So I actually got excited when it became clear there was going to be an all-out Bollywood number on this week’s Smash. If not only for the Bollywood, but for the general Desi culture spotting. Katharine McPhee sporting a bindi! Captain Hook from Peter and the Starcatcher (Christian Borle) wearing a kurta! Anjelica Huston in a dupatta! And Debra Messing seriously rocking that green lehenga-choli!
Until that dratted dance number. I was humming along, enjoying the costumes and choreography—but then I did a really annoying thing. I started actually listening to the lyrics. What was with all the 1001 Arabian Nights references, I wondered? And that arms crossed, neck wiggling genie-esque dance move? Was that an Aladdin-style magic lamp in Borle’s hands? I mean, really? That’s when I started having flashes to growing up in a much more homogenous America—when not only were the differences between South Asians irrelevant to most white Americans, but so were the differences between South Asians and Middle Easterners, Latin@s, and frankly, any “foreign” brown skinned peoples.
I’ve since found out the name of the “Bollywood” song, an original composed by the show’s songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is actually called “One Thousand and One Nights.” Which, again, is odd, because it references a text that isn’t Indian, and has nothing really to do with being Indian. Using those images is just as lazy and stereotype-driven when it comes to South Asia as it is for any other region.
Unless, that is, Shaiman and Whitman were the same mean boys from elementary school who would “namaste” their palms above their heads and do belly-dancing moves whenever I walked by—to the tune of that na-na-na-na-na snake charmer song. In which case, they might still be friends with those other kids who went up to me saying “woo-woo-woo,” with their palms against their mouths, not really caring that Christopher Columbus had been wrong when he called the Native American peoples Indians. If so, I have a bone to pick with them that’s perhaps even bigger than their arrogant lack of cultural research.