I think that it can be safely stated that popular band Coldplay, fronted by singer Chris Martin, did not intend to offend India by their new music video ‘Hymn for the weekend’. Rather – and this may be evident in the title of their new, controversial album ‘A head full of dreams’– they seemed inspired by the pace, complexity and the ambition of a young nation burdened by a colonial past. What is deeply flawed is the execution of the music video, which portrayed an exaggerated, uni-dimensional fantasy of the subcontinent. As I recall, Mr. Martin, the festival of Holi is usually enjoyed once a year and involves more water, less dry colour, noise, community and a slice of hooliganism instead of the slow motion, running-through-the-streets version you may have witnessed.
The errors I saw were amusing and unbelievable, but not offensive. After watching Academy Award winner Slumdog Millionaire (the last major Hollywood creation that offended delicate Indian sensibilities) and a host of documentaries on the region and its colourful diversity it is hard to be offended by the only way that the West seems to be able to picture and connect with the subcontinent. Furthermore, as Rashmee Kumar from The Guardian newspaper points out, Coldplay is not only a band to capitalize on the recent fads of bindis, yoga and (god help me) butter chicken. Movies like Eat, Pray, Love propagate the myth of an India where spirituality (not religion) reigns supreme and other music videos, such as Major Lazer’s Lean On, reinforce well-established stereotypes – the colourful clothes, the camels, the elephants and the “exotic” looking people.
Note 1: Most people in India lead busy/ interesting/ difficult/ comfortable/ insert-any-other-state-of-being-lives and do not have the time, funds and (most importantly) inclination to dress up like walking circus tents every day. Also, the same “exotic” skin often gets people carded, hassled at airports and viewed with suspicion.
The expected and the unexpected
Apart from the children from the slums playing Holi, the peacock in the ruins, the multi-coloured temple, the aforementioned sadhus, an “ethnic” Sonam Kapoor and Beyoncé playing the role of a Bollywood actress called ‘Rani’ – all of which were predictably exhausting – I found the use of the Hindi script intriguing. The fact that Beyonce, a black woman, played a mainstream Bollywood actress in an industry where fair skin is (always) in was absolutely hysterical. The word ‘Coldplay’ is written in the devnagri script which is a smart, subtle way of alerting non-English speakers to the band’s existence. The lyrics and melody of the song itself are fairly catchy, but both lose to the elaborate, trying-very-hard-to-be- ” Indian” cinematography. The fact that Chris & Co. flew down to India and made the effort to shoot their video there, not use props, CGI or the infamous brown face, is commendable.
The portrayal in the video clarify how the overwhelmed white tourist must feel on a visit to India, but the presence of a minor, but recognized, celebrity like Sonam Kapoor makes me wonder if this is how Indian people view themselves. Or do we just enjoy presenting ourselves as chai drinking, colourful people incapable of anything vaguely normal. There have been some memorable instances, in my short life so far, where I have heard or seen Indian people (ethnically or otherwise) try and explain Indian-ness to foreigners and most of the time it sounded like they were reinforcing pre-existing ideas to gain favour with the former colonizers. Did Kapoor also think it fit to happily play a stereotypical version of the “traditional Indian woman” in this video, while she tries to defy the same idea through other “modern Indian woman” portrayals like those in Aisha and Khoobsurat? Like India, perhaps the fashionista has her own bewildering, contradictions? The point is that, much like the successful colonization of the subcontinent, there was Indian complicity in the creation of this video and my question to the same team is simple- what were you thinking?
Note 2: Sonam Kapoor’s involvement proves that you don’t have to be white, or any other kind of foreigner, to engage in stereotypical, biased thinking about India.
actions, sorry, reactions:
I feel compelled to include this section, because the reactions I’ve seen across the internet from Indian people range from outraged to unfettered joy at a new East-West collaboration. The cynical part of my mind wonders if we would have the happy same reaction to an Indo-African collaboration on culture, but words on that need to be expressed elsewhere. The point is that we’re 1.2 billion people on the subcontinent alone, 198 million of who have access to the internet and this controversial piece of art. According to an article in Forbes magazine, only 30% of Indians speak English, presumably fluently enough to acknowledge the existence of western media and, by extension, Coldplay. There are myriad reactions, each defined by their own unique circumstances (social, economic, educational, racial), therefore it may be wise to refrain from using the term “All Indians are (insert adjective or expletive here)”. Some of us may be offended, while others are ecstatic.
This is the end:
India is a socially conservative country and in many parts you will see women wearing (much) less gaudy versions of the attire donned by Kapoor and Beyoncé and the poverty, the caste based discrimination and terrible traffic all exist. It’s not a bed of Bollywood-scented roses. There are also a growing number of corporate boardrooms and start-up offices where they are abandoning the same. I would argue that Indians have never been more fascinated by the West, and all that it represents, and have never made a more concerted attempt to incorporate, at least in part, western culture into their lives- why it can’t be better road etiquette remains a mystery. It is ironic, therefore, that the bands like Coldplay choose to represent the India they have always known at a time like this. Do the universe a favour, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, and stop trying to compartmentalize civilization.
Image (Coldplay poster) courtsey: superbowlcommercials.tv