I have never been a fanatic fan of Pop music; neither the Western ones popularized by Britney Spears and her contemporaries nor its Indian versions which were a rage back in the 90s. I attribute this apathy of mine partly to my rigorous training in Indian Classical music and partly to my intolerance regarding the commercialization of sexuality to propagate music. True, I could be labelled as a typical conservative Indian prude, but when my Facebook wall was bombarded with posts about how “viral” the new Beyonce and Coldplay music video had become, I was curious to find out the reasons behind the popularity and infamy that this song had created.
The song indeed portrays an India that one would have seen back in the 1960s. The “exotic Orient” is presented in all its glorious allure, complete with the rickety bioscope and dismal cinema halls. Hymn for the Weekend (HFTW) has come under a lot of fire for its irreverent treatment of Indian beliefs, ideologies and images. It has been criticized for ‘cultural appropriation’, a term that has been used and misused in a variety of contexts during the past few years. But when I viewed the song, it brought to my mind another music video from 1995, the Indian pop song Made In India sung and popularized by the queen of Indipop Alisha Chinai. I remember the wide-eyed 7 year-old Aparna watching Chinai on the one and only music channel MTV. Imagine the shock and wonder of a conventionally raised Brahmin child who surreptitiously views such unconventional treatment of music and images!
Indeed, I believe it is this very voyeuristic approach that has propelled both Made in India and HFTW to their positions of triumph. But I beg to differ when it comes to the issue of wrongful misappropriation exhibited in HFTW. Beyonce and Coldplay filmed their video solely on the streets of Mumbai, using themes and settings which one can, even though with difficulty, find in the country. Alisha Chinai’s video is shot and filmed entirely inside one single building, or room even, which does not give any indication of being located in India. And yet, the singer has the temerity to name the video “Made in India”! Title aside, the song presents the search of a homegrown yet anglicized wealthy lady for a suitable partner. The entire song is presented in the form of a fairy tale, mystified with the “once upon a time far far away … And they lived happily ever after” framework. After rejecting numerous suitors from places as diverse as Africa, Britain and Asia, Alisha the princess of Dashab finally chooses a masculine, macho Indian prince who is “made in India”.
HFTW certainly reinforces Indian religious and cultural stereotypes of the floating sadhu, Lord Siva, cluttered and dingy streets, Holi the festival of colours and dance forms like Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. Yet in the video we never see the singers using these images as a prop or a fashion accessory. Here, the musicians feel secondary to the community in which they’re performing. Great attention has been provided to the expressions and gestures of the dancers in HFTW, while in Alisha’s video, we see Lord Siva performing a fusion of Bharatanatyam and folk dance!
The luridly ghastly facial expressions of the Kathakali artist are uncalled for. The court dancers adorn silk veshtis with their mouths covered (imbibing inspiration from the Jain code of rituals, probably!) and perform two or three fast, western dance steps throughout the video. Terrible choreography joins hands with clumsy cinematography to produce a song that is equally offensive and pathetic.
According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, thereby stripping the minority culture of its group identity and intellectual property rights. In the process, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted. Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture can be reduced to “exotic” fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, “who does not experience that oppression is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.
Some critics have proposed that although Beyonce and Coldplay are exhibiting cultural appropriation, Sonam Kapoor’s 5 second cameo appearance in HFTW validates the act of cultural “appreciation”. An Indian actor in traditional Indian costume showers flowers into the air, symbolically evoking hope for a future that respects and nourishes the rich Indian heritage. In today’s world, where even practicing yoga, wearing sombreros and trying out the cornrow hairstyle by people of “other” racial identities have created turbulence, the issue of how “Indian” the singers are in these two music videos gain significance. Is it acceptable if an Indian singer/actor presents India through the lens of the Western bioscope, reinforcing images of picturesque poverty and peculiar practices? I don’t think so. Despite Alisha’s Indian roots and upbringing, we can hardly see a strain of respect and authenticity towards Indian culture and beliefs in her video. The fantasy world the princess inhabits is a brash bricolage made up of random Oriental images that create zero semiotic sense.
If one points an accusing finger at how HFTW fails to portray the India of 21st century, I entreat them to look at the obsolete portrayal of Indian customs in Made in India. I shudder at the multiple scenes that senselessly portray venomous snakes, panther, snake charmer, bearded and sinister-looking oracle and scantily clad background dancers. Beyonce and Coldplay merely combined together some of the most captivating, most attractive parts of India and its traditions, so obviously the result is exaggerated. However, it also focuses on the positive aspects of India, like its sense of community, playfulness, and free spirit. As a proud Indian, I am happy to see that the nation is being portrayed in such wonderful ways in the global media; and not regarding stories about ‘the rape capital’. On the contrary, I am still amazed at how such an explicitly Orientalist song like Made in India escaped the wrath of the cultural critic’s pen for so long!