India has perennially regarded itself a regional power. Now, thanks to more than two decades of galloping economic growth, it also sees itself as a global one.
This thought is most relished within India’s defence establishment, where any unwelcome news of the country’s persisting poverty and inequalities, of which there are plenty, tends to be irritably waved away. About 2.5 percent of India’s GDP is slated for military expenditure, a relatively modest proportion that nonetheless translates into impressive absolute numbers given the country’s booming economy. India spent approximately US$25 billion on defence in 2008.
To celebrate their mounting influence and muscularity, India’s generals and Defence Ministry officials organize giant trade fairs, where they flaunt their latest weapons acquisitions, and await zealous courting by arms suppliers from across the world. At the 2009 Aero India show, held in Bangalore from February 11-15, Rafael, an Israeli arms production firm, set up a giant monitor to show a music video: “Dingadee.”
Rafael was there to promote its “advanced defence systems” (which bear apocalyptic names, like ‘Spyder,’ ‘Python,’ and ‘The Iron Dome’), taking advantage of India’s newly warmed friendship with Israel. The two countries firmed up diplomatic ties only in 1992, after more than four decades of chilly relations over question of Palestine. Since this initial thaw, trade and strategic links between Israel and India have burgeoned, and in 2009, Israel reportedly exceeded Russia as India’s largest defence supplier.
Rafael had already won several lucrative contracts in India, and the company was probably well-aware that this aspiring military power is its proverbial golden goose. But to keep the gravy flowing in India, Rafael has to outdo its competitors. How to woo its frontrunner customer? No doubt Rafael’s executives brainstormed exhaustively over this question. The answer they came up with was “Dingadee.” After all, those Indians can’t get enough of Bollywood!
It’s a familiar tale: The experienced, worldly man (leather jacket, dark sunglasses) courts the demure beauty (attended by three buxom lovelies), winning her over with promises of security, protection, and fidelity. He offers more than love (“together, forever”); he offers a more modern, “civilized” life. This is Indian cinema’s most privileged narrative; it’s been dramatized in countless Bollywood song-and-dance routines.
In this classic T. Prakash Rao clip, the cosmopolitan ’hero,’ wearing a rather over-the-top Western “pant-suit” and black riding boots, seeks the affection of his ‘heroine,’ a shy village belle.
Of course, there is much more tenderness and poetry in this dreamscape than in Rafael’s ham-fisted marketing video. For one thing, flowers are draped over vines rather than phallic missiles. For another, the singer is the legendary Mohammed Rafi, whose haunting voice most Indians of a certain generation will recognize instantly. Having said that, I defy you to rid yourself of the absurd chorus, “Dinga-dinga-dee”! It will ring in your ears for days!
Rafael will have taken into account Bollywood’s enormous reach. In a country where some 66 percent of the adult population remains illiterate, film carries a powerful guarantee of reaching hundreds of millions of viewers. Commercial Indian cinema has over the years developed vast networks spanning the South Asian nations and their hefty diasporic communities. It is truly difficult to be South Asian and not be touched by Bollywood in some way.
Yet the Bollywood “dream factory,” with its outlandish plot-lines and lush emotion, provides more than escapism. It’s been central to the imagining of India by its affluent classes, who control production and distribution in this multi-billion dollar industry.
Films like ”Suraj” were typical in the early decades following independence from British colonial rule (which India achieved in 1947). They present a conflicted vision, of a pristine, enchanted land, being gently coaxed into a new, uncertain world by the inescapable hand of modernity. The hope expressed, in those years of lingering anti-colonial sentiment, was of a harmonious blend between an idealized “modern” future and a romanticized “traditional” past.
But this is precisely the tentative, tension-laden idea of India that its urban middle classes and military officials would now like to obliterate, indeed, through spectacles such as the Aero India show. Their new, more ferocious imagining is aptly captured in this slickly choreographed musical number from “Billu,” a Bollywood blockbuster released on February 13, 2009, the same day as Aero India.
Here, the gender equation remains unchanged. As ever, the ‘hero’ tries to convince his seemingly reluctant ‘heroine’ to submit to his love (“it’s a hit-hit,” he sings). But the courting is fiercer and more openly sexual, with the sweet-faced ‘heroine’ spiking her coy glances with a string of in-your-face demands.
“Boy, you gotta please me, boy, I wanna have some fun,” she insists, in a street-speak hybrid of English and Hindi that’s woven into the catchy melodies so popular among the youth. Leggy background dancers – uniformly white and mostly blonde – stomp it out to an identifiable American beat on a throbbing, electric dance floor.
This is an extravagant, space-age exotica; a grotesque carnival of machismo and materialism that conveys how contemporary India sees itself: unapologetically opulent, unambiguously modern, and yet firmly ahead of the changes that might sully its chaste soul.
In the end, Rafael, with its outdated and low-budget visuals, got things terribly wrong and, that too, at a site where humour and parody (if either is intended) are not easily tolerated. The Defence Ministry was not amused, and as the word spread, the video was contemptuously derided in India’s English-language media, and by bloggers (and v-loggers) worldwide.
But the real reason for the outrage, which was often laced with bewilderment, was the not-so-subtle traditionalizing and feminizing of India by a cheeky outsider, who had trespassed, albeit clumsily, on the internal elite’s masculine and modernizing self-image.
Fortunately for Rafael, however, India’s generals ultimately proved more hawkish than sensitive to insult, and did not cancel their pending orders with the firm.
- Mitu Sengupta