Hindi Film 101: PewDiePie Versus India and “Funny” Racism

Well, this just got fascinating! At least, I think so, I am having a hard time finding confirmation of this news story, so either I am super ahead of the curve, or it isn’t reliable. BollywoodHungama is reporting that the Indian Supreme Court issued an order to youtube to take down some PewDiePie videos. And I hope it is reliable, because it is FASCINATING.

Disclaimer: I am a white woman writing about Indian film, and now attempting to write about a particular kind of racism. I am going to try to stay focused on my side of the story, the white side of the story and the Indian film fan side of the story, and not try to speak for other races.

I first got into Indian film by being immersed in desi culture. I was going to college, I was 19, and I was the only non-desi woman on my dorm floor (it was the honors students only floor). I would have dinner with a group that included a Bangladeshi-American, a Pakistani-American, and 3 regular old Indian Americans. They were Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Jain. And none of that was a big deal. It was college, and it was America, everyone was open and eager to make friends and previous cultural boundaries just didn’t matter. Or at least, didn’t matter when we were having dinner together in the cafeteria. And in this easy breezy world, Hindi film was what brought us all together and was treated in a very easy breezy way. For example, my roommate whose family was from Hyderabad watched a movie with Sridevi in it with me, and said “My mother always said, that’s what you call a South Indian rear end”. My Punjabi friend taught me “all Punjabi woman look like horses”. It was okay for them to say it, because it was their culture, and when I was hanging out with them, they were flattered when I repeated these things because it showed I was listening. And it was all in good fun, the same way my family teases about how we have to plan things months in advance because we are so German, or my friend teases about how her mother lays on the Jewish guilt. It’s family jokes, or cultural jokes, it’s things you say to tie yourself together into a community, and it makes you smile and laugh a little because it’s a little bit true, but also a little bit exaggerated. But obviously, we would not joke about my friend who always wore a Hijab, or how everyone went to get Prasad when a priest came to campus for Diwali, or anything “real”.

And movies and popular culture fall into that strange land of “real”. There are some jokes you can make, sure, we all make them here. Salman Khan can’t keep a shirt on, Ranveer Singh has a scary amount of energy, Hum Aapke Hain Koun is a 3 hour wedding video (another thing I first heard from a college friend), Shahrukh always cries in his films, Aamir Khan is short, and so on and so on. I spent all of college watching movies with my friends and talking over and laughing at/with them. But not at the real parts, not at the stories of lovers separated because of class or religion, or the songs about sadness, or any of those things that I learned very quickly were serious and real to people.

This movie, Bollywood/Hollywood, is great for showing that balance of funny-not funny. This song, the heroine’s “I’m Simply Sweet and Salty” song, is funny and worthy of making fun of, because it is such a silly song genre to exist. But later there is a sweet nice love song (“Rang Rang”) that is done straight, the video works out of context as just a nice love song. Because love songs aren’t funny, they are real.

But very occasionally my bubble would burst and I would run across something making fun of the films from an outside perspective and it felt wrong, ugly. Like the “Benny Lava” video, which essentially boils down to “ha-ha, South Indian languages sound funny, and these brown people are dancing like Michael Jackson”. Someone sent it to me or showed it to me at some point in college, and I was honestly confused as to why I would find this humorous. Because South Indian languages didn’t sound funny to me any more, they sounded like a language, like the thing my roommate used to talk to her parents on the phone every night. And I didn’t like a the people dancing and see “brown people, weird”, I looked at them and saw Prabhudeva.

This isn’t blackface, this isn’t saying anything openly critical, this is just a “joke”. But the joke is only funny if you agree with the premise, that it is funny to see people from Indian singing and dancing well. Here’s a sample comment from the youtube video: “All jokes and ridiculousness aside…the choreography and dancing in this is pretty damn good lol” Well, yeah!!!!! Why shouldn’t it be good? Why would you think it would be bad? It’s a music video from a high budget film, why should it be bad? There is an assumption buried under this that it is funny because it is unexpected, because you wouldn’t think that this country would have a big elaborate fun dance number.

There’s also an assumption that India doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself. This is what I have discovered I need to explain, especially when showing “Dard-E-Disco”. We aren’t laughing at them, we are laughing with them. It’s not that “they don’t realize how ridiculous they are”, it’s that “we don’t realize what is supposed to be ridiculous”. After “Benny Lava” became popular, some nice Tamilian posted a video that was just the lyrics (no visuals), the real lyrics in translation. And then a very nice non-desi took those lyrics and synched them to the video, feeling like the original lyrics were worth watching on their own. Because he got the joke, the joke that was already there. Well, the joke and the real, the lyrics are clever and a little complex, some fun metaphors thrown in but also kind of beautiful. Here are the comments on that video: “The film is about the dude, who is a heart surgeon, and in this part of the film, the couple are college sweethearts, where he is studying medicine. Hence all the medical references. Check the film out. It’s called ‘Pennin Manathai Thottu’.” And “Woah, that’s kind of a naughty song. Oh well, still awesome.” The first is from a Tamilian (I assume) explaining the extra layer of clever already in the song. And the second is from a non-Tamilian going “oh, wait, they were already in on the joke? It wasn’t just clever white people making it funny?”

I’m not desi, and I’m not an expert on racism, but I am a white person who spends a lot of time showing Indian films to other white people and trying to open their minds. So I am an expert on how white people react to Indian pop culture at first glance. And the immediate reaction is usually “they think they have a pop culture? How funny! It’s like watching a monkey try to use silverware!”

That’s where the name of this blog comes from, “Don’t Call it Bollywood”. That’s what “Bollywood” means, it means “ha-ha, Brown people pretending to be Hollywood, but not”. That’s why I don’t like using it. In India, I am aware it has a different meaning, less “ha-ha, trying to be Hollywood and failing” and more “Bollywood=Mainstream Bombay Based Hindi film Industry”. But outside of India, Bollywood is the Benny Lava video. It’s funny and weird and we should point and laugh, and there is no distinction between Hindi and Tamil and Bengali and Telugu and anything else. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard someone say “I’ve never seen any Bollywood films. Well, except Satyajit Ray”. Which is wrong on SO MANY levels.

What happens the first time someone comes to my movie nights is that they start making jokes like “ha-ha, they are singing and dancing! In the middle of a movie!” or “ha-ha, look at them wearing a sari to the grocery store!” These jokes aren’t funny. It is like saying “ha-ha, the sky is blue”. This is what is, this is what the genre of the films is like, there isn’t anything innately interesting in pointing it out. The best response, I have found, is to treat their comment seriously, to say “yes, Hindi film developed out of the Parsi theater tradition and the tradition of religious dramas, so songs have always been a part of the experience” and “yes, she is wearing a sari to indicate to us that she is traditional and sheltered, notice how her costuming changes over the course of the film as she becomes more westernized”. If you laugh, they will think there actually is something funny, just because it is different. If you treat it seriously, they will realize “oh, wait, why did I think that was funny in the first place?”

And this (finally) brings me to PewDiePie. The Indian Supreme Court (according to a couple of sources) has petitioned YouTube to remove two of his videos talking about his feud with T-Series. I covered this story back when it first broke, PewDiePie is a European young man who reviews video games and stuff and has long been the most popular content provider on youtube. And then, last spring, T-Series broke through and started challenging him. And it was reported in the Western press as “can you believe this wacky news story? An Indian music company is challenging PewDiePie on youtube”. It was reported in the Indian press as, well, not worth reporting. Because in India, T-Series dominating youtube is hardly news. It’s expected.

PewDiePie has built on his “feud” with T-Series, did a bunch of joking videos encouraging his followers to attack them and so on. I get it, it’s a joke, but it is only funny if you accept the basic premise that an Indian company rivaling PewDiePie is unexpected. There’s nothing specific in his jokes, he isn’t teasing T-Series because they produce bad movies, or their logo is weird, or they’re nepotistic, or they are trying to produce a biopic of their own founder, or anything like that. He is just teasing them because “India-funny!”

Image result for gulshan kumar movie akshay
I will tease them about this though! Like, what is up with that poster? And why Akshay? And why did the movie never end up happening?

The initial idea of PewDiePie pretending to be furious and obsessed and angry about losing to T-Series, I have no problem with that. It’s funny, it’s exaggerating something small and real for comic effect. But then he took what all the news articles were saying seriously (“did you know there are people in India? and they use the internet? isn’t that surprising?”) and turned it into a long running comedy bit. And this is one of those times where you can say it if you are Indian, and you can say it if you are hanging out with your Indian friends who said it first, but you really can’t say it if you are a white man.

Humor creates communities. Those jokes about Punjabi women looking like horses, or south Indian rear ends, that was my friends inviting me into their community where they can say those things about themselves. And the jokes we all made up together while watching our favorite movies, like counting how many times Shahrukh has half his shirt untucked in DDLJ, that created our own little community. One of the most special parts of Indian film are those little jokes that are shared from creator to fan. Ajay Devgan always has a ridiculous introduction scene, usually standing on top of a moving vehicle, because his first movie intro was him standing on top of a motorcycle. De De Pyaar De is a little twist on that, the poster has him almost falling as he tries to straddle two cars, one a classic and one a sports car. It’s a joke that combines his whole long career, his usually perfect action image, the meaning of those two sports models, and so on and so on to end up with a perfect little “guy who is trying to seem cool and in control but isn’t” image.

Image result for de de pyaar de

If, for instance, PewDiePie had made a joke video about how T-Series is struggling so much, they are just remaking their old song hits and made fun of the new “Dheere Dheere” video, maybe talked about how bad Hrithik’s hair looked and how the romance is more like stalking than romance, that would have invited us into a shared community. The greater world of Indian popular culture and PewDiePie would have united to laugh at the same things.

It’s not impossible. For instance, years ago I was watching The Daily Show and they were doing a segment on some Indian political dispute and they used a bit of “Pairon Main Bandhan Ho” as a joke, saying something like “this is what a village meeting looks like”. It wasn’t supposed to be funny on its own, it was funny in contrast to the other things they had just shown, because it was big and bright and so on, the same way showing an American music video would have been funny in that moment. And it was the perfect song choice, a song that actually is a village gathering. For other people watching, it was a quick laugh at a humorous contrast, for those who knew Indian film it was a fun little “in the know” nod using just the right song for the occasion, a song that actually was a village gathering with a community dispute at the center of it. Same thing in the TV show New Girl, they used “Ooo La La” in one episode, which was the perfect song because it isn’t religious or respected or anything, it’s not offensive to use it for your characters. It worked fine if all you knew was “fun song and our characters are dancing goofily”, but it worked even better if you had the layer of “not really an appropriate song for this occasion and the white characters don’t know it”. Humor should come from specifics, not stereotypes.

The funny bit isn’t a dance troupe doing this performance, that is treated seriously by the show and the characters, it is when the dim white people join in that it becomes funny.

It sounds like PewDiePie created a different kind of humor community, one that united in laughing at India, not with it. And that’s not okay. Laughing at T-Series, go for it, whatever you want, they are a massive successful company, they can take it. But laughing at India, and Indian culture, if you are a white man speaking English, is not okay. Indian culture is not as powerful as White/European culture, not on the world stage. It’s not right to make fun of them. And I say that as a white person who has been in the room with white people when they talk about Indian culture, and what they say is not kind. There doesn’t need to be any more ammunition in the world to make India and the Indian diaspora appear “funny”.

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15 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: PewDiePie Versus India and “Funny” Racism

  1. Never heard of Pew Die PIe till the New Zealand mosque attack and him disavowing any connection to the killer’s manifesto.

    Do you know about the film Woody Allen did in the early 1970s, I think, called something like, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”. He basically bought the rights to some Japanese B movie, redubbed it with English dialogue, to make it sound “funny”, in the same way you’re describing it here. This was before he became famous — in fact, this was how he started to make his mark, as the project was deemed “so clever.” I think he did a second one, too, and then a whole host of imitators took over. If you do know about this, what’s your take on those movies?

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    • My understanding with “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” is that it was making fun of the disconnect between bad subtitles and what is on screen. So, the humor came from “aren’t American subtitles for foreign films terrible? Isn’t it funny to put American slang against this very dignified film?” It feels like it is a continuation of the foreign film jokes that Your Show of Shows used to do, that are more about the experience of watching foreign movies in America than the films themselves. But with Benny Lava, it doesn’t feel like “ha-ha, isn’t it funny how our brain hears English words even when it is a different language?” it feels more like they are making fun of the actual song.

      Especially because there isn’t really a disconnect between the subtitles and the images, it’s a silly peppy love song and they are just adding on more silly peppy English language instead of using the original silly peppy language. If it was a serious melodramatic moment with silly subtitles, that would feel different. For instance, I would love a video that took one of the dramatic moments from Devdas and added on dialogue like “I missed the bus this morning! This hat is itchy!”. I think that’s another thing What’s Up Tiger Lily did, took scenes that were undramatic and added drama, and vice versa. So the humor is in the tonal disconnect too, not just making fun of the original movie. I still think it is a bad idea, but more because it is disrespectful to the work of the original film not because it is disrespectful to the whole culture.

      On Wed, Apr 10, 2019 at 10:19 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Wrong post I think 🙂

      I can’t think of a Shakespeare version, maybe just because he was worried people would think it was about Queen Elizabeth.

      On Wed, Apr 10, 2019 at 12:36 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Pew is racist not just to Indians but also to many others. He’s gotten a lot of bad press in the US too and youtube regularly demonetizes some of his videos so he can’t make money off them. He’s tapped into the bored white teen boys demographic. Surprisingly, he also reviews books like Plato’s Republic.

    I think the dumb racist act is put on and fake but it nevertheless radicalizes some young minds who follow him.

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    • Yes, that’s it exactly, you can say “I’m smarter than that, it’s just an act, it’s a joke”. But not everyone knows it is a joke, you have to think about the unintended message you might be putting out there.

      I don’t make those jokes about Punjabis or South Indians on this blog, or in real life, not unless I am very sure that everyone I am talking to will understand I am joking, will not go out in the world and treat this is a serious okay thing.

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  3. Thanks for the post. I am a white woman of Italian descent married for more years than I care to remember to a black, West Indian man. What you wrote has been my life and my kids’ life. Some years were easier than others. Past few have been Hell. I know how to deal with slights and ignorance, but not the cruelty and violence that has lately developed. I’m afraid for my grandchildren.

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    • It’s an interesting position, being a white person who is is privy to things that are said by white people to white people, but having a strong connection to non-white culture which isn’t visible. Your connection is obviously very different and much stronger than mine, but I will still be shocked by the things people say, after having been buried in Indian films and Indian culture, and then waking up to how it is all viewed by my fellow white Americans.

      Anyway, I just put up a fun gossipy news post, you can go over there and cheer up.

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  4. I completely agree with the overall point and it goes with something that drives me bonkers about western discourse on Japanese pop culture: they are not trying to be Western and failing in a humorous way, Japanese people understand completely how they are seen by non-Japanese people, and they totally have a sense of humor about themselves,

    That said, respectfully disagree about the Benny Lava video. The source of humor is not “Indian languages sound funny.” It’s the fact that if your brain will try to find meaning in a language you don’t understand, so you will “hear” words in it, sometimes to humorously nonsensical effect. If those words are on the screen in front of you while you listen, you will hear them too, if you are a non-Tamil speaking English speaker. This has been done a lot, and does not in itself imply that the source language isn’t “real.” (See “Samovar ouvert sereine beau,” which is a French person doing a similar thing with Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”) I’m neither a psycholinguist nor a phoneticist, but linguistics blogs exploded when that video came out, exploring the original lyrics and the homophonic version with help from Tamil speakers. Did commenters on YouTube watch and make asinine comments? Yes, but that is what they do.

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    • I see your point about the Benny Lava video. But the title is “Crazy Indian Video” which to me makes it feel a little more like “let’s make fun of the real authentic thing” than “let’s make fun of the way our mind hears words”. But it’s a subtle thing, I can see how it could go either way.

      And thank you for confirming what I suspected about Japanese culture! Surely they see all the stuff floating around making fun of them, and surely the “wacky Japanese Game Show” thing you see everywhere are supposed to be wacky Game Shows and we are enjoying them as they were intended.

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      • Oh, I didn’t realize that was the original title, since it was copied and shared so many times. Maybe it could have been “Here is an Indian video which I have made crazy with homophonic lyrics” rather than “Here is a video which is is Indian and crazy”? No, you’re probably right.

        Yes, wacky game shows are wacky here too, and some of them are fake. And the porn game shows are straight up porn, they aren’t shown on TV and most people aren’t aware of them unless they read western media and run across one of those “Look what they do on game shows in Japan!!!” articles.

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