Beyond Homeland Nostalgia

Bindi’s, biryani and Bollywood. Even if a year ago you were in the dark about the thriving film industry in India, or the Indian diaspora in Britain and the US, or exactly what was hot and not in your local Indian community, chances are you are in the know now. The notion of Indians as passive, emaciated, impoverished and loin-cloth clad al la Gandhi has rapidly been demystified by buxom babes in low-raise pants gyrating their pelvises to Hindi songs and expressing unrequited love to heroes who are unafraid to shed tears at any provocation.

Bollywood has reached our small screens thanks to SABC 3, who foresaw soaring audience ratings with the three-hour marathon movies on a Saturday night. So successful were the initial thirteen-week Bollywood screenings that a second installment is underway.

But posing the question of “Indian media in South Africa” is deceptive. It appears to be a category that is discussed confidently, and yet when a definition is sought there seems to be little consensus. When I started researching this article I was confident that it would be riddled with data analysis of print media, adspend and (perhaps) Ster-Kinekor’s boomtime with Bollywood. But there are three very clear factors that changed my approach: (1) my own subjectivity and insider/outsider relation to the topic; (2) perceptions of this community within itself and from outside observers; (3) the lack of any cogent research conducted quantitatively and qualitatively about Indian media consumer behaviour.

So asking me to investigate the Indian media meant probing the status of Indian identity under apartheid and in a democratic South Africa. For the Indian minority in the diaspora, the media has been both a platform to secure a space in the new home and to stay connected to the homeland.

The local Indian press between the 1950’s and 1970’s effectively affirmed the role and value of the Indian community in their new home, by aligning itself to the anti-apartheid struggle. Durban-based Indian opinion publications The Leader and Graphic were instrumental in creating an Indian identity by staking the political position of the community. Prof. Govin Reddy recalls: “[These papers] were serious political reads, and even though the standard was not great in terms of layout, the quality of the writing was good by South African standards. The Indian Congress had a clear political agenda and the Indian press was a vehicle for their political aspirations—[which was] in stark distinction to current publications.”

For Reddy, the question of an Indian press is not as simple as an ethnic identity - it must be considered within the larger context of social transformation in South Africa.

In the 1980’s the Sunday Times Extra created a shift in the print focus with its community orientated content, and by the 1990’s the Extra had become so popular that it threatened the longevity of the more political papers - eventually leading to their dissolution post apartheid. But the decision of the Sunday Times to retain Extra has been a highly contentious issue, damaging the agenda of media transformation in a democratic South Africa.

Dennis Hands at the newspaper’s Durban bureau says: “The supplement has been dubbed by some sections of the media as racist and ethnocentric, but the Sunday Times does not see it as that at all - in fact it is a value-added supplement aimed at the specific needs of a community which happens to be Indian.”

When it was rumored that the supplement could be pulled, the Indian community, Indian businesses and the publishers resisted. Contends Reddy: “Advertising remains the key to supplements, and content in community papers is secondary. It raises larger questions about whether or not there should be ‘ethnic’ sections in the larger body of the news pages. It seems there is a type of segregation being perpetuated.” But the issue is significantly more nuanced than one of imposed essentialism. There seems to be a self-generated fortressing in the community, particularly in the post apartheid era.

Renowned cultural theorist Stuart Hall uses the term “strategic essentialism” to describe how minority and immigrant communities, out of a need to secure a distinctive identity in the diaspora, rely on deliberate self-stereotyping. In a post apartheid South Africa, where minorities have felt particularly vulnerable that their interests might not be adequately represented, the response amongst Indians has been to become even more insulated.

These sentiments are shared by journalist and founder of radio station Lotus FM Fakir Hassen, CEO of SA India magazine Rajeshchandra Devjee, and Prof. Reddy. Returning to the idea of the homeland in pursuit of an identity has impacted the print and broadcast media significantly, not just in terms of content but also in terms of economic potential.

Devjee attributes the success of SA India to its “elitism and its reach to fans of Bollywood.” He continues that “the product is distinct from local community papers like The Post (Durban), Laudium Sun and Lenasia Times (Gauteng), because it is a national publication and its tabloid content favours the rich and famous in India rather than local communities.”

Asked why the local community would have an interest in the lives of people in India as opposed to the politics of their South African experience, Devjee explains: “In a survey conducted in the magazine, readers expressed little interest in local news and preferred stories about Bollywood stars and fashion trends. The Indian tabloid format is what the younger generation of Indians want to replicate in their lifestyles in South Africa.”

The target market across all media formats are Indian youth, and are seen to embody the aspirational values attributed to the community in general. Hassen recognizes that there is a problem in maintaining the interest of the youth in a community dominated by Western values and trends. “There is a crisis in retaining the youth listenership on Lotus FM,” he says. “One of the strategies adopted by Lotus has been to play a sprinkling of English music.” For Hassen, this is not a solution. In order to attract a youth listenership, content and programming of interest to the youth must be developed.

And while the Indian youth are being convinced by SA India, Lotus FM and Eastern Mosaic about the importance of returning to their cultural roots to find their identities, the agenda implicit in these formats is to inspire middle class values and spending. Even though a significant section of the Indian population is poverty stricken and unemployed, none of the present media formats target markets below LSM 7. The myth of all Indians with wealthy lifestyles is perpetuated in Eastern Mosaic, with its offering of Bollywood film stars, travel abroad options to “exotic Eastern (sic!) destinations” and food and fashion extravaganzas.

In a brief interview with the producer Saira Essa I enquired about the rationale of the content, and particularly the absence of local content. Said Essa: “[Indian culture] is hot and happening—in Britain Chicken Tikka Masala is the most popular dish, and Selfridges (the retail chain) was inspired to do a month on Bollywood”. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical contribution Bollywood Dreams was thrown in to strengthen the argument that Indian culture has finally arrived. But all these references have little social or political substance. They are superficial appropriations of culture for global capital - no different from the promotion of Italian cuisine for a month at the local deli, or the universality of pizza as the world’s favorite food.

In an effort to verify my findings I approached “the younger generation” of Indians, whom my informants continually referenced and claimed as their target audience. My sample group were Indian students at Wits University from diverse backgrounds, but those with working class parents were at university precisely to advance their class mobility. What is their opinion of Eastern Mosaic? Are they reading the Sunday Times Extra and SA India (available on campus)? Do they feel their interests are being met by the content targeted at them?

Most were more critical than I anticipated, with some strong opinions on the assumptions the older generation made about them. Their responses reflected how disconnected the content producers were from the target market they claimed to represent.

In summary: Bollywood was seen to be Other, outside of their experiences or their aspirations. They displayed a fascination with the genre - beautiful, glamorous people trapped in unlikely narratives with no cultural connection to their lives. But to most of the students, the cultural worth of Bollywood movies was no different from MTV, markers of fashion trends that one might emulate at a family wedding, just like replicating a popular Western culture fashion trend on campus. And it was their parents that bought Sunday Times Extra and SA India and watched Eastern Mosaic, not them!

In Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie describes diasporic identity as a hybridity, giving communities access to two traditions - where the mythic and symbolic values of the homeland are in sharp contrast to the lived experiences of cultural assimilation and integration in the new home.

We can look to many interesting examples of Indians in the diaspora, who have contributed innovative representations around the question of Indian identity. It emerges, from engaging the question of identity not retreating far into homeland nostalgia, that even the Indians in India snicker at the level of conservatism.

Salman Rushdie (writer), Anish Kapoor (artist), Gurinda Chadha (director of Bend it Like Beckham) are all British Indians who have made an indelible mark on the representation of “Indian-ness”. The success of Kumars at 42nd locally and globally is evidence of the potential for generating an awareness of the role of Indians in the diaspora, and advertisers will fast catch on.

There is no denying that the Indian minority is a largely untapped niche market, with the potential to generate lucrative adspend. But the crisis is not solely of identity (the constant bemoan within the community), it is one of research and knowledge. While much has been documented on the history of the Indian entrenched laborers, and writing and art is slowly emerging on the experiences of the previous generations who lived through apartheid, what is desperately in need is data on current economic practices and cultural consumption - not chutney chatter but hard facts.

As long as the local Indian community remains uninvolved and disinterested in the representations fed to them, the Indian community has no one but themselves to blame for the identity crisis and uninspired local content. Identity is not divine intervention from Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of Knowledge), but generated by an active engagement in arts, culture and the media.

Dr. Jyoti Mistry is Head of Television in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has worked as a filmmaker in New York and Vienna and holds a Ph.D in Cinema Studies from New York University.

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