Reel to real: Desi teens’ linguistic engagements with Bollywood

Shalini Shankar


Diasporic media, though widely discussed theoretically and occasionally ethnographically, are seldom explored with explicit attention to language. “Bollywood” films - feature-length movies produced and distributed in Bombay (Mumbai), India - are an excellent media source through which to examine linguistic anthropological topics of indexicality, bivalency, and identity in diasporic communities. In this paper, I analyze the circulation and consumption of Bollywood films - created in Hindi and subtitled in English - among South Asian-American (desi) communities in both Silicon Valley, CA and Queens, NY. Bollywood films are watched in family and peer groups, and portions of the films’ songs and dialogue become incorporated into everyday speech practices. I present and analyze instances of Hindi film dialogue interwoven into conversational exchanges between desi teens in ways that impact negotiations of style and identity. For many teens, the films provide narrative frameworks, prescripted dialogue, and socially recognizable registers and varieties of affect through which they enact their own dynamics of humor, flirting, conflict, and other types of talk. Drawing on ethnographic and sociolinguistic data, I contrast how these processes vary between these two diasporic communities.

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