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UNITED STATES OF INDIA

From bindaas to badass

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People Like Us have been consuming American popular culture for decades. Wearing Levi's and Ralph Lauren, we like to watch Hollywood while we munch popcorn and sip Coke. We learnt the joys of that most American of outdoor pursuits: running in your Nikes with Beyonce or Eminem on your iPod. Our kids, whose idea of fast food is burger-pizza not idli-dosa, seamlessly transitioned from Disney cartoons to High School Musicals and did their homework with the pennant of Harvard or Yale on their bedroom walls. Football became soccer, 'I'm good' replaced 'No, thank you. ' This, of course, holds good not only for Mumbai but Malaysia and Melbourne as well, all engulfed by the giant tsunami of American soft power that has swept the globe riding on America's status as an economic and military superpower.

However, in the past couple of years in India, the elites' fascination with all things American has graduated to its sub-cultures. PLUs live half their lives in America while being firmly rooted in India. Their interest in American politics extends beyond the quadrennial presidential elections. Celebrating Halloween and Valentine's Day has become commonplace. A major talking point at parties and gyms are the love lives of Meredith Grey (Grey's Anatomy) or Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother) with friendships being strengthened over swapped pen drives of downloaded episodes of US TV shows. Much of this has been made possible by the explosion of content and easy access to them via Torrents and content streaming websites.

SOAPS AND SPORTS

It's not just soaps and sitcoms, even American sports like American football, basketball and baseball have been getting Indian eyeballs. This year, on February 3, when Americans celebrated one of their biggest annual spectacles, Super Bowl Sunday, many Indians tuned in too. Among them was a 38-year-old techieturned-entrepreneur Abhijit Dutta from Delhi who has been a fan of baseball and American football since college, and follows the Super Bowl each year. "One of the attractions of the sport is a need to understand what the big deal is, which stems from a general need to understand popular culture - this extends to ice-hockey and basketball as well. And some of it is pure interest in sport, and the rest is some keeping up with the Joneses, " says Dutta, who followed the Super Bowl online in real-time and watched it later "by the unmentionable means of file-sharing".

Shantanu Bhattacharya, a 39-year-old Mumbai resident who works in the e-learning space and travels to the US quite often, is heavily plugged in to American politics, law, culture and religious debates. Rattling off the names of the Supreme Court judges and explaining the judicial process using political slang like 'swing judge', Bhattacharya says he is fascinated by the US concept of law and by its free-speech rights. "In the US, when they say free speech they really do free speech. Anything, including the judiciary, can be criticised and lampooned. Debates happen in the open. The process of law making is fascinating in itself. People have clearly stated positions and they stick to them. "

Part of the attraction has to do with political spectacle, something the Americans excel at. "A lot of it is in the packaging, " says Sunil Reddy, who works in Hyderabad in IT. "Compare the AICC session in Jaipur where Rahul Gandhi became Congress VP and the Democratic convention where Bill Clinton nominated Obama as presidential candidate. It's the difference between watching the Oscars and some Indian regional movie award show. "

Bhattacharya, meanwhile, is also a fan of the edgier kind of TV shows that are often not aired in India - like Six Feet Under, The Shield and The Wire. Earlier, you'd have to wait for an English General Entertainment Channel to show you Friends or Sex In the City four seasons behind the show's actual US schedule. Today, you can Torrent episodes almost as soon as they have been aired on US channels like CBS and Showtime. The craze for US TV shows may have started with Friends, but today even niche, gritty shows like Homeland and The Newsroom - which are less universal in their themes than sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother or dramas like Grey's Anatomy - find a large number of takers in India. "People who travel often to the US for work may also start following TV shows and politics to have meaningful conversation with their US colleague ... to build trust and bonding. Often, they stay hooked, " offers Bhattacharya as an explanation for the current stratospheric levels of engagement with American culture.

READING AMERICA

Statistics from web information company Alexa. com show that web traffic originating from India directed to sites such as Gawker. com and Huffingtonpost. com is quite heavy. Indians (by geography) form the fourth largest group logging on to Gawker, after the United States, Canada and the UK. Tellingly, Indians form the third-highest viewership of the website TVtropes. org,
which discusses popular culture threadbare - after the US and UK.

Indians constitute the third highest user base for CNN. com ( 3. 3%); the second highest for The Huffington Post (3. 9% ) and The New York Times (5. 5%). A whopping 16. 1% of reddit. com's traffic is Indian. We are the third highest audience for NBC News - the website of the exclusively American news channel - after the US and Canada.

LOVE

All this has a profound effect on the way we live and behave. Indians today are more comfortable with public displays of affection (which, of course, deeply discomfits our society's moral vigilantes). It's customary now to greet a friend you're meeting for lunch with a quick hug, to catch up with friends after work at the local bar for a drink, to sext your way through a boring meeting. Casual, no-strings-attached sex is on the rise, as survey after survey has proved.

And it's not just the hip college crowd that's being pulled in - young married women are some of the biggest consumers of US TV shows and take many lifestyle cues from them;cues that are rapidly picked up by foreign brands and their marketers. They go for Lamaze classes when they are pregnant, put their children in car seats and feeding chairs, buy them expensive imported cribs and feed them bottled infant food from Gerber. These cultural cues work because we are more like 'them' (the people we see on American TV) than the weepy bahu on Indian telly frantic with worry over making the perfect gulab jamun.

"You can't possibly watch saas-bahu serials. You don't relate to them at any level. At most, you can watch them for their comedy value, " says Ronita Sachdev, a 32-year-old communications consultant from Bangalore. "The cultural values they exhibit are really jarring. Women who wear Western clothes and seek independence are shown to be vampish and not in control of their lives, and have to be shown the error of their ways by the traditional sorts. Even when someone on Indian TV tries to show a modern urban family, they regress to those old values sooner or later. It's easier to identify with a Rachel from Packed to the Rafters than someone from serials like Parvarish, which recently showed a mom enjoying a girls' night out firmly put in her place for the audacity of trying to get a life beyond the kitchen. "

Columnist and author Seema Goswami agrees that for many of us, these shows provide our primary cultural reference points. "We have a greater affinity towards shows like Friends or Sex in the City than Indian saas-bahu soaps, and we have adapted our moral and cultural values to reflect what we see on screen, " she says. "If you identify with a Rachel or a Monica and connect with them emotionally, you start accepting things like one-night stands and a string of failed relationships. "

Author Arnab Ray, who often writes for India-centric web spaces like the NYT India Ink blog, says he often finds it surprising "how clued in people are to the US elections... even people who have never been to the US". Ray says unlike Indian TV programming, which clings to familiarity in order to cater to people who are resistant to change, US TV "pushes on niches". "Take a channel like AMC for instance. It has reality shows based on people who stuff animals!" says Ray, pointing out that some of AMC's shows like Mad Men and The Walking Dead have found cult followings in India.

Reader's opinion (1)

Rangat VijaykrishnanFeb 18th, 2013 at 09:19 AM

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