I am a full-fledged New Yorker.
And just like most other New Yorkers, I take pride in identifying myself with the beat and spirit of this beautiful city. Like most other Indians growing up in New York, I have used the bright and energetic medium of Indian cinema to understand Indian culture.
When I heard Kal Ho Naa Ho was filmed entirely in New York, I was excited to see the movie. This movie, I thought, would allow Indians to see a little of my world and my city.
I could not have been more wrong.
So Naina Catherine Kapur as the 'everyday New Yorker' is the narrator and the central character. She lives in the borough of Queens (which looks more like Brooklyn) and jogs to Central Park every morning. Interestingly, her jog spans the entire island of Manhattan (something which even the New York City marathon does not do).
She also constantly walks down to the park under the Brooklyn Bridge for a heartful and tearful ode to her peeve of the day.
Impossible as that feat is, I thought she must just be a very energetic girl who can walk from Queens to Brooklyn daily.
She also takes the Staten Island Ferry to work every day. For those who have not been to New York, there is no practical purpose to taking the Staten Island Ferry to work if you live in Queens.
Anyway, the madness seems to lift a bit when the star of the show, the main attraction for everyone in the theatre, Shah Rukh Khan appears onscreen.
I adore Shah Rukh Khan and I really admire his work as an actor in most of his films. However, even Shah Rukh could not shed an ounce of sense into this chaotic, illogical movie. In his opening scene, Shah Rukh Khan's character starts a riot of sorts by doing Bhangra on the Queens/Brooklyn streets to loud music, with stripper/cheerleader-types strutting their stuff, with the American flag waving in the background.
If someone attempted this on a New York street, they would be in jail before they could say 'pretty woman.'
Poor logic can be excused. After all, most Hindi movies don't sell themselves on sharp logic. But what cannot be excused and ignored is the repeated misrepresentation of Indians living abroad in Hindi movies.
I have seen too many 'overseas market' films in recent times to take this one lying down. Time and again, Indians living abroad (specifically in the US and UK) speak typically Indian-accented English and wear clothes that do not reflect styles in Europe or the States in any way.
But that is alright. That is not the problem. The problem starts when the character starts to take form. The Indian-American guy is always one of two types: rich, amoral and a womaniser whose parents are looking for a girl from India to fix him (for instance Apurva Agnihotri's character from Pardes), or a rich MBA who only wants a girl from India (for instance Hrithik Roshan's character in Mujhse Dosti Karoge or Abhishek Bachchan in Kuch Naa Kaho).
The Indian-American girl also comes in two types: rich, amoral and semi-nude with a serious alcohol problem (for instance Suman Ranganathan's character in Aa Ab Laut Chalen), or rich, beautiful with a wardrobe comprising entirely of salwar-kameezes and an affinity towards India (for instance Kajol's character in DDLJ).
brownie points for guessing which character is portrayed as good and which one as bad.
Additionally, more often than not, it takes a hardcore Indian character from India to teach 'these Americans' what the true values of life are and how only Indians understand them.
For example, in Pardes, the goody two-shoes character of Arjun is characterised as the 'pure desi' at heart who is so moral he does not smoke or drink like the other immoral Indian-Americans around him (ironically, his sense of morality does not prevent him from lying to a girl about the nature of her future husband. But that is besides the point here).
In Kal Ho Naa Ho, we witness Aman Mathur coming from India and teaching Naina Kapur how to 'have fun' in her life. Which consists of drinking shot after shot of hard liquor, stripping her clothes off and dancing provocatively with several men at once.
Of course, this is what every Indian-American absolutely must consider 'fun' in the confused and stereotyped world of Yash Raj Films and Mukta Arts Ltd.
So these Indian filmakers need to make up their mind: Are 'cool' Indian-Americans supposed to be more like Arjun or like Aman?
As someone who identifies herself as Indian-American, I take serious offense to these characterisations. People living here don't all drink and go wild at parties with barely any clothes on. We don't all look down upon Indian culture and we are not all amoral.
More important, a lot of us know more about the deeper meaning of Indian values and customs than many in India because there is a lot about the culture that we cannot take for granted.
In fact, my first impression when I see people in India during my vacations is how little of the culture remains and how much more Westernised they are than myself and my own friends. Another aspect of this issue is that American culture itself does not infest us with amoral ideas of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
There are a lot of aspects of American culture that are wholesome and beautiful. I can safely speak for myself and my Indian-American friends when I say we have managed to beautifully integrate our Indian heritage with our day-to-day Western environment.
So my message to aspiring Indian directors making movies about NRIs is: thanks for your concern but we are doing alright here, really. We are very happy representing Indians in every walk of mainstream American life while simultaneously maintaining our interest in the Garbas, Diwali fairs, Carnatic music concerts and other such innumerable Indian events throughout our towns.
We, for one, do not need any scantily clad Indian actresses teaching us how to dress and behave, nor do we need any "cool" Indian actors in quasi- American clothes to teach us about the meaning of life.
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