Kids Corner


Why Bollywood Matters



This is not a jeremiad about Bollywood, but rumination on what makes idols and icons, and how we learn the fundamentals of prejudice and discrimination.

I was at a gathering of young Sikh men and women.  A handsome lad with an imposing presence was complaining that some Sikh women didn't want to marry keshadhari Sikh men. Most Indian women, whether Sikh or not, he asserted, wanted their beaus to look like movie stars of Hindi films.  None of us really had a ready answer to the assertion, so a lively discussion ensued.

I can certainly empathize here.  I remember when I was young and single.  Some of my Sikh friends tried to set me up with a very polished, highly educated, professional Sikh woman.  We had some pleasant chats on the telephone, and both thought that there might be some possibilities.  So, one evening when we were on the phone trying to work out the logistics of a meeting, she blurted out, "Much as I like talking to you and would love to meet you, I have a question - ‘Are you a modern Sikh?'"

I knew what she wanted to find out, but played it for what it was worth.  Since, to my mind, the antithesis of modern is to be primitive, I tried to reassure her that I never ever left home without clothes; I held a decent job, could pay my bills, had a driving license, and could generally hold my own in conversations on religion, politics, money or sex.  That, I pointed out, made me somewhat modern.

She thought my response was offensively unresponsive. I thought, by such attitudes, we were carrying a self-imposed psychological burden on ourselves.

My question is not whether these attitudes are born out of ignorance, prejudice, or a deficient sense of self.  I wish instead to explore how we determine that something is more desirable or beautiful. Yes, we need to cultivate our discriminatory senses, but when do they become prejudicial?  That we are all blessed with biases and prejudices is self-evident, but how are we to understand them, and even redirect them? What makes some more attractive than others?

Some decades ago, the well-known American social scientist, Kenneth Clark, undertook what was, for that time, a most daring experiment.  Then, all over America, and not just in the South, schools were racially segregated. Clark found that black children preferred to play with white dolls.  This, he concluded, was the psychological damage of segregation and racial discrimination. 

His research was cited in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which put an end to the idea of racially segregated education and a society built on discrimination. The concept of "separate but equal" in fact denies equality, and Clark's research drove a large nail into the coffin of the justification of racial discrimination in this society.

Most people across racial and color bars would agree that there are no objective criteria of loveliness.  White is not inherently superior to any other shade. Blue eyes do not an angel make.  In the hinterlands of Black Africa that has not yet been brainwashed by European enlightenment, black is beautiful  -  the blacker, the better. 

Then why did black children in America reject black dolls and choose white dolls instead?  They did so uniformly across the country, both overtly and covertly. 

Discrimination of a sort is built into all of us.  The reason is simple:  We are not really children of reason, intellect or logic, but of perception, emotion and feeling.  The values of a family and community shape us.

The choices that we make are based less, if at all, on reason, and more on non-rational imperatives.  And then, we use whatever reason and logic we are blessed with to justify the decisions we have made.  Strong undercurrents of perception and feeling drive even the most rational choices.  The result is that our familial and cultural values may not always be based on reason, but they determine what we become. Bias and prejudice are then inevitable. 

Yet we hold such values dearer than life itself.  I am reminded of a time when we hired the first au pair for our very young daughter.  Both the grandmothers  -  one of European-American background, the other a Sikh from Punjab  -  were equally aghast, because the candidate was black. 

I have noticed many Punjabis, including some of my own relatives, who dote on the rare blue-eyed Punjabi baby.  Of course, given the history of Punjab, the gene for blue eyes is not really that uncommon, even though the blue-eyed baby is.  The reason is that this recessive gene is expressed only when both parents possess it, even when neither parent shows it.

Our cultural biases show most obviously in our movie industry, where the idols  -  and their influence  -  are larger than life. How many of them use blue contact lenses, or bleach their skin and hair? Recently, I was flipping through an Indian fashion magazine and was amazed to see how the models aped western body language, skin, hair and eye color.  Wouldn't the ordinary Indian woman who spends hours on such publications grow up to reject her own body and mind?  Ditto for the men.

India is a conglomerate of many diverse peoples  -  with a rich variety of cultures, traditions, music, cuisine and physiognomy.  They are not all fair-complexioned, as shown on Bollywood or portrayed in our ads for marriage partners. And, I often think that the glue that holds the variety of Indians together as one nation, the patina that gives them their distinct Indian-ness, is Bollywood  -  the Hindi movie industry. 

Is it any wonder then, that our perceptions are shaped by Bollywood?  This is the crucible, the matrix where attitudes and biases are formed, and the sense of self often distorted.

People are often very thin-skinned about such matters. Taking the lead from Kenneth Clarke's experiment, in 2001, a Boulder, Colorado grade-three student brought in a science report of a similar project with white and brown Barbie dolls wearing purple or baby blue gowns and presented them to adults or fifth grade students.  Her title was "Does Skin Color Make a Difference?"  She asked only one question: "Which doll is prettier?"  The school refused permission for exhibition at a science project.   To bureaucrats, was it perhaps too inflammatory and thus, inappropriate?

We need to belong to a community with a commonality of language, culture, and values.  That is how we become what we are. That's where we learn to differentiate between "us" and "them".

That's why Hillary Clinton observed, "It takes a village to raise a child".  To much of the world, Hollywood represents America  -  its culture, its economic and military might. 

Bollywood takes its lead from it and, in turn, shapes Indian society.  I need not recount here how poorly Bollywood has historically represented Sikhs and their themes, with a predictable impact on Sikhs' sense of self.  That's why Bollywood matters.

Parenthetically, I add here that in the past four or five years, there has been somewhat of a turn-around, and I have to credit largely Sikhs in the diaspora for the positive direction.  I point to the Spinning Wheel Film Festivals that have emerged in the past four years and now are seen in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and other places.  At these festivals, movies on and about Sikh life are shown; some are historical documentaries, others are fictionalized stories.  They are informative and empowering.  I find it fascinating that most of the moviemakers are young Sikhs from outside India, and a great majority are young women.

And that's why it is important to keep close to our hearts the universality and commonality of the message of Sikhi, which reminds us that we are different vessels, molded from the same clay  -  with the same noses, the same eyes, the same lips. 

And that's precisely why the Sikh congregational prayer asks for the betterment of all mankind; not for Whites at the expense of Blacks or Browns; for men and not women; for Sikhs and not non-Sikhs ...


Conversation about this article

1: Harmeet Singh (Chicago, IL, U.S.A.), July 11, 2007, 7:40 PM.

I believe that we have failed to establish the infrastructure, pillars and institutions needed in this day and age to present and represent us properly - the very institutions that would help promote our art and culture. As a result, our culture and rich traditions remain buried under or overshadowed by other cultures which have a more organized infrastructure and planning. The first thing we need today, centrally, nationally and in each of our communities, is institutions that will in turn help nurture our art and culture.

2: D.J. Singh (U.S.A.), July 15, 2007, 8:04 AM.

In the first paragraph of this article, you mentioned how we learn the fundamentals of prejudice and discrimination. In the third paragraph, you quoted an incident when you were young and single. You discussed being set up with a very polished, highly educated, professional Sikh woman who asked whether you are a "modern" Sikh. Did you end up marrying a traditional or a "modern" Sikh woman, and did your children grow up as traditional or "modern" Sikhs? I am curious to learn of the impact the said incident had on your life. It could be used as a teaching lesson for all of us.

3: Gurpal Singh (Wolverhampton, U.K.), August 19, 2007, 7:17 AM.

Dear Dr I.J. Singh, I have followed all your articles over many years. They are inspiring and thought-provoking. I would like to share two points with you: (1) Are you a regular watcher of Bollywood movies? Since the mid 90's, I believe Hindi movies have moved on somewhat and Sikhs are now depicted in an increasingly positive role. E.g., Gaddar, Rang de Basanti, and others. (2) My wife Suki and I have a dear 2 year old, Gagan-Veer, who was born with brown hair (now black), but has fair skin and blue eyes. And, you are quite right: it is his blue-eyes that attract the attention of complete strangers, but from people of all backgrounds.

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