The depiction of the Non Resident Indian, or NRI, in Indian films has changed a lot over the years. In his lifetime, WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal, an Indian-American born in Texas, says he's seen the portrayal shift from the garishly dressed cousin visiting from abroad to respectable men and women living in the West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The depiction of the Non-Resident Indian, or NRI in Indian film, has always interested WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal. As an NRI growing up in Texas, Venugopal took special note of how the Indian film industry depicted people like him. His first exposure to Indian movies came early in his life, and, as he wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece this summer, it wasn't his favorite weekend activity. The films his parents dragged him to see weren't the fun Bollywood flicks now familiar in the West, with catchy musical numbers and colorfully-clad dancers.
[DISCO DANCER MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The 10-year-old Arun probably only wishes he could have seen a Bollywood super hit like Disco Dancer. The films Arun saw were slower, more depressing fare from the south Indian state of Kerala.
[CLIP/SOUND OF WOMAN CRYING] This last scene from the movie Pirava, in which a blind mother weeps after her son has been killed by the police and her husband has had a mental breakdown, gives you a taste - so sad, and not especially kid-friendly. And Arun says, to make matters worse:
ARUN VENUGOPAL: These are long, long, long movies. They're like three, three-and-a-half hours long, and film reels would suddenly stop rolling.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And you'd have people in the aisles and stuff like that. And you’d just have this memory of like, samosas on the carpet kind of smeared in.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And it wasn't very clean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among all of the things you didn't like about movie night, maybe the principal one was the depiction of something called the Non- Resident Indian, or the NRI.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Exactly. This is a term which is sort of like shorthand for all of us who are out of the homeland, right, all spread across the world. We're seeing ourselves occasionally on this big screen and, you know, there were kind of these caricatures, garish, ridiculously dressed, tennis-outfitted sort of people who sort of talk too much, and we're – we’re just kind of excessive in every way. And it’s actually your own people, so to speak, who are kind of making fun of you, from afar, really.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You cite a 1971 film in your Wall Street Journal piece called Hare Rama Hare Krishna. And you say it’s indicative of the snobbish sense of moral superiority that the filmmakers feel about the Non-Resident Indian living in the West. And there’s a famous song in that film that seems to say it all, so let's go to the tape.
[CLIP: HARE RAMA HARE KRISHNA/WOMAN SINGING]
ARUN VENUGOPAL: As the title suggests, it’s about sort of these hippies and how they've kind of co-opted Indian culture, but it’s also about this Indian family from Montreal, which is, you know, as Western families tend to do, they’re dysfunctional and kind of broken down. There’s adultery and deceit going on.
[SINGING] The daughter in the family, known as Jasbir as a kid, but now she’s become Janice, the westernized kind of, I guess, heroine or whatever in the film, and she’s sort of been consumed by the drugs of her hippie subculture, this group that she’s in. And they find themselves in Nepal, and she’s trying to escape it all. This song is really about this way in which western culture has co-opted Indian spirituality for its own little cheap thrills, and the song Dum Maro Dum means basically, here, have another puff. And so, it’s kind of meant to be, I guess, about Indian culture against all those hippie excesses of the '60s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we leap ahead from 1971 to the mid-'90s and the film called:
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Come on, let's do it, let's hear it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dilwale Duniya Le –
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Dulhaniya.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - Le Jayenge.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Perfect.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] The Lover Takes the Bride.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a turning-point film.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: It’s considered a major, I guess, a milestone, in terms of Bollywood’s evolution from the India-centric storylines to films which really embrace what’s happening all over the world with Indians anywhere. This film is set in the U.K. You have a couple of college-age kids. They decide to go on a trip across Europe and they fall in love, but she has a very strict father who would absolutely never allow her to marry some lout that she meets on a trip in Europe. Yet, he doesn't want to elope. He wants to win over her family back in Punjab. So they all go to Punjab and slowly, despite all kinds of hijinks and getting beaten up by her father, he does win her over and the family realizes, oh, my God, yes, they love each other enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So here you have the NRI. He’s a sympathetic central character. And, on top of it, it rakes in a gazillion - rupees.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: That's right. Suddenly all these producers back home realize, oh my God, what have we been thinking? Let's make movies about these NRIs, these, you know, expatriate Indians going between their Indianness and their Westernness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, after The Lover Takes a Bride, you say that the genre takes another turn.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Yeah, it’s in 2004, which I think, you know, one of the more interesting films which came out is called Swades, which basically means Homeland. And Swades is about this NASA scientist. He lives in D.C. And he feels a little homesick, he goes home, tries to find his old nanny. He finds her in the village. He encounters all these worst aspects of Indian culture - caste oppression, sexism, illiteracy, all these other kinds of things, poverty. And yet, he really connects with the village, with the people and with India. Should he return back to the U.S, where he’s living a good life – he’s well-adjusted, he’s not cut off from American society - or should he return to India and try to help the country with some of these problems? Finally, he does decide to go back. So it’s somewhat unblinkered in its look at Indian society, its problems, acknowledging at the same time America’s not perfect. For the first time I kind of feel this is where America and India are suddenly attaining sort of a parity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What changed? Is it because the connection between the Indian Diaspora and the Indian homeland became closer?
ARUN VENUGOPAL: India’s economy really started opening up to the world. They were, I guess, much more conscious of the lifestyles of these people abroad, and they aspired to some of the same sort of things, in terms of the house and the car and all those kinds of things, which they - I guess they figured were more attainable, by this point, back in India. People embraced the Westernness, and this issue of like either/or became kind of moot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then I guess the ultimate expression of the Non-Resident Indian would be a film called Ta Ra Rum Pum, where the cross-cultural experience is no longer the issue.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Yeah, they're kind of post-NRI, you might say. It’s not really this division between our identities abroad and our identities back as Indians. It’s not a great movie. It’s kind of funny. It’s about this racecar driver who suddenly goes from the top of the world of racecar driving in Manhattan -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A racecar Mecca [LAUGHS].
ARUN VENUGOPAL: - the Manhattan NASCAR scene –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - legendary as it is. Suddenly he crashes, and his life starts falling apart. The family has to move out of their palatial Manhattan estate to, oh my God, Jackson Heights in Queens, you know, and there’s this scene which is -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, it’s Green Acres.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: [LAUGHS] Yes, exactly. These are the movies that happen a lot nowadays. They don't really obsess over remaining true to their tradition and heritage or what-not. You really see this global Indian.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last question: Kumar, good for the NRI, bad for the NRI?
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Great for the NRI.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Here you have a movie which is sort of poking fun of the stereotype of the medical student. He can ace his exams and still say, you know what, I don't want it, let's go get some burgers and [BROOKE LAUGHS] smoke some weed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun, thank you very much.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Venugopal is a reporter for WNYC, New York Public Radio.
KAL PENN AS KUMAR PATEL: I'm about to introduce you to an invention of mine. Meet the smokeless bong.
[THEME MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver, Dan Mauzy and Julia Simon, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield.