Many college campuses have something like India Night, that draw desi, or diasporic South Asians from the campus and the surrounding area.
Amitab as moti acts raunchy and sexually aggressive.
Amitab as moti shakes his hips as the audience leers.
Amitab as kali sings for another kali, who laughs at his antics.
Amitab falls to his feet as choti, or the small one.
Amitab as the dark one pretends to be cross-eyed, calling further attention to his inadequacy.
Amitab as moti marches down th corridor, knocking people to the ground.
A1: Let’s talk about this last scene. I think it’s important for understanding the crossdressing dance.
A2: Yeah, it’s paradigmatic in a number of ways. First, it brings to a close the basic premise of the film—that society only values those who belong. Amitab does not belong at birth; he does not belong to his drunken father; he does not belong to the workplace where he works. He only begins to belong when he is acknowledged by the class structure that he fights against. Specifically, the film seems to be saying that the vehicles which establishes his new identity are those of class excess (those of the rich man’s son’s repeating the sexual/ moral compromise of the father) but equally those of upper class magnanimity. The fact that Amitab’s salvation comes at the hand of the rich man’s daughter speaks to the inherent displacement of a lower class person like Amitab who can only be rehabilitated financially through the son and humanistically through the fictive bonds of brotherhood bestowed by the daughter and the blessings of an unacknowledged paternity.
A1: I couldn't have put it better.
Need to Marcus: And what follows is important. Because soon after the raakhi is tied, Amitab realizes it’s his sister’s birthday. He then proceeds to sing the same song that years ago on his birthday his mother the singer had sung to his unacknowledged father. Each verse of this song shows Amitab in a different set of women’s clothes. The song is called “Mere Angane Mein” (In My Home).
First Verse (addressed by Amitab to the rich man’s son): What are you doing in my home? If you are somebody important, then you are up to no good.
A1 and A2 (speaking together): Class consciousness/over determined discourse/notion of home as moral center/agency and class/lower class as moral agent/discursive disruptions of class relations.
Second Verse: If your wife is tall, she has a purpose. Stand her against the wall. You don’t need a ladder anymore.
Third Verse: If your wife is fat, she too has a purpose. Put her on the bed frame. What need do you have for a mattress?
A1 and A2 (together): Gendered functionalities/ bodies and visual regimes/male agency in patriarchy/ femininity and normalcy/bodies and domesticity/ gender roles and class formation/hybrid sexualities/ hijra sexualities.
Fourth Verse: If your wife is dark, she too has a purpose. Put her inside your eyes. What need do you have for eye liner?
Fifth Verse: If your wife is fair, she too has a purpose. Make her sit in a room. What need do you have for electricity?
Sixth Verse: If your wife is small, she too has a purpose. Put her in your lap. What need do you have for children?
A1 and A2 (together): Discursive constructions of femininity/patriarchal agency and feminine beauty/racialized norms of femininity/beauty and functionality/beauty and domesticity/color and female agency/color and functionality/body form and domesticity/femininity and childhood/gender and agency/hijra and hybrid sexualities.
A2: I’m lost in those words. We are at the end of this Act. (Pause for pun). So, what is the motive?
A1: Well, simply put, I guess it’s this. If what is being looked at is why a bunch of Indian American men crossdressed, then we needed to see what legitimated that act. Now, we have at least two answers: To understand the act, we first had to look at the overall discursive space that Amitab Bachchan occupies and then at the specific narrative space that this film and dance occupy. In both cases, the space is sociologically contingent on a number of historical and cultural forces. Amitab’s case rests on a specific model of masculinity and in the case of the film, that masculinity articulates an unambiguous vision of community. In the case of community in the Indian context, the song reifies through a hijra performance (i.e. with humor at a distorted femininity/masculinity) the racial, class and gender politics of the Indian middle class mainstream viewership and their concept of community.
A2: In other words, the young men chose this song because it would sell and it made fun of women?
A1: Well, it’s never that simple, or maybe it is. I mean there is a lot more going on. Its performed in Georgia, remember. Let’s find out.
Act three: revelation
A2 (standing on one side of the stage):
All six men are students. They met in college and were drawn to each other because of their Indian heritage. They visit each other frequently. Beer and football is usually involved. Their friendship was also built through other dances they have taken part in over their four years of college. Their crossdressing dance was performed in their senior year. The three students present tonight are Moti, Gori and the student we can call “American Amitab.”
Made to Marcus:
A1: what made you decide on this act?
American Amitab: The thing was that we had done a bhangra before and one last year, and we wanted to do something for laughs in place of something serious. And then Gori came up with the idea that let’s dress up and crossdress and we were like cool, let’s do that. Let’s do meera angane mey.
Moti: Gori came up with idea. And since none of us was going to be here after this year, since this was our last time together, we were like let’s do something different. This was the last time we could do something together.
Gori: It was pretty much the last time we could be together and we wanted to leave with a blast. We decided to something drastic actually, to do something different.
Vivid Mani: The ideology of male friendship-loyalty, affection and trust has never gone out of style. Urbanization and bureaucratization, social and geographical mobility, all may foster instrumental and expedient relationships, but they surely induce a sense of individual isolation.
A2: So is this is what it’s about—a way for Indian American men to bond, to remove the individual isolation they live under in post-industrial America. What do you think, Vivid Mani?
Vivid Mani: Well, you may have something there.
A1: Not just any men but specifically Indian men raised in the United States.
A1: Why do most Indian men raised in America not want to dance at these cultural festivals?
Moti: In India, guys go and do garba and raas and they already have skills to dance, but in America they grow up as guys so they cannot dance at all while the girls, since they are feminine, they can pull it off. That’s the reason why. I mean even when we dance, that is the problem: there is an overflow of girls but there are no guys to dance with.
American Amitab: There are no open-minded guys who would come to the dance like we would. The girls want to be the center of attention on the stage. Guys here seem so uninterested. Usually the guys are not into cultural stuff, they just want to look good, show off, hang out and drink. They are not into the show. They will still go to garba, to hang out and look at the girls.
A2: The real issue it seems is that dancing is culturally prescriptive for women and not for men. Hindi films reiterate these concerns by locating the female body as the central source of performative pleasure. In other words, film culture provides a vocabulary for dance performances for women in the Indian diaspora and not for Indian men. What do you think, Made to Marcus?
Made to Marcus: I think you are on the right track.
A1: It still leaves the all-important question unanswered. If they did it out of a need for the articulation of a desi masculinity in the diaspora, how did they traverse the gendered/ sexualized terrain of the performance in the film itself?
A2: Well, lets look and compare.
A1 and A2 (together at the end of the screening). I see differences in sequence, structure and costume but this is part of the same discursive formation—similar narrative interpretation, similar sexualization of performance, similar male agency, similar sexual politics.
Vivid Mani: Huh. That’s surprising. I thought under current conditions
Made to Marcus: Yes, but
A1: Well, let’s go back to what we do know: that men in the Diaspora don’t dance and women do. The issue must of necessity return to sexual politics. To women and how they are seen to dance.
Moti: Look at Indian dances like Bharatnatyam and compare them to rock and pop videos on MTV. Do you see any of the Bharatnatyam dances mixed into dances by women? They are probably trying to improvise a little, but the movement that is coming out is more focused on an area of their body. Look at their outfits, look at the jhumka in their hips. They are trying to make something more conspicuous than the art itself. That’s what exactly what American culture is making them do.
Gori: Girls have a tendency to becoming slutty. I have noticed this. I know many of these girls personally. They actually do the dance to be slutty and attract more guys. Most of the girls want to be the solo. Teamwork might be significant, but they really want to go solo.
A2: So the issue of motive remains that for these Indian men, their performance is not about being slutty or going solo but about their own participation in a collective act. They assume both agency and priority in their performance.
A1: It is about what we knew all along. The revelation as, we properly foreshadowed at the end of Act 1, is about identity groups, about community.
A2: Yes, it’s about the ancestral land and its sexual politics and reification of community. The crossdressing dance is also about creating a space for identity in the Diaspora—a move to address desi contestedness by claiming unambiguously an affiliation with a mythical rendering of desi identity. In the case of the crossdressing desi men, they locate themselves in direct opposition to both new Indian International students and younger second-generation Indian students (to which they belong) and instead place themselves in allegiance with older Indian immigrants who mainly subsist on a mythical/ essentialist rendering of Indian identity.
Moti: I consider myself as desi. The new Indian students are hardcore desi. But they are trying to be westernized and that does not suit them at all. And with the second generation Indians, they are trying to be desis which they are not. Their thinking is not desi.
Gori: When you see the Indian international students you see people that have been brought up not only by Indian parents but in India and you see the Indian culture that has been brought with them. Their thoughts are all Indian. They know what culture is all about.
American Amitab: I have seen all sides of society. I have sort of had this pressure ever since elementary and middle school, having the American way of life being pushed on me. I owe it to my parents. Because of them I was able to be, I guess it’s not much, but who I am right now. I don’t mean to be really Indian in my thoughts but deep down inside I am more Indian than anybody else, as far as my family.
A1: So the revelation is that the community made them do it?
A2: Well, paradoxically yes. The videotape of the dance is very popular in the Indian community now. It’s put on in various homes when people want to watch something funny.
A1: So the Indian students in Act 1 were wrong. Instead of embarrassing their community, the crossdressers actually celebrated it. It was equally a dance of celebration and control, of masculine destiny in the Diaspora. A destiny that resurrects a discourse very familiar to them—those from their immigrant parents. Listen to the American Amitab.
American Amitab: Even if you are pardon my language, fucked up, you have your parents to rely on. That has put this feeling inside me that, look, I need to do what makes them happy to at least until their lifetime.
And so you have it. The first research play in the history of the world. (pause). Well, as you go home, we hope it will allow you “further exploration around the weighty issues surrounding culture, gender and performance.” (Pause). Or you could get Indian takeout and curl up with a good Bollywood movie. At any rate let me get our big thoughts out of the way. We have three big thoughts. So please stay in your seats and don’t worry, the refreshment stands will be open for an hour after the show is finished.
The first has to do with those awkward names: Vivid Money and Made to Marcus. The names are tongue in cheek references to two influential scholars in the field of ethnography and postcolonial studies. George Marcus is well known for his work in rethinking ethnographic discourse and writing and Lata Mani is well known in the field of postcolonial studies. The term “Made to Marcus” (read, “made to mark us”) refers to the enthusiastic spirit in which postmodern ethnography has been embraced by many anthropologists from the developing world, a turn itself worthy of examination in looking at the link between academic discourse and the politics of placement. The term “Vivid Mani” (read, “vivid money”) is meant equally to refer to an author and to the purchase that postcolonial theory has had on many scholars from the developing world.
It goes without saying that the terms are not used in any way to criticize or provide commentary on the work of these fine scholars. What we do criticize and want to emphasize in this research play is that this attention to the act of construction should not make us forget the connection implicit in the title of Margery Wolf’s book, A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism and Ethnographic Responsibility. It’s a message that Jane Flax warned us about over a decade ago, but it seems to have been forgotten. It’s worth repeating and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll read it in its entirety:
“A problem with thinking about (or only in terms of) texts, signs, or signification is that they tend to take on a life of their own or become the world…such an approach obscures the projection of its own activity onto the world and denies the existence of the variety of concrete social practices that enter into and are reflected in the constitution of language itself…This lack of attention to concrete social relations including the distribution of power results in the obscuring of relations of domination.”
I can see you shifting in your seats and wondering if the next point is going to be as long-winded. I promise you it won’t be. In fact, I am done with four simple words: “Places changing, times unchanging.” In the terminological blizzard that is postmodern and postcolonial interrogation of the contemporary world, the nature of the unproblematic is often seen as unworthy of consideration. This research play points to the simple truths that often may underlie the complex apparatus that we bring to reality and research. It does this, in one place, by letting the anthropologists pause the video of Amitab’s performance and in staccato fashion provide the complex analytical grid that can underlie a single performance.
In the end, the revelation that does emerge is simple. The dance by the diasporic men, whatever else it may be about, is in the end about relations of domination in the Diaspora, a Diaspora that is startlingly similar to other spaces—dare we say, immigrant spaces in the original homeland. What is important is not difference, disarticualtion or hybridity but the reiteration of an unproblematic gendered ideology across all the spaces of the contemporary Diaspora, whether a village in Baroda, Gujrat or in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Finally, if you are still in your seat, the research play is about you. It interrogates the relations that you have brought to it. If life is a text—an overused analogy, if I ever heard one—then texts too have their own lives. Mary Bateson’s wonderful book Composing a life: Life as Work in Progress looks at the complex imbrication of life as text and text as life. This research play is we hope, one such complex mediation where the intertwining of fieldwork, writing, performance (life as text) are related to what is happening right now (you in your seats, me rattling on, in other words, text as life). It is that understanding, that manifestation of the possibility of transformation of every moment of life.
Thank you, Ladies and Gentleman. Good night. And we’ll see you at the movies.