NBC’s Smash Takes On The Misappopriation Of Indian Culture

Confession: I am a closet fan of NBC’s Smash. I love it because it speaks to both my inner-diva and inner (or just plain overt) queerness. The qualities of kitsch and camp (as manifested in dance sequences, Marilyn Monroe drag, and Anjelica Houston, naturally) are things that I hold near and dear.

So despite certain flaws of the TV show (stiff scenarios that force segues to Vaseline-tinted balladeer-ing, and many, many jazz hands), I anticipate each new episode every Tuesday morning — thank Claude for Hulu – with a certain sense of hope and an expectation for my campy needs to be satisfied.

So lo and behold my bafflement at the original song “One Thousand And One Nights” featured in Smash’s latest episode, “Publicity”: a distorted ode to Bollywood that left me feeling all kinds of awkward.

At the onset, the premise somewhat makes sense: Dev (Raza Jaffrey), the boyfriend of Karen (Katharine McPhee) is a British man of Indian descent, but even then it seems a bit of a stretch.

While watching, my instincts spoke to the invocation of stereotyping: that because part of Dev is Indian, the rest of his identity is completely subsumed. This was only a mere indication of what was to follow.

“One Thousand And One Nights” is a perfect example of Orientalism and the Western gaze: the evocation of exoticism within the fictive boundaries of the Orient (lyrics like “mystic from above”), the conflation of culture in this Orient (magic lamps and the actual 1,001 Nights are traditionally aligned with the Arab world, and even then it gets bit dicey), and the hodge-podge of Judeo-Christian iconography with a dusting of Bollywood glamour (there is a bindi-ed, sari-ed up Eve reaching for an apple, you guys, what the heck is going on?).

This is a far cry from camping or glamping; it’s just disturbing. In the scope of three minutes and eleven seconds, Smash’s “One Thousand And One Nights” lambasts the legitimacy of the non-Western world, summons the centuries-old tenets of the colonial mindset, and “allows” the (mis)appropriation of culture. TC mark

image – Smash

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  • http://twitter.com/alainalatona alainalatona

    “…(there is a bindi-ed, sari-ed up Eve reaching for an apple, you guys, what the heck is going on?).”

    I saw that and wasn’t even sure I actually saw it.

  • Anonymous

    The part about conflating the cultures is so spot on. Did someone just go “uh…get us like, all the vaguely Asian shit I guess? And like, some Middle Eastern stuff? That’s all the same right?”

    • http://robvincent.net Rob T Firefly

      “But, uh, make sure you put some Bible stuff in there too.  We don’t want people getting the wrong idea!”

      • Nishant

        Exactly! This is the part I don’t understand at all. It’s such a clear sign of not wanting to anger fundamentalists by showing completely disparate cultures.

    • Nishant

      Man, even the different states INSIDE India don’t have the same mythologies. Talk about generalization!

  • JEReich

    I don’t even know if I can watch Smash anymore, guys.  It’s all just really painful.  (I’m being totally serious.)

    • Anonymous

      I totally felt the same way after this episode.  THANK YOU for this article.  I was cringing the entire time.  For those who think people need to lighten up on this issue, I disagree – not just because of the Orientalist views and the blatant stereotyping, but because it’s actually bad entertainment and wholly unoriginal.  Let’s not insult the intelligence of Smash viewers.  I am sure there are a ton of people who know 1001 Nights has nothing to do with India or Bollywood.  Also – saag paneer as a South Indian dish (another botched restaurant scene)?  Any New Yorker would know that is completely wrong. 

  • Nishant

    Wow. Quite amazing. And disturbing. Haven’t seen it but my god it even sounds offensive.

  • http://www.kalieta.net/ Colette

    I really did not understand why they had to include the “1001 Nights” in this episode. It had no place and it only made things look bad. Besides that “incident” the episode in itself was very good, full of good plots (especially at the end) :)

  • Kadman52

    I loved Smash for the first 2 episodes, then it just went downhill. Now I just watch it for the original music and the lulz.

  • Francis

    WOW. This was really HARD HITTING. How did you come up with such an ORIGANAL idea for an article???? I mean, you really took a BIG risk writing this. So BRAVE. Can’t believe I never saw it b4. MIND=BLOWN!!!!!

  • Anshu Singh

    Oh my, the stereotypes are endless. This is weird mash-up of Indian culture by someone who watched Aladdin one too many times and thought it would be creative to throw some hip-hop with an apple on top of it.

  • A L Dunne

    Totally thought this article was about Smash critiquing cultural appropriation.  Misleading title.

    • JEReich

      Bah, sorry, the title wasn’t mine.

  • cocola chulisnaqui

    To some extent I can see how the scene is problematic for exactly all the reasons mentioned in the article. On the other hand, Bollywood misappropriates Western culture in its own films all the time with random scenes in Switzerland, dancing tango in Brazil, badly-pronounced Spanish lyrics, etc. You might argue that the show is portraying Bollywood in a Bollywood-like way. I’m not saying that this is a flawless scene. But we also should take into account that Bollywood itself isn’t an accurate representation of Indian culture to begin with and has its own flaws.

    (As for the sari-ed up Eve, she’s actually chaniya choli-ed up. Most of the women in the video are. Just wanted to share.)

    • Nishant

      Incorrect. First up, you’re making a mistake here by assuming all Western culture is one culture.

      Getting more specific, if they (Bollywood) danced tango in Switzerland and maybe salsa in Germany, that would be misappropriation. A green mountain in Switzerland and tango in Brazil are not misappropriation, simply liberal use of good scenery and great dance. Bad pronunciations, similarly, are not misappropriation but simply how one set of people pronounce the words of another. It’s the same way in Europe and the Americas with words like karma, dharma and namaste. Nothing really wrong there.

      Mixing 1001 Nights with Indian culture, and an Adam and Eve scene thrown in too, now that IS misappropriation.

      • cocola chulisnaqui

        I think we have different ideas of what is or is misappropriation. Tango in Brazil might look pretty, but it’s not culturally accurate. And to think otherwise is to have a incorrect understanding of certain Latin cultures. 

      • cocola chulisnaqui

        I meant to say “is or is not.” Sorry about that.

    • JEReich

      I completely apologize for my sartorial mistake.  Hopefully my argument isn’t hindered because of it!  And I appreciate your dissenting opinion — I always like a good debate!

      • cocola chulisnaqui

        It’s too bad more TV viewers sometimes have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. I think you made a good point writing this article, and it’s important that it’s out there for people who are willing to educate themselves.

  • DQmary

     it was fabulous for what it was – fantasy!  just relax and just enj0y, folks!!  there’s enough stuff to take the joy out of life – don’t be a part of it.

    • JEReich

      Overall, I think the number could have been executed in a more tasteful way.  And I don’t think it’s “fun” for anyone a part of the respective cultures the number represents — just demoralizing.

  • Razzle Dazzle ;D

    I personally thought this was a special treat. It was new and surprising and all around pleasantly unexpected :D And believe me, I’ve seen really Bollywood. I like their interpretation of it. 

  • Jonesn11

    I’m Indian. I don’t take offense to this at all. I don’t see why people have to make a big deal out everything. People always go too far with this politically correct ****. Why can’t we just take it for what it is? Entertainment. It’s not a commentary on India or Indians as a whole. People need to educate themselves and stop looking at tv shows for their education. It’s FANTASY.

    • JEReich

      Right, but you’re forgetting that no everyone has the drive to educate themselves, and they DO look at television for it instead.

  • Erniefairchild1

    It was a fun number. Grow up, jeez. Again, politically correct nonsense. “hey! TV waters down stuff sometimes for entertainment!”. News flash. Then again, if no TV show showed any aspect of other cultures, you’d bitch and moan about that, because they’re being TOO western. People are never happy. Just shut up and listen to the song, enjoy the production, and just do your best to make sure people know about what different cultures are really like, if thats what you care about.

    • JEReich

      Wow, you seem like a really nice and considerate person!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1137043524 Jerry Ludwig

      Upbeat, good message.  Fun.  Quirky.  The girl reaching for something that shouldn’t eat.  (forbidden fruit) was obviously a reference to her going after Dev while Karen was busy with her show/actress friend.    Nice singing.  I viewed it more of a homage to Indian culture and especially Bollywood than anything offensive, but then again I’m not Indian.  It was a classic song about a boy wondering whether love would last and the girl saying it will last if you make it last.  Classic.

    • Anonymous

      The number was catchy and I wasn’t bothered by the fact that they may have done the number because Dev is of Indian descent or any exaggerations of Indian culture, but I didn’t get the Arab imagery.  That was the only thing.

      Mashing Indian and Arabic culture isn’t being politically incorrect, it’s just incorrect.  It’s like saying native Mexicans and native Hawaiians are the same.  

      There’s nothing wrong in pointing out Indian and Arab is different.  Aside from the Indian clothing, a lot of the imagery and even sounds and style of music were Arabic.  I still liked the number in itself though.

  • Shadowseer

    … uhm … actually … as far as misappopriations of cultures just generally go in Hollywood, I’m a bit between a rock and a hard place. My dad is Indian and I grew up there and I know all the Bollywood movies. I think they did a good job, because … well, mostly, I’m quite happy how Indians get depicted in TV recently … “TV Outsourced” the exception … with Dev being a nice, well-educated guy who has no problem with dating a “white girl” … which is still a big thing in India. I realize what your problems are with the episode and Dev, but I think the depiction slowly but gradually changes to better depictions of minorities on TV.
    I should know … my mom is German and guess what kind of role my remaining fifty percent of genetical legacy play in Hollywood. And I know people are educated by TV and cinema – what does it tell them about Germany?

    • Christine Seguin

      thank you! Nice to see a balanced view point from someone with first hand understanding of Bollywood. It’s not just American TV that defines other cultures in terms of otherness… Does any American find it offensive when folks at Shibuya Station in Tokyo dress up as Elvis and act out stereotypical representations of American culture? We have to be able to decipher good from bad, harmful from playful, hommage from racism.

  • mt

    Like, I’m sorry but did you just say a show about the creation of a Broadway musical was campy for utilizing “jazz hands?” Isn’t that a misappropriation of musical theatre culture? And there really aren’t that many instances of jazz hands anyway.

    • JEReich

      Jazz hands: Fosse eyes.  Fosse used both.

      • mt

        Yes, Fosse did. And Fosse was a genius. Are you implying that Fosse is “campy?” “SMASH” hasn’t ever done much in his style. Perhaps implicitly because he’s such an influential choreographer, but not in such an overt way as to suggest “SMASH” is all about Fosse-styled choreography, jazz hands included.

  • Childroth2

    Pretty sure it was because they ate at an INDIAN RESTAURANT and not just because Dev is of Indian descent. Christ…

  • OrangeYouGladIDidntSayBanana

    I don’t see Eve reaching for an apple, being tempted by a snake.  I see a woman reaching for an ORANGE and stopping because of a hissing snake.  Maybe Smash isn’t the only one getting confused?

    • JEReich

      Fruit, snake, woman.  The iconography matches up.  The intent is clear.

  • guest

    shut the fuck up who cares, let them do what they want to do. it is not a misappropriation. you are not even indian and no indian would be offended by any stereotype. who fucking cares

    • JEReich

      Me not being Indian de-legitimizes my argument?  I’m sorry, I thought that my Masters in Post-Colonial Literature made up for that fact.  But if this is the case, don’t comment on anything Jewish or queer — that’s MY territory, not yours!  

      • Jonesn11

        No, it’s you taking offense on behalf of Indians that de-legitimizes your argument. I’m Indian and all I saw was harmless fun and then you decided to turn it into something more. How many Indians do you personally know?

      • JEReich

        Quite a few, actually, a lot of whom said they were offended.

      • NYCdaddies

        I’m glad Indians have some white person to stand up for them.  Are these Indians so overcome with being offended they can’t speak up for themselves?  Why no posts from Indians?

      • JEReich

        And, by the way, I never stated that the purpose of my article was driven by me “taking offense on behalf of Indians” — definitely your misreading.

      • Cornellian

        A Masters in Post-Colonial Literature!  That must make you very marketable!  I guess you work at Kinko’s or Subway.

  • guest

    how closed minded.

  • Glitzy Panorama

    Oh thank goodness I came across this article. I was staring in disbelief at the screen when this song came on. Just. So terrible.

    Sidebar: Second Hand White Baby Grand legit made me tear up a little. Sniff, Ivy, you are streets ahead of Karen.

  • Ranger1881

    sorry, I loved it. Witty, entertaining and appropriate for the setting. Great music and a lot of fun to watch,

  • Ana Gupta

    Maybe unrelated, but Bollywood definitely makes better music. And also makes sure to match its dance steps with the beats of the song. Unlike Smash. And yes, I’m Indian.

  • Bippy

    Thank you for writing this, I couldn’t agree more. I was mortified with their direction in this number.  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again. Great piece!

  • Gregory House

    I saw it as ‘Bollywood’ not ‘India’. It is basically a Western Bollywood number.  And could the Christian Mythology be included because it’s imagined by Karen who I guess is some kind of Christian?

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