We are always an NRI family

We are always an NRI family

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 24, 2010 19:31 hrs

Lakshmi Chaudhry analyses why Karan Johar has to set his "Indian" films in the nice, clean white lands

The latest Karan Johar production, We Are Family, arrived at the theatres with a resounding thud. Directed by protege Siddharth Malhotra, this adaptation of the Hollywood weepie Stepmom, had all the signature KJo ingredients: big-name stars, over-the-top melodrama, and the de rigeur international setting. The last drew the ire of both journalists and fans alike. "By Indianising Karan Johar doesn’t intend to place the plot in India. The producer can’t get over the NRI fixation and this time stations his story in Australia," grumbled the reviewer in The Economic Times. The average fan ranting online was less kind. "Will Johar and Co realise they can make distinctly original, fun, ‘commercial’, ‘masala’ yet ‘Indian’ movies too? Or will they continue to act as pimps for foreign tourism boards?" fumed a blogger at passionforcinema.com. And if initial box office returns are any indication, his fellow moviegoers agree: new Bollywood’s NRI obsession is getting very old.

Popular wisdom blames the ascendance of NRI-centric flicks on the lucrative expat market. So who cares what lowly at-home Indians want? It’s a comforting thought, but not quite true. Of the top five all-time overseas earners, only two —My Name is Khan and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna — have an NRI theme, and were just as huge in the domestic market. In reality, the claim that Bollywood’s NRI obsession is justified by its international appeal is mostly fantasy, much like the mythical global Indians these flicks claim to portray. The reasons for the popularity of NRI setting and characters are far more insidious.

Bollywood’s version of the NRI isn’t all that different from his/her native counterpart — the good-looking, rich Punjabi-type with a predilection for the bhestern version of the good life. (No room here for real-ish Indian immigrants, like Silicon Valley geeks, Gujarati store owners, or New York cab drivers.) But placing him/her abroad — as opposed to Juhu — allows actors to run around in expensive cars against scenic landscapes without ugly autos, buses, or thronging masses to ruin the upscale ambience. It’s why even movies supposedly set in India consist mostly of foreign location shoots, the extreme case being Sooraj Barjatya who recreated an Indian small town in New Zealand for Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon. As in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

Given our infatuation with all things phoren, NRI is also Bollywood’s lazy short-hand for glamourous. Case in point: Kajol had to lose weight for My Name is Khan in order to fit into "super sexy dresses". Right, because there is no such thing as a fat, unsexy NRI. More expediently, Indians abroad can indulge in all the behaviour that would be taboo back home. They can cheat on their spouses, have premarital sex, bare skin and spout pious speeches about Indian values. As Johar demonstrated with Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, the best way to make infidelity A-okay is to stage it in New York City.

Conversely, the fantasy NRI allows Bollywood to wrap the most retrograde values in slick global packaging. In We Are Family, a divorced working mom tells her ex-husband’s ambitious live-in girlfriend, "All women are born with the formula of being good mothers, you’ll find it." Expat bhartiya naaris are the best! On a British radio show, Johar declared, "We do not see NRIs as people who are separate from Indians. They are all Indians and in fact the NRIs are more Indian at heart than any of us in India." And oh so conveniently too.

[Lakshmi Chaudhry is a Bangalore-based freelance writer]

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