Michael Jackson, the ‘king of pop’ was today finally laid to rest, 10 weeks after his death. Michael Jackson was easily the biggest global entertainer ever. Through the 80s and 90s he enjoyed unfathomable levels of popularity across the globe and India was no exception. Thinking of MJ got me thinking of impact of western culture & entertainment on Indians, and it suddenly dawned on me that MJ was perhaps the last English superstar in India.
English music made major inroads into Indian life and culture in the early 90s, with the arrival of cable TV and MTV. India then was a small player on the global scene and Indians as such were nowhere near as prominent on the world stage as today. So copying the west was pretty much the norm in all walks of life. In arts, lifestyle and music; what was cool for the west was cool in India. Indian artists were rapidly losing mind share to Michael Jackson, Madonna and many other English artists. MJ’s popularity in particular was quite astonishing as not one Indian could decipher or comprehend his lyrics. So in school we just went “Dhan Dhan Dhan..Dhan Dhan… I am Bad I am Bad.” and that was good enough for us to think that Bad was a super album from MJ.
However around the year 2000 things started changing. India emerged as a software power, urban Indians had some extra cash in their pockets and Indians for the 1st time felt that they were better at some things than the rest of the world. This had a rather strange effect. Indians now started questioning the ways of the west.Instead of blindly listening the English music as that was the cool or the in thing, we actually started thinking if we really liked it. Instead of directly adopting food served by McDonald’s or Domino’s, we started questioning if we really liked it. The answers were soon pretty obvious and the mad rush towards all things American slowed down drastically and almost stopped around 2004-05.
So MTV which earlier only played English music all day, now plays English music for only a couple of hours a day. McDonalds and Dominos only serve Indian versions of their burgers and pizzas, food that’s nothing like what they serve in the US.
Today Indians not only patronize and promote Indian movies and music they actually look down upon artists who seem to be copying the west. Good ideas are picked up from western culture and entertainment but they no longer are blindly copied. I can’t think of any western music or movie star whose popularity in India can even be compared with the likes of Indian stars like Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan.
While the rapid growth of the Indian economy was the primary reasons for the change, the Indian entertainment industry also deserves credit for sticking with what it was best at. Fortunately they did not give up on Indian style of cinema, and the audience slowly but surely came back to them.
So while English movies and music were considered a threat to the indigenous entertainment industry until 5 years back. English music & movies are nowhere near being serious competition today. The trend might have actually reversed. Slumdog Millionaire which is a true blue Bollywood style masala movie was a mega hit in the west. Many Indians liked the movie but most felt like they had seen 20 similar movies before.
Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest name in the Indian industry today and I am nowhere near being an SRK fan. However I was recently in the US for a couple of weeks and on the flight back home I was amazed at my reaction to an SRK movie. Not just did I find the SRK movie ‘Billu Barber’ refreshing but it also seemed like a cure for the monotony and homogeneity of the US. Indian cinema is crazy, absurd and wild. I can now understand why Indians in the US and elsewhere are so fond of Hindi movies. In the seemingly dry Western lives, Indian entertainment comes as a breath of fresh air.
Taking my point further, not only have Indians gone back to home grown Indian entertainment but even the regional language music and arts are now thriving again. Although Hindi is the national language of India, most in India, especially in the South do not speak Hindi as their mother tongue. These people are now even dumping Hindi entertainment and going back to their local language and entertainment. My conclusion is that it is all about self-confidence. Insecure and poor masses look outwards while the secure and prosperous take what’s really close their heart.
In all this, I am not suggesting that western entertainment or food is not as good as Indian. It is not about quality but about culture and connect. Coming back to my starting point, I do think that Michael Jackson was the last English mega star in India at least for sometime to come. It’s sad that someone who gave so much joy to so many, himself had a pretty miserable existance. Rest In Peace MJ.