I figured out why I don’t like Bollywood — it’s because I can’t turn off my brain.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop noticing that the heroes are all light-skinned, the goondas are all dark-skinned, that the heroines are all fair and virginal, that they exist as prizes to be won at the end of the battle, that there is always an unquestioned acceptance of the absolute opulence that exists in these films, when most of India is starving and dying. That the young always touch the feet of the old, that religion permeates everything, that young girls eagerly await their marriages and that young boys worship their fathers like they’re gods.
It’s because I grew up in a leftist household, with a mother that’s allergic to fun.
Do you know how hard it is to enjoy yourself during a three hour “escapist” film when your mother is sitting behind you, groaning in an almost physical pain at every single moment that reinforces a conservative vision for India? I tried to enjoy “Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham,” but I couldn’t. Mom threw a fit at the part where the son (in England) starts to sing some patriotic Indian song at a cricket match, bringing tears to his mother’s eyes, and for some reason, tears to the eyes of every single white person also present as well. That wasn’t just a corny moment in an extraordinarily corny film — that was a textbook example of the cultural insecurity complex that is ruining India from within, that is holding us back and will always hold us back.
Same thing with “Lagaan.” Sure, the message of the film is problematic and its full to the brim with reactionary Gandhian nationalism and casteism and oh yes, it’s massively anti-woman as well, but couldn’t you have let me enjoy the songs, woman? A.R. Rahman wrote them. They’re beautiful. “Chale Chalo.” Good song! Maybe it is a potential Hindu nationalist rallying call! Still a good song!
The point is: everyone else I know loves Bollywood films because of community, because of family, because of some uncle or big sister that loved to watch them, who would let you watch them with you, someone who would sing the songs with you and act out the parts with you…. I had the opposite of that. I have this instinctive hatred of these movies because I grew up with someone who hated them with a passion most people reserve for crying babies on airplanes and dog shit on your shoe.
The thing about my mother is that she exists to critique, to pick apart, to see what makes a social system tick and then to systematically deconstruct the mechanism with logical precision. Mom is an outsider, she’s always been an outsider. She didn’t fit in with her middle class Punjabi family. She refused to grow her hair long, refused to go along with what her parents wanted from her; most importantly, she refused to get married.
She found herself in second-wave feminism and in science; one she used as shield against her family, the other became her faith when she lost her belief in Hinduism. Her salvation was in hard work; through her own effort, she received a full scholarship to IIT Delhi to get her doctorate in micro-biology. Her parents were still showing her to potential husbands and in-laws when she decided to leave; she left them a note and got on the train the next day. And she refused to return, despite her lack of money, despite the fact that she had no place to live, despite her lack of support in the big city.
She has fought her way against conservative and patriarchal working environments her whole life. She doesn’t know how to do anything else but fight. If she sees someone lie — that’s something to fight against. Because the idea that society is working is a lie. The idea that people can relax, even for a moment, in the face of wrong-doing — that’s a lie. Happiness is a lie. Escapism is a lie. Lies reinforce injustice, and to truly dedicate yourself to the fight for righteousness — one must tell the truth, at all times.
I tried so hard, for most of my life, to be exactly like my mother. To hate things that made me happy on principle — but the truth is, I love pulp. I love escapism. I can’t help but love being happy — it’s an emotion I don’t feel very often, thanks to chronic depression, and when I do get to experience it, I make sure to appreciate every second of it.
The truth about me, the thing that my mother doesn’t understand about me and will probably never understand, is that I love bad American films the way most Indian people I know love Bollywood. I know how to turn my brain off at the right times, when it comes to western media — I’m excellent at rationalization, because I know what happens when you don’t know how to do it.
I squeeze the fun out of life, because I know what it means to live a life that sees fun as sinful, I’ve seen what it did to my mother, and I don’t want that to be me.
I don’t begrudge her the fight. She’s faced injustices that I will never face; I will never have to go through what she did, because she sacrificed everything to ensure that I’d have opportunities that she never had.
But that doesn’t mean she knows how to live.
Jaya Sundaresh is 24, and lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. You can follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation. This essay originally appeared oh her personal blog.