The year I turned 13, my mum threw me two parties, one for my school friends and one for the collection of Indo-Canadian families that, over the course of Diwali celebrations and Hindi school functions, had become like an extended family. I affectionately called the latter group Browntown, and on my 13th birthday, they gave me a very special gift: a VHS copy of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. With subtitles.
My friends and I had watched the iconic 1998 Bollywood film about a love triangle complicated by university crushes, an untimely death and a belated reunion so many times that we could quote it, even though I didn’t always understand the Hindi lines I was saying. Despite my parents’ best efforts, I didn’t have a firm grasp of my mother tongue. In fact, I dreaded Saturday morning Hindi school, where other kids would seamlessly switch between Hindi and English while I stuttered through grammatically incorrect sentences.
It’s not just language—I often felt like an outsider in a culture that was meant to be my own. I just don’t have the necessary prerequisites. In addition to my mediocre Hindi, I only sometimes knowing what’s happening during Indian wedding ceremonies. I can’t tie a sari on my own or roll a round roti that will instantly puff on the stove. My heritage and skin colour meant my mostly-white classmates and friends saw me as Indian, but I didn’t really feel that way.
That’s not unusual. According to York University assistant professor Kabita Chakraborty, who researched the Indian diaspora in Malaysia as well as the impact of Indian’s film industry on identity, “diasporic concerns [about identity] are very similar across the world because at the end of the day, in your own nation, you are a migrant—it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in Canada for. You always feel one foot in, and one foot out.”
But for me, Bollywood movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai were a way in.
Using Bollywood to connect with Indian culture
I didn’t actively look for ways to connect with “the motherland.” They were just there. In the same way that soccer practices and pizza parties were part of my childhood, so were the Diwali parties my mother hosted, the Hindi classes I was involuntarily enrolled in and the Indian food we served at home. Bollywood movies were the same. We’d occasionally watch pirated VHS tapes and DVDs of the latest blockbusters, which we bought alongside Tilda rice and bags of jeera from the Indian grocery store, during family movie nights.
Natasha Ramoutar remembers similar evenings with her parents and grandma. Though we often talk about cultural identity in terms of two cultures, things aren’t always that simple. Ramoutar, whose family is from Guyana, explains that there are multiple pieces of her cultural identity—and Bollywood films like the old-timey, big-budget romantic tragedy Devdas helped shape the part of her that is Indian. Though no one in her family spoke Hindi, everyone would gather together to watch subtitled Bollywood movies.
“I would sit and watch with my grandma or, when I was visiting family in the States, one night we might sit and watch the new Bollywood movie. It was kind of partaking in South Asian culture or the culture of brownness, but in a way that was given to me, in a sense,” she says.
It’s actually a pretty common phenomenon. Multiple studies indicate that Bollywood plays a strong role in how the global diaspora imagines India. Researchers studying British Sikhs noted the influences of these films become a way of maintaining a shared cultural identity, serving as a sort of unofficial Indian ambassador for India for those abroad. “Immigrant Sikh parents use Bollywood as a favoured means of entertainment that also instructs their children on Indian culture and identity, and thus consolidates their children’s sense of ‘Indian-ness,'” the researchers concluded from their interviews.
In the same way, these films informally helped me work towards what I perceived as the prerequisites of an Indian identity. Even though my nani and I don’t speak the same language fluently, we could sit and watch the latest film together. Movies like the multi-generational family saga Hum Saath-Saath Hai—which is currently the name of a group chat with my childhood friends—have been essential to developing the minimal Hindi I can speak (multiple sources told me they too learned Hindi from these films).
Like me, educator Roopa Cheema grew up in southern Ontario feeling “not-Indian enough for Indian people.” With her brightly dyed hair and piercings, she felt judged—and even at times out of place—within the Punjabi community in her town. Bollywood was a safe space.
“It was kind of a fun way of feeling Indian,” she says, citing Qurbani and Prem Geet as some of her favourites. “There was no pressure from the community to be a certain way. The movie wasn’t judging me, you know?”
I do know. At a time when brown faces were largely absent from mainstream media, Bollywood offered an opportunity to see myself—and my family’s traditions, even the ones I didn’t yet understand—reflected on screen. I learned about Hindu wedding customs, like stealing the groom’s shoes, from films like wedding drama of Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! When we shopped for Indian clothes at the boutiques run out of auntie’s basements, I would base my selections on what Madhuri Dixit or Rani Mukerji had worn in their latest hit. Though I sometimes struggled to see India as my motherland, Bollywood films felt familial.
Falling *out* of love with Bollywood
I left Bollywood behind when I moved out of my parents’ home. I associated these films with my family and hometown friends, so when I moved away for university, I embraced the idea of being Canadian and actively pushed away from Indian culture (an attempt to assimilate that is common among second gen youth). My love of Bollywood faded in the process, but for some Indo-Canadians, it’s much more deliberate choice.
In Granby, Quebec, journalist Supriya Dwivedi remembers her family being the only Indians in town. Like Cheema, Ramoutar and myself, Dwivedi grew up watching Bollywood films, but when she was a teenager, she started thinking critically about the messages the movies were sending, particularly about the roles of women. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was also pivotal for her, but not like it was for me. The gist of the film is that a dude named Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) overlooks his sporty BFF Anjali (Kajol), instead falling in love with the ultra femme Tina (Rani Mukerji). After Tina tragically passes away, Rahul’s 8-year-old daughter (who is also named Anjali, it’s a whole thing) helps him realizes his love for his estranged BFF, who has now traded in her Gap sweatshirts for traditional saris. (For a better synopsis than I can provide, read this LOL-worthy Buzzfeed summary that tbh, might be better than the actual movie)
Catchy songs and questionable fashion choices aside, Dwivedi felt that the movie was telling audiences that being a tomboy meant that you would never be desirable to men—and she called BS. She acknowledges that sexist tropes plague Hollywood films too, but felt that they were more blatant in Bollywood and at 13, that realization ended her interested in the genre. “[Bollywood] definitely helped shape, for me at least, a lot of the understanding of the kinds of pressures my mom was under, to be quite frank, and what it meant to be a ‘good’ Indian wife or a bahu,” she says.
Bollywood has a long history of problematic portrayals of gender roles. In an IBM study of 4,000 films released between 1970 and 2017, researchers found that women are typically supporting characters who are only given surface-level characteristics. They’re often relegated to being beautiful objects of desire for their male counterparts, rather than fully-formed characters with their own agency. QZ noted that these findings were in line with 2012 research showing that women in Hindi films are often only positively portrayed if they are submissive and self-sacrificing.
These tropes didn’t go unnoticed in Vanni Sharma’s Hamilton, Ont. home, either. When her family gathered to watch Bollywood films, Sharma’s father would point out certain scenes, say of a village or a buffalo pulling a wagon, that were reminiscent of his childhood in Punjab. But he’d also critique the genre’s sexism. Looking back, she thinks her father was able to deconstruct sexism in Bollywood, rather than Hollywood, because it felt like familiar territory for him.
“Bollywood movies are really fun,” she says, noting that these movie nights created a connection to her homeland well before she was actually able to travel to India. “They also have a lot of toxic stereotypes going on, and I feel like it was a really good, formative thing for me that my dad would point those out.”
Finding my way back to Bollywood
In a way, Bollywood movies act as a tether, connecting the wide-reaching diaspora back to a shared narrative of Indianness—which can also provide a sense of home for those who have left. Harnoor Kochar was only 10 when her family immigrated to Canada in 2010. She wasn’t a big fan of Bollywood growing up in Punjab, but living in Edmonton, her family would drive 30 minutes outside of the city to the foreign-language cinema just to see Hindi-language movies. It was Zoya Akhtar’s 2011 story of a bachelor party road trip, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, that sparked her interest in Bollywood.
“That movie kind of helped me to kind of connect with a language that I could only practice at home now all of a sudden, whereas my entire life I had spoken it everywhere,” she says. “It felt like I was once again getting to learn about that culture, be part of it and see it from a different lens.”
In the same way, I actively started watching Bollywood again in the last few years. I’ve been trying to reconnect with my Indian heritage, and I realized that these films are a rich cultural resource. I’ve started watching Bollywood movies on my own, something I would never have done as a kid, and have even tried to get through a couple without subtitles. (It did not go well, but it’s a work in progress.)
It helps that Bollywood is evolving, too. The IBM study found that there has been a gradual decrease in biases over time, and a rise in female-centric Bollywood films. Even though Dwivedi dropped Bollywood as a teenager, recent releases, like the Sex and the City-esque flick Veere Di Wedding and the first-ever mainstream film with a queer love story, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, have renewed her interest in the industry.
Honestly, same. Early Bollywood classics will always have a special place in my heart, similar to the Hollywood teen dramas that I grew up with. But now that I recognize these films as a tool to learn about myself and my culture, I’ve rediscovered a love of Bollywood—particularly, the new wave of feminist films and female-driven narratives (shout out to Queen, which should to be on everyone’s Netflix list). Even though the characters and storylines can feel a world away from my experience, Bollywood enables me to see facets of myself that I don’t see elsewhere.
After moving to Canada and rediscovering Bollywood, Kochar told me, “I got to reconnect with my language and a country that I felt like I had left behind, through movies.” For me, those same films allowed me to create a connection in the first place—even if I still don’t fully know what I’m saying when I sing along to the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai soundtrack.