Rock may have smashed the iron curtain, but it was just the moonwalk that did it for India.
My generation came of age during the last years of the Nehruvian era. Among other things, what this meant was that Western pop culture was barely affordable or accessible to most Indians. We had one television channel, the government-run Doordarshan, which aired in most cities for a couple of hours each day. Foreign programs were very rare.
And when Michael Jackson's videos suddenly showed up one night on Doordarshan on a music-video program called Hot Tracks, it was not only a stunning experience, but also turned out to be part of a moment that heralded many changes to come. "Beat it" was to our generation in India what "Video Killed the Radio Star" was to our MTV-watching American cohorts of the 1980s. It was the first music video that we ever saw. The Grammies, and Live Aid, a little later, were the equivalent to us of what the 1969 moon landing was in some ways for America; it was one of the first occasions on which we felt part of a global media event.
But the coming of Michael Jackson to Indian television was also the equivalent, for good or for bad, of the empty bottle of cola that falls from a plane into a remote African village in the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Michael Jackson was not just a pop star for us; he represented the world beyond India we had only heard about as well as the possibility of catching up with it. Michael Jackson was the first symbol of aspiration for a generation that went from denial to obsession about it almost overnight. In the 1980s, bootleg VHS copies of Thriller went from home to home, even as we sought to work hard and study and buy into the first signs of consumerism that had started to appear. By the 1990s, with economic liberalization and the rise of satellite television channels like MTV India and Channel V, Michael Jackson, his music, image, and charisma all became a part of India, like globalization itself, culminating in his 1996 Mumbai concert and his now poignantly never-to-be promise to return.
To me, Michael Jackson will remain a part of a generational experience of globalization, but his accomplishments in India certainly go beyond that. In some ways, Michael Jackson was perhaps the most famous non-cricketing foreign celebrity Indians have known. Unlike other Western singers, Michael's fame went far beyond the English-educated urban middle classes. To this day, Michael Jackson is the one pop star that even working class, non English-speaking Indians have heard about, and whose music plays in the most unexpected places where English music is seldom heard. And if we consider his influence on and through India's truly popular mass medium, its cinema, we can see how widespread his resonance was. Just as how Michael Jackson's fame traveled across national and class barriers, we saw talent and success flowing across regional and language barriers in India during the 1990s. After all, it was with artists like A.R. Rahman and Prabhu Deva, "India's Michael Jackson," that we saw members from the South Indian regional film industries achieving national recognition as well.
Despite, or perhaps because of the wave of nostalgia that his death inevitably has provoked for those of us who grew up in the pre-liberalization India of the 1980s, it may be easy to lose sight of what he really meant. To be honest, I was never a fan then. Some of us fancied ourselves on one side of a high school cerebral class divide that pitted Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd against Michael Jackson and Madonna. I believed then that pop was all image and moves and rather shallow for having none of the honest angst and depth that Bob Dylan and John Lennon expressed. Like Bollywood perhaps. But in some ways, when one is duly angsted-out, the world of Michael Jackson's music, once again like Bollywood, perhaps, does appear for what it is. It was happiness. It was a part of our lives, and now forever associated with people and places that are gone. It was there in the first fast-food and ice-cream hang-outs of 1980s India. It was there in the big 2-in-1 tape recorders people brought home from abroad and in the first shops that sold branded jeans. It was there in the first (and few) auto-rickshaws that were fitted with stereos. It was there when friends chanted themselves into a frenzy with "Beat it" to solve tough math problems. It was there when we wondered where we would go after school, and where India would go too. And in my reckless sentimentality fed on TV mourning now, it is hard not to see the passing of Michael Jackson as part of the passing of a world that was, like the great rocks of my hometown Hyderabad before they got blasted into oblivion. We are in a story that has suddenly lost one of its most iconic signs of how it began.