Working without a script
Photo courtesy of Desiree Davis.
There must be something about being in Mumbai, India, in the middle of the monsoon season that makes one a bit reflective. My third night in the city I witnessed a film crew laboring furiously to adjust the tarps above thousands of dollars in film equipment and sumptuous sets. It occurred to me that I almost missed an opportunity to witness “Bollywood,” the popular Mumbai-based film industry, in action because I never considered studying abroad an integral part of the educational experience.
For years other students kept exclaiming the virtues of learning more about different cultures. The College held study abroad fairs each semester and yet I ignored the possibilities.
Then I listened to the dynamic stories of two close friends who traveled to Mauritius and Kenya. I was impressed with their bravado to travel alone, I was amazed at the situations they encountered, and I admired their personal growth through their experience. It was then that I decided it was time to stop living vicariously. Mumbai, India, seemed the best choice, as it offered distinct films, rich culture and great food. In particular, I wanted to better understand Bollywood, from its illustrious past to its complex future as a global cultural commodity.
I began an online search using the keywords “India + study abroad + Bollywood” with the great anticipation of a lengthy process of eliminating unscrupulous or inadequate programs. Instead — as if by divine intervention — the first entry that appeared was a film and media program sponsored by the India Study Abroad Center and University of California, Berkeley. Everything about the program was exactly what I wanted: a set curriculum, an experienced staff, solid referrals and the promise to meet Bollywood insiders.
My interest in media, business and culture made the program seem too perfect to such an extent that it caught me off-guard. I saved the link and put my energy into getting a job and working on my thesis. Even as I finally submitted the application, I assured myself it was OK that studying abroad had been a secondary concern for so long.
Prior to traveling to India, my perspective on Bollywood was limited to the latest Shahrukh Khan or Aamir Khan film shown at U.Va.’s South Asian Film Festival. Within two weeks, I had met and informally interviewed enough individuals to question my own assumptions about the industry. In addition to cinema scholars and critics, several prominent stars found the term “Bollywood” offensive. Whereas I had believed the word rose organically from an industry proud of its cinematic output and presence on a global level, I learned that the industry had instead been given its name as a way of labeling it an offspring, copy or lesser version of Hollywood.
Taking into account the recent trend of renaming Indian locations and monuments for the sake of authenticity and pride, it is no wonder that many Indians would like to see a personal claim on their industry. Ironically, others found the term increasingly more appropriate, as it demonstrated the industry was beginning to rival its U.S. counterpart in distributed and exhibited films, marketing strength, star recognition and global influence. As the summer began to close, I no longer saw Bollywood in finite terms; it represented an industry, a country, a style and a growing debate on how to convey India’s rise as a global power through cultural terms.
For five incredible weeks, I stayed in Mumbai, studying and observing the film industry. Most days brought a new director, choreographer, producer or actor. I visited film sets, remote locations, editing studios and producer offices. I enjoyed the food so much I took to eating dishes like buttered nan and palak paneer for breakfast. Some afternoons, I would jump into a rickshaw simply for the sake of being outside and among others. I saw for myself that the country featured posh establishments and stunning sites, but it was also grappling with questionable government officials, a substantial illiterate populace and rapid modernization of its middle class. I traveled to Jaipur, Lonavla, Delhi and Agra, but it only fed my desire to see more.
More than likely, people are encouraged to travel because it is now the en vogue thing to do. The world is increasingly more globalized, more people speak multiple languages, and our co-workers are not just from the U.S. While all of this is certainly true, I can no longer justify categorizing studying abroad as another résumé builder. It was a chance to challenge, examine and develop my sense of self, history and humanity. While I received no credit for studying in Mumbai, I can truthfully say that it was one of the most valuable additions to my higher education.