Coldplay’s latest music video (Hymn For The Weekend) left my Twitter and Facebook news feed fuming. The depiction of India was seen as stereotypical, offensive and backward by the members of the very nation it looked to celebrate. But here’s the thing – not all stereotypes are false.
The video portrays one part of the country. It doesn’t matter how big or small that part may be, it is still a part. And it is a part that is unique to India, or to a few countries in the East. Other parts of the world have nothing like it – nothing like the colours that fill the air and grace the streets and pavements on Holi, nothing as eerie and fascinating as sadhus in saffron robes, nothing like the good, old fashioned black and yellow cabs with artistic interiors and that characteristic, Indian taxi smell, nothing like the dances that mark every single celebration. Hence, the fascination.
The problem, more than the fascination of the West with this ‘exotic’ aspect of the East, is the fact that we, in India, are so inexplicably ashamed of it, or embarrassed by it. We’re caught up with trying to imitate the west, as if it is the benchmark, a sign of being civilised and dignified. But at what cost?
We, as people of a large, secular, diverse country, have a lot that is uniquely ours, and deserves to be flaunted and appreciated. Not everything Indian is orthodox, or backward, or old fashioned. Development has nothing to do with Westernisation.
We’re offended that the more modern part of India isn’t being shown – the high rises and plush malls and big cars and metros. If we want all of India to be depicted realistically, we should ask for these, by all means, but we should also ask for the slums, and the children begging on the street, and the women being molested in buses and trains, and the communal violence and riots and rifts.
When Slumdog Millionaire released, a lot of Indians were offended, when they should have been embarrassed. The film showed a side of the country that even some of us weren’t willing to accept exists. It forced us to confront the harsh reality that a large part of our population lives in dire poverty on a daily basis, and the privileged lives we lead are exceptions to the rule.
I once read a paper that claimed one of the things that defines the line between offensive and inoffensive speech is the intent behind it. The intent behind depiction of people in several media productions is to get laughs through dramatisation or exaggeration, consequently creating cause for offence. The Coldplay video doesn’t judge, it just captures.
It sticks to the stereotype of the ‘exotic’ east. But the exotic east does exist in India, and the video celebrates it. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t criticise, it celebrates. Holi is celebrated, children do dance on streets (and so do adults, because Baraats), we do have taxis with decorated (sometimes tackily) interiors, we do have sadhus wandering around with long, white beards and saffron robes, and we definitely have peacocks dancing in forests, and sometimes cities too. The video depicts a part of India that is uniquely Indian, and it communicates a spirit, albeit stereotypically in some senses, that is uniquely Indian. And that needs to be understood.
Rather than asking the western media to stop depicting the ‘exotic’ aspect of our country, we need to do two things – first, accept it exists, and second, understand that there are parts of it that deserve to be celebrated rather than seen as cause for embarrassment.
I believe, there are only two critical questions we really need to ask as far as the Coldplay video is concerned, and those are “what was infesting Beyonce’s face, and could she really find nothing better to wear?“