Tag Archives: Hindi

Doing the Bharatnatyam to Jazz on the Hyphen

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 14th April 2011.

A better life and

all that jazz;

isn’t that why we come here,

crawling on all fours, begging

for that permanent resident card,

begging to be let in?

All that jazz is

                                    wondering

when all that jazz could become

learning to dance

to an erratic tune,

and making it your own. 

– “All that Jazz,” a poem in progress by yours truly

Every time I think about who I am and where I belong to, I always come up with a big, fat hyphen. On one side of the hyphen, it says Indian, and on the other side, Canadian. Yes, that’s my label: Indo-Canadian.

Labels are not easy to live with, especially hyphenated labels. There is a sense of disorientation when it comes to choosing one side or the other. There never is only one side. Parts of me are fragments of Indian-ness and Canadian-ness, with no clear lines that distinguish the two. I have to live a perpetual balancing act, careful to negotiate my space on this hyphen.

Imagine this. You are at a social function [in Canada]. You meet somebody new. And you get asked:

“Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“No, where are you really from?”

For me, it’s easy to point to my origins, being an immigrant myself. But I have a friend who was born and brought up here, whose parents were migrants from Pakistan, but who has never, ever in his life stepped outside of the borders of Canada. He cannot speak Hindi/Urdu, speaks with a thick Canadian accent, and indulges into all of the normal “Canadian” guy activities. Of course, he won’t watch baseball, but that’s just him.

It’s tricky, though, to decide what activities are strictly Canadian, and what are not. What/who is Canadian? Canada is an amalgamation of countless different cultures. To be Canadian, is not to be “white Caucasian”. In fact, Russell Peters’ proclamation that “white Canadians” are a minority is probably true! No, no. What Canada really is a “tossed salad,” with its July 1st (Canada Day) and O’Canada (national anthem). If you haven’t realised how problematic that image is, let me point it out. Even tossed salads have distinguishable borders.

So, yes, I understand, that it makes it easier (for you) to pin down a label onto someone you have just met. It’s easy to say, “oh, so-and-so is a South Indian, so she must be a vegetarian, or so-and-so is Russian, so he must love vodka!” But even with simple labels, there are problems. Some people contend themselves with a broad term, like immigrants, or South Asians. Both are like brand names that signify a separate category. Immigrant signifies newness or, the perpetual “other”. While South Asian signifies a marginal community; again, the “other”. Do you see how there is a tendency to separate “Canadians” from the mainstream by the virtue of their (our) labels?

And, what about those who have multiple identities? Like Canadian author, M.G.Vassanji, who is an Indian who lived in Kenya and now lives here in Canada. Or, Kwai Yun Li (author of The Palm Leaf Fan and other stories), who was a Chinese born in India, and then moved to Canada. How do we categorise them? Or, should we even attempt?

The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories by Kwai Yun Li

There’s more to somebody than where they are from. And belongingness cannot be narrowed down to one area or place; take me for example. I am from India, and I have lived in Dubai for nine years, and recently I became a Canadian citizen. I am not just Indian or Canadian. I am not completely any one of these things, because there is more to who I am and what I identify with. My cultural identity cannot be pinned down to a category or label. Labels are after all static; while one’s cultural identity is dynamic. It’s ever changing.

Let us again imagine a conversation I had with X. X represents all those people I came across over time (and still do) in Canada:

“From Calcutta? You are Bengali, right? So, you must love fish!”

Yes, I am a Bengali from Calcutta, but much of Calcutta is made up of non-Bengalis. Also, I don’t love fish, although I grew up eating it.

“You people love sweets!”

No, I don’t possess a sweet tooth.

“Rabindra sangeet?”

Puts me to sleep.

This imaginary conversation can go on, but why bother? All the stereotypes will fall flat on their faces.

What I want to point out is, our hyphenated labelled existences are expected. We are expected to respond positively to these kinds of annoying and ignorant statements.

How shall I put it? I am… me. I am able to sing the Indian National anthem without a fault, while I still fumble on “O Canada…”. Yet, I feel more comfortable on Queen Street in Toronto than at Chowringhee in Calcutta. So, what does that make me?

But don’t misunderstand me. I am not confused. I know who I am. But, I don’t see why I have to explain who I am to a stranger I just met. My identity is my own.

Let’s start over. Hi, I am Sanchari. I belong to me. What about you?

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Falling Star with an Attitude: A Minute with Raghav Mathur

I interviewed Raghav on 27th June 2010 after the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. It was an unscheduled, impromptu interview. An edited version was published in The Weekender on 16th July.

When Raghav crooned “Can’t Get Enough” on my television screen back in 2004, I got little goosebumps. At 18, I was infatuated with this handsome, sexy newcomer whose tiny smirk and lilting voice jolted my heartbeat every time I watched him on MTV. The world became smaller, and only he and I existed in my tiny living room.

 Back in 2004.

Then he pretty much disappeared from my life. I moved on while he vanished into the melee of the many pop star faces of my teenage years.

Until the evening of 27th June 2010, when fate brought us together at the Boogie Woogie Canada Finals. While he assumed the role of one of the judges, I was a reporter covering the event (with a secret hope raging in my heart to sneak backstage later for an unscheduled interview). With mild anticipation tinting my adult eyes, I looked forward to the evening.

Not for long.

The rude awakening came when Raghav took to the mike and started to compliment the participants. His constant habit of falling back upon generic stock adjectives crushed my teenage image of this youth icon of yesteryear. This dream guy from my puppy love days emerged as a cocky full-of-himself wannabe with a limited vocabulary. Could it be true? Had he actually fallen from grace?

Not wanting to admit it to myself, I decided to head backstage after the show, just to watch him up-close and personal. With renewed hope in my heart, I chose to pursue my desire to grab an interview.

At first, it is difficult to get his attention, as the participants and their parents mob him. The many excited attendees who were eager to grab a pose with Raghav for their Facebook profiles and family albums obscure my tiny frame. I have to wait patiently for my turn. At one point, I yell out: “Raghav, I am from the media. Can I have an interview?” He glances at me, and imperiously replies, “Just a minute” and continues to ignore my presence for the attention of his many admirers, all the while reminding me of my inconsequential existence.

Finally, feeling slightly miffed, I walk up to him, hold out my recorder close to his face, and repeat my request. His eyes unreadable behind his dark sunglasses, he answers carelessly, “You have one minute.”

What follows next is a rapid fire round of a quiz show.

A household name in 2004, alongside Rishi Rich Project (made up of Rishi Rich, Juggy D and Jay Sean), Raghav maintains that Jay Sean is a household name now because he chose to do mainstream music unlike Raghav: “I make music in both Hindi and English so for me to chase is not to have a big record in any one territory. I wanna make music that I wanna make. And, Jay [Sean]’s done very well and he should be very proud of his success, and I am very proud of him as well, as that’s the kind of music I have always wanted to make. But I am always gonna go on making more obscure Hindi records because I am a different kinda artist”. Funny this coming from the guy whose newest single “So Much” (in collaboration with Kardinal Offishall) reeks enormously of mainstream music.

When asked about his plans of expansion as a comeback artist, he responds, “I would love to do a tour, but maybe in a couple of months. I think we still got to do some more tracks.” You mean some more mainstream tracks, as opposed to “obscure Hindi records”.

Giving his two cents of advice to new artists venturing into the big bad music industry world, Raghav says, “Make sure you do it because of the arts of the heart. Do it for the right reasons. If you are chasing fame and fortune, you will be very sadly disappointed. But if you love making music, then just follow it”. Sounds like Raghav is still following his dream of walking into the footsteps of Jay Sean, as I notice a tinge of regret when he answers that in 10 years, he sees himself as “Hopefully just happy”.

He ends with a brief “Thank you”, before heading off into the crowd of parents and children whose steady refrain of “Raghav, one photograph!” sounds hollowly all around me.

As I make my way to the exit, with my heart crushed with this newfound encounter with my past love affair, I find cold comfort in the knowledge that if I were to challenge him to a game of Scrabble, he would probably end up losing.

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Interview with Pooja Kumar (upcoming actress in Anjaana Anjaani)

This is the complete version of the phone interview with Pooja Kumar (supporting actress in Anjaana Anjaani) which I conducted on 20th May 2010 at 10 am. An edited version was published in South Asian Generation Next on 26th May 2010:

“Believe in Your Dreams”: Actress Pooja Kumar Makes Her Dreams Come True

Growing up, I had always been under the impression that actresses and models were self-centered beings that co-existed with mere mortals only because they had to. However, a former Miss India USA, and an upcoming actress in Sajid Nadiadwala’s Anjaana  Anjaani, Pooja Kumar is anything but stuck up. And thus, I was quite unprepared for a friendly voice that greeted me at the other end of the line when I called her for our phone interview.

Thirty-three year old Kumar hails from an immigrant family with no connections in the film industry. Yet, she has managed to make a name for herself in a field few South Asians would willingly venture into. When asked why she chose acting, “of all things”, she laughs and answers, “I used to always play in musicals while growing up and Indian-Americans … were not inclined, motivated or inspired to go into the arts as a profession. It is sort of understood that entertainment is sort of unpredictable and our parents came here to have us have better opportunities… I understand their predicament for not gearing us to go into the entertainment field… so I set [acting] on the side and never thought of it as a full time profession.” However, it was the title of Miss India USA that brought her to the notice of Amitabh Bachchan Corp. Ltd. She managed to get chosen out of 60,000 contestants. However, she contends that despite her success, “[a]t that time the opportunities were opening up but it wasn’t full fledged available”. 

But there is more to Kumar than what meets the eye. Kumar, whose parents hail from Uttar Pradesh, speaks Hindi and Urdu at home. And yet, this fearless actress started her acting career with a Tamil movie (Kaadhal Rojave), a language that she has no knowledge of. How did she do it? “It’s really funny that you [ask this question]” Kumar answers, “they wrote the dialogues phonetically in English… But Tamil I can’t speak, or read, or write… it was difficult at first. But the first two weeks the writer would sit with me and practice with me… I kind of got used to it. I will tell you the biggest test of an actor is if you can act without knowing the language… It was very challenging… Basically, it was memorizing gibberish”. But she also adds that she has “a strong affiliation towards South India… [having] learnt Bharatnatyam in Chennai”.

 But acting aside, Kumar has also been a VJ for Channel V in India. What made her leave her job? “I wanted a great experience in India and transcend and move over to the US. Over here, there is so few of us who are actually doing it professionally and on a full time basis…  I wanted to be one of the people to pioneer and get more people involved in the entertainment business. As Indians, we are so talented… Five years ago… I took a risk and left a real good opportunity and came over here to encourage South Asians to write… and create more projects”.

Kumar has also donned the producer’s hat in the past with her two short films “1001 Auditions” and “Shoot My Life”. Did she feel more responsible because she was financially invested in them? “Producing a film is a whole other realm of film-making. As an actor, you learn your lines… as a producer you start the project from basically a piece of paper. And then, you see the journey of this project all the way up to the screen. It’s almost like a baby. You see it from its birth and then you see it grow up. I am very much invested in all my projects… as an actor, not all of the things are in your hands… but as a producer… you can add so many different layers to [the project]… it’s a whole other level of investment. Financial, emotional or artistic.” 

 On Kal Penn, and her work with him in Law and Order, Kumar immediately responds, “oh, Kal is amazing! He is talented, wonderful and a humble human being. Just working two days with him was fantastic… he is someone that I definitely look up to and get inspired by because he is one man who has been able to make a name in the international arena. He is… one of the few people as an Indian-American we have that we can try to be”.

 And Anjaana Anjaani? Have you started working for it already? “Yes” she pauses tentatively and adds, “We are not supposed to talk too much about it because its releasing pretty soon”. Having read about Nadiadwala’s strict instructions to his stars to not tweet about the upcoming movie, I was well aware of this fact, but I had to persist. To avoid putting Kumar under duress, I asked instead, how was it working with Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor? “I really admire Priyanka. I think Priyanka and Ranbir are probably the two of the most finest actors in Bollywood to work with right now… I was very lucky to work with a woman like that. She is extremely hardworking and very talented. She knows exactly what her role is and how to handle it in many situations… she has a versatility about her”.

 And what about the future? Kumar has her hands full with two scripts and a play. She says, “I am reading two scripts right now. One is from Bollywood and one is from Hollywood… I am producing a play later on this year, but you have to just wait and see”.

Born in St. Louis, Kumar expresses no disconnect as an Indian-American while growing up. She feels “fortunate… to have gone back to India every summer”. She insists “I have never experienced any disconnect and I think it was primarily because my family and my extended family were very close… we were involved in the community that made a difference… My parents opened the Mahatma Gandhi Center” as a way for people to come together to celebrate festivals such as Holi, Janmashtami and so on.

She also has a deep ardor for her profession, “I love what I do and I want the younger generation… to go out and have the confidence to do what they want to do. If you are passionate and confident, you can achieve anything”.

We concluded the interview with her personal mantra: “Always follow and believe in your dreams and your dreams will come true”. I believe so, too, Pooja. I believe so, too.

Photo credits (Pooja’s pics): Anokhi magazine; Taken from Gallery at www.poojakumar.com

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