Bollywood Goes to College

Film fantasies and educational fantasies.

May 19, 2013

May third marked the 100th anniversary of the first Hindi film’s release.  BBC World News spent much of the day in celebratory analysis. Those of us immersed in international education would do well to take note, because Bollywood captures South Asian educational as well as romantic fantasies.  

A debate about what constitutes an international educational success takes place in Mumbai megaplexes and London lounges on screens large and small.  Famed director Yash Chopra died last October. Chopra’s passing garnered mention in New York Times as did megastar Shah Rukh Khan’s interrogation at Newark Airport in 2009.  Such stories have traction, because the Desi diaspora fills Anglo and American labs and lecture halls. These STEM shy populations long for more.  David Cameron recently pledged to renew the UK universities’ welcome to Indian students with easier visa access.  These NRIs (non-resident Indians) drive the narratives of Hindi cinema.

(Spoiler Alert)  

Chopra’s final movie, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, starred Khan and introduced its female lead as she gave thanks for achieving the best final exam result at her British university. That degree’s value in a life without love comes into question, but the expectation that the daughter of a successful Indian immigrant in London will maximize her academic potential remains intact.  Chopra’s tale as in Khan’s award winning Swades both demand that the highly educated immigrant return to India before they can lead full lives.  Academic accolades remain empty without the mother country’s cultural embrace.

Bollywood’s educational obsession crosses genders.  In the blockbuster  Love Aaj Kaal (these days) when Saif Ali Khan’s character, an English educated architect,  moves from London to San Francisco, he seeks success but experiences depression and isolation.  Deepika Padukone’s art restorer heads to India and finds professional and romantic success among ancient ruins. Paa purported to be a father-son/son-father story, but its premise rests on two Indian students’ unexpected pregnancy in Cambridge, England.  India embraces the unwed mother whose British medical degree can pay her son’s bills but not sustain his or her soul.

Pyaar (Love) Impossible critiques American academic culture and capitalism in general for rewarding appearances over substance.  The Indian glamour girl and geek, who meet on a California campus, only extricate their souls from the domination of “sellers” (of systems and sex) over “makers” (of programs and relationships) among the gleaming skyscrapers of pan-Asian Singapore, while the geek’s Indian father cheers.

Aamir Khan’s cinematic attacks on Indian educational institutions, Like Stars on Earth and Three Idiots, explain the push toward foreign institutions. Rigid, rote learning dominates primary, secondary, and tertiary education in Khan’s scathing depictions.  Students long to jump into American graduate degrees.  However, the material drive that propels students through their exam marathons in India and across continents to MBAs and other lucrative certifications falls under suspicion.  Creativity exists outside the institutional frameworks of international higher ed in Aamir Khan’s view.  Two more vehicles for Shah Rukh Khan and his billions of fans, Yash Chopra’s Mohabbatein and Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, cast similar aspersions on academic rigor divorced from emotional growth.

As US universities meditate upon the role of MOOCs, I dwell upon the messages in the films above and countless other Bollywood examinations of India’s educational obsessions.  I struggle with the irony that Bollywood sends these disembodied narratives into my living room much as a MOOC dispatches lectures over a laptop.  Bollywood offers a damning critique of mass lectures where faculty fail to embrace the intellect (Three Idiots) and where students easily hand off someone else’s work as their own (Pyaar Impossible).  If this is what US institutions export overseas, we have merely managed to rebrand the type of education international students seek to flee.

As US universities build campus colonies around the globe, Bollywood’s post-colonial filmmaking offers a glimpse into the potentials and pitfalls of educational empires.  The traveler’s or immigrant’s conflicted relationship with a new culture is an old phenomenon.  Likewise, first generation college students have always expressed simultaneous anxiety about success and the moral perils of affluence.  Universities have an essential role as we help late adolescents meet these challenges to their cultural roots and formulate adult world views.  A century of Bollywood depictions underscore the need for global education to offer modes of transit across physical and metaphysical oceans.

Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.


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