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Bollywood nights

A generation of South Asians melds a new cultural mix

Photo by: Ryan Keberly
Regulars at the Bombay Grille.
Photo by: Doug Coombe
Kidd Skilly aims to widen his audience.
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Published 8/22/2007

No vivid splashes of pink. No monsoon-drenched damsels. No lab coats, no spicy curry, no "Thank you, come again!"

It's a crowd of popped collars and kohl-rimmed eyes tonight, of diamond nose studs and hair gel en masse. Timid onlookers smoke cigarettes and drink in the scene; a few couples grind in corners, eyes locked, hips matching the up-tempo. But most are dancing Bhangra, their palms flexed, their arms outstretched, their shoulders bouncing up and down.

The bartender's brown, the bouncer's brown, the party-goers, brown — this scene reflects the growing South Asian population in the greater Detroit area.

A DJ spins a favorite — "Dhoom machaale, dhoom machaale, dhoom!" ("Cause an uproar!") And the crowd in the Farmington Hills club echoes, whistling and clapping to a — well, hip hop-tinged Bollywood beat.

The stereotypes

The general perception of South Asians — those with origins in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka — has been imbued with stereotype for years. (The stereotypes are everywhere — try, "Dr. Science purchased his pre-arranged wife for the low price of two buffalos. They danced in the rain and lived happily ever after, but only after seven or eight show-stopping tunes.") But in the past decade or so, a noticeable shift has occurred in this country. East has met West, and a lovechild is well on the way — because South Asian pop culture (stereotypes and all) is getting romanced, accepted, by the American mainstream, and vice versa.

We begin, after all, at Bollywood Night in Farmington Hills' Bombay Grille — a typical desi, or South Asian, party. Staid upscale Indian restaurant by day, the place is transformed at night into a venue for DJs to play Punjabi Bhangra music and songs from Bollywood hits. Parties such as this one have been going on for more than two decades in metro Detroit's thriving South Asian community.

Bollywood is the multibillion-dollar movie industry of India, producing hundreds of films annually (Lagaan, Dilwale Dulhenia Le Jayenge) — and with the recent trends of globalization, anyone in the world can have direct access to desi culture. The fashion, the music, even the movies themselves, have influenced designers, musicians and artists in the Western world.

It's a burgeoning phenomenon that's still in its infancy — we still don't see any South Asian Madonnas sweeping the nation — but it reflects an interesting paradox among second- and third-generation American desis today. Because though South Asian-Americans are maintaining a strong connection to "the motherland" and try to adhere to certain values and traditions ("Study hard, marry soon, believe in God"), life here, much like the Farmington Hills party, can't be all "Bollywood": The music isn't only desi. The crowd isn't always monochromatic. And the love scenes — well, they aren't always chaste.

"In one sense, South Asians have this homogenized identity in America," says Ram Mahalingam, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan who studies South Asian immigrant populations. "It's superimposed — we're only seen as doctors, as engineers, as convenience store and motel owners — and often, only interpret ourselves as such.

"But the mainstream perception is clearly changing, as are trends of assimilation, which is why this 'Bollywood phenomenon' is so fascinating."

I got love for Punjab but I'm from the D

"You're Indian?" the boy asks. "Always thought you was Arabic or somethin'."

Rapper Kidd Skilly smiles indulgently, leaning back on a maroon leather couch in a Corktown recording studio, and turns to his producer Helluva's son. The boy's not far off — Skilly's face is framed by a 'do rag, baseball cap and bling, and with his immaculately trimmed facial hair and lightly tanned skin, he indeed looks like he could easily be mistaken for another race.

"What, you think they call me Indian Jay for nothin'?"

Kidd Skilly's a Detroit example of a stereotype-shattering American desi: Half-Mexican, half-Indian. He's been rapping for about a decade.

The 26-year-old Skilly grew up on the southwest side of Detroit. The youngest of three siblings, his parents divorced when he was 5, and he was raised primarily by his Punjabi father. His father taught him the Hindi and Punjabi languages, as well as respect for Indian music and culture — which influenced his decision to meld hip hop and desi music. Skilly injects Punjabi and Hindi phrases into many of his lyrics, plays the guitar, and uses flute and harmonium melodies often set to the beat of tabla or dhol drums.

His latest music video, "Bhangra Chick," is a tightly produced, over-the-top blend of genres. The video incorporates a booty-shakin' belly dancer, an ebullient Michigan State Bhangra dance team, a dhol-and-harmonium-jammin' Sikh, and of course, a thugged-out "Bhangra Chick."

With the ethnic dancers and the scantily clad beauties, just about every desi stereotype is featured. It's clear Skilly's working the commercial angles here, to attract a wider audience and keep the one he has.

But outside of the garishly catchy pop gimmick seen in "Bhangra Chick," Skilly waxes philosophical about his influences and the issues that "matter."

He performs spoken word weekly at Detroit's Beans and Bytes coffee shop to improve his lyricism, and draws influence as much from African-American poet Maya Angelou as he does from Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a Punjabi poet.

"There is something about great personalities with poetic souls that fascinates me," he says. "The people who influence me most seem to transcend through age groups, religions, ethnicity and race — they make people feel a certain level of comfort."

His favorite song that he's written, "Let's Talk About Something," is an attempt to air his personal beliefs. Though it hasn't been completed yet, he "talks about" self-identity and South Asians breaking stereotypes. He goes on to contemplate the lack of content in mainstream hip hop — even delving into the flaws of his own music. Finally, he raps about "stuff that really matters" — ranging from the evils of tobacco moguls to the war in Iraq.

But Skilly admits it's a delicate interplay between rapping about things that matter to him and what appeals to an audience.

"You've got to brand yourself, play the commercial game," he says like some music-biz-hardened emcee. "I used to be more of a conscious rapper, but being in the music industry — especially when you're atypical, like me, a South Asian — you need to make strategic moves to get noticed."

Skilly has strategic aims to break into the mainstream American audience. He says that he is collaborating with such artists as Akon and Snoop Dogg, and he hopes to create a broader appeal for his music.

In that vein, he worked on a music video with Indian-American porn star Sunny Leone. Leone, a former Penthouse Pet is a true defier of stereotype if there ever was one — desi parents, in particular, value the sanctity of the loins. But Skilly canned the project in post-production.

"I didn't want to be one of those people who had to use someone like Sunny Leone to sell my video," Skilly says. "No disrespect to her — she's cool — but I didn't feel comfortable with it.

"I mean, I feel responsible for the stuff I put out there — I get 11- and 12-year-olds listening to me. What would I telling them if I couldn't sell my video on my own merit?"

And he's gaining a loyal fan base, across the globe, packing venues when performing for the desi crowd. The comments on his MySpace site say much:

"heyyy thnx for tha add your musiq is tha shizz =D xo" writes a 16-year-old girl from Melbourne, Australia.

"eyyyy i like ur music!!!! u have a great voice n i rly like the song nachna!!!!" writes another girl, also 16, from California.

"The majority of my fans are South Asian, they very well might always be South Asian," he says. "But with my latest projects, especially the song 'Ni Sohniye' with Akon, I think we might get a chance some mainstream airplay.

"There's a gap in the music scene right now — and I think that the time's right to introduce a new type of hip hop."

Evolution

A January 2007 report by investment bank Goldman Sachs indicated that within a decade, the Indian economy could surpass France, Italy and the United Kingdom — making it the fifth strongest in the world. By 2050, it's hypothesized that India could overtake even the United States, falling second only to China.

This is making the country, for the lack of a better word, sexy.

Fancier cars congest the already-packed streets, shopping malls boast upgrades to the latest luxury — basically, life is becoming increasingly lavish as the standard of living in India skyrockets. And so, in turn, prospers the already-flourishing Indian film industry.

Keep in mind that the allure of Bollywood has never escaped starry-eyed American desis: Bollywood rock concerts have toured the country for years, showcasing lip-synching Hindi superstars, such as actor Shah Rukh Khan and actress Madhuri Dixit during spectacular stage shows. There are flashy song-and-dance numbers, Technicolor pyrotechnics and staged downpours for buxom actresses to fulfill the ultimate Bollywood promise — that is, true to stereotype, a frolic in the rain.

So by combining newly acquired Indian wealth with the unquenchable Western desi demand, the film industry has capitalized. For instance, according to an Aug. 14 Forbes story, the Indian production company UTV Motion Pictures "now sees close to 20 percent of its revenues from overseas markets and plans to increase that to 50 percent over the next two years." Bollywood films like Dil Chahta Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Asoka line the shelves in suburban Blockbuster video stores; such celebrities as former Miss Universe Aishwarya Rai are accepting roles in Western-made films like Bride and Prejudice.

To an extent, the media are opening up to South Asians. But somehow, beyond the heritage-denying Freddie Mercury (his birth name? Farrokh Bulsara) and Ravi Shankar's nominally Indian daughter Norah Jones, few desi musicians have truly made it to the American mainstream.

"I'm a Desi Who Isn't Planning On Being ...

... a Doctor or an Engineer or Running a Dunkin' Donuts."

That's the name of a forum for Indians on the social networking site Facebook, and the bookish stereotype holds true: According to a 2005 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 2.9 million desis, around 100,000 of them living in Michigan. And nearly 50,000 are South Asian physicians, which is a fairly significant number, considering that few South Asians were permitted to enter the country until the late '60s.

A brief history: The first influx of South Asian immigrants arrived in America during the first decade of the 20th century. About 10,000 Sikhs from Punjab, mostly male, worked as laborers on California farmland. In 1917 the Barred Zone Act was passed, which banned all Asians from entering this country. According to the American Immigration Law foundation, "by 1940 half of the Asian Indian population had left the country, leaving only 2,405."

However, influenced by the civil rights movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which allowed immigrants — professionals, in particular — to obtain visas to enter the country.

"There was actually a shortage of medical professionals by the '50s and '60s," Mahalingam says. "So immigration quotas were finally eliminated to attract foreign doctors and engineers."

So a large percentage of South Asian parents passed their expectations of accomplishment onto their children. Because, by and large, the desis who were able to immigrate to this country did so with great pains — often, they came from less-privileged backgrounds. India hasn't always housed the Silicon Valley of the East, and lifestyles have never been as luxurious as they are these days — so in order to secure a visa, it was paramount a couple of decades ago for South Asians to demonstrate either brilliant scholarship or unerring hard work.

And they, in turn, spawned a further generation of overachievers.

"From the typical Indian parents' point of view, if their children don't become engineers or doctors, they'll never get a job, and they'll starve," Mahalingam says. "That's how it is in India, so parents will often dissuade their children from pursuing 'soft' interests — including art."

Mahalingam studies the repercussions felt by immigrant families, in what's dubbed the "Model Minority Myth." He says the social competition among South Asians in America is much more intense, thanks, in part, to the ever-elusive "American Dream" — leading to elevated depression, anxiety, even rising suicide rates.

"It's very interesting — the Asian students in my Immigration Studies class — will almost always have a double major," Mahalingam says. "One highly technical major, like pre-medicine or computer science — and another enjoyable major, such as fine art or sociology, for themselves. I've heard of many bitter disputes that have been caused by this."

It's this quiet rebellion that has equipped later generations to better pursue alternate career paths — in writing, in politics, in music.

"These second-generation South Asians — the children of immigrants who came over in the '70s and '80s, have been incredibly active," Mahalingam continues. "These people, in their 20s and 30s, have formed a new identity entirely."

Pressure drop

Kidd Skilly's manager, Amit Dharmani, might be considered the product of such pressure. He's a University of Michigan grad, with a double major in computer science and biology. But at 26 years old, he laughs when he admits his dearest ambition: To be the next Russell Simmons, who became enormously wealthy by helping to take what was considered strictly black music — rap and hip hop — into suburbia, into the heads of millions of white kids.

Dharmani started DJing when he was 13, becoming slowly acquainted with the ins and outs of music production. Because by the '90s, this was already an established scene; in Michigan, the primary outlets for Indian music were niche gatherings — themed festivals, private concerts, weddings. And the entertainment was always provided by DJs.

One such DJ was Jack Sandhu, who's now an entrepreneur in the Detroit area and one of the organizers of the Festival of India in Hart Plaza. "I started DJing at desi weddings in the '80s," he says. "Back then, not too many people were doing it. But I'd play Bollywood hits, and all the aunties and uncles would dance. It was all very self-contained at first — but we got popular, fast."

Dharmani did the same. He progressed to party promotion, and after deferring acceptance to medical school twice, he decided to pursue a career as a music producer. Dharmani now holds a "day job" as a computer scientist in Florida, with which he helps back Skilly's projects, and the two have plans to diversify.

Dharmani talks of the rise in hip hop's popularity among South Asians: "I'd say that people over the age of 22 are pretty skeptical of the hip-hop world — particularly the South Asian hip-hop world," Dharmani says. "But then, you look at the younger generations — the kids that are 13 to 21 — and they've grown up with hip hop around them. They're more accepting of it.

"If you look at it this way — 10 years ago, every Indian guy, myself included, wanted to be a DJ," he continues. "That was accepted, because 10 years before that, in the '80s, the first Indian DJs began spinning. It's pretty much a linear progression."

Dharmani and Skilly want to reach out to more diverse audiences. One way is by finding more accessible venues, with better acoustics and capacity, to line up performances. And they want to organize cross-country tours with other like-minded performers — like British-Indian R&B performer Jay Sean and Indian-Canadian pop artist Raghav.

"My goal is basically to take the South Asian scene, which is leading in almost all aspects in the U.S. — in engineering, medicine, management — and reintroduce them to music," Dharmani says. "It's strange that South Asians in the U.S. shy away from it, even though we have such a rich history in both music and entertainment."

Full disclosure

This writer is an Indian. Born, though not brought up — friends call me a "coconut." Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Don't get me wrong, I've paid dues; I've worked hard to accept and understand the Indian culture. I've danced Bhangra, albeit poorly. I've eaten with my hands, and dribbled. I've seen a lakh of Indian movies — with subtitles — and I've definitely felt the pressures of the Model Minority Myth. (In my case, to the chagrin of my parents, it certainly is a myth.)

My parents, both psychiatrists, came to this country entirely on merit. They struggled through impossible situations to secure a comfortable life in the United States. And I, like a typical American, took things for granted.

But it's been daunting, living in the shadow of geniuses, if you will. The pressures of living up to the Model Minority standard have eaten at me, as they have many of my peers. It's easy to succumb to the "Be a doctor or suffer hellish consequences" — even if they aren't explicitly imposed upon you. I was initially on the pre-med track, but floundered, flopped, then found my footing again — in the writing biz. Surely, I'll starve.

But I witness these changes among South Asians of my generation, and I'm proud. I'm proud that my best friend from childhood, Anisha Nagarajan, was the lead in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Bollywood Dreams. I'm proud that the stories of our childhoods can win Pulitzer Prizes, and I'm proud that we have musicians like Skilly representin' both Punjab and the D.

In short, it seems to me that South Asians across the country are maturing. Not just in the literal sense — elder generations are, indeed, battling a scourge of bloating waistlines and Type 2 diabetes. But you're seeing more Anishas. More Skillys. Our aptly labeled generation of "American-born Confused Desis" is coming into its own. We're expanding the scope of our dreams. And as the song goes, "Dhoom machaale, dhoom machaale, dhoom" — we're gonna make some noise.

Meghana Keshavan is Metro Times listing editor. Send comments to mkeshavan@metrotimes.com.

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