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Bourdieu in Bollywood

No, not a post about French academics dancing in wet saris … In a post over at Sepia Mutiny, Amardeep Singh asks an interesting question about Bollywood* cinema:

Why is physical difference from Indian norms acceptable (or even desirable), while significant linguistic difference is an impossibility?

He is talking about Hindi film actress Katrina Kaif, whose voice has to be overdubbed to hide her English accent when speaking Hindi. This, in itself, is nothing new. In fact, Bollywood has long employed actors from various regions of India, using overdubbing to hide their regional accents. But Amardeep feels that this is different:

But why is Katrina Kaif in Bollywood to begin with? Why is she getting parts? It’s not for her acting ability, which seems pretty minor, at least in Sarkar. I believe she and others are being brought in because they look white.

I don’t hold that against them, but I do question why it’s such a commodity in Bollywood. … Indian actors have always tended to be much lighter-skinned than ordinary Indians, and the projection of ‘western lifestyle’ has been a part of Indian movie mythology for at least 40 years. And it’s always been somewhat troubling to me — a sign of a lingering colonial mentality.

The difference now, in this era of hybridity-globalization, is that the simulacrum of whiteness is approaching perfection.

The oddity is that what is wanted is the physical appearance of whiteness mixed with a classy, sometimes English-inflected, but still authentic Hindi-speaking capability. I find that to be an interesting paradox. The need for good Hindi can be explained as an issue of effective communication with mass audiences, but it doesn’t make the paradox any less real.

Vikrum Sequeira has more on the concept of fair skin in India, but I’d like to get back to Amardeep’s original question. What is the difference between looks and language?

I believe that the answer has to do with the way in which alternative symbolic markets are constructed. In her famous critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, linguistic anthropologist Katherine Woolard pointed out that the official language of the state is not always the dominant language – that alternative linguistic markets can be created which oppose the state sanctioned hierarchy. She uses the example of Catalonia, Spain, where Catalan came to be valued over the dominant Castilian. As Wooldard points out, this is true even of the Castilian speaking workforce. For Woolard, the historical reasons for this lie in “the regional economic dominance of the Catalan bourgeoisie” which survived attempts by the Francoist government to impose “centralized (and increasingly multinational) finance capitalism over the Spanish economy.”

In Bollywood, the truly rich and powerful characters in most films have always spoken English. However, these characters have often been portrayed as untrustworthy. In the 70s they were villains who sold out the interests of their people to big business. Today they are often young people who have lost touch with their values. What we have is the classic case of an alternative linguistic market. While the dominance of English is recognized, a space has been created in which preferring English over Hindi is negatively sanctioned.

Interestingly, the Bollywood elites who make these films are largely cosmopolitan and English speaking. This is not an unusual phenomenon in postcolonial nations. In Taiwan I also found that many advocates for local language rights were similarly cosmopolitan and multilingual. Looking at race can help us better understand this phenomenon.

Amardeep’s question can be rephrased: Why has an alternative market developed in the linguistic sphere, but not in the sphere of personal beauty? I would argue that it is precisely because race is not something that one can so easily change. Sure, there are all kinds of beauty products one can buy to lighten one’s skin. (In Taiwan I have to go out of my way to avoid buying moisturizing cream with bleach in it.) But without Michael Jackson’s wealth, most people cannot change the color of their skin. Now, there have been attempts to create alternative markets in skin color. The whole “Black is Beautiful” movement sought to do just that. The problem such movements often face is that they tend to exclude the elite. India’s English speaking cosmopolitan elite can, if they want, have their children learn enough Hindi to maintain their power in such a marketplace. However, they cannot easily change the color of their skin – and India’s ruling class is still largely “wheatish” in complexion.

*See here for a post on the origin of the word “Bollywood.”

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P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan, where he teaches linguistic and visual anthropology. He is co-director of the film Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!, winner of the 2011 Jean Rouch Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology. Follow Kerim on Twitter.

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