Ghazanfar A Garewal
In Pakistan, we marvel at how our neighbour country is displaying its culture, values and traditions through its drama and film industry. India, through these industries, appears to be a glittering affair of its rich exotic culture and a charming account of the land of Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi. Bollywood is described as one of the biggest asset of India’s soft power. Bollywood promoted the aspects and products of Indian culture and society that were meant to enhance Indian’s credibility and standing in other’s eyes. But the recent harassment that Shahrukh Khan faced at an American airport says it all: India’s biggest soft power asset is not working the way it was expected to.
Neil Nitin Mukesh was held at the US airport because the security officers thought he was too fair to be Indian. Shilpa Shetti was harassed in an American reality show, the Big Brother and the reason behind this racial treatment was her Indian identity. Pryianka Chopra has been fighting the stereotypes about Indians in American society. Children called her ‘brownie’ and ‘curry’ and would tell her to go back to her country. “I was bullied really badly. It was supremely scary. I would avoid going to cafeteria and eat in the bathroom instead.” Things do not change much even when she established herself as a mega-star of Bollywood. When her song, In My City, was used as a theme for Thursday Night Football, the National Football League was flooded with the emailed by its fans asking, “Who is this Arab terrorist?” Former Miss World, the sizzling hot Desi Girl who could rock the world as depicted in the Indian movies, was perceived as an ‘Arab terrorist’ by Americans.
Flip the argument on political elites and diplomats, the situation gets worse. Former Indian President, APJ Abdul Kalam was frisked at John Kennedy Airport when he had taken seat in the aircraft. The officials came and reportedly took away his shoes and jacket despite the protest by Air India authorities. Former Indian Defence Minister, Georges Fernandes was twice strip-searched at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Meera Shankar, the Indian Ambassador to the US, was subjected to pat-down search at Mississippi airport when she was travelling on a diplomatic passport. She was searched because she was wearing saree. Security by all means but this special treatment with Indians is no doubt bordering on insult, degradation and humiliation.
In the information age, he who has a better story to tell wins. Aren’t Indians telling their stories in a better and convincing way? Aren’t their stories reaching wider international audience? Or it is only that they have been unable to break the stereotypes that still persist in the people’s mind. The image that they think is soft and their power they perceive as soft exists only in their minds. It has failed to affect the world the way they wanted to. The image is self-perceived by the Indians not embraces as such outside the world particularly in America. People do not recognise Indians as inhabitants of the land of Ashoka, Akbar and Mhatma Gandhi rather they perceive them inferiors who smell of curry as experienced by Pryianka Chopra herself.
They do not respect Indian culture. They do not recognise Bollywood kings and queens. They do not approve of Indian culture and values. This much is obvious. What is less obvious, therefore much crucial is: why Bollywood is failing to earn respect for India’s culture and society in the eyes of foreigners. Herein lies the soul of India’s soft power dilemma: India’s soft power is weaker than the stereotypes about Indian people.
— The writer teaches at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.