Imagined spaces: The implications of song and dance for Bollywood’s diasporic communities Kai-Ti Kaoa* and Rebecca-Anne Do Rozariob

aSchool of Media Communication and Culture, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Australia; bSchool of English, Communication and Performance Studies, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

Many critics tell us that the film musical, with few exceptions, was defunct by the 1960s,

having gradually declined since its Hollywood golden era circa the 1930s.1 This is a

particularly Western perspective, since Bollywood has maintained and expanded upon the

film musical tradition well into the present day.2 Most Indian films are, in fact, musicals,

their long production numbers rivalling the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of the 1930s as

much as MTV’s heavily produced music videos.3 The musical’s distinctive blend of

spectacle and escapism facilitates the plot lines typical of Bollywood. The investigation of

Bollywood as musical thus presents the possibility of understanding how its cinematic

imagination has established a rapport with audiences both in India and among the

diaspora, the latter being the primary concern of this essay.4

In establishing a connection between Hollywood musical and Bollywood, through

which we focus on two recent films, Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (2001), henceforth

abbreviated as K3G, and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), abbreviated as KHNH, we acknowledge

that Bollywood likewise draws upon Indian performance practices, many of which find a

natural accord with the styles of Hollywood. As Priya Jaikumar notes, such aspects as

‘the inalienable relationship between drama, music, and dance’ and ‘a preponderance of

burlesque routines integrated with dramatic, tragic, and action-orientated episodes’ can be

found in more ancient theatrical and epic Indian forms, as indeed they are in Hollywood

(2003, 25). Consequently, the formation of Bollywood is a process at once entirely Indian

and cross-cultural.

Crucial to our understanding of the relationship to Hollywood musical, though, is the

creation of ‘imagined space’. This is space that exists outside the parameters of realism,

musicals generating a completely new, unique space constructed from generic conventions

and inventions in choreography, sound and cinematography. Such a space does not exist in

the real world, nor is it designed to emulate it: it is, to all intents and purposes, phoney

space. It has led to definitions of the musical as artifice: a superficial, unrealistic cinematic

genre frequently dismissed as ‘mere’ entertainment. Richard Barrios, for example, writing

on early Hollywood musicals, notes: ‘These films trafficked in dreams and escapism’

(1995, 5). Yet space where people simply burst into song and dance, and streets and

countryside transform into improbable locations for spectacle is a noted feature of


ISSN 1030-4312 print/ISSN 1469-3666 online

q 2008 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/10304310802001755

*Corresponding author. Email:

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies

Vol. 22, No. 3, June 2008, 313–326

This creation of imagined space has a particular resonance for diasporic audiences,

who, to borrow the phrase from Benedict Anderson, are members of an ‘imagined

community’ (1991), dislocated from nation and establishing communal solidarity through

shared cultural practices and media. The coincidence of ‘imagined space’ and ‘imagined

community’ intimates a connection between Bollywood and its diasporic audiences

defined by the act of imagination. This connection is further qualified by Arjun

Appadurai’s description of ‘mediascapes’, wherein:

The lines between the realistic and the fictional landscapes they see are blurred, so that, the further away these audiences are from the direct experiences of metropolitan life, the more likely they are to create imagined worlds which are chimerical, aesthetic, even fantastic objects, particularly if assessed by the criteria of some other perspective, some other imagined world. (1990, 9)

This is particularly apt in relation to a discussion of Indian diaspora and Bollywood

cinema, given the colourful, exotic, and escapist nature of Bollywood, and its increasing

consumption by a globally diverse, Western-influenced and upwardly mobile Indian


Bollywood is significant among the Indian media that the diaspora draws upon to establish

communal commonality, thus becoming, as Brian Hu argues, ‘no longer a national cinema,

but a transnational one’ (2006, online).6 In this respect, we find K3G and KHNH excellent

examples of how imagined space is realized and how it relates to this imagined community.

K3G offers a particular kind of patriotic space, reinscribing a postcolonial celebration of

Indian tradition in its depiction of British locations, from the stark, contemporary interior

of the British Museum to imposing palaces. WhileK3G conforms to the classic conventions of

Bollywood,KHNH begins to break away, being set entirely in New York, using contemporary

Western cinematic techniques that update and occasionally subvert its status as a Bollywood

film. The diaspora in this global city is self-contained and separate to postcolonial discourses

inevitably besetting the British diaspora. Far from earlier Bollywood depictions of non-

resident Indians (NRIs) as corrupt, greedy and lacking traditional values, the modern diaspora

is part of the new, cosmopolitan India, at once an extension of the homeland and an assertion of

India’s presence in the global arena (Kaur 2002, 204–7).

Bollywood’s renewed interest and shift in representationof thediaspora is linked to India’s

recent rising economic success. Ravinder Kaur attributes a large part of Bollywood’s popular

success among its increasingly wealthy diaspora to India’s greater global presence and

economic standing, claiming that for both the diaspora and Bollywood representations of the

diaspora ‘The shame, guilt and consequent low self-esteem associated with the poverty,

corruption and caste oppression in their home country, could be replaced with strategic and

economic success stories’ (2002, 206). Vijay Mishra further qualifies this, suggesting that

‘the present reception reflects a late modern entry of India into global capital . . . and the

accumulation of vast amounts of capital in the hands of diaspora Indians’ (2006, 3). Diasporic

consumption of Bollywood films thereby becomes not only a method of establishing

community ties and maintaining a distinct cultural identity in a foreign land but also a

reflection of diasporic pride in the homeland, one which can now be proudly displayed to the

new countries they inhabit.

As the diaspora takes up Bollywood, Indian filmmakers in return readily acknowledge

the diaspora’s interest in their films. Kaleem Aftab echoes Kaur and Mishra in observing

that the ‘imagined community’ extends beyond the initial generation of migration and

‘Hindi films, in adjusting to please this overseas audience, are becoming more traditional

314 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

in the values they espouse rather than absorbing liberal elements of the host community’

(2002, 92). This extended sense of inclusive identity produced by the advocacy of tradition

is apparent in scenes of festive dance, as in K3G’s ‘Bole Chudiyan’. The sense of

Indianness is realized among the diaspora in the imagined space of timeless traditional

festivals that seem to daily encourage engagement in communal celebration, passing this

identification on to each successive generation while the ‘real’ India continues to develop

and change as a culture quite different from that which is imagined. However, the rise in

recent years of communication technologies enabling faster and more efficient contact

across the globe has meant that the diaspora can engage simultaneously with India and its

host nation evident in Bollywood’s inclusion of up-to-date nightclub scenes, for example,

refracting the diaspora’s engagement in Western nightlife and India’s own thriving club

culture with its mix of Bollywood and Western music.

Recent Bollywood engages the diaspora in a process of imagining the concept of

‘Indianness’ even as its depictions of the diaspora evolve from ‘the villain who needs to be

saved from Western corruption to the new Indian aristocrat’ (Hu 2006, online). Thus Poo,

the diasporic Indian ‘princess’ of K3G, revels in her Western life, with its conspicuous

consumption of fashion, sports cars and nightclubs, but likewise embraces and re-imagines

her ‘Indianness’ through Bollywood tropes of song and dance. Mishra confirms that, while

the diaspora utilizes Bollywood in constructing its identity, the diaspora likewise informs

Bollywood’s imagined spaces: ‘For many the space occupied by the new diaspora – the

space of the West – is also the desired space of wealth and luxury that gets endorsed, in a

displaced form, by Indian cinema itself’ (2002, 236). The films do not depict the diasporic

communities realistically: they project desires through representations of the diaspora.

Thus, as in K3G, fast cars, exclusively decorated homes and expensive colleges elaborate

this desired space, even as the real diaspora absorbs these images of itself through its use of

Bollywood to formulate its imagined community.7 The diaspora is, subsequently, a doubly

imagined community by way of Bollywood and even these reciprocal acts of imagination

are being extended as the diaspora makes its own films. The notable example is Gurinder

Chadha, a British NRI filmmaker well known for Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and Bride

and Prejudice (2004). The latter film is particularly relevant as it reproduces Bollywood

conventions evincing the diaspora re-imagining itself within Bollywood.

With all these acts of imagination occurring, it is not surprising that imagined space, as

a forum of song and dance, continues to be iconic of Bollywood. Jaikumar, for example,

argues: ‘Whether or not a song has narrative justification, these primarily visual and aural

segments have the capacity of reaching a cross-linguistic audience, and directors aiming

for box-office success create occasions for them’ (2003, 26, emphasis in original). In fact,

the song and dance numbers epitomize and, beyond the films, celebrate, Bollywood.8

Jocelyn Cullity and Prakash Younger, in their work on MTV India, recognize research

showing Bollywood film music topping record sales in India: ‘MTV [India] therefore

replaced its Western music videos with Hindi film clips, popular song and dance numbers

taken from hit films that make for autonomous, self-standing videos’ (2004, 98). The

numbers themselves transcend the limits of the original medium, since they do not exist in

real space, but in a customized imagined space existing solely to accommodate the song.

Although ostensibly this makes them appear disconnected from the film’s narrative, the

numbers often encapsulate the main themes of the film, hence acting as self-contained

cinematic abridgments. The performance within imagined space can then be liberated

from the more realistic or conventionally dramatic scenes of the film without loss of

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 315

significance and, indeed, watching only the songs of a Bollywood film – and many

Bollywood DVDs give this as a menu option – provides the body of the film narrative,

although most overtly describing the emotional arc.

‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’, for example, as the title song, encapsulates KHNH’s themes on life

and love and on the central dilemma, a tragic love triangle. Aman, a visitor from India,

initially watching NRIs Naina and Rohit taking a dance class, begins to sing the film’s

themes of living in the moment for ‘tomorrow may never come’, a mantra for the diaspora

represented in the dancing couple. Aman inhabits a spectator’s point of view, at once part

of the number, at once separate from its performance, emphasizing his role as an Indian

among the diasporic community. His presence alternates between levels of reality as he

perceives and dreams as he conceives. He is the omniscient orchestrator of events, his

cinematic and Indian gaze actively promoting the love between Naina and Rohit. Aman’s

motivations, like his physical and vocal presence, appear removed from vested interest in

the diasporic love affair occurring. Then his own dream montage intrudes, re-writing the

film itself. Aman physically replaces Rohit in re-remembered flashbacks to earlier scenes

in the film, rearranging the essence of these scenes so that they now convey a romance

between Aman and Naina, where they had in their original form elaborated the friendship

and individual romantic hopes of Rohit and Naina.

Aman’s dream sequence begins to break down as the number enters its final phase.

Against the Manhattan skyline, with a red rose and candlelit table for two – a melodramatic

signification of romance – the song shifts, articulating a potential dream as Naina and

Aman dance. Aman’s reality then interrupts as the scenes devolve from the montage of

Aman, again watching Naina and Rohit dance, to Aman himself being examined by

doctors, the sequence conveying without words that Aman is dying, his own grief coupled

with poignant diminishing of the ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ theme an abridgement of the film’s

pathos. His performance in the number embodies the homeland, represented as spiritually

significant to the diaspora in his and Naina’s love for each other, even as the actual

physical connection wanes, leaving Naina and Rohit to go forward in wedded, diasporic

bliss. Thus the love story is, as love stories often are in musicals, a vehicle for wider issues,

such as the relationship between India and its ever-expanding diaspora.

Jyotika Virdi further discusses the evolution of love stories within Bollywood as a

reflection of India’s changing values and sense of nationalism (2003, 178–204). K3G

depicts a more traditional love story where Rahul, the adopted rich son, marries the lower

class Anjali against the wishes of his father. Shunned and ostracized by the family

patriarch, Rahul and Anjali relocate to Britain where they are later found by Rahul’s

younger brother Rohan, who convinces their father to relent and forgive, thus reuniting the

family back in India. The tale of the lovers here firmly situates the movie within ‘Hindi

cinema’s imaginative world [where] the NRI belongs to a uniformly prosperous class of

Indians . . . whose emotional dislocation can be recentered through a sense of national

belonging’ (202). Love here both begins and is affirmed in India, while life in Britain,

depicted against a background of vibrant and passionate patriotic Indian songs and

sequences, is seen to be ‘missing something’. The romance in KHNH on the other hand

occurs within the diaspora, between the diasporic children, with India, as represented by

Aman, acting as the conduit for the romance but ultimately, as reflected by the movie’s

title song, fading into the background. Romance thus plays a central role in signifying

Bollywood’s shifting perception and representation of the diaspora. The remainder of this

paper discusses how the musical numbers function to articulate the central and perennial

316 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

theme of love and also act as the vehicle for negotiating the complex diasporic and

homeland imaginary.

In examining Bollywood as a musical genre, we propose three broad categories. While

neither definitive nor precise, these categories, ‘Dancing in the Diaspora’, ‘Cultural

Crossings: Nightclubs and Festivals’ and ‘Kitsching the Stereotypes’ offer an analysis of three

different song and dance techniques, common to Bollywood, which elaborate the diaspora.

Dancing in the diaspora

Many Bollywood films make full, explicit use of song and dance to describe the actual

journey into diasporic space: the space of imagination is thus amplified across national

borders. These musical numbers reconstruct imagined space across the divide, utilizing

markers of international topography, but reorganizing overseas societies into a chorus for

diasporic spectacle. As Mishra indicates:

Diaspora consciousness is now internal to spectatorial desire within India, and essential too to Bombay Cinema’s new global aesthetics, [ . . . ] a study of Bombay Cinema will no longer be complete without a theory of diasporic desire because this cinema is now global in a specifically diasporic sense. (2002, 269)

How this desire is realized in song and dance is accordingly key to such a study.

K3G, for example, includes the number ‘Vande Mataram’ in which the younger son,

Rohan, raised in the homeland, travels to London to find his ostracized brother, Rahul. The

number is based around the patriotic Indian song, lending significant resonance to its use

in introducing Britain’s capital.9 It is not shown performed physically, although the

characters are conscious of it to the extent that they visibly move in time to its rhythms.

Such use gives the song an omniscient aural presence: its manufacture not manifested even

as it dictates the camera and performers’ movement. Opening on the first chords with an

aerial montage of London, the song immediately reinforces this omniscience as a

nationalistic Indian consciousness ‘overshadowing’ the filmed landscape of London and,

on a more immediate narrative level, signals Rohan’s arrival, scoring his role as loyal

advocate of the homeland and the values it represents.

Several female choruses accompany Rohan as he travels through the city, from

ethnically Indian women in national costume performing a traditional dance at Leicester

Square, Rohan joining in, to multi-ethnic women in mini-dresses, coordinated to

reproduce the colours of India’s flag, performing a catwalk stride behind Rohan across one

of the Thames’s bridges in a contemporary inflection of Indian nationhood. Rohan engages

freely and ambassadorially with the locals, greeting babies and sharing ice cream with

elderly ladies. The effect, overall, is to assert Rohan’s Indianness over diasporic space,

re-imagining London as a diasporic spectacle with its multiple, desirable female choruses

of Indian diversity to endorse and embrace him.

As Rohan searches for his brother, the score fades from a fiercely patriotic ‘Vande

Mataram’ to a gentler, but equally patriotic, ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’. The visuals

coordinate, merging into the montage of Rahul’s affluent diasporic home life, progressing

to a close up of Anjali, Rahul’s wife and the cause of his ostracism, singing this traditional

Indian song as part of her morning prayer ritual. That she herself is shown in the act of

performance returns the film from its omniscient point of view back to the domestic

diasporic scene where Anjali is herself maintaining the customs of the homeland. Anjali,

whose frustration and longing for ‘home’ the diaspora can identify with, struggles to

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 317

preserve her Indian culture, despite her family’s Western lifestyle. Therefore, while one

uses songs to imagine life in the homeland, the other imagines life abroad, thus engaging in

a constant negotiation of identity, these numbers a junction at which the two collude. This

negotiation of identity can be seen in the different ways in which the diaspora is represented,

from the romanticization evidenced in K3G, to the more troubled occurrences in KHNH.

KHNH breaks with India’s colonial past by establishing its story entirely in New York,

which stands as the new destination for emigrating Indians.10 The film opens with a

montage, accompanied by a brisk, initially Western soundtrack, of the fast-paced streets of

Manhattan, Naina’s voiceover emphasizing the large Indian population that inhabits the

skyscrapers and surrounding boroughs, effectively announcing the introduction of an

Indian influence on the score and the globalized diaspora. Nonetheless, Naina is part of a

‘broken’ diasporic family. Her father committed suicide and the only man remaining in the

family is Naina’s young brother. In the absence of patriarchy traditional to Indian family

values, the family is troubled and while Naina has embraced the New York lifestyle, she is

from the outset aware that New York has not shown her how to love, that requisite

emotional impulse imperative to the construction of family life. As Naina has learned

independence living in New York, so isKHNH as a Bollywood film developing independence

from what Mishra observes as ‘the timeless dharmik values’ traditionally accepted in

Bollywood films (2002, 267).

As Rick Altman has argued, musicals operate on a dual-focus model in which a pair

of lovers represent binary opposites: ‘This dual-focus structure requires the viewer to be

sensitive not so much to chronology and progression – for the outcome of the male/female

match is entirely conventional and thus quite predictable – but to simultaneity and

comparison’ (1981, 200). Often in Bollywood, the lovers represent the opposition of

tradition and modernity, reconciling the two in their romantic denouement, which is

inevitably happy and stands for wider communal reconciliation.11 In KHNH, Naina and

Rohit represent the binary opposites of the global diasporic experience in a simultaneous

performance of the same. Where Naina’s family is broken, with conflict between tradition

and modernity, and economic and emotional pressure, Rohit’s family is complete:

cheerfully, ingenuously blending tradition with modernity, they are wealthy, self-

confident and self-adjusted within their globalized imagined community. The couple, in

fact, represent in Rohit the desired diasporic experience, and in Naina what is often the

maladjustment of diasporic experience. These two opposites are brought together through

Aman, India’s ambassador. Aman loves Naina and Naina loves Aman. Aman thus appears

to act as a feature of an alternative dual-focus model, one comparing the homeland to its

diaspora. Aman, however, is dying, and thus cannot achieve the reconciliation of the

diaspora. It is the union of Naina and Rohit that must reconstruct fractures in the imagined

community, resolving the conflict between the desires projected upon the diaspora and the

diaspora’s own particular desires borne of real experience.

There is also a comic subplot of a suspected homosexual love affair between Aman

and Rohit, with Rohit’s housekeeper constantly walking in on the two men in situations

easily misinterpreted. The inclusion of this subplot acts as a counterpoint to the

tradition/modernity binary, suggesting instead a diaspora-modernity/Bollywood-moder-

nity reading, and serves to function as an indication of Bollywood’s (and hence India’s)

cosmopolitanism. However, the movie is careful to restrict this within a comedic context

so as not to disturb its adherence to traditional cultural values. Indeed, as Gayatri Gopinath

argues, Bollywood ‘can afford such a transparent rendering of [same-sex] desire precisely

318 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

because it remains so thoroughly convinced of the hegemonic power of its own

heterosexuality’ (2003, 274). Therefore, even as India, through the vehicle of Bollywood,

reaches out to its diaspora with a greater sense of recognition, inclusion and shared

identity, traditional values and storylines are still asserted as the norm.

As Jane Feuer notes: ‘The dream is the catalyst of falling in love in the real world’

(1993, 75). ‘Kuch To Hua Hai’, performed in KHNH, opens with to-camera pieces by

various diasporic characters on what love is, reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s 1989 movie

When Harry Met Sally (a film also set in New York that used popular standards to musical

effect). The song itself is actively performed by Naina and Rohit; they explicitly vocalize

the song, dancing through and utterly transforming New York into an imagined space

articulating the joy of falling in love. Throughout the number the lovers are shown in

simultaneous, parallel scenes that are cut together, only occasionally crossing paths, but

never actually meeting. As the song progresses, their infectious delight and music spills

over and suddenly everyone in New York is dancing with them. When a dancing Rohit first

bumps into a middle-aged businessman, the businessman responds negatively. Later in the

number he bumps into him again, but this time the businessman tosses aside his newspaper

and joins the dance. Just behind them is a self-referential sign, ‘world music and dance’,

underscoring the globalization of the imagined space itself with its blend of Bollywood

and contemporary New York romantic comedy, Hindi and American song and dance.

The number includes a tableau of teenage couples, gay couples, an elderly Chinese

couple with their ice cream, and two children blowing bubbles and kissing. The couples

illustrate the performance of love in the imagined diasporic space, contextualizing Rohit

and Naina’s. A bashful girl in traditional Indian attire is seen with her Anglo-American

beau tucking a flower into her hair in a suitably chaste romantic gesture. The pair offers an

alternative vision of the conjunction of traditional India with the contemporary globalized

city, a vision at once more extreme and at odds than the diasporic couple themselves,

who dress in matching New York fashions and exhibit matching freedom and openness of

movement. This sequence, representative of the movie itself, further demonstrates

Bollywood’s more flexible representation of the diaspora as part of a transnational and

globalized culture, rather than ‘internalising’ (and hence restricting) the diasporic subject

within strict traditional notions of ‘Indianness’ (Mishra 2002, 250).

Cultural crossings: Nightclubs and festivals

The use of contemporary pop/nightclub music and dancing in Bollywood indicates an

attempt to demonstrate contemporary India to the diasporic audience. Mishra argues that this

incorporation is ‘as much a response to diasporic demands as it is to a transnational urban

culture within India itself’ (2002, 262). In the imagined nightclub spaces, Bollywood asserts

itself in the diaspora’s imagination as a present-day phenomenon, not simply a traditional

one. It is also evidence of Bollywood’s patterns of cultural absorption, taking something

foreign and making it particularly Indian. Numbers in bothK3G and KHNH occur in London

and Manhattan nightclubs, respectively, beginning with short, Western introductions

that embed them in the global music scene, before evolving into a more distinctive,

contemporary Indian sound. The nightclub dancers, regardless of race or nationality,

unhesitatingly enact the staged choreography typical of Bollywood. Within the imagined

space, there is no incongruity in British or American night-clubbers being able to

spontaneously adopt Bollywood choreography, underlining Bollywood’s ability to compete

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 319

with global pop music and for diasporic communities to extend Bollywood’s parameters

even beyond the limits of the films and traditional Indian and diasporic lifestyles.

This rupturing of the traditional limits of Bollywood is particularly signified in the

shattering of previous stereotypes of behaviour for ‘good’ Indian girls as it affects the

heroines. Cullity and Younger suggest that the:

good girl–bad girl binary, essential to Hindi films and other aspects of Indian popular culture in the post-Independence period, was a principal means of reproducing the Home–World distinction. By erasing this distinction, perhaps inadvertently, MTV images thus work to dismantle a key element of earlier versions of nationalist patriarchy. (2004, 105)

This can clearly be seen in KHNH’s ‘It’s the Time to Disco’, as Naina not only gets drunk

but also dances seductively with fellow night-clubbers. While Rohit protests at her

undressing – she removes her jacket – Aman dismisses his objections by pointing out the

scantily clad patrons, asserting that she blends in, thus removing her distinctiveness as

Indian and, especially, an Indian ‘girl’ prescribed by binary conditions. Mishra recognizes

the particular ability of diasporic sexuality to renegotiate, observing that ‘the dharmik

sexual ethics that underpins Bombay Cinema may undergo a “regulated transgression”

provided that the transgressor is not directly (or organically) linked to the culture’ (2002,

267). In the nightclub scene, Naina not only undergoes this ‘regulated transgression’ but

by undressing and joining her fellow patrons she also marks herself out as a part of the

diaspora, not the homeland. In K3G, the sexually assertive Poo is likewise excused for her

transgression on the basis of her diasporic status, and is gradually seen to become more

‘Indian’ in the traditional sense as the movie progresses back towards the homeland.

As Mishra observes, these songs, ‘although still primarily nondiegetic, can have both

a synecdochic significance in terms of narrative structure and a global significance in

terms of “high-tech audiovisual” internationalism’ (263). ‘You Are My Sonia’, the

nightclub scene in K3G, tends to conform to the basic structure of the other numbers in the

movie, the film itself offering a consistent approach to song and dance that emphasizes

the continuity between India and its diaspora through the use of convention. Despite its

distinctive setting, the camera angles and choreography are therefore similar to previous

numbers such as ‘Say Shava Shava’, and while Poo and Rohan’s costumes conform to

those of other clubbers, Poo’s behaviour itself is not overtly transgressive. She is simply a

good girl in a mini-skirt, flirtatious, but not suggestive. On the other hand, ‘It’s the Time

to Disco’ in KHNH markedly emulates MTV style with its sharp cuts and risqué

depictions of women and dance, revealing that not only can Bollywood be cosmopolitan

but also that a heroine can be something in between the good and bad girl.

As Mishra argues: ‘Here then is a double specularity. The diaspora sees in Western

modern dance forms a lack that it wants desperately to correct. Bombay Cinema in turn plays

on this lack and supplies it’ (262). This in turn resonates with the idea of a doubly imagined

community. InK3G the nightclub is imagined into Bollywood, whereas in KHNHwe instead

see Bollywood present in the nightclub. Mishra’s argument can be further expanded to suggest

that it is not only in Western contemporary dance that the diaspora feels something missing.

Just as Naina does not conform to traditional prescriptions of a ‘good girl’, neither is she

fulfilled by her night out clubbing and continues to struggle to find emotional wholeness

beyond the bounds of Manhattan life. As Bollywood movies become increasingly slick and

stylish in their presentation, Kaur reminds us that the diasporic audiences need feel ‘neither

shame of their motherland’s poverty nor guilt about their own comparative riches’, while at

320 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

the same time ‘they can claim moral superiority over their Western counterparts by

emphasising family values, commitment and traditional oriental warmth’ (2002, 208). ‘It’s

the Time to Disco’ actively engages with this simultaneity. Naina at first refuses to dance or

drink, maintaining her moral high ground, but when accused of being a ‘bore’, she instantly

downs a shot and literally stops the film’s score by insulting and dismissing the Western

dancers and music, restarting it as she leads the nightclub in a contemporary Bollywood

number. She takes the lyric that she should feel no shyness – or indeed shame – in moving to

thatmusic’s beat. By transforming the nightclub into a slick celebration of Bollywood, Naina

is thus able to reconcile former shame or shyness with her traditional morality in an act of

‘double specularity’.

Bollywood’s ability to create imagined space can also conduct a connection back to

traditional Indian forms, especially through festive numbers. Where nightclub scenes

reaffirm India’s modernity and enable a reaching out to a contemporary diaspora, the

festive numbers can be seen as virtually their opposite, the reminders of India’s rich

cultural heritage. In both films the final songs are festive events, riots of colour and

movement, which contain far more traditional elements as distinguished from the

nightclub scenes. These numbers also tend to feature events that celebrate and reiterate a

sense of communal culture and tradition. In K3G, which of the two movies contains

considerably more festive spaces as reflects its tendency to reconfirm the India–diaspora

connection, the numbers perform the patriarch’s birthday, ‘Say Shava Shava’, a wedding,

‘Yeh Ladka Hai Allah’, and a festival, ‘Bole Chudiyan’, while KHNH celebrates an

engagement, ‘Maahi Ve’. These, as Mishra argues, are songs which ‘can be taken out of

the film and repackaged for use at weddings both at home and the diaspora’ (2002, 262).

They resonate particularly with the diasporic audiences because of their traditional Indian

emphasis, and ‘forthrightly confirms through the space of the elaborate Hindu wedding the

ultimate longing (as Bombay Cinema sees it) of the diaspora’ (Mishra 2002, 262).

It is particularly significant that, as in K3G, KHNH’s festive number occurs towards

the end, rebuilding Indian tradition in the diaspora. ‘Maahi Ve’, in which Aman

orchestrates the singing and dancing, is visually and lyrically traditional. It encapsulates a

progression from the diaspora’s Western isolation to its reconnection to India. It starts off

with a very Western beat, incorporating a saxophone, and ends in an exuberant traditional

Punjabi dance, suggesting the reconstruction of communal identity achieved by the

musical genre through its diverse elements, an identity still traditional but altered by its

host. Thus as Aman’s energetic performance exhausts him and he collapses, falling in slow

motion to the ground amid the swirling dancers, he simulates the gradual decline of ‘pure’

Indian tradition in the imagined community. This is in contrast to the scene at the end of

‘Bole Chudiyan’ in K3G, where the brothers’ embrace establishes a connection that is felt

by their mother back home, thus uniting the diaspora with India.

Kitsching the stereotypes

In KHNH, ‘Pretty Woman’ is a musical pastiche. Nayar argues that Bollywood appeals to

orality, a form that cannot sustain the sophistication of more literate enterprises: ‘orally

inscribed narrative – and this includes Bombay cinema – often has the feeling of being

piecemeal and disaggregative, of being coarsely stitched together. It is pastiche – but quite

without the postmodern self-consciousness’ (2004, online). However, as KHNH shows,

there is an overt self-consciousness, a complex awareness of how the pastiche fits together,

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 321

that illuminates the stereotypes of the imagined community by throwing an ever brighter

light upon them in an exercise of self-referential mocking: ‘winking’ at the perceived

stereotype by effectively bolstering it within imagined space, thus highlighting that the

stereotype is not real.

‘Pretty Woman’, a 1964 hit by Roy Orbison, was revived as the theme for the 1990 film

Pretty Woman, a Pygmalion-based fairytale in which a New York prostitute is groomed for

a place in society by a wealthy corporate executive. The Pygmalion theme carries through

toKHNH. The song’s transference between the films carries with it pertinent signification – it

stands for the New York fairytale, however strangely and problematically grounded that

fairytale is, with its underlying discourses on sexual exploitation and, indeed, the

commodification of sex and sexual attraction. In KHNH, as ‘Pretty Woman’ opens, Naina

is revealed studying for her MBA and is concerned largely with economic matters,

including those of her family’s business. Her grandmother, though, is actively engaged

in the marriage market on Naina’s unwilling behalf, presenting her with a choice of

husbands. Naina is already problematized as a symbol of economic and marital exchange.

When she appears at the window just before the number starts, she actively disdains the

potential lover down on the street, retreating to her books on the market economy. In this

New York fairytale the presentation of Naina is, like that of women on MTV in India, as

Cullity and Younger argue, ‘a challenge to the discourses of purity, patrilineality, and

authenticity that characterize older nationalist constructions of the “home”’ (2004, 99).

This presentation of Naina is contrasted with that of her grandmother, who dreams

that New York will become part of Punjab, effectively recalling the ‘older nationalist

constructions’. Prior to ‘Pretty Woman’, the grandmother and her two friends sing to their

goddess, performing with traditional Indian instruments, but their song is reduced both on

the soundtrack and in the narrative to noise, an ear-splitting invasion of the traditional into

globalized space. The local community members all count down to the moment when this

noise begins, building anticipation and, in retrospect, tension. The film cuts to a variety of

youthful multi-ethnic groupings, each one containing members of the Indian diaspora as

well as other ethnic groups, putting on ear muffs to muffle out the sound. The traditional

Indian song threatens the imagined spaces of the diaspora, which are based on an

assimilation or pastiche of musical styles rather than on authentic, ‘pure’ reproduction of

homeland customs. Thus the grandmother’s song is not only bad in performance but is

rejected for evincing a clinging to pure tradition.12

This disruption in the diasporic community is used as a vehicle to the ‘Pretty Woman’

number. It is a summer weekend and the street is filled with children playing and older

members of the community recreating in the sunshine. The grandmother’s song, which

rudely intrudes upon this idyllic, American suburban scene, is in turn interrupted by Aman

who playfully addresses the grandmother and her friends as Jennifer Lopez and The Spice

Girls, instantly, ironically re-contextualizing them in the genre of Western pop. He asks,

on behalf of Sawaswati,13 that they do not sing anymore and asserts that the local multi-

ethnic youth ‘will lose faith in music’. Faith, music, even love intersect at this moment

in the careful balance of the diasporic imagined space. Music, however, becomes the

dominant discourse for describing diasporic tensions, carefully eliding more overtly

contentious political, religious and marital concerns.

Aman consequently performs ‘Pretty Woman’, but he does not perform the recognized

Roy Orbison version. Instead, he performs an ‘Indianized’ version that is a pastiche of

contemporary MTV and traditional Indian sounds and movements. As authentic Indian

322 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

song is disdained, neither is pure Western pop promoted. The drive in the soundtrack is

always towards pastiche. This is signalled from the soft introduction in which Aman asks

‘Is she a bud? A ray? Or a part of a legend?’ This is clearly different to the Orbison lyrics

and in keeping with the poetry of Bollywood lyrics. Yet Aman also breaks into the

recognizable Orbison melody, which asserts itself through the number as a diasporic

mantra, complete with Hindi translation and typical Bollywood choreography, while also

incorporating rap and other musical styles.14 The sitar and tabla mix with guitars, just as

Bollywood dance steps synthesize with rhythmic gymnastics and breakdancing, and Hindi

colours and motifs blend across the oversized American flags and Cadillacs.

The number is not truly celebrating American patriotism among the diaspora but instead

reviews its meaning through a playful punning of MTV patriotism. As Mishra suggests, it is

not about the diaspora identifying with this brand of patriotism. The diasporic audience

is more likely to cringe at the brazen American flags and gospel choirs. However, by

highlighting the stereotypes of this patriotism, the song deconstructs them. Mishra argues:

‘identification is not what diasporic cinema works toward since identification means

embracing, in some sense, the stereotype [ . . . ] It precludes identification because it

functions as a critique and, in some ways, as a consciously crafted consciousness-raising

critique’ (2002, 242–3). That the number eventually includes a dancing Sikh cab driver

signals not ‘a stereotype too far’ but critiques how NRIs are perceived, not how they really

are. By removing the stereotypes to the musical number – to imagined space – the critique

can more properly occur without risking appearing realistic. The musical’s imagined space

therefore allows the stereotypes to be elaborated and rejected, just as Naina at the conclusion

rejects Aman’s performance. A member of the diaspora, she sensibly recognizes that it is all

nonsense and isn’t real.

The intersection of such musical and visual signifiers is endemic of diasporic

performance. ‘Pretty Woman’ draws not simply upon the folk traditions of India but upon

the folk traditions of the contested territory on which it exists, as represented by the

flamboyant gospel choir as well as the patriotic MTV styles of Madonna and Bruce

Springsteen, who have both used backdrops of the American flag in their music videos.

As Feuer notes, in such numbers the musical styles and rhetoric of these folk communities

are blended not to suggest a selling out to mass entertainment and the Hollywood global

cinema but to suggest the folk styles that exist and jockey for attention in the community,

in effect rejecting the idea of mass entertainment:

Through such a rhetorical exchange, the creation of folk relations in the films cancels the mass entertainment substance of the films. The Hollywood musical becomes a mass art which aspires to the condition of a folk art, produced and consumed by the same integrated community. (Feuer 1993, 3, emphasis in original)

‘Pretty Woman’ becomes mass art, drawing upon the music and performances of

subcultures, folk cultures and diasporic cultures, reinforcing the globalized nature of the

imagined community.

Ostensibly, the number seems like ‘kitsch’ – bubbles in the air, people dancing in the

streets, fluttering American flags, Indian drums, gospel choirs – but the kitschy pastiche is

meant to be artificial: it is a conscious construction producing and projecting the folk, in

this case the diaspora, without being real. The audience can revel in the mass art while not

being forced to identify with it, since it occurs within imagined space. Mishra confirms:

‘Kitsch as a cinematic principle of the fake, the pastiche, drawing attention to its

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 323

artificiality and impurity, to its own “constructedness,” circumvents precisely the kinds of

identificatory subjectivity at work in realistic cinema’ (2002, 242). Aftab likewise supports

the view that, while imagined and artificial, Bollywood offers a vision that constructs and

critiques the diasporic experience without patronizing the diaspora: ‘In choosing to watch

Bollywood films, Asians may be endorsing a fantastical and caricatured popular genre, but

they can at least be reasonably sure that they are being catered to rather than condescended

to’ (2002, 95). The overblown imagery of ‘Pretty Woman’ is kitsch, but it is so obviously

artificial that it can be recognized as such, rather than as reality.

‘Deewana Hai Dekho’ in K3G likewise operates on a premise of artifice. The song

begins with an over-the-top ‘oh my gosh’ from a bevy of scantily glad British college girls

upon seeing Rohan’s red sports car. The number’s body-hugging female fashions, the

exuberant use of colour in clothing itself a feature of Bollywood stereotype, and the men’s

leather, sunglasses and fast cars, are brash and unrealistic for students. The fashion is as

sensationalist as the vague, kitschy representations of college life in Britain and, indeed,

the general diaspora, as the visions themselves seem to be confused with stereotyped

media images of American colleges when the scene shifts to a football arena complete

with sweating male athletes and giggling blonde cheerleaders. Poo, as she moves into the

frame with a comical ‘whatever’, acknowledges the superficiality even as she then leads

the same cheerleaders in a typical Bollywood routine. Any diasporic viewer would

likewise recognize the outlandish representations of British college life, those aspects of

‘artificiality and impurity’ identified by Mishra (2002, 242). Poo herself who, as with

Naina in KHNH, originally holds herself aloof from the performance but eventually

succumbs and engages in the fantasy, is ‘catered to’, as Aftab suggests, rather than

stereotyped by the representation of diasporic kitsch (2002, 95). Essentially, this is

histrionic pastiche in which the knowing gaze of the Bollywood viewer transforms the

stereotype itself into entertaining kitsch.


The imagined spaces are changing as the diaspora becomes not only more aware of itself

but also more confident in its ability to assert its identity in India’s imagination, even to the

extent of producing its own examples of Bollywood, such as Bride and Prejudice.

Ultimately, the imagined spaces of Bollywood provide a forum for critique and

negotiation for imagined communities who watch Bollywood to form a communal

connectivity and who in turn are represented in the films through the projected desires of

Indians. Media, in the form of Bollywood movies, and music, both within and extracted

from Bollywood, play a significant role in articulating these desires, connecting the

diaspora and the homeland, and engaging both in a process of imagining and re-imagining

the concept of India, identity and belonging. They create complex spaces in which diverse

concerns and representations are reconstructed in song and dance, conflicts resolved,

stereotypes celebrated and dismantled, tradition and independence reinscribed.


1. There are, of course, exceptions, and further debate upon the definitions of film musical could beg the inclusion of such films as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Footloose (1984), and MTV music clips. In recent film history, Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is a notable success as film musical, blending an MTV approach with an acknowledged Bollywood influence, and

324 K.-T. Kao and R.-A. Do Rozario

Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007) and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) evince a sense of the genre’s resurgence in 2007.

2. The terms ‘Bollywood’ and ‘Hindi cinema’ are often used interchangeably to refer to the Indian film industry. While ‘Bollywood’ refers specifically to the popular, commercial movies, ‘Hindi cinema’ encompasses Indian art house movies as well. For the purposes of this article, we will be using the former term, as we are working from the precepts of Hollywood musical and ‘Bollywood’ celebrates these.

3. Berkeley was one of the famous directors/choreographers of the era with films such as 42nd Street (1933). His signature style involved the large-scale production number, utilizing vast numbers of dancers and a range of innovative camera angles, particularly the use of the aerial shot.

4. While the global Indian diaspora had a long and rich history and is widely dispersed around the globe, for the purposes of this article we are primarily referring to what Vijay Mishra terms ‘the diaspora of late capital’, which describes ‘largely a post-1960s phenomenon distinguished by the movement of economic migrants (but also refugees) into the metropolitan centers of the former empire as well as the New World and Australia’ (2002, 235–6). This is not to suggest that older Indian diasporas do not consume Indian media or are not also caught up in negotiating questions of identity and culture. However, recent movies, such as those focused on in this article, depict and target the new diaspora, that which is relatively recent in formation, largely Western based and middle class in formation.

5. Sheila Nayar argues that the musical space functions to contain these spectacular fantasies which allow the expression of elements which may not typically be accepted by the conservative Indian movie-going public. She observes that: ‘Release and catharsis must be carefully contained, so that the collective experience can be pleasurable and – even as violence splatters or lasciviousness thrusts its way across the screen – moral at its core’ (1997, 84). Such elements are accepted because the musical numbers exist in a space beyond the movie’s central narrative, and it is also expected, as this is what has come to define the Bollywood genre.

6. See, for example, Vijay Mishra’s discussion of the use of Bollywood in the construction of identity in Mishra (2002, 235–69).

7. K3G, for example, uses Blenheim Palace as the location for Rohan and Poo’s college. The use of the well-known, eighteenth-century home of the Duke of Marlborough as a British college illustrates how British diasporic life is often imagined in very elaborate, aristocratic terms that would be recognized as fantastical by the British diaspora itself.

8. Nayar notes of its many audiences in countries as diverse as Nigeria and Slovakia, that

scholars have speculated (albeit often only in passing) as to why such disparate nations identify so intensely with these Hindi-language popular films – films which are, incidentally, frequently ridiculed by critics for their masala (‘spice-mix’) blend of tawdry escapism, formulaic storytelling, and narratively irrelevant song-and-dance numbers. (2004, online)

Nayar’s analysis, leaning on the orality of Hindi cinema, has a tendency to underestimate the sophistication of her subject’s ability to achieve quite a tremendous visual and aural spectacle of the imagination, one which generically transcends language and geographic space.

9. The patriotism of the Indian song played over scenes of the capital of the former colonizer is likewise ironic; a postcolonial, auditory re-drawing of cultural exchange and exploitation.

10. A point that is gently mocked through the character of Mr Kholi in Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004).

11. Nayar observes that

Parents may attempt initially to control their child’s independence by refusing to condone a marriage; but the son or daughter’s task is then to prove the parents wrong – to assist them, either directly or indirectly, in obtaining moral enlightenment: that judgement on the basis of economic inequality is flawed, that love must conquer all. (1997, 85)

This point is played out in both K3G, with Rahul’s marriage to poor, lower class Anjali against the wishes of his tradition-bound father, as well as in KHNH, when it is Naina’s impending marriage to Rohit that triggers conciliation between her mother and grandmother.

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 325

12. Aman cheerfully refers to the grandmother as a silly old hag, playing on the stereotype of the older Indian matriarch who clings to traditional values and refuses to ‘assimilate’ or ‘move with the times’.

13. Thus even while seeming ostensibly to reject tradition, the Indian Aman speaks on its behalf. 14. Naina is, of course, the ‘pretty woman’, though Aman cheerfully denies this. The song can be

interpreted as a mantra to who she could be – both Western and Indian simultaneously, an amalgam of the two without needing to feel that being one necessarily means being less.

Notes on contributors

Kai-Ti Kao is a current PhD candidate in the School of Media Communication and Culture at Murdoch University. Her research examines the discourses of development policies in relation to communication technologies in Southeast Asia.

Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario teaches fantasy and children’s literature at Monash University. She has published on areas including musical theatre, fairy tale and children’s fiction.


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