Posted by Mikail Khan
The Valentine’s day release of the Netflix romantic comedy, Namaste Wahala, has drawn all kinds of reactions from across the world. While several social media users and mainstream upper caste Indian news outlets have praised the film for taking on the issue of a rare cross-cultural Indo-Nigerian romance, several others have criticised it for its clichéd use of comedic stereotypes while altogether missing the dramatic underpinnings (and musical numbers) that characterise the large gamut of Bollywood films.
The film has also been complimented for its unconventional casting, where by casting dark-skinned Nigerian actress Ini Dima-Okojie as the lead, the film seems to have subverted the colourism that exists globally, but is especially pervasive in Bollywood. In its first week, the film managed to quickly rise to the number one spot in Netflix Nigeria’s top ten, a win that was celebrated by the director, Hamisha Ahuja, on Instagram.
The story of Namaste Wahala is set in Lagos and primarily rests on the ‘cultural’ barriers that prevent Raj, an upper caste Indian, and his Nigerian girlfriend Didi’s relationship from moving forward, due to the challenges that arise from their families. Adding to this is a subplot about gender-based violence, where lawyer Didi goes against her father’s wishes and takes on a client who was physically assaulted by the son of one of his business clients. The film is definitely one of those classic boy-meets-girl rom coms but for a film that was advertised to be as ambitious and anticipated for so long, the bland plot structure and underwhelming post-production aesthetic elements were disappointing to witness for most critics.
People often incorrectly assume that comedy – because it is funny and entertaining – is inappropriate as a medium to address serious issues, or that it can serve as a distraction from important problems. But as many marginalised groups can corroborate, and being a trans Bangladeshi Muslim person myself, I have found that because comedy is funny and entertaining, it is also a potent vehicle for mobilising people around critical social justice issues and, in turn, breaking down social barriers. Namaste Wahala, however, wields the genre to create a falsified portrayal of racial harmony within the context of an upper caste imagination, while aiming to make it palatable to the average Netflix viewer.
Since the ills of anti-Black racism seems to be predominantly absent in the plotline, the film might seem like a sign of advancement for Black and Brown interracial romantic relationships. But to the people whose lives are marked by the daily regimes of caste and class violence, whose worth is determined by a system of graded inequality, this film, masked as a comedy, unearths a deep-rooted Brahmanism that is not only familiar but also accepted as a way of Indian life.
The inertia around outwardly highlighting issues of caste, especially on interracial collaborations such as Namaste Wahala, originates from the notion that unlike the colour of one’s skin or race, caste is considered to be an unseen and mutable category. Such a misconception needs to be eradicated since caste discrimination is endemic in all South Asian spheres and not just in India – its hierarchies are maintained through property relations, caste networks, preserving Brahmanical rituals, political power, and access to wealth and resources. As a result, calling oneself Indian without mentioning one’s caste is self-contradictory for the most part.
The lie that caste doesn’t exist in the diaspora continues to be upheld to this very day, since every upper caste Indian who goes abroad immediately becomes a ‘person of colour in their social circles. This happens despite the fact that they practice caste and continue to benefit from caste apartheid. Such manifestations can be seen within Namaste Wahala through the upper caste Indian characters’ casteist and classist ways of interacting with the people around them.
The film starts off with Raj and Didi’s chance meeting on a beach, after which Raj vows to marry Didi at all costs. Raj’s insistence on marriage – an oppressive cishet patriarchal institution for so many people across caste, gender, class and sexuality spectrums – lays the groundwork for his visions of conquest that is so emblematic (read: casteist) of most Bollywood productions, to take place throughout much of the film. When Raj finally gets to meet Didi’s parents, who reject him based on the fact that he is Indian, he feels demoralized after which a fight ensues between the couple. Raj places the blame on Didi, where he describes his failed encounter with her parents as walking into a ‘lion’s den’ and dilutes his identity to simply that of an Indian man with no mention of his caste background. Had this cross-cultural romance taken place in India or with a lower caste woman, caste would have been Raj’s most prominent identifying marker for any marriage arrangement, since its poisonous principles are virulent within India’s cultural and social fabric.
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While he was indeed humiliated by Didi’s parents, his description of his experience as entering a ‘lion’s den’ only further obscures the daily physical, emotional and sexual brutalities Dalit and Adivasi folks (particularly women and trans/non-binary people) are made to endure by upper caste Indian families within the rubric of romantic relationships and marital arrangements. Institutional violence against these communities are seen as justified because they are inherently pathological and disposable for simply existing.
Enter Raj’s mother Meera, who becomes the microcosm of casteism and classism for the remainder of the film. Once she arrives at the airport, her dismal efforts at haggling with the Nigerian taxi driver exposes her upper caste entitlement. When she doesn’t get her desired taxi fare bargain, she lashes out at the driver with the words, “If this were my country, I would have shown you some sense“, indicating the powerful caste-class networks that would have been at her disposal had the film’s premise been situated in India. Her arrival at her son’s place and learning about his new ‘non-Indian’ girlfriend sends her into a tailspin of anxiety about her son’s future; one that privileges Brahmanism above all else.
Instead of utilising the comedy genre as an opportunity to shed light on how Brahmanism and caste-based prejudices inform the upper caste Indian diaspora’s sustenance of anti-Black and endogamous marriage practices, the film chooses to narrate a more sanitised view of the cultural clash between two families. We see this through the casteist and classist nature of Meera, as she refuses to lose Raj to Didi’s family and states how her family comes from a “very very respectable family in India” and slut shames Didi for staying over at Raj’s apartment.
What is left unsaid in the film’s dialogue, but is gleaned through Meera’s actions, is that marriage to someone outside of Raj’s caste and not his Indianness, embodies a decisive shift in the patriarchal and Brahmanical contestation over the ownership of her son and will subsequently taint the purity of her family’s caste lineage. While Didi’s family also comes from an upper class influential background and have perpetuated classist patterns of measuring success throughout the film, nowhere is their measure of upward mobility linked to the practice of eugenics that is deeply embedded in Meera’s upper caste personality. Altogether, the Brahmanical gaze is very much relentless within the film’s diegesis where the classist and casteist interpersonal character dynamics have been manipulated to become a superficially fun viewing experience for audiences worldwide.
Despite the film’s happily-ever-after ending and its invocation of ‘hum sab ek hai‘ (we are all one), rarely are the aforementioned issues resolved in cis-het patriarchal hegemony when there is caste and honour at stake.
As we continue to be in the grips of a global pandemic the need to confront Brahmanical forces have become more urgent than ever before. It is the responsibility of upper caste allies to work within their spiritual communities, to be accountable to those harmed, and to challenge the ongoing violence of Brahmanical moving image and knowledge production. And in this context, being an upper caste ally, especially in the realm of filmmaking, means accounting for the historical violence of one’s personal caste networks without perpetuating casteist and classist narratives even within the comedy film genre. While the Indo-Nigerian cross-cultural collaboration may seem groundbreaking to some, representation for the sake of representation, while reinforcing the status quo, only serves to further oppressive ways of being and relating with one another.
Namaste Wahala is neither radical, nor a win for South Asian cinema’s disruption of anti-black racism or colourism. It is simply another addition to the ongoing systemic erasure and repression of Dalit, Bahujan, Muslim, and Adivasi South Asian minorities on a global screen.
Mikail Khan (they, them) is a trans masculine and non-binary queer Muslim media maker, curator and communications professional from Bangladesh who is currently based in New York City. You can find them on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: a still from the film