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Srivastava: ‘Basmati Blues’ backlash shows progress in challenging cultural misrepresentation

Heena Srivastava, Op-Ed Contributor

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In “Basmati Blues,” an American environmental scientist played by Brie Larson is outsourced to India to save the country with her revolutionary, genetically modified rice strain. When she realizes her strain does more harm than good, Larson’s character teams up with locals to save the day. While the film emphasizes the importance of cultural competence, its good intentions are overshadowed by the insensitivities.

A developing country is overpopulated and helpless, Brie Larson saves the day and some flashy Bollywood numbers are included for entertainment’s sake: it’s the pinnacle of white saviorism and stereotypical representation.

Variety described the film as “unimportant” in a review, simply garnering attention for its questionable cultural representation. Rather than just taking offense, however, many reviewers have appeared confused. It’s 2018, and many would expect this anachronistic style of cultural appropriation to have ended with past blunders like Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s “Lean On” music video of 2015.

As an explanation for the insensitivity of “Basmati Blues,” the film was shot in 2013. That’s the same year as Selena Gomez’s performance at the MTV Movie Awards, where she donned South Asian “bindis,” and began an insensitive practice music festival-goers would continue. It was around the time The Color Run became popular, westernizing the Hindu festival of Holi. In the early 2010s, South Asian culture was trending like a hashtag.

So in 2018, many people have viewed “Basmati Blues” as something out of place and regressive — and therefore, argued it should just be ignored. While this lack of tolerance for insensitivity is fortunately commonplace in media, a situation like this need not be written off as an exception. Rather, observing the backlash can be a reminder of how mindsets have progressed.

As an American-born South Asian, this trailer took me back to when I was nine years old watching “The Cheetah Girls: One World” in my living room. Or when my dad brought home a pen themed with Apu from “The Simpsons” that spit out Hank Azaria’s offensive impressions of Indian-Americans. With the release of “Basmati Blues,” a new addition has been added to the list of cultural blunders I have witnessed.

The difference, however, is that while I was growing up, I loved seeing those movies and watching those shows. I played with my Dad’s Apu-themed pen nearly every day. This type of content was never offensive to me. I never got angry or scoffed and wrote a column about it. It made me proud to see my culture so public, so I ate it up.

Because back then, it was all many South Asian people had. Poor representation was better than no representation. It was proof that South Asian culture had been noticed, and we did not really know what it was like to be treated better. If the Cheetah Girls found beauty in the traditions I had practiced all my life, then I could stop being ashamed about performing in my school’s cultural shows and identifying as anything but the majority. As a child, I craved validation from American culture.

Now, I don’t need that. After gaining an understanding of my right to be respected and greater confidence in my cultural identity, I can show off who I am on my own. I do not need to settle for any appropriated media representation. I can recognize the stereotypes and promptly reject them. Cultural recognition is more than just a stereotype or reference, but rather representation with respect. As my generation grows up, we have earned the audacity to not accept marginalization — we have the determination to ask for better treatment.

We have progressed in speaking out against misrepresentation, but that does not mean we are finished. For all underrepresented faces in the media, intolerance is the only avenue to achieve this goal. As for learning about South Asian cultures from someone other than Brie Larson, this campus fortunately has many avenues. Experience the excitement and energy of arts through the South Asian Students Alliance cultural shows. Learn about social and economic issues in books or Bollywood movie. Witness South Asian representation in a Hasan Minhaj comedy special or watch “The Mindy Project.” While Hollywood itself has room to grow, at least our mindsets have progressed, and that is something my 9-year-old self is grateful for.

Heena Srivastava is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at heenasrivastava2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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