Half of me is American. I subscribe to Harper’s Bazaar, come home to a white picket-fence house and revel in my daily Starbucks.
But the other half of me lives in India. I slip in and out of my native language, know how it feels to rock back and forth in rickshaws to the point of nausea, and learned to cover myself with a dupatta in front of my elders at an age when my classmates were wearing shorts and tank tops.
My history is one of bravery in the face of British imperialism, my culture of meaningful tradition dating back to the Mughal Empire and my language is a beautiful combination of Persian, Arabic and Hindi. So when someone reduces my identity to revealing silk crop tops and flashy jewelry, it’s not culture, it’s not beautiful and it’s certainly not India.
It is cultural appropriation at its finest.
Coldplay’s video for his new single, “Hymn for The Weekend,” has sparked a recent controversy over the seemingly inaccurate portrayal of India that many believe borders on the brink of racial fetishism.
Filmed in Mumbai and reminiscent of Iggy Azalea’s music video for “Bounce,” this video features Beyoncé wearing a skin-tight dress with a plunging neckline, a bejeweled face ornament and henna.
Coldplay sings and dances on the roads of the city where children play with colored powder used for the Hindu holiday of Holi while elderly men drive rickshaws and women sit in the theater watching Beyoncé provocatively dance on the screen while wearing a crown.
Much of the footage is, in fact, accurate. Holi is a widely celebrated festival, henna is painted on the palms of bride, and the midday traffic gives New York City a run for its money. The problem, however, is in the details.
The crown and ornaments that Beyoncé adorns signifies a rani, who is a queen of an old empire during an age when ranis were neither sexualized nor objectified as they are in this video.
Instead, they were known to be warriors and respected as wives and mothers, none of which Beyoncé represents in this new single. Then there is the issue of her skin-tight and revealing clothing, which was a far cry from the intricate designs sown for centuries by hardworking tailors in order to beautify women, not sexualize them. In fact, ranis in the age that Beyoncé attempts to imitate wore sweeping scarves, called dupattas, which covered their heads and chests and loose pants that barely revealed their shape or skin.
While many are outraged, others, including a few Indians, are calling this video “beautiful and lovely,” saying that it “portrayed India excellently.” This may be true for those who only appreciate one facet of Indian culture.
What’s unsettling about these trends in the film industry is that many believe it to be an authentic expression of other peoples’ cultures and see nothing wrong with their misrepresentation in popular culture.
However, those who know India and are familiar with its history know that it is more than colored powder, skipping children, and Hindu holidays. Had the four-minute video really portrayed India accurately, it would have featured a glimpse of the 180 million Muslims that populate the country (making it a country with the third-largest Muslim population) or the homeless men and women that work harder and with more spirit than any businessmen I have known in the United States.
Maybe even more problematic than the misrepresentation of Indian culture and history are the lyrics sung by Chris Martin that repeatedly proclaim how “drunk and high” he is.
If this video was, in fact, a beautiful testament to India, perhaps the lyrics would have praised its hills and architecture or shown the strength of the children that struggle every day to support their families, instead of saturating it with colors and footage that hardly capture what it means to be Indian.
Admittedly, this problem has only been exacerbated by the Bollywood industry that is slowly conforming to and maybe even surpassing, Hollywood’s ridiculously stringent standards of beauty and fashion. Indian Cinema in the 1940s through the 1960s featured conservative clothing, notably a garment called shalwar kameez, which is still largely worn in India.
More than 50 years later, although Indian women still don this traditional dress, actresses sport bras resembling bikinis and shorts that look like boxer briefs.
However, what’s unsettling about these trends in the film industry is that many believe it to be an authentic expression of other peoples’ cultures (Arabs and Chinese, among others) and see nothing wrong with their misrepresentation in popular culture.
The lucrative industry devoted to this kind of cinema is largely a result of our acceptance; it’s a simple cycle of supply and demand. We have become so accustomed to, and ignorant toward, the prevalence of appropriation that when viewing a video like “Hymn for The Weekend,” we appreciate its beauty and scold others for being “too critical” of what is really the manipulation of a rich culture created to feed the fantasies and racial fetishes of others.
Written by Naaz Modan.