My Kitsch is Their Cool

From masala to Bollywood films, Indian culture has made its mark on American life. But what really crosses over?

By Sandip Roy Jun 30, 2009

I remember the age of the underwear-smugglers.
When I left India almost two decades ago to come to America, my mother folded every spice I could possibly need into my underwear. Turmeric, cumin, little green pods of cardamom—all packed carefully between layers of underwear, socks and computer science textbooks. I wasn’t the only one. I’ve met Indians who smuggled in mangos, homemade pickles and ready-to-fry puris stuffed with peas. In those days before 9/11, customs officials were not very interested in me—a young, single, brown man from a turbulent part of the world. They (and their sniffing dogs) were much more preoccupied with middle-aged Indian women visiting their sons. They were rifling through their luggage, searching for contraband mangos and gourds.

Fast-forward 20 years.

My friends and I wander out of an Indian movie theater in Fremont on a mellow California evening. The latest Bollywood release opened here the same day it did in Mumbai. At intermission (for Bollywood films must have an intermission), you can get samosas and chaat along with your popcorn and soda. We go shopping at an Indian market off the main drag. It’s Sunday evening. All the shops in the strip mall are closed except for this one. Lit by unflattering fluorescent lights, its shelves are piled high with all kinds of things—lentils, ready-to-cook packages of saag paneer, ayurvedic hair ointments, even the chocolate Bourbon biscuits (no real bourbon in them) that I remember from my childhood in India. Then we squabble over which Indian restaurant to go to for dinner.  Do we want North Indian? South Indian? We settle for a buffet with both.

What happened?

Well, we did. There are now 2.57 million Indians in the United States, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. That makes it one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. Indians are well-off, generally. Median family income is over $69,000. Indians are educated, for the most part. Seventy-six percent have at least a college degree. The post-1965 immigrant boom, which resulted from a drastic change in U.S. laws about who could come into the country, was followed by the dot-com boom. In her novel The Tree Bride, Bharati Mukherjee describes how “an immigrant fog of South Asians crept into America.” When the chronicle of Silicon Valley is written by some 21st century F. Scott Fitzgerald, it might well be called, she writes, “The Great Gupta.”

India is everywhere. It’s in Booker Prize lists, spelling bees and specially-for-you nuclear deals. It’s in Sukhi’s homecooked chicken tikka masala paste at Whole Foods. It’s in Bhangra aerobics classes and Britney remixes. Newsweek called South Asians the “new American masala.” Five hundred years after Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered Indians, we are truly found.

And I am not sure how I feel about that.

When I first came to the U.S., Americans asked me about that “dot on the forehead.” Now, Madonna wears a bindi. Bollywood borrows Hollywood plotlines (well, two or three for one three-hour film). Now, the Kronos Quartet reinterprets Bollywood composer R.D. Burman. Birthday cards are reproducing old kitschy Indian matchbox covers. Body-hugging T-shirts worn by gay guys in the Castro say “San Francisco” in Devnagari script. There are even Bollywood appreciation classes at universities. My kitsch has become their cool.

Of course, not everything has been alchemized into cool. My big, fat Indian wedding might be hot (“I want one,” a gay man with a Southern accent told me at my neighborhood lesbian bar while sipping a sweet cocktail), but it doesn’t mean the Indian cabdriver, the 7/11 clerk or the Gujarati storeowner are any more acceptable.

Our Krishnas and curries are now public property to be sampled, remixed, chewed up and spat out as millions of cookie-cutter lunch boxes. (Probably Made in China)

It almost makes me nostalgic for the old days when people came up to me and said, “You are from Calcutta? My doctor is Indian. Dr. Harry Patel. I think he’s from that other big city—Bombay?” And they would pause expectantly, as if waiting for me to recognize Dr. Patel. Now, they want to know what restaurant I would recommend in the Bay Area for “authentic Indian food, you know, a hole-in-the-wall place where Indians go, not your white-people-Maharaja-Thali stuff.”

And I am wondering, do I want to tell you?

But it’s too late. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, in streets that still smell of piss, where homeless men shuffle around at the street corner, the clutch of Indian and Pakistani restaurants is brimming with hipsters. There are at least half a dozen Indian restaurants within a couple of blocks. Shalimar was the original hole-in-the-wall, in a rundown neighborhood of junkies and musty SROs. It started out as a place where cabbies could run in for a quick bite. Nothing fancy, no tablecloths, just a bustling kitchen and tandoori chickens turning on the spit. Now, the homeless man standing outside trying to sell a street newspaper greets me with a “Namaste.”

Isn’t this what we always wanted? Isn’t this what we demanded? For other Americans to understand our culture? Acceptance? A place at the table? I guess we didn’t fully realize we could also become part of the menu.

Fifty years ago, my parents emigrated to England by ship. My mother pretended to the fishmonger that she had a cat, so she could take fish heads home for a good Bengali fish-head curry. When I moved to the United States three decades later, she told me stories of how afraid they were to cook fish in their apartment, in case the smell upset the Polish landlady.

At my university in the flat plains of Illinois, we also learned that we had a private culture and a public culture. In the grad student apartments, where many of the Indians shared rooms, we could have our tape players on blaring tinny Bollywood songs and watch streaky, pirated copies of Hindi films, while giant pots of communal dal and rice and curry bubbled on the stove. But in public, we learned to leave that culture at home. Boys didn’t hold hands on the street like they did in India, we were told. At the department potlucks, we held back on the spices. On Diwali, we didn’t have any celebration in the department, even though half the teaching assistants were Indian. Being Indian was for after work. Then we could finally let our guard down and just breathe.

No more. My private culture has become public. At a recent film festival in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, the theater was packed for Bollywood night. And the audience was very mixed. “Some screenings are 60- to 70-percent white,” Ivan Jaigirdar, festival director for 3rd I’s South Asian International Film Festival, told me once. “Especially the Bollywood films.”

I could see that. My friends and I were cringing even as we were having a grand time. It was a strangely protective feeling. Even as we laughed and rolled our eyes at the excess of it all, we stiffened when we heard the blonde woman behind us sniggering. I was thrilled that this candy-color, emotionally charged melodrama was leaping across cultures and entertaining a diverse audience. But the nagging doubt remains—what really does cross over?

Gaudy and outlandish as they can be, Bollywood films are also an intravenous cultural drip for me. I relate to them somewhere deep inside in a way I, myself, cannot put a finger on. I remember standing in my living room in San Francisco watching an old Hindi movie with my best friend. We oohed and aahed as tragic diva Meena Kumari slowly raised her head, as if the weight of all that gold and brocade was crushing her.

My American friends laughed with us then and at us as we stood in our T-shirts and jeans singing Hindi love songs of indescribable pathos in shrill falsettos, towels draped around our faces like veils. We all laughed together. But my American friends had no idea how we longed in our flat-footed way for Meena Kumari’s languid grace, how we tried to line our eyes with hopeless tragedy. And knowing we could never get there, we butchered it all by shrill impersonation, hiding our longing with caricature.

Bollywood is so visually overpowering, so defiant of logic in its Technicolor splendor, that it’s just too easy to get caught up in the spoofiness of it all. On-screen, Shah Rukh Khan’s face is quivering with emotion. The blonde woman behind me is chuckling at everything—the painful buffoonery of the comic relief, the little kid with the stagy lines, the syrupy romantic scenes where thundershowers and shooting stars appear on cue. The camp crosses over. The heart stays behind, lost in the subtitles.

The clock is pushing 1:00 a.m., and the blonde can’t believe the movie is still going strong. As one more hurdle shows up before the lovers can reunite, someone groans, “We will be here all night.” Those not used to Bollywood don’t know it’s like running a marathon. After all their knee-slapping hysterics in the first hour, they are now petering out in the final stretch. They are eyeing the exit sign, wondering how long the queue is at the restroom. They are glancing at their watches. They are laughing less.

And I feel a sweet sensation.

As they stagger out of the theater, clutching their heads, looking like they got off a non-stop flight from Mumbai to San Francisco, sick from all the popcorn they devoured, I can’t help thinking somehow, in its own way, Bollywood has had the last laugh. 

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show “New America Now” on KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. This essay was commissioned by The San Francisco Foundation and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund through support from The Wallace Foundation. It was first published as “Dawning of the Age of ‘a Curry and Us,’” on The San Francisco Foundation website in 2009 at