Hindi Film 101/NRI Week: The Evolution of the NRI on Film and in Reality

You ready for an incomplete history and incomplete list of films? I’m gonna take a stab at describing Indian/South Asian immigration patterns based on the class I took in college 10 years ago and various articles and stuff I’ve read since. It’s not really that expert. But at least it will get the discussion started! And to help with discussion, some filmi examples.

During the colonial era, the British encouraged (or at least allowed) immigration between different British colonies. It was part of their explicit strategy in terms of military, rather than making a colonized people police themselves and run the risk of your own army turning on you and allying with the people (remember 1857?), you train up Indian soldiers and then ship them off to Kenya or where ever to put down revolts there. But along with the troop movements, there were also bureaucrats and other professionals who moved country to country. After all, it was all more or less the same government structure and the same language, why not move around? Like Gandhi living and working as a lawyer in South Africa for a while. Plus, there were the highest classes of Indian society who sent their children abroad for education and sometimes lost them to the West. There were loads of rich kids who went to England for college and then came back with cool British accents and affectations and friendships. And there were a few of those who went to England for college and then just stayed.

To learn more about these types of immigrants, check out Purab Aur Paschim for the wealthy upperclasses who went to England and became richer, Hum Kisise Kum Nahin for the brief nod to Zeenat Aman as a spoiled rich British girl, and An Evening in Paris for the version where rich kids go to Europe for a while and then return home with European gloss.

That’s what Purab Aur Paschim is about, the upper classes who went to England and became even richer and chose to stay.

Post-colonialism, there was a sudden burst of immigration to England and also Canada and a little bit Australia. Mostly from the Partition torn northern regions, Punjabis from both sides of the border. What was different about this burst from the earlier and later movements was that it included lower classes who arrived and remained lower class. The burst continued through the 60s and 70s and 80s, and racial tensions increased especially in England as suddenly the brown skinned newcomers were seen as a threat for the limited jobs and resources in the country. This hatred formed a new community, distinctly and specifically British South Asian (this is also the period when the term “South Asian” began to be used). They weren’t Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi any more, they were united as the second generation British fighting against racism in their country of birth. It was also during this era that you started to get what I think of as the leapfrog immigrants, the ones who went from India to Kenya or Ghana or where ever, and from there to England or Canada or America, removed by two steps from their country of origin. In fact, “country of origin” losing its meaning, because was it India where your parents came from or was it Kenya where you were born and raised or England where you live now?

For more on this generation, watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange, Patiala House, and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Jab Tak Hain Jaan is trying to deal with the conflict between the two generations of immigrants, Katrina’s wealthy Britishized upper class type and Shahrukh’s working class striving Punjabi, but it doesn’t really work.

Both Shahrukh and Kajol’s families are part of this boom. Anupam was an uneducated Punjabi hustler who came to England and made himself rich all on his own. Amrish Puri was a Punjabi farmer who came to England and never managed to move beyond middle-class. But neither of them came from wealth, England wasn’t some grand dream, it was a move of economic necessity.

And then there’s the new American era. Until the 1960s, America’s immigration police was just terribly racist, there was a minuscule number of legal immigrants allowed every year from not-Europe. And for a long time it was literally impossible for them to become citizens. Then in the 1960s, America reformed it’s immigration system and started letting people in based on “valuable skills” and family sponsorships. What this meant in terms of India was that doctors and scientists got to come. And then they got to sponsor their less educated parents, brothers, cousins, etc. So while England is filled with “South Asians” of all levels of society, America is filled largely with the professional class. Notice it was also after the American immigration boom started that the NRI market for films and the NRI fantasies became more and more common. Suddenly living overseas was seen as equivalent to having a good job, a nice house, and so on and so forth.

There are far more films dealing with this group, because they are also the group with the high buying power for films. Kal Ho Na Ho, A Gentleman, Salaam-Nameste are just a few of them.

I love this movie so much. Partly because it shows a realistic dream, a good tech job in a not-East Coast city, and a cookie cutter McMansion house.

Or, there’s the Middle East. When the oil boom hit in the 60s-70s, and these cities went up overnight, they needed workers. Workers for the dangerous oil jobs, for building the cities, for cleaning the cities once they were built. Kerala was the biggest beneficiary of this boom, and also Pakistan. Pakistan because there was already a cultural connection, Kerala because it had always been a port state with boats and workers traveling around the globe. The Middle East diaspora community is different. While some workers (an increasing number) come with their entire families and settle there, a large number are single guest workers, male laborers or female healthcare or domestic workers. They are highly prized in the marriage market for the money and overseas goods they can provide, but that same money goes hardly anywhere in the countries where they work. There is a strange disconnect of living in poverty 10 months out of the year, and then going home for 2 months to stay with your family who live in luxury and are considered “rich”.

There are a lot of great Malayalam films dealing with this community, and surprisingly few films outside of Kerala. Airlift, Pathemaari, and Jacobinte Swarajyam are some of my favorites.

And then finally there is the imagined diaspora. An increasing number of films have started having NRI heroes (and sometimes heroines) with amazing creative fulfilling fun jobs. The overseas is a land where, unlike in India, you can be free to be a chef, a photographer, a fashion designer. It’s a land of opportunities far greater than what you can find at home. Which is just not true, there aren’t that many opportunities even for people living here and you can’t exactly get a work Visa to come and be the editor of a fashion magazine or whatever other “cool” job is shown in the films. I understand the appeal of this imagined diaspora, but I also resent it. The ability to escape into the fantasy helps to keep the actual diaspora contented and under control (“I can’t complain about losing a promotion at work, if I just lived a better life I would be a successful fashion designer with a mansion”), and leads to resentment and misunderstandings between the Indian-Indians and the diaspora (“why are you complaining about racism and other problems in your overseas life? I have to work 50 hour weeks doing dull computer programming, you live overseas and are probably a painter in a fabulous loft apartment who spends 60% of your time partying!”),

Dharma and YRF are really bad about promoting this fantasy, you can see it in Dostana, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and (my least favorite) Ta Ra Rum Pum Pum.

Oh yeah, this is exactly what it is like to live overseas. Give well-attended readings of your Urdu poetry and make out in public.
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4 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101/NRI Week: The Evolution of the NRI on Film and in Reality

  1. You haven’t mentioned one very large group – indentured servants whom the British imported into their colonies (for example, Trinidad and British Guyana and South Africa). That is why there are such large populations of ethnically Indian people in these countries (one of the most famous is V S Naipaul); Gandhi campaigned on behalf of the Indian indentured laborers in the Natal province of South Africa. This wasn’t so much “encouraging immigration” as filling labor shortages by a means just short of slavery. (You can read more about this here – http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/SSRN-id2155088.pdf)

    And Indian troops were a backbone of the British Army during the First and Second World War – the Indian National Congress mistakenly believed that the service rendered by Indian troops on the Western Front and in the Middle East would make the British government more willing to grant India Dominion status if not full independence; many of those murdered at Jallianwallah Bagh in 1919 were veterans and their wives and children. As for World War II, I highly recommend Farthest Field, a family history by Raghu Karnad, son of the great Kannada playwright and actor Girish Karnad.

    I’ve always been a little puzzled that none of India’s more arty filmmakers have made any films with this wealth of dramatic material. I happen to like “Rangoon” (I know you don’t ;)) but that’s the only one I can think of and there’s way less in there about what being a British soldier while being an Indian was really like. I think there are plenty of talented filmmakers who could do wonders with Karnad’s book for example, but maybe it would require a level of nuance that might not sell well.

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    • Thank you! Really interesting backstory. also reminds me of the Tamil community in Malaysia.

      I agree about the lack of army films. Maybe just because it is awkward to deal with soldiers who were fighting for not-India? Like you said, a level of nuance that is missing.

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  2. PS There’s also Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” which deals directly with the dual immigration issue: when Idi Amin expelled the South Asians from Uganda, all of whom had “conditional” British passports (conditional on their never trying to go to live in Britain) the British government treated them quite shamefully. The Indian family in Mississippi Masala went from Kampala to England to Mississippi where their families own a chain of motels; and their daughter scandalizes everyone by falling in love with a American black man played by Denzel Washington.

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    • I had a friend in college who lived in I think Kenya for a while as a small child. India, to Kenya, then back to India, then to America.

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