When she was growing up in leafy Buckinghamshire just outside London in the Seventies, Anjula Acharia-Bath, founder and chief executive officer of Desi Hits!, traversed the separate cultures of her British homeland and her parents' native India.
When she was growing up in leafy Buckinghamshire just outside London in the Seventies, Anjula Acharia-Bath, founder and chief executive officer of Desi Hits!, traversed the separate cultures of her British homeland and her parents' native India. "I didn't have what I wanted — the best of the East and the West," Acharia-Bath recalled. "I spent my whole childhood not wanting to be Indian. I grew up in an area that was incredibly racist. At one point, swastikas were painted on our garage door once a month; every month my father was painting the garage."
A turning point came during high school, as friends of Acharia-Bath began going to her house for her aunt's curry, no longer asking her if she ate curry all the time. (She ate it around twice a week.) For the 36-year-old founder of the nascent, online pop-culture hub Desi Hits!, that shift in her friends' outlook hinted at the beginnings of a sensibility fusing aspects of Desi, or South Asian, culture with Britain's more traditional, Western influences.
These days, she said, Bollywood is outselling a lot of Hollywood releases in the U.K., like "Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad" (2001), which trumped the Tom Cruise star power of "Mission Impossible III." And hip-hop has long been fused with Indian sounds, such as Bhangra, folk music originating in northwest India whose sometimes pulsating beats make for an easy blend with the street motif. "Kids being born and raised in two cultures now are making Desi sounds their own, versus, say, The Beatles finding Indian music, cutting a track [with it] and it being more self-contained," Acharia-Bath said of a difference she perceives between songs such as Jay-Z and Punjabi MC's Desi fusion "Beware of the Boys," and "Love You To," an early foray by The Beatles into the Indian sounds of tabla drums and sitar, on "Revolver" (1966).
Jump-cut to 21st-century San Francisco, where the sharp cultural distinctions she found were a surprise (and a reprise) for Acharia-Bath, who arrived there six years ago when her husband took a job with Intel. Though she's now developing fusion entertainment projects with Violator Management artists 50 Cent and LL Cool J, and an eight-part comedy series with IFCtv and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Chris Kattan, the Desi Hits! ceo said the U.S. is probably five years away from a time when South Asian culture takes hold well beyond the three million people who are thought to be regularly creating and partaking of it here. It's at that point she'd expect to see a stronger influence in music and film stemming from Desi, a play on the word desh (land, as in from the motherland). So far, she considers its impact here "minimal."Since its launch in March, Desi Hits! has seen about 10 percent of its visitors come from backgrounds that are not South Asian, drawn by the fusion Web site's offering of music, video clips, celebrity interviews, artist profiles and blogs. Some of that contingent may have been lured by the entertainment company's June opening of the first Apple iTunes Storefront to feature South Asian music, including Desi hip-hop, Bhangra and Bollywood tunes, as well as mainstream hits. "Kids here see the validation of a hit as 'x' song going mainstream," the Desi entrepreneur said. "I've been amazed at how many Indian-American kids wanted nothing to do with Indian music, with Bollywood. It was like, 'I'm into Justin Timberlake.'"
Ironically, Acharia-Bath said she's picked up on some Desi beats in Timberlake's music. "You might not notice it if you're not Indian," she acknowledged of sounds like the high-pitched singers one might hear in a Bollywood soundtrack and tabla drums.
"Music is universal, and a lot of what we see in Desi, we see in hip-hop, such as Punjabi MC and Jay-Z," said Chris Lighty, ceo of Violator Management. "Sonically it plays so that it blends easily." In October, 50 Cent's album "Kurtis" hit number one on the Billboard charts in India. This Saturday, 50 Cent will appear in concert in Mumbai, backed by Violator and Desi Hits!, which is seeding and following the effort with eight new video podcasts of the artist performing and talking about his music. The first podcast was launched Monday on the Desi Hits! site. "We hope to be invited back for two weeks," following the concert event Violator is financing with about $100,000, Lighty said.
When 50 Cent returns, LL Cool J might make a record or two, plus some podcasts, for distribution in India, projects he's discussed recently with Lighty and Acharia-Bath. "LL Cool J didn't just want to go to India and do his thing, [he wanted] to work with Indian artists," said Acharia-Bath.
Indian movies are further away from a mainstream embrace than Desi music, but a sensibility that now runs from song and dance, feel-good escapism, to a racy, sexuality largely absent from the genre's earlier features could engender cross-cultural appeal and lead a second wave of Indian films to cross over to a broader audience. "Bollywood's appeal is not homogenous," the Desi Hits! founder pointed out. "Risqué, fully sexual movies" fly in metro areas — and mark a departure from older, demure Bollywood films absent even a kiss — but they don't play as well in rural regions, where families tend go to the movies together and disagree over what they'd like to see.Producer Ashok Amritraj's "The Other End of the Line," which began shooting in Mumbai and Maharashtra, India, last month, is the sort of East-West collaboration Acharia-Bath anticipates will gain greater viewership. The playful, romantic premise: An Indian call-center employee (Shriya Saran) travels to San Francisco on a whim to be with a guy (Jesse Metcalfe) she falls for over the phone. There's more: During the middle of the night in India, while speaking with Metcalfe about a fraudulent charge on his credit card, Saran pretends she's in San Francisco, where it's the middle of the day — leading Metcalfe to believe he's about to have a rendezvous with a local.
"The girl works the [night shift] which is frowned upon in India, but at the same time, she's making about five times what her father's making," observed Amritraj, who is chairman and ceo at Hyde Park Entertainment. The premise of "The Other End of the Line" is one he sees as being "very relevant in today's America," one that could help it find an audience when MGM distributes it here next fall.
"Bollywood should be called Indian cinema rather than Bollywood, which is relevant just to Hindi cinema — there are many Indian languages," Amritraj groused.
"Indian cinema has gotten a lot of publicity, but it still hasn't captured the mainstream," added the Hollywood producer, who came to the U.S. from India in the mid-Seventies to play World Team Tennis for the Los Angeles Strings, a team he won a league championship with in 1978 alongside fellow Strings Chris Evert and Ilie Nastase. Though it's more than 20 years since his pro days, Amritraj still has regular Saturday morning games at his house with studio executives and actors.
Wider exposure of American artists in South Asia could boomerang back to the U.S. in the form of a broader influence on pop culture from India, Sri Lanka and other parts of the subcontinent, Acharia-Bath suggested. Visiting India prior to shooting Fox Searchlight's "The Darjeeling Limited," the film's director Wes Anderson was strongly drawn to the country and its people. "If you go there and you like it and respond to what you're getting — more of everything than you're used to as an American; people, religions, cultures — you tend to really love it," Anderson said in an appearance at a Borders store in Ann Arbor, Mich., posted on the Fox Searchlight Web site. The director's own interest in India was spurred by films like Jean Renoir's "The River" (1951), a tale of three teenage girls in Bengal, and they prompted him to set the journey of the three Whitman brothers in "The Darjeeling Limited" in the South Asian country."Desi culture is in an extreme moment of change, infusing itself into other cultures, but also being infused," said Acharia-Bath. "Desi is vibrant, colorful, intense and now very fusion."
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