NRI Number One

India Currents Magazine | August 2002

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

The expatriate in films is nothing new. Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart as the suave, mysterious Rick in Morocco remains the top favorite 60 years after its release in America. Although expat characters’ lives are traditionally painted as being extraordinary, the simple fact that they live “elsewhere” adds a sense of adventure, a dash of romance, and a bit of wishful longing. However, expats have never made the kind of impact on films that non-resident Indians (NRIs) have with Hindi cinema, both at the box office and on the big screen.

According to India’s 2001 census, the country’s population exceeded the 1 billion persons milestone, and there are approximately 11 million Indians living, working, and studying elsewhere around the world. NRIs have become a serious market for the Hindi film industry, particularly in the U.K., where approximately 3 percent of the population is Indian/Pakistani, and in the U.S., where 1.7 million out of 281.5 million people are Indian.

The rupee box office is now augmented quite handsomely by the dollar-and-pound box office, much to the delight of directors and producers.

Refugee (2000)

Among the films reporting a half-to-three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar box office in the U.S. or the U.K. are Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai (2000), Refugee (2000), Lajja (2001), and Asoka (2001). The NRI “million-dollar-box-office club” boasts such films as Yaadein (2001) and Lagaan (2001) in the U.S. Taal (1999), Hum Saath Saath Hain (HSSH, 1999), and Mohabbatein (2000) made the mark or better in the U.K. Taal and HSSH doubled their U.K. intakes in the U.S. and brought in $2 million each. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) tallied up $2.6 million in the U.K. Most recently, setting a new high-water mark in the overseas box office, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G, 2001) grabbed the No. 10 spot its first week of release in the U.S. and earned $2.9 million during its five-week run. In the U.K., K3G earned nearly $3.6 million over an 18 week run.

Impressive? Yes, considering that promotion of Hindi films outside of the Indian community is virtually zero, although that may be on the brink of changing slightly. If nothing else, the figures indicate that the NRI spends a big chunk of change on the films.

Lagaan movie poster

During the past decade, the inclusion of NRI characters in both commercial and non-commercial films has been on the rise, and in a circular logic, it’s only natural that they have become a part of these films’ stories. Each NRI touches someone in India, and these “global Indians,” as filmmaker Subhash Ghai has called them, cannot be shrugged off as a passing phase. Films featuring or “made for” NRIs have been criticized by some in India, but in reality, many of those films have performed extremely well at the Indian box office. Could this speak to the lure of adventure and the romance of the NRI?

The first Hindi blockbuster to spotlight NRI characters was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995), the story of two young people who grew up Indian in London. DDLJ introduced us to the mischievous, prank-pulling Raj, who in the beginning fails to graduate but succeeds in pilfering a case of beer from an Indian-owned convenience store. In the end, he steadfastly applies Indian sensibilities in his pursuit of the rebellious-but-trapped Simran as her unwanted arranged marriage approaches. Very possibly, because of this juxtaposition of traits, attitudes, and events, DDLJ enjoys the distinction of being the longest-continually-running film in Indian cinema history.

Popularity aside, there is the ongoing issue regarding accuracy in the characterization of NRIs in films. Often they are drawn as stereotypes, which are easy to lean on, requiring neither depth nor dimension. Because of this, Hindi filmmakers may be said to straddle the border separating East and West, staying securely at home and dipping into their highly-fantasized world of the Indian diaspora.

In many cases, commercial Hindi films present an overly-devised sense of the NRI as being either corruptly-Westernized or as being more homesick than a child gone away to camp for the first time. While these concepts may carry a certain truth, the corresponding misconceptions come from the minds of the at-home Indians, who wag a seemingly-envious finger at the NRI’s ability to exist in two worlds: one allowing space and upward mobility, the other offering traditions and history.

Pompous, materialistic, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking, drug-taking, affair-having, spoiled brats …

Pardes movie poster

The first Hindi film I saw was Subhash Ghai’s Pardes (1997). Despite encouraging me to see more films, it made me wonder if “NRI” actually meant “Not Really Indian.” If the NRI characters weren’t silly, whiney troublemakers, they were mean and nasty, embracing every possible negative human quality in stark contrast to the pristine Kusum Ganga. Even the dialogue and song lyrics in the film were designed to instruct the viewer that the West is inferior but one can still bring India back into one’s life. The film is propaganda at its finest and filled with relentless reminders of good vs. evil, purity vs. corruption, right vs. wrong, traditional vs. modern … in short India vs. the West.

But this is not where the negativity ends.

Very often, there is a “dress code” for the female characters to help the viewer understand her measure of purity or wickedness: the more traditionally-dressed, the more Indian the woman. Unsurprisingly, this does not seem to carry over to the men’s characters.

Running alongside this can be the “training guide” in which NRIs are constantly reeducated that “This is not India …,” “This is not America …,” “Only in India …,” “This is our culture.” The repetition seems less designed to be a natural part of life than to foster reinforcement, as if NRIs are too ignorant to appreciate it the first time.

When Indians achieve success and wealth, have large homes, and own their companies in these films, they are industrious, clever, and respected businessmen. The NRI equivalent is held up to a double standard and considered materialistic. Even the printed synopsis of Taal in the Eros Entertainment/B4U DVD booklet refers to the NRI characters’ “world of ruthless materialism.” On the other hand, the Mumbai-based, plagiarizing Vikrant Kapoor character is likeable enough and presented as an opportunist, which seems to be a step up.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam movie poster

Italy is an unlikely origin for an NRI and offspring in a Hindi film, but Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (2000) filled the bill. For all the film’s splendor, it was regrettable that the Indo-Italian Sameer was presented as a naïve, bumbling nerd who had little going for him beyond his singing ability.

Yaadein gave us a kind and loving, if slightly confused, single parent from London raising three daughters who suffer enough issues to put a therapist into a tailspin. As if that weren’t enough, the film includes an American-raised brat who wants nothing to do with parents, settling down, or having babies—hardly the ideal Indian bride-to-be.

And what happens when a married NRI couple splits into the “modern” vs. the “old-fashioned?” The wife is tossed out like the garbage and sent home to India as punishment for being unreceptive to having affairs outside of marriage. Such is the initial setup for Lajja, Rajkumar Santoshi’s look into the world of Indian women.

Show me the way to go home …

The other extreme of NRIs in film is the homesick, culture-craving, more-patriotic-than-thou Indian. Building their own mini-Indias for maxi-memories, this NRI portrayal takes a real issue and magnifies it to unreal proportions. And no film illustrates that as extravagantly as the lush and sumptuous Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (K3G).

Not only did K3G enjoy a healthy run at home, it exploded worldwide onto theater screens in Indian communities last December and played to packed houses for weeks. And K3G is a film in which everything—homes, transportation, finances, fashion, holidays, events, emotions, and tears—sets a new standard for the term “larger-than-life.”

In K3G, much of the post-interval footage takes place in England. For Anjali, life in London simmers with a patriotic zeal and an all-consuming homesickness manifested in the meticulous maintenance of Indian customs and rituals while she separates herself from her surroundings. Her need for India is so overwhelming that she relies on the false protection of mocking people and places outside of her own family and home.

Overkill? Certainly, as writer-director Karan Johar’s inflated representation of what have become some of the filmi passions of the typical NRI. But when it boils down to the common denominators without the fanfare, flash, and fervor, even those who move across country miss their families and familiar surroundings; one always retains a credible amount of home-turf loyalty; and if one’s heritage is lost, the person is rendered as no more than a racial statistic.

“Those living in India are surrounded by our culture every minute, even if they don’t realize it,” says Vivek Malhotra, a thirty-something NRI and business owner in the Chicago area. “Here it’s different, but we will always be Indian,” he continues, striking at the heart of the perceived problem. “Sometimes, I feel that the movies think we’ve forgotten that. Maybe the filmmakers should spend some time finding out who we are. I really don’t think they have a clue.”

On the upside is a beneficial aspect for the children of NRIs. “It’s good that these films show our kids what happens in India—the traditions, customs, values,” says Parag Gandhi, a long time theater owner and promoter of Hindi films in Chicago. “They may be modernized in India, but the traditional values remain.” And many popular films target the late-teens, twenty-something demographic. “Films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and K3G,” adds Gandhi, “are examples of films that are half traditional, half modern, striking a balance between the two for all of the markets.”

Monsoon Wedding movie poster

Another positive consideration is that not all films show NRIs in a questionable light. Caricatures of NRIs have been challenged in commercial films like Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, Dil Chata Hai (2001), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and the recent Kitne Door Kitne Paas, all of which present NRIs as more realistic, more human characters. Aa Ab Laut Chalen offers a variety of NRI personalities from the selfish, the conniving, and the party animal to the lovable cabbies and the pandit-cop who make the best of their situations without complaint. Interestingly, the film also dares to include shop owners, Dunkin’ Donuts clerks, gas station attendants: characters who aren’t weighed down by palatial surroundings, corporate crises, or overseas judgments.

The U.S., the U.K., and Australia are represented in Bombay Boys (1999) by three young men coming/returning to Bombay, India for personal reasons. In a refreshing reversal of the typical attitude concerning NRIs in film, the boys are the “good” Indians, and everyone they meet has some relationship with the darker side of the city. At its most basic, the film shows that if something is lost, it won’t necessarily be found in India.

Bawandar movie poster

Even the non-commercial, multi-award-winning Bawandar (2001) incorporates an NRI as a connecting thread in the piecing together of Sanvri Devi’s story. Curious, passionate about women’s rights, the Indo-English journalist represents the fact that the story has a wider interest than a small, rural village.

Stepping outside of the Hindi film industry for a moment, the English/Telegu film Hyderabad Blues (1998) and the English/Tamil film Mitr—My Friend (2002), both smaller-budget films built on delivering messages without preaching, deserve mention. The former engages in the questioning of, rather than the criticism of, East vs. West, and the latter examines the challenges faced by women, NRIs, and their families. The characters and stories of both films enjoy respect in their presentation, partially due to the existence of layered issues that are revealed and resolved (or not) without finger-snapping swiftness or clichéd answers. Hyderabad Blues enjoyed a 31-week run in Mumbai alone, and Mitr—My Friend is currently one of the most-rented films in Indian communities in the U.S.

While the inclusion of NRIs in Hindi films does not guarantee box office success outside of India, it does send a strong signal that filmmakers acknowledge this constantly growing and lucrative audience sector. If the big-budget, big box-office commercial films coming out of Mumbai often seem to bite one of the hands that feeds it, has the box office anywhere been adversely affected? Well … no, not by any charted reports that can be found. And that, itself, sends a loud and clear message back to the industry in Mumbai: “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Nevertheless, when filmmakers who see NRIs as falling only to the evil side of Western ways look beyond their assumptions, perhaps they will discard their reliance on stereotypes and start paying their overseas family an increased measure of respect. And when filmmakers who take the homesick and patriotic themes beyond believability analyze their own feelings, perhaps they will realize that what NRIs hold dear in their hearts is no different from what those at home should be proud of.


DDLJ: So globally-successful is the film that in 1999 it warranted a billboard outside Shinjuku train station in Tokyo, Japan, announcing its screenings sponsored by India Center there.  Shinjuku is the entertainment center of Tokyo, and there is plenty of high-profile competition for attention, attendance, and box office.  In Japan, where Indian films enjoy a certain popularity with the natives, the country’s 1995 population census of 125.6 million persons showed only 4,244 were Indian with an additional 13,589 being other South Asians. Without question, DDLJ continues to be a favorite whenever, wherever offered for viewing.

K3G: According to a report in the South China Morning Post in January, 2002, all screenings of K3G in December, 2001, were sell-outs in Hong Kong, while pirated copies of the film were the hottest items circulating on the island. Hong Kong’s 2001 population census of 6.3 million people revealed that 18,543 were Indian and another 23,581 were Nepalese and Pakistani.  K3G’s popularity in the Special Administrative Region was impressive because Hong Kong enjoys being the third-largest producer of films by volume after India and the United States.

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NOTE: All box office figures are reported as US$ and are courtesy of Variety Magazine online archives. Not all Hindi films abroad report box office, and not all box office reports are available.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen writes from Chicago. She is family with, friends with, acquainted with, and works for NRIs with an amazing variety of personalities, attitudes, hopes, dreams, goals, livelihoods, needs, wants, and beliefs.