Posted on March 9, 2016 at 11:49 pm

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Bollywood and South India: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?

As an Indian-American with a hybrid identity living in the US, I love Bollywood. There are great films out there that fall into the category of meaningful, thought-provoking, and inspiring cinema, while others are cute, entertaining romantic comedies. However, as an Indian classical dancer with origins from South India, I have a problem with the way the Bollywood industry portrays all things related to South Indianness or South Indian classical arts.


For example, let’s take the latest music video release from the upcoming film Kapoor & Sons called “Let’s Nacho”. The first 20 seconds of this song features Tamil lyrics and background dancers with Kathakali esque makeup and white veshti/dhoti miserably trying to put talam and trying to play what looks like a glittering mridangam. Appreciation or appropriation?

Recently, the phrase “cultural appropriation” has been being thrown all over the internet in response to Coldplay’s latest music video featuring Beyonce and Sonam Kapoor, as well as the latest episode of Fuller House. But when Indian people do the same thing to people from their own country (mind you, South India is another region of India, not a different country), somehow it seems more acceptable to audiences. From actors playing South Indian characters overdramatizing a Hindi accent in films to the extraction of essential elements (like face makeup) from South Indian classical dance and placing it out of context in a club number like “Let’s Nacho”, Bollywood has a history of mocking South Indian culture. Many old and recent films – Padosan, Nayee Padosan, Chennai Express, and Dilwale – have been guilty of this mockery.


One typically does not see North Indian classical dance styles like Kathak incorrectly portrayed in Bollywood. On the contrary, after watching Madhuri Dixit in Devdas, everyone wanted to learn Kathak and dance like her! Alas, only BharatanatyamKathakaliCarnatic Music, and the like fall prey to being “exoticized” in Hindi cinema. Indian classical dance is a sacred and deeply spiritual art form and as a student and practitioner of it, it saddens me when aspects of it are simply thrown into club numbers that I would have otherwise enjoyed if it weren’t for the appropriation.


Just as Indianness is not a costume in the West, South Indian culture should not be seen as a costume in Bollywood. Hopefully, one day, Bollywood will understand, respect, and stand by this sentiment, going beyond the stereotypes to learn and absorb all that Southern India truly has to offer.