Framing the Feminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema
Ram, Anjali, Women's Studies in Communication
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.
"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. Further, in this paper I wish to extend the literature on gender and migrancy by taking the mediated experiences of Indian immigrant women as central and worthy of investigation. Hegde (1998) and others have pointed out that there has been a tendency in the research to treat the migrant experiences of men and women as similar. Inevitably, the specificities of immigrant women's lived realities are rendered invisible. In contrast, I draw attention to the experiences of a distinct group of immigrant women. By unpacking their talk about Indian cinema, I hope to examine some of the ways by which Indian immigrant women negotiate cultural constructions of gender, community and nation.
Most research on Indian popular cinema has been concerned with texts rather than readers' readings (see for example Ahmed, 1992; Chakravarty, 1993; Mishra, Jeffery & Shoesmith, 1989; Thomas, 1989). In contrast, in this study I seek to articulate how audience interpretations of cinema assist us in understanding the mediated nature of identity. The ethnographic methods employed by the Birmingham school and Hall's encoding/decoding model generated viewer-centered approaches in media research. Often termed "reception studies," such research introduced the idea of the active audience where viewers were no longer captive to the text but employed a range of reading strategies to decode the media. While I situate my study within the paradigm of reception studies, I am very well aware of the charge that often the case of the active audience has been overstated (Carrage, 1990; Condit, 1989). Keeping in mind the polarizations of the text-reader debate, I attempt to understand how cinema mediates identity by counterposing texts and readers' readings in conjunction to history, social relations and political formations. In other words, I am interested in both how the text interpellates and recruits readers in an Althusserian sense and the culturally specific ways in which women viewers interpret and make meaning of these cinematic texts. Most importantly, neither media texts nor readers' readings forestall stable or closed circuits of meaning. While Indian cinema projects narratives of womanhood that are coded through discourses of patriarchy and nationalism, they sometimes open up spaces for subversion. Conversely, women viewers' negotiations with popular media texts simultaneously resist and submit to the preferred reading. Such re-editing and re-framing of the film texts by Indian women within the context of the diaspora is the focus of this study. The complex and contradictory intersections of textual meanings and viewer engagement allow me to articulate some of the ways in which popular Indian cinema is involved in the construction of gendered identity in the Indian diaspora.
To forecast briefly--I begin by commenting on the methodological underpinnings of this study. Additionally, in an attempt at critical self-reflexivity I comment on my own subject position as an Indian immigrant woman and its implications as I entered, lived in and interpreted the home/field. Then, as I attend to intertextual conjunctions among Indian cinematic texts, Indian immigrant women readers and the diasporic context, I develop three areas, which build upon each other. First, I take up the question of gender as it emerges in relation to discourses of nationhood. Second, I explore how the women viewers reframe, re-edit and negotiate with the codes of gender presented in Indian films. Finally, I undertake a reading of the popular Indian film star, Rekha, both as heroine within film texts and as a movie star constructed through viewer interpretation, film narrative, and media gossip.
My interest in "reading" Rekha was prompted by the enthusiastic response from the women I interviewed, who unanimously declared her to be their favorite actress. The competing ideological codes that Rekha projected through both her film roles and her star image parallel the contested readings of gender that emerged across my interviews. Within the confines of the male-centered commercial Indian cinema, Rekha circulates as an ambiguous figure where both patriarchal and feminist discourses mesh to produce contradictory readings of Indian womanhood. The liminal space that she often occupies both in film texts and subtexts can be calibrated with some of the ambivalences that emerge in the discourse about cinema and gender by the immigrant women participants. Each section reveals some of the multiple, complex and contradictory ways in which gender is read by women viewers, giving us clues to how the "woman" question might be negotiated within the Indian diaspora.
This study derives from a larger project in which I focused on local practices and textual details to build a picture of how Indian women in the diaspora negotiate with nationalist and gendered representations inherent in popular Indian cinema. (2) Employing an ethnographic approach, I included in-depth interviewing, textual analysis, and participant observation as methods of data gathering and generation. To accomplish a dialogue with the women participants, I avoided a prepared questionnaire in favor of a topical protocol that included both questions and topics for discussion and attempted to develop a collaborative interaction as advocated by several feminist scholars (Brown, 1989; Langellier & Hall, 1989; Minister, 1991; Nelson, 1989). All of the fourteen Indian women I interviewed are part of the second wave of Indian immigration to the U.S. Living in Central Massachusetts, these women had immigrated as wives of Indian professionals and their ages ranged from 25 to 55. (3)
Since my intention was not to make generalizations in the positivistic sense, the number of participants was not a crucial issue. Following Patton's (1990) recommendations, I used "purposeful-sampling" to get "information-rich cases" by approaching women who are regular viewers of Indian films and who are located at the cusp of the migrant experience (p.169). My emphasis was less on a specific number of "subjects" and more on the intensity and depth of the interviews. I deliberately chose women who have lived the reality of displacement and are in the process of negotiating their identity as Indian and as women in the interstitial spaces of non-white, immigrant America. I believe that their migrant experiences intensify the ways in which they interpret the gendered representations in Indian cinema. In other words, being immigrant is a crucial, if not central, aspect of their particular engagement with Indian cinema.
The interviews were audio taped and varied from one hour to two-and-a-half hours depending on the enthusiasm of the participant and the rapport that I did or did not manage to create. Although most of the interviews were conducted in English (except one which was entirely in Hindi), both the participants and I lapsed into Hindi often. In most cases, I followed up the interviews with additional phone conversations and meetings, which allowed me a more intimate, deeper understanding of the women's experiences and interpretations.
To supplement the interviews, I engaged in participant observation by attending local Indian …
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Publication information: Article title: Framing the Feminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema. Contributors: Ram, Anjali - Author. Journal title: Women's Studies in Communication. Volume: 25. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 25+. © 1998 Organization for Research on Women and Communication. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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