The internet is abuzz with discussion over the new Coldplay and Beyoncé video, with many on the Indian cyberspace unhappy about the video being ‘a Holi version of Slumdog Millionaire’ while others are just happy that India has grabbed the attention of music industry biggies from the west.
Now, if this was really just a music video that shows their love for Indian culture, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Nothing is ever just something, especially when you are an international celebrity, because you have the power to choose the stories and images that are put out to billions of people around the world. You wield the power to influence public opinion. And since responsibility comes with power, these celebrities have to be even more sensitive and careful about how they are telling a story and what kind of imagery they’re using. In this case, how are they telling the story of India and what is the image of India that they are portraying to the rest of the world?
The video starts off with peacocks comfortably lazing around the ruins of a castle/temple, sadhus walking past the screen with their saffron robes flowing in the wind, a little boy dressed as Shiva sitting on some steps and three men covered in holi colors riding on a bike (because, of course, India has peacocks galore and I casually feed them every morning on the way to work, and little boys don’t go to school — they just dress up as deities to pose for tourists). Then there are children running around barefoot, throwing gulal in the air, while we have the all-white, male band playing in the middle of a crowd of children and young people celebrating Holi – again – while the people who actually live in the chawls look on from their windows and stand around watching these strange white people play Holi when it’s not even the season for Holi (because only firangis want to celebrate this Hindu festival at all times of the year—just like Americans obviously celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving year-round).
Beyoncé is apparently a Bollywood actress in this bizarre narrative, presumably playing the protagonist Rani of a seemingly B-grade movie by the same name. She is decked out in what appears to be gaghra-choli — the kind that Rajasthani/Gujjar women traditionally wear and face/head/neck jewelry that resembles nothing of the sort that any woman in India, anywhere, wears I mean, what is that odd contraption around her neck? It looks like she’s having a nightmare in which someone transported her to India, a country to which she’s obviously never been, and she’s been forced to wear metal tarantulas around her neck even though they might choke her to death because someone convinced her that that’s what women in India wear at all times.
Oh, and Sonam Kapoor, a real-life Bollywood actress, manages to flash across the screen thrice in two-nanosecond shots, obviously dressed in ghagra-choli and a huge nathni, casually throwing flowers in the air like some “Eat Pray Love” Orientalist wet dream. Sonam herself and many Indian viewers seem to be peeing their pants in excitement that although her cameo lasted ‘one-tenth of a second’, at least she managed to exist in the same music video as Beyoncé and Coldplay. Because that is, after all, the most important thing — not the fact that you and your culture are being misrepresented and used as hypersexualized brown female props for the western gaze, as an ‘exotic’ background for a music video that could have used any other background to go with lyrics like, “And said drink from me, drink from me/When I was so thirsty/Pour on a symphony/Now I just can’t get enough/Put your wings on me, wings on me/When I was so heavy/Soaring in symphony/When I’m low, low, low, low”.
Some may think that having Sonam in the production somehow excuses the fact that this is cultural appropriation. That having Sonam tweet that this is a “story to tell her grandchildren” rids of the need for more than just your typical one dimensional exoticized version of India in yet another music video. This imagery of India is not only demeaning but also hurtful to Indians overall – who already have a long list of stereotypes and ignorant views stacked against them in a post-colonial world, by those who created the wealth of problems that still plague the subcontinent today.
What we cannot ignore here is that Sonam is complicit in the narrative where brown and female bodies are hypersexualized and white men are centered. She is honored at the chance to be in Coldplay’s video but Sonam herself is a huge celebrity in the Hindi film industry that has a cult following of over a billion people from all over the world. Sonam is the prop in a video exoticizing her own native land and she couldn’t be more thankful. Her gleeful acceptance of tropes is sadly characteristic of the status quo when many desi actors look at the west. And Sonam (like many other Bollywood actors) by no means is someone who should represent all Indians. She has endorsed fairness creams, made negative comments about a female reporter’s ability to do her job because she was allegedly on menopause (for which she has since apologized), and made various other comments about other actors looks. We cannot forget that Bollywood stars in many ways perpetuate racism, shadism, classism, etc.
This is not the India I know. Yes, certain images from the video are accurate and quite commonly seen around parts of the country (like Varanasi, where there really are lots of sadhus because that’s one of the centers of sacred Hindu sites) but the video fails to show the complexity of the culture and diversity in India by taking them grossly out of context, showing only the images that cater to the notion of an ‘exotic’ India and presenting only a Hindu India to the world (and more so as an India that only has mystics and gulal-throwing barefoot children and peacocks strutting around). Where are the children who go to school every morning, the little girls from these ‘slums’ in the video with their one-piece uniform frocks and neatly oiled pigtails? Or the bus-loads of children from middle class families making their way through city traffic at 7.30 in the morning? Where are the Indian Muslims and the beautiful mosques of their neighborhoods? Where are the churches and the Christians going to church every Sunday? Where are the throngs of hundreds of office-goers commuting to work or lazing around chai stalls during lunch discussing international politics? Where are the groups of girls with their DSLRs backpacking to the mountains for a weekend looking for adventure? Where are the huge multiplex cinemas that have snacks better than those sold in theaters in the US, as my American friends keep telling me? And how are women in the that dingy little theater sitting by themselves, because women in India do not really go to these kinds of places unaccompanied by male members of their family or friends? Where is the India that the tourist does not want to see on their trips to India?
This is not appreciation of India and its culture. This is appropriation. Without understanding the deeper meanings and the cultural and historical importance behind the mehndi on her hand and the dress that Beyoncé wore, or the significance of Holi for Hindus, and erasing the millions of non-Hindus, the middle class, the other stories of those chawl-dwellers, Coldplay and Beyoncé have succeeded in perpetuating the stereotype of India as seen through Western eyes, beginning from the time of colonized India and to project their own wrong, homogenized notions of the country to the whole world. Beyoncé managed to create an image of her own version of India without even setting foot here. Maybe that’s the reason why, before actually coming here and learning about the culture and people and contributing to the critical progressive movements happening here, people think that India is a dirty, horrible place full of beggars and sadhus — all while generating millions in profits for a white-male dominated industry.
So, thanks, Coldplay and Beyoncé, for reaffirming people’s distorted beliefs about my country. And thank you, Indian apologists of the video, for failing to see how this misrepresentation of India is harmful towards all of us by propagating an image of a ‘backward’ and ‘exotic’ land for mere western capitalist consumption.