Thursday, March 10, 2016

A diplomacy of song and dance

Kanchana Sthanumurthy,

Image from, with caption: Bodo song Proneeta Swargiary From Dance India Dance

About a year ago, there was an intimate screening of an independent film at a private home in New York  City, attended by many interesting people, including a gentleman from Belize in Central America, who loved Bollywood films in particular. “Shah Rukh Khan, you know, is my favourite,” he said, animatedly.
Bollywood’s reach is often thought only extend to Indian origin communities abroad, but, surprisingly, Latin America’s connection with Bollywood actually extends back to the 1970s, with the release of movies like Mother India and Mera Naam Joker in the region. Indian television serials now air in Peru, and the comedy film Chennai Expresswas released there the same day as its all-India release. Brazil even created a telenovela, or television soap opera, titled “Caminho das Indias”, with Brazilian actors loosely enacting Bollywood love stories and epitomising Indian culture. The show is liberally sprinkled with Hindi phrases like “arrey, baba”, “‘accha”, and “namaste”, and, of course, filled with song and dance.
Much inspired by Bollywood, Peru and Columbia have created associations promoting Indian art and culture. Colombian documentary director and producer Roberto Restrepo explains that South American society is more similar to Indian than Western society in its family values. Both cultures are more family oriented rather than individualistic, and Bollywood films promote family-oriented values.
Of course, the drama, emotions, and dances of Bollywood also capture South American attention. Bollywood music and dance have made their way across the globe as new forms, for women in particular, to express themselves.  Bollywood resonates in Latin America and helps promote feelings of goodwill to India, which can leverage it for its public diplomacy in the region. Public diplomacy focuses on building long-term relationships that create an enabling environment for government policies. It involves “soft power”, a term coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in 1990 for the ability of a country to get other countries to do what it wants without force or coercion. Rohan Mukherjee, Princeton University, adds that it inheres in the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and domestic and foreign policies to other countries.
Through its film industry and goodwill towards its culture, India has a chance to increase its political and economic presence in the countries Bollywood reaches. Latin America, in particular, offers an untapped market in a region that shares some of our cultural values and challenges. Both India and Latin America face the strain of a growing middle class’s demands and highly stratified societies. Both are largely postcolonial regions that are developing and industrialising rapidly, and could share ideas and innovations through tighter partnership.
The challenges and realities India and Latin America face as they develop are largely different from the challenges that Western societies faced during their industrialisation: They had the privilege of developing without fear of environmental repercussions, and also had colonies, people, and resources they were able to exploit freely to promote their growth. The so-called “Global South”, however, does not have these advantages in the twenty-first century, and, furthermore, its development is policed by the Western Order as it surges forward. Prime Minister Modi has met with President Obama multiple times since taking office in 2014, and worked on implementing different trade and aid agreements with the United States, but he has only made one trip to Latin America since entering office, and only to Brazil.
While India does have preferential trade agreements with Chile and some other countries, India does not have free trade agreements with any Latin American country when Latin America has the potential to be an important partner in trade, energy, and geopolitics. For Latin America, India offers a large export market, technology sector, and culture of education.
By partnering closer with fellow developing nations around the world, particularly a region like Latin America with whom we share many values, India can find both an important geopolitical and development partner. Power is not always wielded with weapons and threats—sometimes, it is through a steady, sustained push to form closer relations and use common ground to advance.
Sometimes, it also involves a little song and dance.
Kanchana Sthanumurthy is an intern at Gateway House. 
This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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