Salman Khan on every street corner… and other observations

When I stepped out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, one of the first things that caught my eye was a huge billboard of the Bollywood star, Salman Khan, beaming as he advertised a CCTV brand. It was that moment– and not the “Welcome to India” signs in the airport– that made me really feel that I was “here.” 

In Delhi, you can’t walk a block without coming across the image of a Bollywood celebrity. Hrithik Roshan is here with his Mountain Dew posters, Kiara Advani shows up on jewelry billboard ads, and Salman Khan can be found at every street corner. This pervading imagery of celebrities– despite many of them being figures that I don’t particularly care for– serves as a constant reminder of the fact that “my culture” is the norm here. In spite of how problematic and exclusive Bollywood is, I can’t help but admit a sense of excitement when the models for brands across the city are people that I recognize and have seen before– I’ve heard the sound of their voice, gossiped about their lives with friends, and judged them endlessly when they’re on the big screen.

Perhaps this is all a symptom of my complete unawareness– and frankly, indifference– to American pop culture, but spending time in Delhi makes me realize that this is one of the only places where the media that I actively choose to consume is in turn appreciated by the vast majority of people around me. There’s something so satisfying about walking past a group of young people scrolling through Instagram reels (Tik Tok is illegal here), and hearing an AP Dhillon song that I’ve only ever enjoyed with my small group of friends. There is something unfamiliar– yet thrilling– about sitting in a car while the local radio station blasts Punjabi music that I would only listen to with headphones during my morning walks to class at Harvard. As cringey as it sounds, I feel like so many diasporic Desi kids grow up having to balance cultural inputs from both the motherland and the place where they live, making them acutely aware of the ways in which their own culture is distinct from many of the people around them. As a result, what seems mundane to most people– actually recognizing people in commercials, hearing my favorite songs on the radio– now feels like a novelty. I “belong.”

At the same time, no conversation about “feeling seen” or having my culture reflected in the spaces around me is complete without a discussion of a more sinister, blatant observation: the imagery of exclusionary nationalism and authoritarianism, as well as the glorification of those who uphold it. For every Pepsi ad featuring Salman Khan opening an “extra fizzy” bottle with his teeth, there are just as many posters and billboards celebrating the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Growing up in Texas, I am certainly not unfamiliar with political imagery, including displays of overtly racist material such as the Confederate flag. What is different here, is that the bearers of particular signs and images aren’t limited to neighbors, although that certainly exists as well. Rather, the larger-than-life cut-outs of the Prime Minister, or the streets lined with saffron flags are undoubtedly an explicit expression of the political reality in India and the imposition of those who promote oppression and violence. As the face of Yogi Adityanath (Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) smiles at the public near a metro stop, he is actively spearheading the illegal demolition of Muslim activists’ homes in Allahabad (now called Prayagraj). As signs across the city announce the 139th birth commemoration of V.D. Savarkar, the ideological father of Hindu nationalism, religious minorities and caste-oppressed people are met face to face with constant, daily atrocities that affirm that they are the “other” in this exclusive brand of “belonging” and “Indianness.”

Pictured above, BJP flags in Himachal (left), Savarkar birth anniversary poster in Pune (center), huge poster of Modi in Himachal (right)

This dichotomy– the imagery of familiarity, juxtaposed with the imagery of hate– somewhat serves to articulate my complicated and constantly changing relationship with the idea of “India,” one which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express perfectly. On one hand, it is the “homeland” that I come from, and the relatable images and sounds remind me that this is where I “belong”– to a certain extent, at least. On the other hand, it becomes clear that my own sense of “belonging” exists at the expense of those who cannot afford the privilege of feeling comfort in a familiar culture and a shared community. To so many people, this feeling is eclipsed by the constant threat of persecution, the clear result of being the “other.” As such, my own “belonging” exists directly alongside (maybe even because of?) the exclusion and violence exacted against someone else. I don’t know how to navigate this feeling, and I don’t think it’s really possible to reconcile these two ideas. But I hope that my remaining two months in India, alongside my summer work (which deals closely with these issues), will help me at least ask deeper questions about India and what it means to be “Indian,” with all of its contradictions.

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