Corporate Packaging of Desi: MTV and Beyond
In 2005, when MTV launched a brand new vertical to target the emerging South Asian American market — MTV Desi — with the intended mission of not showcasing Bollywood music, but rather South Asian artists in the West, I was intrigued. The offshoot brand didn’t realize its broadcast goal exactly and MTV Desi went off-air in 2007, to be relaunched as a digital-only platform.
But MTV Desi was the kind of exercise that showed what might happen when outsiders to such a complex culture tried to capitalize off of it without fully understanding that target demographic. With the increased visibility of South Asian celebrities — even those who don’t like to discuss their South Asianness with the press — this is a demographic that advertisers are only beginning to understand.
What’s more peculiar is that it’s a demographic that Bollywood targets frequently. A notable recent example is the Magic Mike-inspired flick Desi Boyz. What we see here again is the same kind of cultural conditioning that male “desi” identity should somehow be tantamount to performative machismo that, while flirting with homoeroticism, remains firmly entrenched in the old world values of how men should behave.
The word “desi”, in fact, seems inescapable. DesiHits is a company that produces content specifically targeted at South Asian audiences — their latest project is the launch of Priyanka Chopra’s pop career. Another thing they were responsible for was the Pussycat Dolls’ take on the A.R. Rahman song “Jai Ho!” from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. It’s also a company that, while featuring South Asians at the helm, answers to a board and investors many of whom may not be South Asian at all. We’re seeing the engineering of culture and content for the “desi” demographic by non-desi people. Moreover, they’re not selling to an audience, but to the imagined marketing persona of the “desi” — it’s a specious identity at best.
As desis, are non-Indian members of the South Asian demographic are expected to buy into Priyanka Chopra’s pop career? Does this mean we can never have a Pakistan pop idol? If so, will members of that community will be expected to buy Western-produced culture that features Indian talent to feel represented? It reflects the kind of disconnect an organization like DesiHits may have in trying to peddle to the “desi” demographic — somehow overlooking the fact that India and Pakistan, for example, have been locked in what seems like an age-old rivalry.
Transcending the Limits of Desi
I get it. People of all kinds — not just marketers — love boxing in people who they might not understand. “Desi” is a very handy way of packaging up South Asians — and by creating a network of cultural symbols and short-hands (“desis” love Priyanka Chopra! “Desis” love eating aloo gobi! “Desis” tend to get arranged marriages with flowers and elephants and dancing! “Desis” speak some weird-ass language that you’ve never heard of!), people don’t even need to talk to one of us to learn about our customs.
Given the stakes of becoming so incorrectly lumped together under a single slang term, is it time for us to disavow “desi”?
Despite the platform of diversity which led Nina Davuluri to the Miss America crown this year, maybe Mindy Kaling is indeed onto something in not wanting to discuss her Indianness whenever any journalist brings it up. She doesn’t want to get lumped into an abstract identity bounded by outdated stereotypes and have that overpower her mission to entertain people.
In an ideal world, we could take the word “desi” and bend it to our will — and open it up to include every member of the South Asian community, while asking the world at large to, you know, consider us as human beings that transcend reductive classification.It’s also the time for all of us to release the idea of the perfect, monolithic South Asian identity.
Sadly, that’s not the world in which we live! Perhaps it is indeed the time to let go of the word “desi.” With it, it’s also the time for all of us to release the idea of the perfect, monolithic South Asian identity. Trying to equate countless disparate identities to a single perception of perfection by using a four-letter word is a fool’s errand.