Diasporic Dialectics and the Politics of Cinematic Representation

 Looking Through American Desi*


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


The space of diasporic subjectivity in the era of multinational capital and transcontinental migrations of the working people is a space of incessant dialectical negotiation and movement. In the case of diaspora from the former colonies the complexity and ambivalence of the dialectical negotiation are particularly greater. Even as these people carry the burden of colonial memories, they find themselves in situations which threaten to become neo-colonial on account of the hegemony of certain cultural and political economies. Hence, any cinematic representation of their experience must, in order to be adequate, grapple with its defining complexity and ambivalence. It must come to terms with the open-ended, processual nature of the diasporic subjectivity.


This may not be, of course, easily achievable in the mainstream cinema that survives on linearities, closures and the suppression of dialectical complexity and ambivalence. The independent, experimental Third Cinema may be more reliable for this purpose, particularly when the project is to decolonize and/or resist neo-colonisation (Solanas and Getino).


However, the material conditions of a particular film production may still dictate otherwise. For instance, the narrative expectations of an Indian diasporic audience that has grown up on the mainstream fare of Bollywood may induce film-makers to imbue their productions with a bizarre hybridity that is symptomatic of a wider cultural politics of conflicting ideologies, such as those of diasporic globalism and cultural nationalism.


This is what appears to have happened to Piyush Dinker Pandya’s American Desi, an independent production which purports to deal with the Indian diaspora’s crisis of subjectivity but squanders its initial promise when it fails to negotiate its way through the two contending discourses that structure it as a cinematic text. Between the oppositional discourse of cultural decolonization and the mainstream Bollywood discourse of patriarchal-nationalistic Oedipal integration/cooptation, it misses the initial opportunity to situate and neutralize the latter through either parody or irony.


While the film opens as a Third Cinema production foregrounding the vexed question of cultural (neo-) colonization, it quickly succumbs to the master narrative of the mainstream Bollywood cinema. The Oedipal trajectory of the protagonist’s career (Hayward) and the discourse of cultural nationalism converge to suppress the dialectical complexity of the text and force an ideologically reactionary though technologically ambivalent closure. As a consequence, the film’s manifestly principal objective, which is the study of the problematic formation of hybrid postcolonial subjectivities in a culturally neo-colonising diasporic situation, is eventually suppressed and abandoned. The project of the protagonist’s subjectivation is, instead, vicariously accomplished by means of the heroine’s reification: she is made to function metonymically as an icon of incorruptible cultural femininity and feminised culture. In the process, the myth of Mother India is eroticized and recoded into that of the cosmetically de-individualised and cosmopolitan Girlfriend India of the multinational beauty industry – a packaging event in an era of semiotic recycling that has also seen the politico-poetical regendering of the Indian nation as Rashtra Purusha Bharata (Father India?) in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s verses.


The riotous inter-play of cultural dialectics is unleashed right at the outset. It includes the emblematic shot in which the title of the film appears like a cut-out from American and Indian flags. The cross-cut shots of the hands making tea in the customary Indian way and Kris packing his luggage build up the illusion of a single camera object, but the illusion of seamlessness is soon ripped apart with the anti-climax of the tea not boiling over and the father, having prepared tea, calling out to the son. The sequence, with the abruptly arrested climax, is almost a premonitory metaphor for the film’s yet to unfold narrative.


Meanwhile Kris, the son, has been shown retrieving childhood photographs and the hidden porn from his cupboard: the female nude as the fetishised seductive obverse of the castrated mother lies, in this way, sandwiched between the father and son’s Oedipal bonding and separation. Significantly, with her dark sunken eyes and yellowing newsprint skin, Kris’s mother looks pathologically (and almost symbolically, against her talkative husband) mute. Her estrangement, especially vis-à-vis her son, shows through her very body. Kris would not relate to her at all: her faith in religious rituals is sheer folly to him.  


Her silence is paralleled after a while by that of the popular Bollywood actress Rekha’s poster. The beautiful face in close-up, framed in and disclosed through the traditional Muslim veil, obsesses Salim as a fetish and seduces him into a passionate kiss over the Holy Quran. For him she is purity incarnate, notwithstanding Jagjit’s repeated taunts that she has invariably played the prostitute in films. The heady personal cocktail (hybrid!) of the traditional and the seductive in Salim’s consciousness would be subsequently worked out when his hangover against Farah is happily removed: this happens when he notices her, the night-club haunting girl of his repressed desire, offering namaz in a mosque.


The complex dialectics find a ‘negative’ cinematic representation (in the photographic sense) in the sequence in which Kris and his American friend Eric talk and then yell in excitement while driving down to their new college. Both sit side by side, occupying the front seats and facing the same direction, yet they are shot in mirror frames. As a result, in the spectator’s visual field they are so placed as to be seen moving in opposite directions. The ironic mirror-framing hints at difficulties in the inter-cultural dialogue as a result of which movement cannot be clearly distinguished from the illusion of movement. The euphoric dialogue itself, with the participants yelling at each other against an incessantly slipping (back)ground, suggests an endless loop of negotiation and breakdown that renders the dialogue fundamentally illusory. This short sequence has an elaborate parallel later which significantly advances the reflection on dialogue.


This is the comic sequence of the inebriated and sentimentally gushing Rao who has drunk one full strong beer after an accidental spoonful of red chillies. He is urinating in a public place and wistfully remembering his homeland where you have “the freedom to do anything anywhere”. This Mr. Rao with his homespun though wacky idea of freedom, who had been until this night a virgin as far as alcohol goes, is a Teaching Assistant in an American college. In the ironic deluge of his natural and free-flowing act, the fragile myths of American and Indian dreams clash and blend and crash before being carried off into the diasporic detritus of angst and forced oblivion.


The significance of these sequences as embedded critical reflections in/on the narrative emerges fully when these are set against the moment of mise-en-abîme, that crucial symbolic sequence in which all major characters are watching the video of Raj Kapoor’s Sangam. The viewing is the moment of self-reflection, of the film as well as of the spectators confronting the Imaginary, and the drama of the self and the other is played out all over once again. The psychic/dramatic pressure of the moment warps both the protagonist’s Oedipal trajectory and the film’s narrative in such a way as to unsettle everything and disclose the unseen. Kris thoughtlessly blurts out that he has seen porn films with a better story-line and the offended Neena leaves the room in disgust. For Kris there is to be no re-cognition through the agency of the film as repository of cultural memory (Gabriel). Indeed, his rival for Neena’s attentions has already called his bluff in so far as his claims to acquaintance with the Hindi film music are concerned. The desi mirror of Raj Kapoor’s popular cultural narrative of a doomed triangular relationship returns nothing to the detached retina of his diasporic consciousness. Rather, he is confronted with the sudden disclosure of the hidden and repressed – through impulsive confession in an emotional outburst – through what he had intended to be a screen for hiding himself from Neena’s observant gaze. Krishna Gopal Reddy’s discomfort with his ethnic identity and infatuation with America had metamorphosed him into Kris; now it was Kris’s turn to conceal his ethnic cultural illiteracy and shallow Americanisation for Neena’s approval. But the self-revelation startles him as much as it does Neena.


The disowned culture returns to visit another shock on him in the Kamasutra episode when Neena catches him in bed with a blonde hooker. His ignorance of the amorous associations of his name (which he shares with the versatile Lord Krishna) disallows any cushion against shock on either occasion.


The self-reflexivity of the cinematic gaze – the film coming to terms with itself as a film – is externalized in Monsoon Wedding also with subtlety and resonance. The event manager Dubey’s boys crowd around a window to look at the maidservant gazing narcissistically at her image. The spectator witnesses him/herself watching the boys who are looking at the girl enjoying her reflection – before she suddenly wakes up to the unreality of the reflection and to the fact of being watched by so many people in a near public spectacle. The parasitic voyeurism of the reflexive gaze in chain formation generates a whirl of endlessly regressive imaging in which every reflection must necessarily implode into an image, so that even the self-referential self stands deconstructed as the radical, imaginary other. An appropriate cinematic trope for the diasporic subject – as an inter-image(d) space.


Somewhat similarly but in a different register, the kitchen sequence too offers a critical reflection on the mainstream Hindi cinema. As a mutated rehash of the famous restaurant brawls of the films of the 1960s and 70s, the sequence inscribes the film in the specific historical discourse of Bollywood. At the same time however, in so far as the friendly brawl is staged in the kitchen after the young men have failed in their mission to cook a pan-Indian dinner with the help of recipe-books, it could be seen as an event symbolic of the diasporic cinema’s self-consciously parodic engagement with the mainstream cinema: the ambiguous signification placing it in the no man’s land between subversion and cooptation vis-à-vis the Bollywood imperatives.


In the auditory text of the film, the diasporic dialectics are foregrounded mainly in the extra-diegetic asynchronous soundtracks. The Punjabi music soundtrack for Kris’s multicultural engineering class in a New Jersey college, for instance, inflicts a certain ambivalent transformation on the accompanying visuals. The artistic violence of the infliction works paradoxically: it aesthetically subdues the harshness of the alienation implicit in intellectual transplantation without in any way compromising the pain of alienation. The finest diasporic appropriation of the Bollywood film music is, however, to be found in that famous auditory metaphor of the Indian diaspora – Mukesh’s immortal song from a Raj Kapoor film: “Mera Joota Hai Japani/Yeh Patloon Hai Inglistani”. Melancholy and cheerful in equal measure, the song in its original location innocently posed the question of Indian subjectivity as a motley international costume of rags at a time when the country had just won freedom and was desperately importing and borrowing for its very survival. But relocated, it undergoes reincarnation as a moving parody of the identity crisis of the Indian diaspora.


If the visual and the auditory escape to some extent the Symbolic coding into relatively sharply defined binaries, it might be on account of their easier accessibility to the Lacanian Real, or the Semiotic as Kristeva names it. To some extent, the visual and the auditory could be seen as the cinematic counterparts of the Semiotic in poetry, which stage an invisible revolution on the ‘other’ side of the screen. This side of the screen, however, the revolution is rather easily contained as the characters, as ‘characters’, are readily cut to the mainstream cinema’s archetypes of the stereotypical. Kris’s heart-throb Neena and Salim’s Farah represent culturally mature female subjects. They can keep their poise while negotiating the boundaries between cultures because they have carved themselves spaces for negotiation. This is the reason they both surprise their men. Kris is intrigued to hear Neena, whom he had thought to be a purely American girl, speak Hindi effortlessly. When he remarks that he did not know she was an Indian, she asks him whether it is “a compliment or an insult”. The question is articulated from a firm location, and the cultural drifter that Kris is just cannot field it. Neena is a clear-headed, assertive, self-respecting, intellectually bright girl (she is enrolled in an engineering course). With her equally flawless command of both Hindi and English, she is at home in both her worlds. In a way she represents the deterritorialised diasporic India at its best. But this representation conflicts with her iconography that is stereotypically feminine and with the use of the subjective camera which most of the time identifies with Kris’s (male) point of view (Mulvey). For instance, the first time Kris sees Neena, she is the passive object of his “superior” gaze that emanates from the higher position of the subjective camera.


Salim is likewise intrigued by Farah’s other side because to him “all Indian girls raised in America get corrupt”. He cannot imaginatively connect the night-club visiting Farah with Muslim piety until he has seen her veiled and offering prayers in a mosque. But even then his perception of Farah is mediated through the Rekha poster and it is doubtful if he is not projecting his repressed fantasies about Rekha onto Farah.


Indeed, it is not because the two men have come round to appreciating the two women in their own right as women that their relationships are set for the social sanction represented by wedlock. It is really because they think they have found living specimens of an endangered species, the culturally and sexually inviolate woman. In fact, there could be a feminist sequel to American Desi studying how the two women, post-wedding, cope with their stereotyping and how the two men conduct a post-mortem on their illusions.


Significantly, Jagjit is the only man in the film who confidently, and with a keen eye on others, abides in his cultural space: in fact, he flits around lightly like a butterfly and nimbly eludes ethnic stereotyping with his laughing, critical presence which is almost Shakespearean in its magisterial intensity and sub-soil gravity. And yet Jagjit is also a terrified Oedipal son, who almost literally apprehends castration. His career so far has been a silent shipwreck because he cannot stand up to his father who would “take out his sword and cut off [his] balls”. So he doodles artwork on the margins while taking the engineering course chosen for him by his father. The shots of the ‘marginal’ sublimation – literal as well as metaphorical – of the repressed fantasies of this Oedipal son, the only one of the male trio not to have a ‘girl’, provide a foil to Kris’s bathroom shot that dexterously combines the ritual of purification with autoerotic release. The bathroom shot propels the protagonist Kris on his Oedipal trajectory after a symbolic metamorphosis. He sheds the Kris-tian cocoon and recovers his Krishna essence. He performs Dandiya successfully, thrashes his rival like any good Hindi film hero, and wins Neena’s heart. As the Dandiya gives way to Bhangra, the two lovers publicly go into a huddle for a long un-Indian kiss under the benign eye of the elephant-headed, semi-mechanical hybrid god Ganesha.


Kris alias Krishna Gopal Reddy has been reintegrated into the sexual-cultural economy. But this has been accomplished at Neena’s cost who, in terms of the narrative economy, has been exchanged as the currency to buy Kris his place. She has been de-fleshed and reduced to no more than a unified signifier of femininity and cultural nationalism, an absent centre violently imposed on the cinematic text to linearise and arrest its inter-cultural dialectical ir/resolution.


Works Cited

Gabriel, Teshome H. “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics” <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/filmstudies/courses/third/readings/GabrielThird.pdf>.

Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Evans. Indiana University Press, 1990 < http://www.richmond.edu/~lmcwhort/restricted/Mulvey.html>.

Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema.” 1969. Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema. Ed. Michael Chanan. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1983. 17-27. <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/filmstudies/courses/third/readings/SolanasGetinoThird.pdf>.



January 2004 

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002

Email: sharajesh@gmail.com



*Published in Perspectives on Diaspora: Indian Fiction in English, ed. Tejinder Kaur and N. K. Neb. Jalandhar: Nirman Publication, 2005.