So, we all watched Loins of Punjab Presents on Friday. And it is funny and heartfelt and sweet and good things. But right at the end there is a sequence with the Indian National Anthem that just makes you start to cry and it’s very strange, because there is no obvious reason it should make you cry. I’ve been thinking about it for a day now and I’m still not sure why it makes me cry, but I think I have a theory.
The end of Loins of Punjab Presents is our funny over-sexed tacky event planner explaining why he is happy that a white man won “desi idol”. It’s the thesis statement for this movie, this movie that is set within the Indian-American community but also within the greater American community:
“Who’s outsider? We are outsider, non-American. But we are inside, we are outsiders inside. Now that we’re inside, can we keep people outside when they’re already in? So forget all this outside-inside. We’re all inside. Even if we were outside once.”
I think what he is talking about is that you have to learn to process hate, and give back love. This movie, very slowly and carefully, builds up the ways minority communities can process hate and give back hate in return. Or, not.
The “Jana Gana” performance is the culmination of three important performances, each of them from people who were made “outside” by the desi society within America, an oppressed minority that was excited to further oppress anyone who didn’t live up to their standards.
Ajay Naidu’s character is a frustrated artist, a gay man, and a second generation Indian-American trying to find his place in the world. He is always ready for a fight, always ready to defend who he is. But what he really wants is just to give his music to people. He breaks on stage for that, he doesn’t care about a record contract or a making the news or anything else, he just wants a chance to perform and give people his music. And it works! The crowd loves him, and he loves them. No one cares any more that he has been walking around the hotel holding hands with his African-American partner all week, they just love his music and accept him as one of them.
Then there’s Seema Rehmani’s performance. At first the crowd is quick to accept an excuse to consider her “less than” they are because she does not speak Hindi. She is an “outsider” because of that and they can enjoy feeling like “insiders”. But all it takes is one person to speak up for her, one person to argue that this is wrong, and the crowd turns the other way. They will happily take this “outsider” back “inside” with them.
Finally, “Jana Gana” sung by our white American man. He is the ultimate American “insider”, but in this community within America he is an “outsider”. He could have reacted to this unaccustomed persecution with anger, or simple hurt, but instead he stands in front of them and takes in all their hate and gives back love, sings out the Indian National Anthem and tells them “you may hate me, but I still love you”.
That’s why the crowd stands. It’s not about “India is better than America”, it is about “I remember all of a sudden what it is like to feel part of something greater”. Josh respects who they are and accepts all their hate and gives back love, and they stand and cheer for that, for remembering they have more in common than differences, for accepting that they are now Indians in America, they will stand for their anthem and they will applaud the white man who is singing it to them.
In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, there is a similar moment when the British school children sing “Jana Gana”. But I think what makes the difference in that movie is that it is all from the perspective of the folks on the inside of the outsider community. We have no sympathy for the white people around them, no sense that they should be trying to build connections across those borders. “Jana Gana” in that movie is saying “Indians in the diaspora deserve to feel respected”. “Jana Gana” in this movie is saying “all people deserve respect and love”. Just because you were on the outside once doesn’t give you the right to put anyone else on the outside. You should all be inside together.
Is that right? Is that what it is like for you? Or at least partly what it is like for you? I’m still not sure why or how that moment goes from shocking and a little funny to tear inducing, but it really hit on something special.