Soft Power

'Friends' cured India of its colonial hangover ‒ and made it fall in love with America

The television show taught us how to speak in a new way and loosened our attitudes to sex.

“Like everyone else in the civilised world, I love Friends.

Back in the Orkut age, this is what the “TV show” section of a friend’s profile read. He was trying to be witty – after all this was social media, everyone’s funny here. But the fact that he made this statement in India carried its own bit of irony and captured quite pithily the position of the Anglophone Indian. After all, this is a country where perhaps 5% of the population knows the English required to enjoy Friends in the first place.

In his infamous Minute on Education, Thomas Macaulay endeavoured to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect" by educating Indians in English. Rivers of ink have been spilt over these words of Macaulay, much of it needlessly. The British Raj, arguably, never did completely transform our “opinions, morals or intellect”, and many Anglophone Indians simultaneously upheld contradictory Western and Eastern ideas with ease – see, for instance, the longevity of the arranged marriage.

Nevertheless, it did make Britain a major cultural magnet for India. London was the metropole of the British Empire, politically, of course, but also culturally. And this didn't end in 1947. In independent India, Macaulay’s brown babus persisted, copying some idea of Britishness, even if it was now reduced to an outdated caricature. I, for example, spent muggy afternoons in Calcutta devouring Enid Blyton’s books and longing for “sumptuous” scones (when I eventually ate one, imagine my disappointment). Later, when I watched Satyajit’s Ray’s Seemabadha, I was startled to see characters jump effortlessly from Bangla to slurred Oxford drawls.

The bhadralok’s Oxford drawls have faded away now – only to be replaced by the hard American retroflex Rs of Khan Market. The sun might have set on the British Empire but for the Anglophone Indian, now there is a new Empire and a new cultural standard: America.

Uncle Sam invades

In India, unlike in many other parts of the globe, America did not enter via Hollywood. India’s most reliable culture warrior, Bollywood, successfully staved that off. Uncle Sam invaded our living rooms through the television set and, more specifically, Friends. The sitcom first aired in India in 1999, five years after it first aired in the US.  It was an instant hit within the very narrow demographic it was aimed at. As a 13-year old, everyone in school seemed to watch Friends. In fact, when my mother threatened a ban on the show, I appealed passionately, arguing, “Everyone watches it, Mummy."

She eventually relented, but it’s interesting to note that my mother banned Friends because it supposedly had too much sex. Of course the show didn’t really show any sex, but there were enough kissing scenes and post-coital conversations to get my mother’s guard up. In fact, Friends is probably the single biggest reason for the change in India's attitude to sex. The Anglophone Indian is a tiny sexual island in a sea of incredible conservatism. We date casually in a land where marrying the wrong sort is still enough to result in riots and murder.

A new sexual liberty

This sexual liberty is fairly new even among Anglophones. Dating and marrying someone of your choice is probably something Indians embraced in significant numbers only in the noughties, as the first post-liberalisation – and first post-Friends – generation hit their 20s. The influence of Friends was pervasive, as on any given day the gang casually discussed a woman’s seven erogenous zones, or how Joey slept with someone on a lark. This sexuality became the new normal.

A small example. My school has had "socials" for generations now. Twice a year, boys ask girls to dance with them, teaching them the first and most abiding lesson about romance: it’s a lot of work and it’s awkward. However, when a dance was organised by the students themselves at a fest, they decided to call it a "prom" ‒ American models of sexuality now being far more sexy than stuffy British or Indian ways.

In shifting from social to prom, we have the other great influence of Friends: American English. In Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhury writes that Rudyard Kipling probably modelled the Bandar-log of Jungle Book on the Bengali bhadralok: the monkeys would love to pretend that they were “talking just like men”. Kipling even included the phrase, “What the Bandar Log think today, the jungle thinks tomorrow” just to hammer his point home. The “men” in his analogy were, of course, British.

Language and drink

Without getting into Kipling’s politics, it is certainly true that our adoption of English is largely an act of imitation. In spite of his best efforts, English is not the Anglophone Indian’s mother tongue. As a learnt language, it stands on shaky ground. For a long time, we tried to copy the British and the way they spoke, but the 1990s changed that. Three hours of Friends every week for 10 years meant that Indians started to follow a new siren song. English was a marker of social status and what was cooler than America? Sure enough, "she-jule" gave way to "ske-jule" and all of a sudden you started to meet with people.

And where did the gang hang out? What was consumed in large cups the size of basketballs? And consequently, which new caffeinated beverage took over our cities? Growing up in Kolkata, coffee was a distant drink, something one drank maybe a few times a year. It certainly wasn’t the regular way to consume caffeine. Apart from South India, this was pretty much the deal everywhere else. Now, in Bandra, Mumbai, it’s far easier to find a cappuccino than a cup of chai.

But changing our choice of caffeinated beverage amounts to no more than swapping a British import for an American one. Before the Raj, nobody in India drank tea. For a long time, it was an elite drink. Yet now chai is intrinsic to large parts of India. That Friends could dislodge chai, at least among the Anglophones, is another telling marker of its deep influence.

Loving America

In 2012, a Pew research poll revealed that India loved the United States more than any other country. America had an incredible rating of 58%, a solid six percentage points above our long-time ally, Russia. Of course, much of this is due to overall global trends. But a lot of it also has to do with the fact that our elites identify closely with the US, culturally – we like to think the US is our “natural” partner.

This effusive affection is often not returned by America, who, like the popular kid in class, has many potential friends to choose from. But, I ask you this: do the Japanese have an opinion on the bounds that can safely be transgressed when a couple are on a break? While China may be the world’s next superpower, could they be more ignorant of Americana?

Friends and a phalanx of cultural imports from then – America’s devastating soft power – have made sure the Anglophone Indian buys into America strongly. They overlap with how we live our lives and even steer our politics.

Or, as Pheobe would say, thanks in no small part to Friends, America is India’s lobster.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.