wielded considerable media might for a century. Beyond its monumental domestic presence, audiences in the Global South and East from Nigeria to China have been aware of and have been consuming Indian cinema from the 1950s, at the very least. However, only recently have the North and West acknowledged the productivity and presence of Bollywood in a more mainstream way. Today, Bollywood has emerged as a household term worldwide. Its meteoric rise in being acknowledged as a major global media powerhouse has been fast and furious. Up until the mid-1990s, the Global North barely paid attention, at least news-wise, to the goings-on of what is now generally considered as one of the major rivals to the American Hollywood dream factory. Globalization, however contested the term may be, is ← 1 | 2 → in part the propeller for this recognition. We now live in a world where CNN simultaneously beams its news coverage to Baghdad, Beijing, Berlin, and Boston; where America’s Fox Searchlight and India’s Eros Entertainment distributed the Oscar-winning, British-directed, Hindi-speaking, misrecognized-as-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire; where small towns all over Asia receive MTV; and where movie theaters in New York, Hong Kong, and Johannesburg alike exhibit the latest movies from India to packed houses. As Appadurai states, we are immersed in the cross-currents of global flows.5 In other words, the globalization of media implies the creation of a global space, which Morley and Robbins argue is a “space of flows, an electronic space, a decentered space, a space in which frontiers and boundaries have become permeable.”6

Cinema has always been part of the global flow of media. Ever since the Lumiére brothers saw the potential of exhibiting their cinematic productions beyond Parisian cafés and Nickelodeons in New York taught new immigrants English through talkies, cinema has been integral to the globalization of culture and capital. Indeed, it is widely believed that the Lumiére brothers introduced cinematic technology to India before the United States. Nonetheless, most discussions, particularly scholarly ones of the globalization of media, have been centered on Hollywood and its large and pervasive presence in the world. In contrast, only recently has there been attention paid to ways in which Bollywood travels around the globe. Given its prolific production of media texts consumed by a global audience, understanding how Bollywood is consumed, interpreted, and used as a resource for identity and meaning making is important. As Larkin points out, the scholarship on global media has tended to privilege “Western media as the only ‘global’ media.” This emphasis has downplayed the “social significance of other long-standing global flows.”7 Understanding these “other” global media flows such as Bollywood, and the cultural specificities of transnational audience engagements is key to challenging the linear, uni-directional thinking that has dominated global media analyses.

The scholarship on Indian cinema has been slowly emerging in recent years. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947–1987 by Sumita Chakravarty stands as one of the early best examples of analyzing ← 2 | 3 → Hindi film texts within their historic and cultural contexts.8 The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema compiled by Rajadhyaksha and Willemen in 1994 and then revised subsequently signaled that Indian cinema was finally being viewed with scholarly seriousness.9 In the last decade, there has been a modest but well-developed and growing body of work devoted to textualist analyses of Bollywood including, but not limited, to research done by Gopalan; Gokulsing and Dissananyake; Kaur and Sinha; Gopal and Moorti; Mishra; Prasad; Rai; and Virdi.10 Additionally journal space has continued to welcome and publish articles on Indian cinema in the last decade. However, the bulk of research on Indian cinema continues to be focused on textual readings, ideological critiques, and historical and institutional analyses. As Rao argues, “scholars, within and outside of India, have conducted textual readings of films…but only recently have studies of audience reception of particular film texts…begun to emerge.”11 Banaji, Bhattacharya, Dudrah, Larkin, Punathambekar, and Ray have all provided important contributions to address this gap.12 Nevertheless, scholarship on Bollywood remains text-focused and while this has been fruitful to expanding our understanding, there remains a paucity of sustained and systematic audience analyses in relation to the consumption of Indian cinema.

This book amplifies and builds upon the slowly rising audience scholarship on Indian cinema. Drawing upon extensive qualitative interviews, participant observation, and textual analysis, I have set out in this book to explore and explain the relationships between media, memory, gendered identity, and community within a transnational, global context. I anchor this book in the tradition of reception studies that urges communication scholars to take media interpretation and meaning making as significant. For instance, Radway’s argument that the very act of reading is important in understanding the meaning that the women readers derive from romance novels was path-breaking.13 Her thesis mirrored critical scholarship being engaged in the British Cultural Studies tradition by Brunsdon and Ang on women soap opera fans.14 Additionally, the substantial research produced by Morley, Buckingham, Hobson, and others on audience activity pushed media studies to consider audiences less in terms of “effects” and more within the context of shared interpretations and culturally situated reading patterns.15 More recently, Murphy and Kraidy have ← 3 | 4 → articulated compelling arguments for reconsidering audience ethnography as a way to understand global media consumption in terms of lived, situated local practices.16 Following this larger scholarly tradition on audience activity, I employ qualitative interviews alongside textual analysis to explore and unpack the interpretive or “reading” strategies used by first-generation Indian immigrant women spectators in order to understand both the global impact of Bollywood and the construction of place, belonging, and identity in the Indian diaspora. Additionally, I incorporate voices from young second-generation Indian American women to more fully understand the multiple layers of consuming Bollywood in the diaspora. By examining the role of Bollywood in the Indian diaspora, I offer an understanding of how media practices and media representations circumscribe and facilitate a re-imagining of gendered identities, cultural selves, and national belonging in the context of transnational migrations and relocations.

Reflecting on My Research Routes

My interest in studying Bollywood consumption in the diaspora stems from my own various personal and professional motivations. I grew up in the pre-globalized, post-colonial, highly regulated world of India spanning the decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s and made my own diasporic journey to the United States in the 90s. Bollywood occupied a highly ambivalent place in my life. In keeping with my own class and cultural locations of urban, educated, upper middle class, I learnt to cast Hindi cinema as crude, kitschy, and tasteless. Adults around me derisively dismissed Bollywood movies as populist, predictable, and utterly lacking in any kind of aesthetic highbrow culture-ness. At that time as now, there were alternatives to the Bollywood-style of filmmaking and I was encouraged to consume and appreciate art house Indian cinema. Yet, Bollywood songs were sometimes indulged in as entertaining and pleasurable in the social spaces that I inhabited. So while the movies were viewed as déclassé, the songs, particularly the older ones from the 50s and the 60s, were appreciated with an attitude of wry nostalgia.

← 4 | 5 → This reading of Hindi popular cinema through a contradictory mixture of gratification, amusement, and disparagement is clearly related to a postcolonial sense of cultural hierarchy. The rejection of Bollywood as a legitimate and worthy cultural product was in the pre-1990s, economically closed India, an affirmation of the superiority of English. Colonial injury to the middle-class, English-educated Indian psyche was still deep through the early 1980s and the voice-overs on advertising and television and radio news employed an imitative British English. The cultural capital enjoyed by English in postcolonial India did not mean an outright rejection of Hindi or other regional languages. On the contrary, when Hindi was employed in the mass media such as news broadcasts, it came in the form of a pure, highly literary idiom. In other words, between the valorization of English and the official use of shudh or pure, high Hindi, local vernaculars were relegated as lowbrow. Consequently, the use of Hinglish, a mélange of Hindi and English, used unintentionally by some and in intentional jest by others was considered a debasing of culture and decidedly plebian. Bollywood’s use of the urban vernacular, popularly referred to as Bombay Hindi from the 1970s onward, positioned the movies even further down on the ladder of “Culture” with a capital C. None of this disdainful attitude for Bollywood cinema kept me from consuming or deriving pleasure from Hindi movies on several occasions as a teenager in India. However, my pleasure was always tainted with a sense of discomfiture and the feeling that Hindi cinema was “uncool.” Post 1990s, Bollywood consumption would become very “cool,” but in the 1980s, expressing enjoyment for Hindi cinema meant risking social censure, or was a dead giveaway to your class location.

As a graduate student in the United States, in the 1990s, I engaged in a research project where I explored the media experiences of Indian immigrant women with mainstream American television.17 My purpose was to understand how we as Indian immigrant women, constructed meaning and took pleasure with texts that did not “hail” us, that had no images, references or resonances with our cultural experiences. Previous intercultural communication studies on immigrant adaption at that time asserted that the mass media played a pedagogical role, providing a “pressure-free” channel where societal values, norms, myths, aspirations of the host society “could be absorbed.”18 ← 5 | 6 → Apart from the implicit assumption made that viewers are passive reactors, these studies failed to account for the alienation and exclusion experienced by non-European/non-white immigrants when they encountered mainstream media texts. These earlier studies assumed that such alienation is simply a question of culture shock that one would inevitably “get over.” Further, these studies rarely mentioned so- called “ethnic” media texts, such as Indian cinema, which in the case of Indian immigrants have always played an important role in maintaining what Shamita Dasgupta calls a “continuity in their dislocation.”19 Through the course of my study I realized that although my participants regularly watched mainstream American shows, they positioned themselves outside its discourse when talking to me about their media experiences. As one woman I interviewed asserted: “Here it is only American and Americans so it sort of irritates me,…here the television caters only to American needs.” This notion of being left out, of being ignored, and therefore being unable to relate formed a major theme in the interviews I did. However, along with this complaint of being disregarded came sharp critiques of “American culture” as they saw it through their televisual experiences. Delving deeper into the comments made by the women whom I interviewed, I realized that television viewing provided a site for them to resist the dominant culture and assisted them in creating identity through difference. In other words, American television had become a signifier that preserved the essentialized binaries of East/West, privileging the former so that a reified Indian identity could emerge to counteract the flux of migration. Later on I would return to this theme of cultural differentiation in my analysis of how Indian diasporic women engaged with Bollywood.

Proceeding from my discoveries in my own early research and the gaps I perceived in some of the literature, I surmised that studying the production and consumption of Indian popular culture would be fruitful to understanding the discursive frameworks that undergird and maintain identities within a migrant community. At that time, I could not have anticipated the seismic shift that was about to take place in Bollywood as it related to its diasporic audience and its eventual escalation into becoming a cool, consumable cultural product. Rather, in addition to scholarly motivation, I was impelled by a personal investment ← 6 | 7 → in understanding how women of the Indian diaspora read Bollywood. My interest in Hindi cinema and its relation to the lives of Indian immigrant women was stemming in part from my own confrontation with the politics of memory, place, and identity.

By the 1990s, my own understanding of Hindi cinema was shifting. It mattered less to me that Hindi cinema was not cool. What mattered was that it was acting as a space for me to imagine and construct narratives of home and alleviate some of my own feelings of alienation as I navigated what it meant to be an outsider in a pre-dominantly white culture. Displaced from the comfortable confines of Indian urban, upper-middle class, I had been repositioned as migrant, marginal and other in the United States, first as an international student and then as a green-card toting, immigrant woman/scholar. Like many immigrants, I found some comfort and delight in frequenting my local Indian grocery store and restaurants, participating in Diwali celebrations, socializing with other desis,20 and of course, watching Indian movies. However, as I observed the overt and aggressive displays of religious nationalism in public events organized by local Indian immigrant communities and the hyper-masculine/nationalist rhetoric that pervaded Indian cinema, my feminist politics and sensibilities interrupted my pleasures of nostalgia and identification. Consequently, my concern with researching cinema, gender, and identity in the diaspora emerged in relation to both my own uneasy, ambivalent consumption of Indian cinema and a conscious, reflective recognition of its centrality in constituting diasporic subjectivities in our community.


X, 217
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (June)
home identity migration belonging women
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 217 pp.

Biographical notes

Anjali Ram (Author)

Anjali Ram (PhD in Communication, Ohio University) is Professor of Global Communication at Roger Williams University. She has published in journals such as Women’s Studies in Communication, Human Development, Mind, Culture, and Activity, and Culture and Psychology and in edited books such as Mediated Women, Communicating Ethnic and Cultural Identity, and Sociology of the Diaspora: A Reader.


Title: Consuming Bollywood
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229 pages