I have noticed that there are many people of Indian descent in the United States. At present, the Indian immigrant population is around three million but in 1980 it was only two hundred thousand. There has been an explosion in this population so that Indian immigrants are the second-largest immigrant group in the country.
Growing up in Indiana in the middle of the last century, I met no one from India. I knew essentially nothing about the country beyond where it is located–approximately. I attended the University of Chicago for college and stayed there for medical school and doctoral studies as well. I don’t recall any fellow students from India.
As a pre-med in college, I was mostly interested in biomedical research. In my first year, I volunteered to assist the transplantation surgeon from the hospital in his research. Later, I needed to get a paying position so I moved on to another lab whose principal was investigating the mechanism for regulating the production of immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies. The first person I met in that laboratory was a young scientist from Chennai (although he told me Madras at the time).
During my 50-year career in medicine and biomedical research, I have met many Indians. Some were colleagues in medicine or in science. Others were students or casual acquaintances. Towards the end of my academic career, I was asked to direct the residency program for the pathology department in my hospital. In that capacity, I recruited young Indian doctors to train at our university hospital.
I have always wanted to know more about their experiences, about their heritage, about their homeland and their customs and their sensibilities. I typically asked them to tell me about themselves, and although many of these discussions were in-depth, I realized how little I really understood about their lives, about their journey. I was using my American sensibilities to interpret the experiences of my Indian friends. This process was obviously flawed but I had no other perspective to make our interactions more meaningful.
Of course, I have read many books set in India. They portray an exotic world that was too disparate to my own to inform me intelligently. I now realize how dull my imagination was in reconstructing the stories in my mind as I read. I simply could not compensate for the paucity of experience to make these stories truly come alive.
I practiced medicine as a pathologist, trained in autopsy and forensics and the analysis of samples from surgery, although I did not practice in this way. Instead, my career has involved seeking information about disease from samples of blood. I directed a laboratory that received tubes of blood from patients suspected of disorders characterized by alterations in immunity. I also directed a virology laboratory since my own research focused on the intersection between the immune system and viral infections.
Since my postdoctoral fellowship, when I was the first to clone human cytotoxic T cells specific for influenza virus, I have studied and written about interactions between immune mechanisms and viruses. Although my publications include many different types of viruses, I have never been involved with any studies about coronaviruses.
My knowledge of coronaviruses prior to the pandemic was not impressive. I knew that coronaviruses are RNA viruses that cause upper respiratory tract infections and occasionally lower respiratory tract infections, and I knew about the more recently identified coronaviruses (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV) that caused outbreaks with significant morbidity and mortality but limited infectious spread. I was definitely surprised by the pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had already left the hospital where I practiced and the university where I taught and conducted research. I left to establish my own biotechnology company focused on the analysis of molecular expression levels associated with specific blood cell types for the purpose of marking disease processes. My company was small with limited personnel, and we took simple but effective measures to limit transmission of the COVID-19 agent, SARS-CoV2, in our facility.
Everything was going well until last summer. The impressive transmissibility of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV2 made our precautions significantly less effective. I was infected in the summer after exposure at the company.
Since I am an older person, I am relatively vulnerable, but I had no other pre-existing conditions that would be worrisome. However, a year into the pandemic my wife was diagnosed with a type of cancer that is highly immunocompromising. We were especially concerned for her safety so I sequestered myself in a bedroom, and we only saw each other in passing until I tested negative, which occurred after 17 days. Happily, we were successful in preventing her from being infected, but during my isolation I was left significantly bored.
I have an iPad which I had been using to check on email messages. Yes, I did have subscriptions to a few video streaming services, but I never watched anything on them and wasn’t even sure how I got them. I had given up on movies about twenty years ago. It really wasn’t a conscious decision but more that the plots and settings were too familiar, too predictable, too commonplace to pique my interest.
Lying in bed infected with SARS-CoV2, I felt sick. My symptoms were typical with congestion, cough, and fever. I was tired and slept more than usual. I thought I would read but reading just seemed to be too much effort for me. I was left thinking about my symptoms which wasn’t such a good option. I was looking to be distracted.
Early in the infection I received an unsolicited email message from one of my streaming services. Usually, I delete this type of message without reading it but I had the time so I actually looked at it. The service had sent me a few suggestions about movies to watch. Most of the movies were totally uninteresting to me, but there was one I thought might be worth considering. It was a movie about a woman from India who was sent to Pakistan to marry a military officer, but she was really a spy. I hesitated because the film was in Hindi which I don’t know but it came with English subtitles, and I am proficient at reading. So, I decided to take a look. If I didn’t like it, I could always return to staring at the ceiling.
To my delight, the movie was fascinating, not because of the plot which was not particularly special. Yes, the acting was excellent and the cinematography was first-class. But what really interested me were the cultural aspects of the film. The wedding and its ornamentation. A lead actress singing a traditional song to children. The costumes which were foreign to me and the beauty of the exotic setting.
After that first Indian film, I watched lots of others in my isolation and then when my COVID-19 test turned negative and I returned to full-time work, I watched when I had a chance. I have now viewed Indian films in a variety of languages that span the subcontinent: Hindi, Telegu, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, and Bengali. Of course, I know none of these languages and honestly cannot distinguish them from each other. Regardless, the dialogue hasn’t been that important for me. Even when the English subtitles are incomplete or go by too fast, it isn’t difficult to discern what is being said by the context and the facial expressions of the actors.
My initial observation of Indian cinema involved the stories being told. They are not different from western cinema. Love, sex, and death are major items. Treachery and revenge and jealousy and prejudice and parental disapproval with consequent angst play important roles. Heroism and honor and truth are lauded in Indian and western cinema. Humor and silliness are used as counterpoints to break tension and provide respite from drama. These stories and the storytelling structures are not unique and do not distinguish.
What is special about Indian cinema is the depiction of Indian culture, the capacity to transport the viewer to a different reality that enhances perspective and informs sensibility. People eating with their hands has given me a visceral sense of India that could not be conveyed by casual discussion. Dancing that emphasizes hands and facial expressions and unusual gestures foreign to western dance have shown me distinct ways to appreciate movement. The unfamiliar tonal scales, the emphasis on rhythm and deemphasis on harmony, the unique instruments of India produce an unusual music, which is used in a way foreign to the western viewer. In one film the grandmother communicated with her son by playing a classical Indian string instrument, the veena. Travel by motorcycles or scooters contrasts with the American emphasis on cars. Housing is different and shopping is different and the place of religion in everyday life is unique. The emphasis on living with family and the expectation that brides move in with their husbands’ families are not commonplace here. Traditional Indian clothing, such as sari and lungi, identifies the films by specifying the culture. Through Indian cinema I have learned about Indian culture in a way that is not readily conveyed by casual conversation or reading books. Even persistent and intense interrogation of native Indians in America–under harsh lights when available–does not work well to understand Indian life at this granular level.
Of course, America plays a significant role in many Indian films. In some America is the Emerald City. In others American influence is corrupting and sinister. Going to America for education or migrating to America is a symbol of status but at the same time there is a current of American culture as foreign in order to serve as a foil. Some Indian movies are filmed in the United States or London, but usually this maneuver serves to set up returning home to India.
Many Indian films have powerful social themes. For instance, the tension between falling in love and arranged marriages is a common element in Indian cinema that is missing from American movies. This tension is manifest as toxic patriarchy in some films but as benign familial concern in others. Sometimes it is comedic and other times tragic. Regardless, it is not a feature of western cinema.
Another theme of Indian cinema involves the distinction between villages and big cities. In one film a man who drives an auto rickshaw in a small village finds an expensive film camera left by a young woman from the big city. There is no way for the man to locate the owner of the camera. The man is poor and considers selling the camera, but eventually decides instead to use the camera to film a story about the village. Of course, the man does not know how to use the camera or how to make a film which is fodder for comedy. But this situation is really a commentary on the differences between city and village with the camera representing the technology and sophistication of the city. Towards the end of the movie, the young woman finally finds the man and her camera, and she is entranced by the film they have produced. She joins the venture and the story ends in accord.
Rain is a constant in Indian cinema. It is not an inconvenience to ward away with umbrellas or raincoats or by retreating inside as it is in western movies. Instead, it is embraced and celebrated. Rain usually symbolizes cleansing in Indian films and so it often occurs at or near the climax of the story. The players luxuriate in the soaking which is often drenching.
When I was still a student, my friend from Chennai returned home to India for a vacation or what I thought was just a vacation. Upon returning to Chicago, I learned that he was married to a woman he had not previously known. He told me about his wedding which included thousands of relatives and guests and took several days. I had nothing in my experience that would help me understand his experience, but now I have seen many, many Indian weddings in films. I even saw a movie about Indian wedding planners. I now appreciate the process my friend experienced and have a sense of the ceremony and the festivities and the joy and the food.
Indian cinema has given me an appreciation of my Indian colleagues, students, and friends that I did not get by conversation or by reading. I did not know what I was missing from our discussions until I viewed enough Indian films to provide me with a more complete picture. What this new understanding has given me is a better sense of who these colleagues, students, and friends are as people and what they have endured in their lives. It strengthens our relationships as people.
Films are entertainment. They are not meant as lessons in cultural relativism. The quality of Indian storytelling is equivalent to any. The acting, direction, cinematography, costuming, and settings attest to the excellent technical capabilities of Indian cinema. But what is special about Indian cinema for me is India. Culture is the substrate of storytelling. I suspect that for an Indian person Indian cinema is more about the story just as American cinema is more about the story for Americans. But for Americans Indian cinema does not convey new insights about stories. It does provide captivating pictures of Indian culture that eclipse the vision from reading books or talking with friends and acquaintances or imaging an exotic setting with colorful customs and stunning scenery.
I have never been to India. Perhaps one day I shall visit but now I have a sense of Indian culture and I wonder if I could even get this sense by visiting and staying in hotels for westerners and sightseeing the obvious attractions that tourists are drawn to and meeting people who are attuned to making westerners feel comfortable and appreciated. And if I stayed with a family and got to know them and did not indulge in the usual tourist activities, I would only experience a limited slice of Indian life and culture. India cinema is an effective way to visit the country and realize the culture even while isolating because of a pandemic.
David Kaplan is an emeritus professor of pathology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH USA: email@example.com