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independent India, Macaulay’s brown babus persisted, copying some idea of Britishness, even if it was now reduced to an outdated caricature.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.

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