Bollywood Cinema brings together the sweetness of love and happy memories and the unsettling social realities of our times blending together dichotomies like Gulab Jamun or Gajar Ka Halwa, with opposites like Aam Ka Achar and the bitter taste of Karela. Film narratives and life experiences of audiences do not just remain contrasts but intermingle to produce cultural identities linked to and inspired by cinema. The mixture of fantasy, comedy and melodrama provides essential survival tools for lonesome and homesick individuals in a globalised world. Without Namak the boring hardships of everyday life abroad cannot be swallowed; without Masala the bitterness of migrant life is hard to digest.
As a scholar of Cultural Studies at Vienna University, I am researching migration and media. With this professional interest in an “Anthropology of Imagination” (a term coined by Arjun Appadurai) I myself became strongly influenced by Bollywood. For several years I spent uncountable hours watching Bollywood movies about migration issues. The overseas market inspired the Indian film industry to produce innumerable movies about solvent NRIs, patriotic stories about cultural conflict and the struggle of migrants. Such movies further enhance the dream of migration but at the same time they celebrate the myth of return. Most movies portray affluent members of the globalized middle-class. Only seldom narratives about working class migrants, irregular migration or refugees can be found. From the 1990s until the first decade of the millennium NRI-movies have been a dominant genre in Indian cinema.
I did not only spend hours during my duty analysing movies but I often continued this focussed film reception at home – together with my Nepalese wife and often together with Indian and Nepalese friends. And for my workout I even went to Bollywood dance classes and practiced so called “Bollyrobics”.
Hari was a Nepalese refugee especially enthusiastic about Bollywood – a handsome young man of about twenty years, full of energy and good humour, who could run very fast although he heavily limped. He even used to play soccer with my little son and accompanied me to some Bollywood-Clubbings. When we celebrated New Year together he used to spend large sums on firecrackers and rockets, jumping and shouting full of joy and forgetting all his sorrow.
He was not very critical about art and used to praise almost every film we watched. But still, Bollywood was not escapism for him and allowed him to reflect on his own situation. The movie Kaafila about irregular migrants travelling to Europe via Moscow inspired him to narrate his story: He spent months in Moscow captured in a room, later forced to work like a slave. During the first part of the movie which is more realistic he started to talk a lot about his experiences as an illegal border crosser, how he witnessed the death of companions. Travelling in a closed container truck he almost lost consciousness. Somehow the scriptwriter of Kaafila forgot about the original intention to write about the Malta ship tragedy, the migrants who had already reached the Mediterranean returned towards East and ended up in Afghanistan (maybe there was no script at all?). When the movie turned into a surreal adventure we turned-off the DVD-player and talked about reality. Hari’s fingerprints had been registered by the authorities in an Eastern European country. He still continued his journey to Vienna. But according to Dublin-convention he was supposed to be deported to the country where he first entered the European Union.
Hari lived as an undocumented migrant in Vienna always afraid of the police, earning money distributing newspapers during the early morning hours. He spent most of his income playing lottery hoping for riches in order to support his relatives in Nepal.
Ramji Londonwaley was a movie Hari could strongly identify with. We enjoyed this excellent entertainment together, these were some of the best moments of our friendship: the hilarious story of the simple and honest guy Ramji who has been invited to work as a cook for a rich Indian in London but ended as an illegal migrant made us laugh and weep. It is also among my favourites because I am a fan of culinary cinema. The economic pressure from the family back home was a realistic circumstance for Hari and also the fright of deportation. Against his own will Ramji was persuaded to accept a bogus marriage with the beautiful Indian girl Samira. Although initially both did hate each other they had to pretend to be a real couple in order to convince the police – later they fell in love. Of course it is Bollywood. “Coming darling, open the door, please!” the code word they used during control from the home department has become a running gag in my own family. With this movie Madhavan left a strong impression on me – an Indian friend of Bihari origin especially praised his convincing accent. For me this movie is inseparably linked with my memory of Hari (every time I watch it I hear him cry softly and I remember his loud, high pitched laughter).
Hari did not choose marriage as a strategy of integration as several of his friends did. Although he also had met some traumatic experiences during migration he never was desperate and depressive like others. He always remained strong and optimistic. Other refugees on contrary threatened to commit suicide (one young Nepalese hung himself on a tree near the Danube river, at a location where the community often used to celebrate grill-parties). When I first met Hari he had an inclination of drinking too much alcohol as a painkiller but later he was strong enough to keep away from drinking. He had lots of ache in his left leg as he completely damaged the bones of his foot once when he wanted to escape jumping through the window during a police raid in the house where he and many immigrants stayed. He had a metal plate in his foot and needed further surgery. He could not sleep out of pain and fright many nights. Finally he decided that he did not want to stay any longer illegally in Austria. He wished to return home and promised to come again as a regular migrant.
But after his coming home we unfortunately had some irritating phone calls: He and his family demanded money that he needed urgently for a surgery. His relatives could not believe that he has saved no money at all after being abroad for several years. In a lie he had told them that he left all his savings with my family. So they became angry with me and my wife. Finally Hari married a Nepalese girl who had a visa for Hong Kong and migrated there to start a new life.
Author: Bernhard Fuchs
Bernhard Fuchs, born 1966 in Vienna as the son of a Himalayan Geologist. The profession of his father stimulated his interest in India. He studied Cultural Studies at Vienna University and wrote a Ph.D. thesis on South Asian immigrant business in Vienna (1997). He works as Assistant Professor at Vienna University, is married and father of three children. Bernhard Fuchs is co-editor and co-author of Rajinder Dudrah/Elke Mader/Bernhard Fuchs (eds.): SRK and Global Bollywood. New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2015.