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Miss America Meets Bollywood: Democracy and the Promise of Popular Culture

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Amidst the celebrations (and the wholly unnecessary controversies) about the crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America, we should not forget that events like beauty contests and talent shows often function as an informal mirror to the voices of the people in a democratic culture. Beauty pageants, as an institution, are of course by no means above criticism when it comes to issues like the objectification of women, and of course, the sheer scale of commercial interest that drives the whole spectacle. But being critically conscious of these issues shouldn't diminish our appreciation for what popular culture really means in a democracy -- and if there is one thing that India and America have greatly in common (in addition to admiration for the new Miss America that is), it is the sustenance of a democratic spirit by a thriving popular culture.

As I show in my new book Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema, India's journey from a British colony to a free, democratic, and at least partially prosperous nation with a vibrant global diaspora today has been reflected closely in the stories of its most popular movies. In the early days of cinema, movies about gods and saints expressed a popular sense of devotion that reflected a Gandhian spirit of social reform, equality, and justice. In the years after independence, movies like those of Raj Kapoor's depicted a compelling image of a common man facing the challenges of living in a newly independent, yet far from self-sufficient nation. More recently, the films of Bollywood have dealt with difficult topics like terrorism and Hindu-Muslim conflicts, but they have done so in a universal way that celebrates the shared values of peace and brotherhood in every faith, rather than scapegoat one community or another. If India still exists, and more than a billion people still live at least somewhat happily each day despite enormous civic, political, and social challenges, I sometimes think it is largely because of Bollywood (I use the term broadly though to refer to all the other regional language film cultures too).

American popular culture too has played a somewhat similar role in celebrating its own kind of universal, can-do, spirit in its story-telling. The significance of American popular culture though is not so much in its role in sustaining American democracy alone, but in the fact that it has had a much wider global appeal since the early twentieth century. While it would be simplistic to think of pop culture as an omnipotent force for good spreading freedom and democracy around the world, we must also acknowledge that Hollywood, television, publishing, and music have all earned tremendous goodwill for America and Americans around the world (even if the actions and policies of our governments haven't always done so!) In the early part of the twentieth century, American popular culture was largely if not almost entirely populated by a cast that did not look like people from most of the continents where it was being watched and enjoyed -- and yet, it was seen as universal. In more recent times, that has started to change somewhat, as a new generation of American talent has started to gain recognition, bringing to the stage not only their own unique Americanness, but also broader cultural legacies that many people around the world can now look up to and see themselves in. That is the context in which we should see the new Indian-American Miss America's victory too. It reflects not only the changing nature of American life (one reason that the cast of the older American pop culture had no diversity was that no immigration from these nations was allowed to the United States until 1965!) but also celebrates the fact that no human being is ever just one singular identity alone; an important sensibility I think for the world to cultivate in an age when intolerance, short-sightedness, and simple xenophobia are becoming more pronounced too (or at least more visible and audible than they deserve to be).

For instance, even as Nina Davuluri's victory is being seen as a first for an "Indian-American," it is also, equally a first for "Telugu Americans." I first heard about her victory from an email from the Telugu Association of North America -- it serves as a point of pride not only for young Americans of various diverse backgrounds from all around the world, but for Indians, and for Telugus too. Different communities can see their aspirations and hopes in her, in the spectacles of fulfillment that popular culture offers, at different levels. There are perhaps at least 100 million people around the world whose mother tongue is Telugu, making us one of the largest "nations" on earth, so to speak (UC Berkeley's new Telugu Studies program has some facts, here). Telugu people have been a vibrant part of the American diaspora, have made contributions in many fields, though they are not always recognized as such -- the most famous Telugu person that many people have heard of and have probably not known he was Telugu was the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Perceptive American friends know well enough now that under the broad term "Indian" is a vast and diverse array of cultures, Punjabis, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Tamils, and many, many others, and virtually every community now has an American extension, and hyphen to it, in its self-perception. Ultimately, this is a tribute, and a promise to the best spirit of America, and America too perhaps can reciprocate by making the effort to know different communities of people from around the world as they know themselves. The categories of classifying people that exist today frankly are very outdated, and come from a time when "Indian" probably meant "Native American" and had nothing to do with one billion people who call the nation of India their home, or ancestral home. Many automated forms, for instance, still ask us to identify as "East Indian," when frankly there was never such a place, and it seems odd to perpetuate the strange bureaucratic consequences of Columbus's mistakes thus. They do not reflect how we see ourselves, and neither do they represent how most well-meaning Americans today see others too.

As for not so-well-meaning reactions to the new Miss America, I am reminded of a conversation in a playground I overheard a few days ago. A little girl, about three, perhaps, ran up to her mommy to report that she had made a new friend. As a student of culture (and a patient parent myself) I tend to listen, and learn from such things. The girl said that she and her new friend noticed that they both had hair of the same color, and skin of the same color, and therefore, they had decided to become friends. Now, they were children, and no offence was taken in the least by anyone around them. Children are learning, and exploring, and paying attention to things like the color of each other's skin. And for a three year old, I suppose that's perfectly understandable. As for grown-ups, though...

The strange thing about identity in a mass mediated world is that it loses its own meaning very quickly and becomes what various forces and interests want it to be, for good, and for bad. Some of us see the new Miss America as an Indian, or as a Telugu, or perhaps, even a grandchild of the historic city of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. Some of us in America will see her as just Miss America, a symbol of our nation's inclusiveness and diversity. There is no harm when pride travels far and wide, or when we make broad generalizations for the good. But the opposite, I think is, harmful; when an angry ideological climate pounces on people for the flimsiest of reasons like skin-color and blames them for things neither they, nor a few hundred million people like them have ever done, it is absurd and self-defeating.

The important thing to remember here is the fact that our popular culture becoming more diverse is a reflection of who we are becoming as a nation. In India too, we have seen the beginning of a slow shift in the composition of celebrity culture since the 1990s, when the economy, and politics, too, opened up a great deal to previously marginalized communities. An obsession with "fairness" and fairness creams may still remain (though is the aspiration in today's world a "caste" one or a "global" or Western-media inspired one, we do not know). But many actors, especially in south Indian cinema, and many fashion models and actresses, come with looks that represent a wider range of humanity than ever before. In talent shows on Indian television, communities from parts of India rarely seen in the Bollywood pantheon work hard to celebrate their heroes and make them win in popularity contests. Popular culture is not a substitute for real political change, and for real democracy. But it is helping, and it would be nice to celebrate it too, for a change.