From television to cinema, American culture has been an integral part of growing up Indian.
We asked our writers to talk about the influence of American culture growing up in India. We asked them to take us through various aspects of their lives – where cinema, television and arts beyond India’s borders impacted and shaped the people they are today. While each perspective is unique in its own right, there is one universal takeaway. What influences you isn’t as important as what you take away from it.
But more on that later.
White picket fences, Sunday backyard barbeques, and gated communities, holidays that warrant the use of otherwise illegal fireworks and prom. As an outsider looking in, these were some of the many thoughts that come to mind when visualizing the “American Dream”. The High School Experience, seen in countless works of music and cinema – hallways of lockers, cliques with color-coordinated clothing, loners that will soon become overlords…
Much of what a country is known for beyond its borders comes from the culture it facilitates. A careful and painstaking volume of detail goes into crafting the perfect image, albeit purely cosmetic. For The United States of America, this image is, as has been for a while now, and as states before in this article, is The American Dream. A steady job, a nuclear family consisting of no more than 3 kids and of course, with one pet at least.
Hollywood and Bollywood have always gone toe-to-toe, even more so in recent years. India’s film industry is infamous for its mimicry of Hollywood – the name itself being a blend of the words ‘Bombay’ and ‘Hollywood’. Early Bollywood movies were either heavily-inspired by existing Hollywood content or blatant copies of famous American films. The onset of entertainment conglomerates branching out brought Disney to India. From here, for a few short years, children were able to watch original American shows with the option to add subtitles of their understanding. Soon after came the era of official copies. Characters torn from their American settings, portrayed by questionable Indian counterparts. Episodic mimics, word for word – down to the color of the interiors on set. The Suite Life of Zack & Cody became The Suite Life of Karan & Kabir. Good Luck Charlie became Best of Luck Nikki. These drastically different, or rather, similar productions were gobbled up by audiences across the country.
On the spectrum of music, we’ve constantly tried to be more Western sounding. While the effect of the then-called modernization mainly lies in our historic colonization and its influence, American music through media since the 90s, has been one of the biggest factors for the growth of independent music, and the decisions many artists make when composing music in India. It was mainly through channels like MTV, and music blocks on Zee Cafe, that we were educated about popular music and sounds from across the world. Hip hop music is the most recent example of that, where most of India’s hip hop listening audience is heavily into American hip hop artists such as Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Kanye West and many more. Bollywood, however, has always been infamous for its ripoffs of songs from Hollywood or American artists. Like Pretty Woman in the popular flick Kal Ho Na Ho, copied from the original Oh, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, which is as old as 1965, or even I Am A Disco Dancer from the movie Amne Samne, copied from The Buggles’ song Video Killed The Radio Star.
The year is 2009, I am a “fourth-grader” not “in class four” by virtue of the fact that I watch American teen (although dubbed in Hindi). I come home from school and watch a rerun of Hannah Montana and think Hannah is in college because she is not wearing a uniform. Years later, I came to know she was fourteen years old and that American high schools don’t have uniforms. My whole life feels like a lie.
It’s two years later, I watch Drake from Drake and Josh dating and kissing different girls and before I could build a conscious thought that this is how people generally explore before finally “settling down”, my mother barges in and turns the TV off because “kissing is sacred” and is “not supposed to be done with just anybody”. It’s nine years later and I still fear telling my mother that I’m out on a *whisper* date!
It’s another three years later and I am watching Tori Vega from Victorious get into Hollywood Arts. I still can’t figure out if she is in school because she is taking acting classes while her friends are taking makeup lessons and dancing lessons. Suddenly, my science textbooks and uniforms seem all too bleak. I want the life that American teenagers are living. The Indian reality is disappointing.
The year is now 2014, I am watching Macbarbie07 aka Bethany Mota on YouTube while she is deciding her prom dress while Superwoman aka Lilly Singh is ranting about the types of teachers in every school. It’s a month later, I convince my mother to buy me make up— a bunch of MAC Cosmetics knockoffs— and with my amateur makeup artistry and my 5MP Samsung Galaxy phone camera, I think of making YouTube videos, too. Fast forward to 2016, Bhuvan Bam of BB Ki Vines with his homegrown sketches is an overnight sensation aided by the free 4G internet bestowed upon everyone by Mukesh Ambani. A good four years after that and my dream of being a YouTuber stays tucked away inside an old diary in the form of possible video ideas.
TV show F.R.I.E.N.D.S, and Subtitling – Even though the show has become a phenomenon in India recently, almost 20-25 years since its release, it is one of the most highly watched shows in India still. The Indian version Hello Friends produced by comedian Sunil Pal was a flop, but this international original version lives on. I think besides just me, we’ve all taken something home from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
It was the first sitcom I got to watch as a kid with subtitles! Now there were many shows introduced with subs, and the use of subs initially goes back to as far as 1938, but it was only in the early 2000s that subtitles would appear on DVDs in India. The television introduction was my introduction to the American accent, and the reason it’s so easy for many Indians to grasp it, having had a written reference on the screen in case you didn’t understand. All of television and movies have subtitles today, considering the global explosion of filmmaking and the rising accessibility. This gave rise to a need to make sure translations, or sometimes even the same language subtitles are used.
MTV India, Channel V and Zee Cafe – The rise of western music: While most of the music played on television was either regional or American/UK origin, genres like pop, hip hop, rock and metal started gaining more attention with a rise in the number of artists and bands from different corners of the country.
Many of these channels had a block or hour reserved for different genres of music at the time. Before even the internet had a significant impact, channels like MTV, Channel V and special hours on Zee Cafe used to air music. I’ve discovered most of the western music I know through these channels. Most music played was also American, from rock bands like Incubus to pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna, and many more.
Seinfeld and the parallel rise of regional Stand up comedy in India – While stand up comedy was not really a thing in India, the first time I’d seen it on a show on TV and not the internet was Seinfeld. Seinfeld aired in India on Zee Cafe in the early 2000s. When the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium in Mumbai (in 2015) had all the highest-selling tickets sold out in an hour from the announcement on Jerry Seinfeld’s debut stand up show in India, I realized what a huge impact Seinfeld had on audiences. It was my introduction to stand up, and to be put in the format of a show was even more fascinating. I still watch Seinfeld! Parallelly, Indian stand-up comedy TV shows like Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005) and Comedy Circus (2007) had just started gaining momentum. Even though it was more in a competition format, performers like Raju Shrivastava cannot be unseen!
Netflix and the rise of streaming platforms – When Netflix came to India, even though there were older competitors like Eros Now and HBO (VOD), they made streaming almost cool. It opened up the world to many TV shows that would appear on television, but because of the accessibility, many not watched are trending now, and many older shows are resurfacing. Netflix entered India only in 2016, but the impact it has had on OTT platforms, in general, has been significant. It has also created a market in India for more competitors like Amazon’s Prime Video, Disney’s Hotstar, Zee Network’s Zee5 and many more.
Yahoo, MSN Messenger and the rise of Instant Messaging – Even though Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger were launched in 1998 and 1999 respectively, instant messaging single individuals or groups picked up in India. Since most people had Yahoo or Hotmail (now Live) email ids, it was convenient to download the messenger on your computer and use it. This led to a lot of people meeting others from around the world, and it was a huge influence on what we can call Instant messaging language – abbreviations like lol, brb, ttyl, ily, etc., evolved from there, and are still in use today. Still today, one of the most widely used instant messaging tools is Skype, founded in 2003.
Much of my childhood and teenage years were spent away from technological entertainment of every sort for the most part. All I can remember is playing gully cricket with rules so obscure that it made one question the legitimacy of the game, intense hide-&-seek and Dabba-I-spy again with rules so twisted in our gigantic apartment complex, indulging in massive collections of indoor board games or merely reading Tinkle comics together.
This super energetic childhood of mine was, however, soundtracked with English pop songs. At home, not a weekend passed without watching my father’s acquisitions of Michael Jackson, Boney M., and ABBA music videos.
Whimsically, greater parts of my weekdays were spent dancing to Bollywood songs in my dance classes. It was almost like – mirroring Hrithik Roshan’s dance moves by day, learning how to moonwalk on my living floor sprinkled with layers of talcum powder by night (or do whatever Bobby Farrel (singer/dancer of Boney M.) does during their live shows, what really was he doing?)
Once my dancing phase was finally and needfully over, I embarked on the world of pop music defined by the likes of Maroon 5, Adele, Bruno Mars, P!NK, Rihanna, Katy Perry, so on!
At the age of 13, my father gifted me a guitar and said, “Now try playing Hotel California”. All I could manage to play with my untuned, brand new guitar was ‘Breakeven’ by The Script, which eventually left both of us satiated. But in my quest to learn more songs on my guitar, I landed on my next phase – One Direction addiction.
Closer to home, tracks from Aashiqui 2 coaxed mourning and heartbreak in people young and old. While “Aye Lavanya, play ‘Tum Hi Ho’ on your guitar” became a recurrent request, I rightfully meandered through their wishes and played a fun 1D song I learned that day.
Not A Phase
I thankfully parted ways with the growing toxic fandom of 1D as I began curating music based on my new-found likings on Youtube. My likes shifted from being an immersive pop listening teenager to headbanging to alt-rock (namely Paramore, Tonight Alive) or slow dancing alone to ‘70s – ‘80s pop-rock (Fleetwood Mac, Blondie).
Youtube was a gem in 2014, and the year was a paradigm shift for me altogether. It opened doors to new things I dare not think about. Amidst the hoards of videos accumulated on the platform, I stumbled upon ‘Coming Out’ videos of then-popular YouTubers Tyler Oakley, Hannah Hart, and Troye Sivan.
I was hit with unheard terminologies but known feelings. Feelings that were unnamed and repressed within me.
Thanks to those videos, I glided past the shame, disgust, and remorse that most people feel while coming to terms with their sexuality.
All-in-all, letting the world beyond India’s borders seep in only helped mold the people we are today. Your culture, after all, is an amalgamation of all your experiences and beliefs, regardless of their place of origin.