In Honor of Kamala, a Repost of Hindi Film 101 on Indian Americans

I wrote this post, I don’t know, 4 months ago? 5 months ago? Anyway, it’s interesting to look at and think about how Kamala fits into the history and both is and is not recognized by the Indian American community (I am fascinated that I have seen nothing from the Indian movie stars I follow on social media about her).

The starting point for understanding desi immigration to America is that, in American racism, White people are on top, Black people are on bottom, and everyone else who is non-white is juggling for position depending on historical forces just above Black people. And I use “White” and “Black” on purpose, because American racists do not care what your ethnic heritage is, or what the ethnographers say about your background, they care about how American culture has decided to label you. America has made up our own nonsense meaningless categories of “race” that are best described with “Black” and “White”.

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Until less than 100 years ago, those nonsense labels of “Black” and “White” were part of law. There were routine court cases determining and refining who they were applied to, and Asians (along with American Indians and Latinx) were a big part of those cases. Are Asians in America, legally, “free white persons” or not? The answer was a resounding “NOPE!”

Until the 1960s, a variety of immigration laws made it impossible for Asian immigrants to become American citizens, and the social pressures made it hard for them to survive and thrive in America at all. There was a trickle of immigration from all over Asia (Japan, China, South Asia) before the 1850s. When California suddenly economically expanded in the 1850s, the need for cheap labor was enormous and the new California business kings encouraged immigration from China as the easiest way to fill that demand. One particular province in China, which was experiencing upheaval and economic difficulties, began sending in thousands of young male laborers. At the same time, the plantations in Hawaii had similar need for cheap labor and began to bring in Japanese and Chinese and Korean (although at the time they were legally Japanese and were considered as such) laborers. Once the population exploded, so did the prejudice against the population. The “yellow threat” became a political rallying cry, politicians pushed for laws to “protect” America from these different folks.

Her Father's Daughter: Stratton-Porter, Gene: Amazon.com: Books
Gene Stratton-Porter, author of The Girl of the Limberlost, was a flagrant disgusting racist. This whole book is about the “yellow threat”, culminating in a Chinese man being killed and the police covering it up.

What was different from the start about the Asian immigration was that it was so strongly male. In 1875, the “Page Act” cut off female immigration from China because it was believed all female Chinese immigrants were prostitutes. I am sure that was the case for some of them, we are talking about women arriving alone in a rapidly expanding economic zone and sex work is a common entry level field. But this act in one move tarred all Central Asian women with the same brush so far as American society was concerned, to this day the central Asian facial characteristics on woman are seen as “sexy” above all. It also doomed the Chinese male immigrants to loneliness, which lead to their own stereotype, the dangerous single sexual predator.

Of course, people did start families. Love finds a way. Every time there was a gap in the immigration laws, there would be a rush to take advantage of it. For instance, in 1907 America made an agreement with Japan that they would limit emigration on their side, but on our side we would allow for “family reunification” (that is, if one of the few immigrants legally allowed from Japan came to America, they could send for their family later). This lead to “picture brides”, a single man in America would “marry” a woman in Japan without ever meeting her, just seeing her picture, and then file papers to provide for her legal immigration to the US to be reunited with her husband. After the San Francisco earthquake, there was another burst of immigration with “paper sons”. The San Francisco immigration records were lost in the quake and following fires, which allowed the very few legally naturalized Chinese citizens of America to suddenly claim dozens upon dozens of “children” back in China who could legally immigrate and join them. And then of course one of the more common realities, which is not necessarily discussed because it makes people uncomfortable today, is that the members of the non-white communities formed new connections and married each other, across ethnic groups.

In America, on a state by state level, there were what were called “anti-miscegenation” laws. “Miscegenation” is a made up word that means “marriages between races”. Various complicated court cases determined that, according to these laws, Asians were not “white” and therefore could not marry “white” people. But they could marry any non-white folks they cared to. In the regions of America where the Asian population was enormous, this lead to a delightful mixing and matching as heart met heart without concern to background. Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Latinx, American Indian, all met in the middle for a while there. And yes, this includes South Asian.

Who Were The Punjabi-Mexicans Of California & Why Are They Fading ...

The earliest South Asian communities in America were Punjabi Sikh farm laborers. They first arrived in 1907, and by 1909 there was a nice tidy set of laws in place to define how they were “not white”. There was an even larger Punjabi Sikh community in Canada, and most of the Punjabi Sikhs in America tended to be near the Canadian border, in Washington State or California. The nice fresh laws we had created just for them meant they could not bring family to join them in America, they could not become citizens, and no one else could join them, but at least they didn’t have to leave. So you have a group of young men who were kind of on an island. They could stay in this new country (and remember, this was during the height of the Quit India movement unrest in the Punjab area, there were a lot of reasons they might not want to return to India), but they would be forever alone. Only, not alone. Maybe there were only a few thousand Punjabi Sikh young men, but they were surrounded by other people, other Americans. And so a small stable community sprung up of Punjabi Sikhs who married Latinx women (not against the law to marry other non-whites) and settled in America, raising their children half-Latinx and half-Sikh.

After WWII, finally, America began to consider that folks who were not-White might still deserve American citizenship. But just to make things fun, we began to draw new lines to divide those not-Whites into separate better and worse categories. The legal measure that interests me is that in 1943, Chinese-Americans were finally given a legal route towards citizenship BUT were still not allowed to own property. In 1946, South Asian Americans were also given a legal route towards citizenship and WERE allowed to own property. The law defined it, South Asians were ever so slightly better than Chinese so far as America is concerned. Ever so slightly more “White”.

Dalip Singh Saund.jpg
Dalip Singh Saund, first South Asian descent US Congressman, was elected shortly after these laws passed. And then the first Chinese descent Congressman two years later.

The post-war era also brought in some more loopholes for people to leap through as fast as they could. Family reunification was still on the books, and now that all these Asian Americans who were already here had a route to citizenship, they could become citizens, and send for as many family members as they wanted. On top of that, there were the war brides. Again, love finds a way. All those nice young male soldiers met these nice young local women in Asia, and suddenly the fiddle-faddle of racial divisions back home seemed very far away when you were young and in love.

And then, FINALLY, we have the Immigration Act of 1965. This was the first non-racial immigration act in American history. Quotas were placed without regard to race. And the path to citizenship was the same whether you were White, Black, or “Non-White”.

The Surprising Origin of Our Modern Nation of Immigrants - The New ...
Woo-hoo, President Johnson! Democrats pushed this through by the skin of their teeth.

The 1965 act brought in two major methods of immigration, one being needed skills, and the other being (still and always) family reunification. If you are a doctor, or an engineer, you can immigrate to America and we will (kind of sort of) welcome you. If you are the parent or child or sibling or spouse of a doctor or an engineer, we will grudgingly make space for you. This was the law that lead to the explosion of South Asian immigration to America, in a very clear 1-2-3 pattern.

  1. The doctor or engineer. Often not just a professional, but a highly skilled professional. A university professor level desirable worker.
  2. Their relatives. The brother who they help set up as an accountant, the other brother who they help to purchase a business, the cousin who they get into the country and then leave it up to him to figure out how to earn a living.
  3. Their children. American born and raised, struggling to assimilate in a place where they have a tight strong family based large community, that is just a tiny dot in the larger culture.

Hopefully, at this point, this starts to sound familiar to some of my readers. It should be familiar, to any American not just Indian Americans. In the 1970s, we started to get the occasional figure of a person in a sari in our little “where are people from” children’s books. And one of my father’s childhood friends married a woman from India, the only Indian person my parents knew well, but at least there was one versus 0. In the 1980s, suddenly a random Indian-American might pop up as part of the group of friends in a children’s TV program. I was growing up in a mid-sized midwestern city in the 1980s, and we had one South Asian kid in my pre-school class, and one South Asian kid in my elementary school. By the 1990s/early 2000s, there was a mass number of South Asians in America, especially second generation, to the point that they started creating communities for themselves. College clubs, independent movies, jokes about “ABCD (American Born Confused Desi)”, and the word “Desi” itself, added to the vocabulary to describe people of South Asian origin without bothering with what country they were from. All were “desis” together.

This Penn Also Sings | Cities News,The Indian Express
This is when Penn Masala started, a college acapella club that mixed together American R&B with Hindi film hits.

This was also the era when Hindi films hit the mainstream. There were a lot of reasons for that, technology and economy and artistry and so on, but part of it was that “Desis” in America wanted movies that spoke to their unique community. Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Chahta Hai, all the way to Love Aaj Kal, they showed life overseas as simply “life”. You went to malls, you went to college, you had career plans, you weren’t spending every moment thinking “am I Indian or am I American?” Heck, in some of these movies, that question wasn’t even a concern, Kal Ho Na Ho for instance firmly identified it’s central characters as American with no thought of returning to a “homeland” where they had never been.

And then that era peaked, and passed. By 2000, the Indian American community in America had exploded, by 2010 it was even larger. Back when the first Punjabi farmers arrived, they couldn’t even have wives from their own community, they were forced into the most intimate possible connection with other American communities. In the 1960s, some of those first wave immigrants, the doctors and professors and so on, married outside of their community (it was legal by then). In the 1980s, the children of those immigrants were forced to assimilate with their friends, to date and party and aspire to the life of mainstream America. In the 1990s, that group began to move out and grow up and come to urban areas and learned to enjoy having a collective identity, not one defined by individual languages or religions or their parents’ national heritage, but as “ABCD”s, young Americans raised by South Asian parents, excluded by their appearance from mainstream white culture while still living largely within it. But in the 2000s, suddenly there were so many young professional South Asians, both raised in America and immigrating as adults, that you didn’t have to have those collectivist identities any more.

American Desi - Wikipedia
Surprise hit movie back in 2000s, and now there are think pieces about the death of the word “desi”.

Now there are Telugu associations and Tamil associations and Bengali associations and on and on, there are separate temples depending on your separate background. And of course original national boundaries, which used to be so porous just 15 years back, are suddenly set in stone. People aren’t “desi” any more or “South Asian”, they are proudly “Indian”.

India is very eager for people who are Indian heritage and no longer live in India to continue to feel like Indian citizens. Before, our few Punjabi Sikh farmers were on an island, cut off from home, and forced to build a new life where they were. The 1960s and 70s and 80s immigrants to America took a less extreme but similar leap, they moved towards American citizenship and were aware that much of their connection with their homeland would be gone. But now, now you can legally vote in Indian elections even if you have not been to India in years, you can live in America and build a life in America and still tell yourself you are Indian. And on top of that of course there are the technological changes, the ability to email, to call, to communicate constantly. Satellite TV, you can watch all your Indian shows. Food, there is a whole massive industry to make sure you can eat your Indian food in America.

Bombay Bazaar, Corona - Photos | Facebook
This is what puzzles me. If you are in America, why are you eating pizza made with Indian style cooking and ingredients, instead of American style pizza? Or Indian food? It’s this pretending you are in India pretending you are in America, rather than just being in America, that I find interesting.

We can see this in our movies, again. The Indian-American community is increasingly uninterested in films showing Indian-Americans. They want to see a patriotic film re-affirming their identity as “Indians”. Or they want to see a small family comedy film set in the heartland, transporting them back to what their life would have been/should have been if they were back “home”.

Of course there is no one monolithic “Indian-American community”. There are desis who still primarily identify as “desi”, who are concerned with the issues of the larger South Asian community within America. There are rebellious young Indian-Americans who actively fight against the patriotism and Indian identity of their parents. There are young Indian-Americans who grew up almost entirely assimilated and are enjoying the new opportunities to explore their heritage thanks to these new cultural groups. But the most present and vocal community today has become the ones who trumpet the “Indian” over the “American”.

9 thoughts on “In Honor of Kamala, a Repost of Hindi Film 101 on Indian Americans

  1. Amdavad Bhakri pizza always makes me chuckle. But I can see the reason behind it. A majority of Indians do believe refined flour is unhealthy and therefore avoidable, and I suspect it was developed back in India – as the toppings are under the cheese layer, typical Indian style 😉

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  2. Ok. As an Indian-American, I would like you to take my perspective on a few things mentioned on this post. First is the term ABCD. Many of us find that term to be insulting since we aren’t confused. We are Americans but we are proud of our Indian heritage. Second is the line where you say: People aren’t “desi” any more or “South Asian”, they are proudly “Indian”. This May apply to my parents, but many Indian-American like myself prefer to say South Asian. This works two ways. It is meant to decrease conflict between us and other South Asians (especially those of Pakistani descent) since there geopolitical conflicts of that area don’t apply to Americans like us. Secondly, it shows our association with other Asians (our cultures do have similarities) which also making it clear there is a difference. The last thing I wanted to point out was the last paragraph. Firstly, I don’t believe you meant it to sound offensive, but I didn’t like the word rebellious. I mean sure, I get annoyed when I see Indians act like their white and forget that they are Indians too, but they are Americans and have every right to act that way. Secondly the idea of the Indian trumping the American shouldn’t be viewed as a good thing. The only way to progress Indian-American identity is to progress Indian-Americans in entertainment.

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    • Oh, I agree! Rereading this I am realizing that I am thinking about the Indian American community as seen in the audience for Hindi films. The folks who are going to see the movies, who the movies are aimed at, are the ones who want to watch an Indian movie instead of an American movie. Which isn’t to say all of them are of the “I am Indian over American” type, but the majority is. Or, the presumed majority that the films are made for is. Does that make sense? I’m thinking of how many box office hit Hindi films in America have Indian exceptionalism, Western culture sucks, kind of message.

      On Sun, Nov 8, 2020 at 11:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I would suggest to actually compare the business of movies you are thinking of with their budgets.You are not entirely wrong,but Swades was a massive failure,so was Panipat and Manikarnika(I guess it was an overall flop).Kesari,Tanhaji,Uri,Mission Mangal had below average overseas collections of barely 30-40 crores(and that includes Bangladesh,China,Middle East and the rest,not just US).30 crore is what SLB spends on sets,it is that insignificant.Laal Kaptaan just vanished.I can’t think of other movies in this genre,and most of them were overseas failures.The films that you talk about are mostly by SLB,and his opulence is what blinds even Western film critics,and rather surprisingly the non desi community of Germany loved Bajirao Mastani,considering they would have little knowledge about it.West loving Indian exceptionalism is weird but true,as far as it feeds glitzy glamour.I can’t name other period dramas that were massively successful overseas. I don’t agree that the Indian Americans are necessarily pro India,as the film grosses don’t agree with film production.I don’t think that a 30 crore overseas collection is good by any measure,even 2000s films earned more than this.Padmaavat on the other hand with its 250+crore overseas collection was the odd one out.When other films like this make such meagre money,the only possible explanation is that the target audience grew bored of it.Gully Boy,Raazi,Andhadhun,Badhaai Ho all did much better overseas-probably that is what the audience is actually looking for.Their 60-70 crore overseas gross is noteworthy because these films had a budget less than 40 crores.Even a film like ELKDTAL that would make sense only to desis grossed 14 crore overseas-with negligible promotions and screens.I agree with the statement “the *presumed*majority that the films are made for”,except the makers are wrong in their presumptions and the audience proves it with BO figures.These films are not the fault of Indian Americans but rather Indians,as they make awfully huge business in India not overseas.Labelling the entire US business of Bollywood on desis is pretending that non desis don’t watch Bollywood movies.You do,so do others.And even in hate watching you might have paid the movie like others who couldn’t find anything else due to release schedules.

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  3. Do you think Bollywood would ever make a Kamala Harris biopic?? Maybe not…I think Indians don’t see her as “Indian” since she never really emphasizes that side of her heritage….though if they do make the movie Chitrangada Singh would be perfect!
    Come to think of it there are so many powerful inspiring Indian Americans…Indira Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai +++ why aren’t these guys chosen for biopics?? Indians should connect with their struggles and achievements…so then why no movies about them?

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    • I can’t believe that she still hasn’t been acknowledged by the tiny corner of Indian culture that I follow! I only follow the Khans, Amitabh, and Taran Adarsh. But I keep thinking everyone is going to say “congrats to a daughter of Bharat” or something.

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  4. Just one minor complaint-ABCD.Someone has already explained it.
    This will not apply to most Indian Americans,but within India the word “desi” has a negative connotation(since a long time)implying backward,unpolished,or regressive.Like “Saas bahu”literally means MIL-DIL,but in India it is a slang for regressive misogyny.Like poor quality liquor being called “desi daru”.If you have seen Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam,there is a scene where Bhootnath is taunted for having owned only “desi” lanterns,and “vilayati lanten” is treated as a novelty.It is common to hear people call unsuccessful ripoffs as “desi versions”(much like how the English word “parody” is used).This is confusing even for me,because desi literally means of desh=country=India->of India,not necessarily Indian.It is somewhat weird for Indians to use the word desi as a pejorative,but call the diaspora by the same name to show acceptance.Imagine introducing someone respectfully as a “normie”.But it is slightly convoluted at the same time because desi ghee is seen as good.This pejorative existed for a long time,and while the diaspora don’t have a problem with being called desi,Indian citizens shy from using this term because of the negative connotations.It is just weird.Also,desi has unintentionally become a rather narrow term(mostly due to how others use it)to describe a particular type of community from Punjab -Delhi.Imagine the word desi and be honest-is an Indian Muslim the first thing to come up in your mind,or even a Muslim for that matter,despite the fact that Mughal e Azam is THE film of Indian cinema?Probably not,but a Punjabi might have.Also we end up sorting out the Buddhists with the other Asians,despite the fact that there are Ambedkarites in Europe,whom we often leave out from desis.Bengalis are known for their left leaning liberal communism in a good way,but it just doesn’t click with how the West sees South Asia as a mostly capitalist culture in tandem with the West(Pakistan follows capitalism,India and Bangladesh are mixed Socialists with India gearing towards capitalism).Sri Lanka has a similar Tamil culture,but desi=India/Pakistan/Bangladesh in most circles.You will not find many Bangladeshi origin people calling themselves as such,they rather use the term ‘Bengali'(as in language)as do people from West Bengal(which is an Indian state,but very different)making everything more confusing,since a national boundary does not a shared culture make.People from North East India feeling left out is a harsh truth,whether in India or abroad.Repeat the thinking about desi exercise and people from North East India might not pop up in your mind.I do think that the word South Asian is the best word to describe the community,as cultures can be intersectional and feeling left out with ‘desi’makes sense since not every South Asian knows Hindi/Punjabi/Urdu,but most people in the community know English.And people end up using the word Indian when referring to Hindus(even DCIB has committed this faux past many,many times unintentionally,it just slips out)which is not a sin,but can be perceived as a micro aggression by others.Same for desi and south Asian.You can be a South Asian and identify with the community,but not wrap your mind around the word desi,if that makes sense.Which is probably why the word desi died out,but the word South Asian is what I find least problematic,if a bit boring-sounding.
    And I don’t want a Kamala Harris biopic from Bollywood.This would be appropriation at best of her struggle.I would love to see Sophie Okonedo portray her in a Hollywood venture if it happens.

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