Framing the Feminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on the ways in which Indian immigrant women actively engage and interpret Indian cinema. Employing an ethnographic approach, the analysis moves between readers' readings and film texts in order to locate how Indian cinema mediates the constitution of gendered identities in the diaspora. Keeping alive the sense of agency, this study demonstrates that Indian women viewers/readers simultaneously comply with and resist the dominant patriarchal representations that saturate Indian cinema.

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   "There is something incendiary in me and it has to do with being female, 
   here, now, in America.... When they brush up against each other each of 
   those markers-- `female,' `here,' `now,' `America'--I find that there is 
   something quite unstable in the atmosphere they set up." 
 
   ~ Meena Alexander (1996, p. 10) 

Recent approaches to migrancy emphasize the multiple linkages that are constituted as immigrants "forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement" (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc, 1995, p. 48). Crucial to such alternating and shifting migrant positions is the role played by the electronic media and new communication technologies. The mobility and transnational flows of media texts and technologies contest geographically bounded notions of national culture. Specifically, the idea that media construct and reconstruct everyday discourse and are implicated in the making and re-making of the migrant self has been explored by writers such as Appadurai (1996), Chambers (1994), and Naficy (1993, 1999).

In this study, I explore one such instance of mediated identity by examining how commercial/popular Indian cinema is implicated in the reconstitution of gendered identifies within the Indian diaspora. (1) Scholars have speculated in passing about the widespread prevalence of film viewing in the Indian diaspora. For instance, Chakravarty (1993) comments that Indian commercial cinema metonymically references "India" for immigrants and Dasgupta (1993, p. 56) writes that for Indian immigrants, Indian cinema plays an important role in maintaining a "continuity in their dislocation."

The ubiquity of this cultural practice is evident by the fact that almost every Indian grocery store carries a large selection of Indian film videos. Rows of hot pickles, packets of spices in all shades of brown, yellow and orange, baskets of mangoes, green gourds and okra, sheaves of curry leaves and cilantro, and bunches of small green chilies frame rows of videocassettes of popular Indian films. These videos are very often in turn interspersed with large posters of the latest movie releases and brightly colored announcements of local Indian film screenings. Inevitably, customers add a video or two to their regular purchases of cumin seeds, garam masala and papad. Some enterprising Indian grocery owners such as George Jacob in New York have extended their video rental business by signing leases on small movie theaters to show Indian films on the large screen (Berger, 1998). Besides watching films, the Indian immigrant community often plays host to visiting film stars who perform at gala events in major cities in the U.S. Frequently the guest of honor for the celebration of national holidays and social/religious events in the Indian immigrant community is a prominent Hindi film star. On such occasions, young women in the community typically dress according to the latest Bombay cinema fashions and dance to songs from Hindi movies (Dasgupta, 1993; Mukhi, 1998).

Given such a pervasive consumption of Indian cinema, my purpose in this study is to understand the ways in which Indian immigrant women interpret the gendered representations in Indian cinema and conversely how such interpretations help us understand the role of cinema in mediating gender in the diaspora. …