Notions that Foreigners have about India

I got an opportunity to intern at a CNRS Lab at Compiegne, a small city close to Paris. During my stay of 3 months, I traveled extensively on weekends to various parts of France and the neighboring countries. Coming from South-East Asia, Europe was a culture shock for me. Nevertheless, it was amusing to learn about the various notions people had about India, Indian cultures. I believe that this is the perception that people have developed from watching the Indian movies, the portrayal of India in Hollywood movies and the stories about Gandhi, British Rule in India, and Indian restaurants in Europe etc.

Being Indian definitely doesn’t necessarily mean singing and dancing every now and then or being an IT genius and taxi driver.

 1. Arranged Marriages

Love marriage vs Arranged Marriage

It was very amusing to know that European people think Indians don’t have love marriage. I went to a multilingual party where a French girl was curious to know about India. She had earlier met an Indian guy, who happened to be married. He had narrated them how his father made him see the bride and talked about marriage on the pretext of taking him to a restaurant. It was really difficult for me to convince her and some of her friends that Indians have love marriages. Further, their firm belief stems from news about ‘Khap’ and how people murder couples who go against family norms to marry.

2. Song, Dance and Happiness

Just Dance Desi

The people in France and particularly, the people in my lab thought that Indians are usually quite happy and they sing and dance quite frequently. There was this girl from Morocco who had watched Indian films and knew Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar. She was inquisitive if people really dance every now and then in real life. Thankfully, I could convince her that music is an integral part of most Indian movies. It’s because the highest number of movies are made in India (above 6000 and in over 20 languages) that it becomes imperative to think that Indians just sing and dance. I convinced her that there are musicals made in other parts of the world like ‘La La Land’ and she seemed convinced with the logic. There was another guy in my lab, who believed that Indians dance only by folding hands and he would often indicate that. One fine day, I decided to explain there is not just one dance form. I showed him Indian folk dances like Bhangra, Kathak, Indian dancing Salsa, Tango and then some classical dances like Odishi and Kuchipudi.  I gave him a plausible explanation that India is an amalgam of various cultures and dance is a medium of expression of one’s culture. So, it is quite natural for people belonging to different cultures have different festivities. People in India don’t dance every now and then. The folk dances are usually in the festivities when families meet and everyone is in a light mood. I went beyond to describe him about Indian festivals. I became a cultural lecturer and took a class of him.

3. India and Football

Messi vs Kohli

This is something which is quite genuine. Now, there was this guy who had interest in sports from around the world. He was curious to know why India doesn’t fare well in football, athletics, and swimming. I was prompt and ready for my reply. I asked him if people in France can play cricket and wrestling, Kabaddi. Well, he was bewildered with my reply. These sports were as much foreign to him as petanque to me before coming to France. I explained that Indians are obsessed with cricket. India has fared well in hockey, boxing and wrestling in Olympics and we are the best team in cricket. (Fortunately, India was ranked number 1 in both test and ODI at that time).  Now, I told him the history of cricket and how faring well in cricket against the Britishers became a medium of protest during the Indian struggle for independence. It was convincing to him.

I wanted to write on the following topics as well. But currently, I am not in a mood and will write some other day.

  1. Spicy Food
  2. Genius in Information Technology
  3. India is Unsafe for Women
  4. Walking by putting hands on shoulders
  5. Slumdog Millionaire and Lion

But my narration would be incomplete without this story. I found carpooling a cheap and convenient option than taking a public transport in France. This also gives you an opportunity to interact with the locals, gain an insight into the French culture and make some new friends in a foreign land. With multiple offers, I booked my journey from Cannes to Montpelier on a carpooling app. The initial conversations that began with me teaching the co-passengers ‘Namaste’ as the Indian way of greeting went deeper and delved into the culture, songs and movies. It was during this context that, Orlando, a university student in Montpelier mentioned, ‘’O, I like Slumdog Millionaire and ‘Lion’. These Indian movies are really heart-touching.”

This got on my nerves. It was at this time, I was convinced that cinemas and media has a greater role in forming the public opinion. “But these are not Indian movies. The film directors of these movies are Britishers. Have you ever watched a real ‘Bollywood’ movie?”

“What is Bollywood? Is it a film industry in ‘Indian’ language.?”

I sensed another error. I felt like it is obligatory on my part to correct the notion Orlando had about India. “Listen Orlando, there is no existing language called Indian.There are 22 official languages in India. So, there are movies of several languages. Only those that are made in Hindi are known as ‘Bollywood’films.”

These are definitely great movies. But the depiction of India is that of the 1990s and over the last two decades India has undergone massive change. I knew that I don’t have to boast about my culture or leave people thinking of me as a jingoist. However, I wanted him to know more about Indian culture. Somewhere, in my heart, I felt that India is not as inferior or poor as it is depicted in the movies. I have seen poor people in Paris, Lille, Amsterdam and in Frankfurt. I realized that it becomes tougher for a poor in a developed country than in a developing country like India. The cost of the basic amenities of life is very high in developed countries. Definitely, there are slums in India. But there is more to India. I gave him a carefully thought list of 10 movies that would give an answer to a lot of questions about India. ‘Swades’, ‘Namastey London’, ‘Lagaan’, ‘Chak de India’, ‘Kaho Naa Pyar Hai’, ‘Manjhi’, ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, ‘Airlift’, ‘3 Idiots’, ‘PK’ etc. Over the conversation, I realized that ‘Bahubali’ is popular among the people who keep an interest in world cinemas. ‘Swades’ is a story of an Indian scientist from NASA who returns back to India to work for the upliftment of his village.

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