Bollywood Delusions: Race vs. Language

There's a short article in Bollywood Mantra about the new Hindi film actress Katrina Kaif, who has a small role in Sarkar and a starring role in Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya. She speaks Hindi with a heavy British accent, so professional 'dub' actresses fill in for her. Two other films of hers coming out will also have other women's voices:

Katrina Kaif will have two releases in as many weeks and Akshay Kumar, who starts with her in Raj Kanwar's Humko Deewana Kar Gaye, thinks she's shaping up to be a "major heroine". But Katrina's relatively small walk-on part in Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar and her full-fledged part in David Dhawan's Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya have one thing in common - she did not speak her own lines in both films. Reason? Apparently Katrina's Hindi is a bit on the weaker side.

In fact, Varma had originally decided to retain Katrina's ultra-anglicised voice in keeping with her US-returned character in Sarkar. But the Hindi spoken by the actress was way too outlandish to pass off as a non-resident Indian accent. (link)

This raises a whole complex of issues, most of which point in one way or another at the weird neuroses that continue to haunt Bollywoood. But let me just make two points.

1. I'm generally sympathetic to the situation of Katrina Kaif. She was born and raised in England (indeed, her mother is British), so why shouldn't she speak Hindi with an accent? Some of my Indian friends tend to be a bit intolerant of Hindi or Punjabi spoken with a bad American or British accent (i.e., by people like me). It doesn't really bother me, but it is a double-standard: Indians speaking English with Indian accents want to be accepted and respected in the west, so why shouldn't that tolerance work the other way around? Kaif did apparently lose some roles earlier because of her poor Hindi and her accent, including a part in Saaya (not that that's a big loss).

If, by some bizarro accident I found myself in a Bollywood movie, I would also need that kind of help. So on this note I am somewhat sympathetic.

2. But why is Katrina Kaif in Bollywood to begin with? Why is she getting parts? It's not for her acting ability, which seems pretty minor, at least in Sarkar. I believe she and others are being brought in because they look white.

I don't hold that against them, but I do question why it's such a commodity in Bollywood. Here I swing slightly toward the side of the Bolly-skeptics. Generally, the complaint one hears is that the industry is hopelessly derivative of Hollywood in terms of storylines and filmic sensibility. In my post last week I disputed this -- I think there has been a spurt of creativity and innocation in the past 5-10 years.

But in terms of its attitude to skin complexion and actors' facial physiognomy, the recent wave of Anglo-looking actors and actresses suggests it's a no-contest. Or perhaps I should say, it's still a no-contest: Indian actors have always tended to be much lighter-skinned than ordinary Indians, and the projection of 'western lifestyle' has been a part of Indian movie mythology for at least 40 years. And it's always been somewhat troubling to me -- a sign of a lingering colonial mentality.

The difference now, in this era of hybridity-globalization, is that the simulacrum of whiteness is approaching perfection.

The oddity is that what is wanted is the physical appearance of whiteness mixed with a classy, sometimes English-inflected, but still authentic Hindi-speaking capability. I find that to be an interesting paradox. The need for good Hindi can be explained as an issue of effective communication with mass audiences, but it doesn't make the paradox any less real.

To put it very directly: Why is physical difference from Indian norms acceptable (or even desirable), while significant linguistic difference is an impossibility?