Indians, particularly Hindus, are increasingly becoming the target of racist attacks in a number of western countries. This is partly due to the one dimensional portrayal by the media of Prime Minister Modi, the BJP and Hindutva, particularly as India is becoming more unavoidably central to the global narrative. But also responsible is the portrayal over the decades of Indians in the films and serials produced by in the US and UK. There is a terrible lack of nuance, mostly out of ignorance, that has created a stereotype accepted by the common person in those countries. For instance, the Koothrapally character in the Big Bang Theory is constructed almost entirely out of the wrongly perceived and outdated notions of how Indians are. The name is South Indian, the parents are very Punjabi, while the knowledge of Indian society and Hinduism is utterly superficial. In another recent British show, Bridgerton, which is an attempt to create an ‘alternative’ racial history and ‘colour blind’ spin, the entire effort is wasted owing to the lack of informed nuance.
All of this ‘knowledge’ is picked up from cursory viewing of Bollywood movies – so Indians are seen as either utterly poor or stinking rich, spending their time dancing and singing at weddings. It was this perception that led to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada landing up in India with his family dressed up in what could only be described as ‘wedding finery’. One reason for this is that people in the present day do not need to travel to ‘learn’ about other cultures, as they had to earlier. It is picked up from the mish-mash contained in entertainment streamed over the many OTT platforms. People to people contact seems to have decreased over the years, further strengthening the stereotypes.
India’s soft power needs to grow beyond the usual Bollywood fare. The government has a role to play in this by promoting genuine narratives in the way various interest groups do to demean India. In any part of the world, there are people with empathy who should be provided the means and opportunity to experience India more closely. In fact, the more open-minded journalists, writers, film and documentary makers, research scholars of even otherwise hostile nations like Pakistan and China should be given a passage to India, which is bound to change their perceptions. And, vice-versa, modern day ‘influencers’ from India should be provided the means to go out and impress the world. The world is in need of a better understanding of this ancient civilisation.