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#LongReads: Blame It On Bollywood

Bollywood actors Sooraj Pancholi (left) and Athiya Shetty perform during a promotional event in Mumbai for the film <em><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k3wapAOu-M">Hero</a></em>.
AFP/Getty Images
Bollywood actors Sooraj Pancholi (left) and Athiya Shetty perform during a promotional event in Mumbai for the film Hero.

The boys and girls at the party are matched up by height. They dance together. Maybe they do a little grinding. They talk about love ... and marriage. Then they eat birthday cake.

That doesn't sound like a radical event. But in a predominantly conservative Muslim slum in the Indian city of Kolkata it was unheard of. And what made it happen? Lush, romantic Bollywood movies.

That's what Kabita Chakraborty learned after she began doing research in Kolkata.

Chakraborty, a Canadian whose parents were born in South Asia, had come in 2001 to try and get street kids to open up about their lives. She was doing research for her masters in cultural studies. She offered them some art supplies and encouraged them to draw. The scenes they produced stunned her.

"They were all creating these fantastical mountains with little Swiss-style chalets," she recalls.

"I'd say, 'What's that?' And they'd tell me, 'it's my dream home — it's in Switzerland.' So I got out the map and said, 'Can you show me where Switzerland is? And they said, 'We don't know. We saw it in a Bollywood movie.' "

The Power Of Bollywood

The incident made Chakraborty wonder how deeply Bollywood might be penetrating the world of young people living in Kolkata's poorer neighborhoods. Could it be influencing their attitudes in more profound ways? The question launched a multiyear, ethnographic research project that has taken her deep into a youth culture in transition. She was invited to secret gatherings where girls and boys from conservative Muslim families meet to practice Bollywood dance moves and, in many cases, attempt to live out their own version of a whirlwind Bollywood romance. She has chronicled these teens' efforts to get their parents to accept their dating choices. And she has tracked the mixed results of this radical departure from tradition as the kids matured into adulthood.

Now an assistant professor of Children's Studies in the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto, Chakraborty has just published an account of her research in a book called Young Muslim Women in India: Bollywood, Identity, and Changing Youth Culture. We called Chakraborty to find out how she gained entry into this private world.

She began her research at a pivotal moment. Over the previous decade, Bollywood movies — and Indian popular culture more generally — had been steadily seeping into Kolkata's poorer neighborhoods as a result of the liberalization of India's television markets.

Until that point, explains Chakraborty, there were only two national television channels, both government-owned. "And you'd be lucky if they would play a Bollywood movie once a week."

Opportunities to catch a movie in a cinema were almost as limited. The neighborhoods that Chakraborty studies are largely populated with conservative Muslim families that observe purdah — meaning that the women are supposed to stay out of sight of men they're not related to. Occasionally they might feel comfortable breaking purdah to attend a movie, but only if escorted by a large contingent of relatives, says Chakraborty: "Everyone in the family would have to go, the husband, the wife, the auntie, the uncle." And that would be a costly — and therefore rare — indulgence for families that generally make their living doing low-wage work in Kolkata's tanneries or picking through waste dumps for plastic to recycle.

Actually, Blame It On TV, Too

The proliferation of private television channels changed all that. Bollywood films and pop entertainment were broadcast virtually nonstop. "Suddenly, everyone had 24-hour Bollywood access," Chakraborty says. "They would watch a little bit of Bollywood in the morning before school; during lunch time if they came home to eat; in the evening, when everyone would gather to watch the latest serial drama or reality dance competition or celebrity cook-off."

This was the case, says Chakraborty, even early on, when only a few families in the neighborhood actually owned a television set. "If you were one of those first few families that owned a television, you wouldn't close your door or window and say, 'It's just for me to watch it.' You'd open your home — all these children would be sitting on the bed, practically the whole slum would be in your home watching it." And by 2005, such practices were becoming increasingly unnecessary, as ever more families managed to buy at least a tiny color TV.

Telenovelas Can Also Change Lives

Research in other countries certainly suggests this kind of sudden infusion of popular culture can upend longstanding cultural practices. For instance, in Brazil, the expanding reach of television — specifically soap operas, or telenovelas — from 1960 to 2000, correlated with a dramatic drop in fertility rates.

The telenovelas generally featured heroines who were "very outgoing, very independent, and who had families that were a lot smaller than the typical family in Brazil," explains Alberto Chong, an economics professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, who has studied the phenomenon. The telenovelas weren't trying to send a message, adds Chong. It was simply less expensive to keep their casts small.

Nonetheless, the impact on women viewers was noticeable. Particularly from 1980 to 1991, as television signals, and therefore the soaps, became available in successive areas of the country, women in those locations began opting to have fewer children. And according a study co-authored by Chong, exposure to the telenovelas accounted for about 7 percent of the reduction in women's probability of giving birth during that period. Another sign of the telenovela's out-sized influence: large shares of the women chose to name those children after the unusually-named main characters in the most popular soaps. "People just feel very identified with these soap operas," says Chong.

Entering The Teenage World

Chong's research was based on a detailed analysis of census and other records. But when it came to assessing the impact of popular culture on teenagers in Kolkata's slums, Chakraborty wanted to do an immersive, "ethnographic" study. And for that, she would need to get to know some teenagers.

She reached out to a community based organization — commonly referred to as a CBO in India — that provides young people with educational opportunities, and she arranged to teach yoga and art to a group of girls in the program. (Chakraborty has opted not to publish the name of the CBO to preserve the anonymity of her subjects, who reveal sensitive details of their personal lives in the book.)

Once again Chakraborty thought she'd use art as a means of getting the kids to open up. "My method was to get young people to relax with yoga and then draw images from their mind," she says. But in October 2005 Chakraborty got a more direct peek into their lives thanks to a lucky break. "One day, a few of the girls said to me, 'Would you like to come to our dance rehearsal?'" It turned out the girls were going to be performing in a cultural program put on by the CBO. Such programs are actually common practice, says Chakraborty. "It doesn't matter if it's an environmental group or a political group or an educational group. Practically every CBO in India does a sort of a cultural event once a year, or every other year, with businesses helping to fund it so they can have their banners up at the event."

Sometimes the staff performs. But in this case, for the first time, the CBO had enlisted the teenage girls and boys in its educational classes to perform Bollywood-style dance numbers.

Dancing With The Burqa Wearers

When Chakraborty came to the first rehearsal — on a rooftop in the middle of the slum — she was shocked. There were about 12 boy/girl couples ranging in age from 14 to 16. "And they're dancing up against each other, grinding! You should have seen my face. I mean I knew these girls as burqa-wearing girls who wouldn't even talk to a boy in the street."

Chakroborty soon realized why she had been invited. "They said to me, 'We're learning Western dance. You're from Canada. You need to teach us. Are we doing it right?'"

"So I try to do some dance moves like you'd do in a club," says Chakraborty, laughing. "And the whole room stopped. The kids said, 'What are you doing? That's not Western dance. Thisis Western dance.' And then they did this really coordinated guy/girl choreographed dance that we would think is so typical Bollywood."

Notwithstanding Chakraborty's disappointing turn as a dance instructor, from then on the kids let her observe their rehearsals — at least once a week at first, and ultimately daily, over a period of months.

The Bollywood influence was evident in more than just the dancing. "Every evening would end with a cake, often with candles on it," says Chakraborty. She soon realized it wasn't actually anyone's birthday and the kids didn't even particularly love cake. This was just their first chance to have a boy/girl party, and they were imitating what a party looks like in a Bollywood film. "If you watch Bollywood movies, the cake is really important. So it was, 'Let's have a party. We'll bring out the cake. Light the candles. We'll eat the cake. Then everyone goes home.' "

First They Dance, Then They Date

The most fundamental Bollywood-influenced shift was in attitudes toward dating. After all, says, Chakraborty, "Bollywood really is just one romantic scene after another."

Chakraborty says many of the teenagers saw their pairing with their dance partner as an opportunity to have a movie-style romance with them complete with illicit dates and talk of love and marriage. "This would have been unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable, just a few years prior."

Why would the CBO facilitate such taboo activities? Chakraborty's explanation points to class differences even within the slum. The CBO is run by people in the community who, educationally and economically, are a few rungs up from their neighbors, she says. "And the way these organizers establish that they're middle class is through their behavior. They'll say, 'It's only among poor people that guys and girls can't mingle, that if a guy and a girl just talk they are bound to fall in love. If you're middle class you know it can just be a friendship.'" So for the CBO staff, organizing this sort of mixed-gender dance performance, "was a way of affirming their middle-class status."

Why Parents Didn't Protest

Perhaps not surprisingly, the families of the girls didn't see it that way when — as was probably inevitable — they found out what was going on. Still, their reaction was nuanced.

"Yes, the girls got in a little bit of trouble. Maybe they got slapped and withdrawn from school for a week," says Chakraborty. "But then the parents let the girls get back to the rehearsals. It was like, 'Everyone gets to make one mistake in life. And this [performance in the Bollywood dance] is going to be your one mistake.' "

It was a response that became the norm over the ensuing decade as Chakraborty continued to observe each successive group of teenagers participating in the CBO's annual Bollywood-style performance. "No girl has ever been allowed back twice," she says. "Because if you're allowed back then that's not just one mistake you're making. So there is a culture of leniency. But it's limited."

Yet as Chakraborty has followed these girls' rise from adolescence into adulthood — tracking a group that has grown to about 50 young women — she has found that the loosening of traditional practices that began during the dance rehearsals has carried over into other areas. More than a third of the girls ended up choosing their husband instead of allowing their family to arrange their marriage. And, as shocking as this development has proved in a community where just over a decade ago love matches were virtually inconceivable, many families have grudgingly accepted it.

"The parents will say, 'I know she made this mistake' — meaning she found this romantic partner for herself. 'But he's a good boy, and we're going to have to accept it as long as it doesn't affect her future.' And by that they mean, they don't want her moving away. So they will accept a love marriage as long as it's integrated within the traditional, joint family way of living, and where, as a girl you're someone who continues taking care of the house."

As a result, adds Chakraborty, the day-to-day life of these young women hasn't changed much compared to that of their mothers. Their role is still predominantly domestic. And for the most part they're still poor.

Transformative change, she says, may only come for the next generation: Like the women in Brazil, many of the girls have consciously chosen to have fewer children. They have often managed to get at least a bit more schooling than their mothers. It's making them aspire to the middle-class prosperity they've become so familiar with through Bollywood — if not for themselves, then at least for their children. So they're determined to send their kids to college. "A lot of them are telling me, 'I'm only having one or two kids," says Chakraborty. "'And everything we've got we're going to put into these kids.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.