Category Archives: Entertainment

Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation? A Few Thoughts

by Priya Chhaya

In early April, pop star Selena Gomez incited media buzz when she appeared in public wearing a bindi. She is not the first celebrity to wear something Indian, but I have to ask:

Should I feel offended that someone has chosen to appropriate a piece of Indian cultural identity for entertainment? Or is it another sign of how elements of my heritage have trickled into the American subconscious? If she “meant well,” is it OK? Or is it never OK for someone who is not Indian to wear such a symbol without preserving its meaning? And, at what point does something go from being culturally appropriate to cultural appropriation?

Selena Gomez image

Let’s consider three scenarios.

Scenario 1: So You Think You Can Dance contestants perform a Bollywood-style dance number. The performance includes elements of hip-hop and classical Indian styles.

Scenario 2: Selena Gomez hires a composer to add tabla and sitar to a song to give it a strong beat. She attends performances wearing Indian clothing, and composes a video that includes elements of Indian dancing.

Scenario 3: Akon, an American hip-hop artist is asked by a Bollywood producer to sing on a major Bollywood movie track. That song, Chammak Challo, becomes a global hit, with the hip-hop artist singing all the Hindi lyrics himself.

As I consider these scenarios, I realize: it’s complicated.

So You Think You Can Dance performances include forms from many cultures. Here, dance is like a language — without boundaries, with different dialects but easily understandable as a form of expression. I consider this to be culturally appropriate because the compositions and choreography pays due respect to the dance forms as a form of expression-without reducing its origins to a stereotype.

Chammak Challo is a little grayer. On one hand, its melds two musical forms from two different countries, but he’s a non-native speaker singing in Hindi. As a publicity/marketing piece for Ra.One, it worked really well but there is a potential for misunderstanding—did he understand what he was singing, or was it a form of mimicry? I think it was culturally appropriate, because while he was singing in a foreign language, he didn’t try and change his image or try to fit his persona into what someone-singing-in-Hindi should look like.

Which brings me back to Selena Gomez. The song has a catchy hook, but the music video places the tabla players with turbans around a fire in a desert and her dancers perform the stereotypical snake-charmer head movement that has come to represent Indian dancing. This seems like appropriation to me because it reinforces age-old stereotypes of exoticisms and the “other.”  This re-enforcement continues through her attire and performances where she tried to ‘become’ Indian in a way that rings false.

Today, Indians and Indian-Americans defy stereotypes. We are authors, congressional representatives, and CEO’s of major American corporations, and I still get excited when I see barriers being broken in the entertainment industry such as Mindy Kaling on the Mindy Project or Amitabh Bachchan in the Great Gatsby.  As such, Indians and India should not been seen or presented through one specific lens or a single caricature.

What do you think?


Call for Submissions: Be(com)ing Desi in America

Call for Submissions: Be(com)ing Desi in America
An Exhibition and Performances by Subcontinental Drift in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

In February 2014 in Washington, D.C., Subcontinental Drift, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, will present a visual and performing arts exhibition entitled Be(com)ing Desi in America. This exhibition will run parallel to the Smithsonian exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, which will be on display at the National Museum of Natural History from December 2013 through Spring 2015.

In our own unique ways, each of us challenges, claims, defines and redefines what it means to be South Asian in America. How does desi-ness manifest in your life? And how did the desi that is you come into being?

Do you tweak your mom’s or dad’s recipes? (Re)fashion a desi garment for your current wardrobe? Embody beauty beyond Bollywood ideals? Remix raagas with “western” beats? And push beyond prejudices—internalized and in the wider world—about how to look, who to partner with, and what occupation or hobbies to engage in?

For Be(com)ing Desi in America, we’re interested in recipes and works of visual and performing art that show your unique desi-ness AND tell the story of how you came to embrace it (or not), while sharing your perspective on issues of aesthetics and (body) image.

Send us your photographs, painting, sculpture, poetry, performance clips (spoken word, theater, dance and music), films, cartoons, comics, drawings and digital graphics.

Submissions and questions should be sent to Both new and existing pieces are welcome.  The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, October 13, 2013.


Indian American Filmmakers: Telling Their Own Stories

Indian American Actors

Indian American actors from left: Manu Narayan, Samrat Chakrabarti, Sarita Choudhury and Ajay Naidu. Photo by Michael Toolan.

By Lavina Melwani

If there’s one thing that Indians across the world share, it’s their love for movies. As newborns, they are weaned on cinema by star-struck parents and as toddlers, their first steps are mingled with dance steps learned from Bollywood movies on video. School kids can rattle off famous dialogue from Hindi films and as young adults, they often take their cues from the romantic sequences in their favorite films. Even patriotism and national integration are often invoked by Bollywood’s rousing lyrics and over-the-top emotions.

This year marks the 100th year of Indian cinema and this vibrant industry seems to be gaining momentum and strength across the world. Immigrants have brought their love of cinema to America, carrying memories of the golden age of cinema of the 50’s, the wonderful films of V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, and Guru Dutt.

Then there’s that whole period of the 70’s when Amitabh Bachchan was the “angry young man” and the industry almost revolved around him. Slowly, the “masala movies” of the 70’s morphed into Bollywood, and now that catch-all phrase covers just about every movie produced by India’s multi-million dollar film industry.

Young Indian Americans have acquired this passion for film from their immigrant parents and watched countless videos from the local Indian stores. Many young people living in American towns can break into “filmi” dance at a moment’s notice. In fact, folk dances, Bollywood dancing, and bhangra have become big business in the Indian communities, with dance studios teaching all these forms. Indians carry this love into college campuses and most Indian organizations have dance teams, contests, and special events.

The compulsion to make movies about their roots began a few decades ago when young Indian Americans came of age and found brown faces were not represented at all in the mainstream cinema. American Desi was one of the first films to be made by this new generation telling their stories of cultural confusion and adjustment. For struggling actors of South Asian descent it was a difficult time when roles for them were few and far-between, and the choice was to play a taxi driver, a swami—or a terrorist.

With America’s changing demographics, a lot has changed. It’s acceptable—even cool—to be an Indian and there is an increasing array of roles for Indian faces on mainstream TV and movies. At one time many Indian parents were much more conservative about their children’s career choices—it had to be doctor, engineer or lawyer; now they are open and supportive of a wide range of choices which can be actor, director, or even stand-up comic.

There are now several Indian actors in Hollywood and independent films, including Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Samrat Chakrabarti, Parminder Nagra, Sarita Choudhury, Manu Narayan, and Ajay Naidu.

At the recent New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) which showcased over 44 independent films and documentaries from India and the Diaspora, one got to see many films made by emerging Indian American filmmakers which proved that cinema has become a way of life for the second-generation South Asians.

New York Indian Film Festival

New York Indian Film Festival director Aroon Shivdasani (left) with first time director Bedabrata Pain (right). Photo by Michael Toolan.

The opening night film was Chittagong made by first time filmmaker Bedabrata Pain, who was a scientist at NASA before he decided to become a filmmaker. In fact, he has been inducted into the US Space Technology Hall of Fame for his inventions in digital imaging. This powerful film takes us to British India of the 1930’s, to a true life story of revolutionaries taking on their English Masters.

Some of the Indian Americans who showcased their films at this festival, almost always with Indian subjects,  include Mukesh Vidyasagar, who made Silent Water—a film which creates awareness about clean water and raises funds for Gramalaya, a non-profit in India; Anirban Roy of Los Angeles, whose Aashpordha about teenage rebellion, has been picked up for national telecast by SBS Australia; Mridu Chandra of New York has produced award-winning films, including Himalaya Song which showed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Her new film, Indian Summer, follows a real Indian-American story—children at the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp in Rochester, NY.

Many emerging filmmakers are starting out with short films and going the film festival route. Vishesh Sharma has moved only in 2000 to the US but has just finished directing his first short film Color of Anger. There’s Vivek Sharma, who has directed the 14-minute film The Plan. It will be interesting to see how the careers of these filmmakers evolve.

One filmmaker who thinks out of the box is Vikram Gandhi, a graduate of Columbia University. He’s done music videos and ad films for major corporations, but his first feature film, bagged him the Audience Award for the Best Documentary at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. The premise is quite stunning: in Kumare he takes on religious groups and blind faith by pretending to be an Indian guru named Kumare. True to human nature, the fawning disciples really follow!

New York Indian Film Festival

New York Indian Film Festival. Photo by Michael Toolan.

There is a lot of crisscrossing between continents: Bornila Chatterjee, who was born in Los Angeles, moved to Kolkata and then returned to the US to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her first feature film was seen at the NYIFF—Let’s Be Out, the Sun is Shining. It won the Audience Prize over several other films, including films from India.

Inspired by the filmmakers of the diaspora like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and M. Night Shyamalan, there are young Indian American filmmakers dreaming their dreams and making their own kind of films across the USA. Some like Nageshwar Kukonoor travel back to India to become a big success there!

So one has to watch out for all that these emerging filmmakers will be accomplishing in this 100th year of Indian cinema. They may well re-define what constitutes an Indian film, bringing all their American experiences to it.


Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.

In the following essays, she explores Indian-American life, journeys to India, America and the emerging self.


Jay Leno and the Golden Temple

by Rajshree Solanki

So have you heard the one about Jay Leno and the Golden Temple?

A recent sketch on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (aired January 19th) featured a clip of the Republican candidates and their summer homes. The last image was supposed to be the summer home of Mitt Romney. The image that appeared was that of the Golden Temple (also known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib) a sacred and revered temple to many Sikhs around the world.

How rich is Mitt Romney? He’s so rich that his summer home is the Golden Temple! Ba Dum!

Many in the Sikh American community did not find the insinuation of Romney’s wealth and ownership and the image of the Golden Temple very funny. The implication that the center of Sikh faith and center of charity was viewed as a luxurious vacation home was viewed as racist and derogatory. An online petition was launched over Jay Leno’s sketch. BBC World News reported Indian-American, Randeep Dhillon, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Leno, stating Leno’s sketch “clearly exposes plaintiff, other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh”.

India’s Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, found it “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable.” The US State department weighed in on the controversary. US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US Constitution strictly protected freedom of speech and commented that Leno’s remarks were “satirical in nature.”  She also emphasized the US had “absolute respect” for all Indians, including Sikhs, and that President Barack Obama was the first president to celebrate the birthday of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, at the White House.

So I searched the internet to find how others felt about the sketch. I came across the blogger Rupinder Mohan Singh‘s very insightful blog “American Turban: A Discussion about the Sikh American Experience”, about his observations about the treatment of himself and other Sikh Americans around the United States. Singh makes the suggestion that this misstep, should be seen as an opportunity to have an open discussion as to what it means to be Sikh in a 9/11 world.

Singh wrote:

“Jay Leno’s bit was our chance to welcome the public into our world to educate people in a positive way about what Darbar Sahib is and stands for. We have lost that opportunity and, instead, we have demonstrated that we are a close-minded, short-sighted and paranoid group of people.  For many, the real comedy is now not the joke that Jay Leno told, but the response to it by Sikhs and Indian politicians.”

In a response to a comment on his blog, Singh writes that Jay Leno is in business to mock. He’s a comedian. So why not choose other religious site like the Udupi Sri Krishna Matha, or the Vatican, or the the Masjid al-Haram or the Mormon Temple?

What are your thoughts on this topic? Post comments below or on our Facebook Page.

Rajshree Solanki is the Registration Specialist for Loans at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Current Events, Entertainment


Indian American Jazz Artists Create Their Own Sound

by Pawan Dhingra

I once saw Ravi Coltrane play in a small club in New York City, about 15 years ago. I knew he was John Coltrane’s son and I thought it interesting that he had an Indian first name. I learned soon after that he was named after Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane had a deep respect for Shankar, and while they met various times, Coltrane passed away before he could take lessons from Shankar. Still, Indian music found its way into John Coltrane’s albums, and this trend grew – American jazz musicians would learn and borrow from Indian classical music. It would have varying degrees of an exotic quality – respectful yet invoked partly because of the sound’s foreignness.

Today, the practice of American jazz musicians invoking Indian classical music continues. But, it is now South Asian Americans who are doing this, and to remarkable effect. Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Sanjay Mishra, Asha Putli, Sachal Vasandani, and others who immigrated when they were younger or grew up in the United States have made a living as jazz musicians and singers. For these artists it is less an exploration into “the other” and more into the self. In the words of Mahanthappa, “Indian-American identity reigns supreme in my work.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Pawan Dhingra at the Blues Alley.

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Pawan Dhingra at the Blues Alley.

These musicians bring together various musical styles in subtle ways, such as by incorporating a particular Carnatic rhythm that would be hard to discern as overtly Indian to the novice ears. Yet, such blending of styles requires years of research and has earned significant praise. Looking at the websites of these musicians will reveal almost countless laudatory reviews.

Last week, the Embassy of India co-sponsored a week’s worth of South Asian American jazz artists at the Blues Alley. I had the pleasure of seeing Rez Abbasi play guitar in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto-saxophone quartet on Friday night. It was an electric performance. Each member sounded out in turn and in concert, and Mahanthappa played along a couple of electronic, computer-led jazz episodes as well. This is cutting-edge music, with references to an Indian past and to a high-tech future. The lines between real and recorded are blurred, as they are between East and West both musically and personally.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

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Posted by on February 1, 2012 in Entertainment


Culture Sampling: South Asian Hip-Hop Concert Celebrates Desi Artists

Painting by Art Under Pressure

Painting by Art Under Pressure, commissioned by Subcontinental Drift and acquired by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program for "Drift Elemental," D.C.'s first South Asian hip-hop show, 9-23-11.

by Aditya Desai

The District’s cultural nerve center in the U Street corridor was host to a South Asian hip-hop concert last month, showcasing performances by Indian American MCs, rappers, beat-boxers, and dancers.

The concert, dubbed Drift Elemental and hosted by local South Asian arts organization Subcontinental Drift, drew a heavy crowd on Friday, both Desi and non-Desi, all present to support art and bust a few dance moves.

As they took the stage, the MCs paid tribute to the old school hip-hop that they grew up listening to, each song set an emphatic homage to the culture of back-door hip-hop clubs. That night, New York’s DJ Insomnia and his crew of turntable maestros backed up the vocalists. In between acts, they took center stage and mixed a live dance set, allowing the crowd to not just witness, but in a sense “re-live” the same experience the artists were paying homage to. Filled out by a performance from breakdancers, the night overall stayed very much in the world of one-mic MCs, scratching vinyls, heavy bass beats, and subliminal lyrics.

Vocal acts from Raja Wilco, Ko the Timeless, and Navi & The Whole Damme Delegation set the tone for the night, with lurid rhymes that didn’t wax too poetic about the usual immigrant strife, but still carried the weight of cultural tensions.

And really, why make a big deal of it? It was a South-Asian event, the crowd was mostly populated by brown faces. The show was full-on embrace not of the Indian ancestry, but rather the heritage that these Desi MCs have created in the States.

Just as these MCs grew up with Run DMC, Notorious BIG, and Doug E. Fresh, other Desi kids across the country are striving to be rock legends, pop divas, or symphony stars. Though offhand it would seem that there was too much emphasis on the “Western” aspect, artists would engage with the audience between songs to give background and perspective on encountering these musical styles. For example, an R&B-influenced ballad was always framed in response to Bollywood romance numbers.

The hope is always, of course, that the Indian background is able to bring a fresh spin to the art – not only to keep the Eastern traditions alive, but also to bring a new vibrancy to the Western. Such collaborations aren’t uncommon – Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, Snoop Dogg and Pritam – but perhaps to think of the new horizon: the two musical styles embedded into the single artists.

Perhaps symbolic of the notion was the live-painted mural done by graffiti artists in the concert venue. Though the subcontinent looms in the background, the hijab-donning woman is looks out at us, spray-can in hand, ready to make her mark on the rest of the world.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment


“Sim Sim Salabim!” Insight into Indian Mysticism

by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)

If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.

Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.

Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist! While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.

The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.

“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.

Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.