A month back a friend drew my attention to a music video by Canadian (of Indian origin) hip-hop artist Ishq Bector (his website here). Titled “Aye Hip Hopper”, the music video tells the tale of an Indian bai (housemaid) in love with this hip-hop artist. This demure bai — dressed in a western maid’s outfit — even falls in love and wants him to return her affections. The hip-hopper, as he is addressed by the bai, only offers “baksheesh” in return for her affections and asks her to “fut, fut, fut” (a Hindi slang for being dismissive). Watch it for yourself here:
Apparently the music video has caused some furore amongst middle class Indians who find it offensive, sexist, and tasteless. While not denying those charges, I would like to offer a different reading of this and in the process try to bring in some references on the different modes popular culture imagines maids. For a response to “Aye Hip Hopper” would be vacuous without references to other forms of popular addresses. A cursory glance at various representations of the maid shows the different ways we imagine the bai — but the most striking one, which also is the oft-repeated one, is the one of the exploitable. This is a very boring point since there is nothing new about it) but the example points to the way capital can find ways to fetishise ordinary objects around us and circulate them for consumption. In this case, we buy the music and watch the television channels that play the music videos and feature his interviews. The question really is why does it appeal to us?
Ishq Bector’s ‘Aye Hip Hopper’ should be read with and against the grain of the imagination of the bai. In this case, we have an NRI who is imagining India through the musical practices of hip-hop, which brings with it a certain construction of women in both lyrics as well as music videos (read here and here. Watch an example of a video by 50 Cent here and a video by Eminem here). Of course, we have to ask the difficult question. If this is a returning-NRI who claims to be one with the roots of Indian popular culture (watch his views on blending “concepts” here) we could ask what is the extent to which he is gazing at the native culture through a patronising and imerialising white culture? Does this music video eroticise the native woman? For example, his own virility is heightened and raised by the virile native girl’s desire for him. Step back into the past and you find abundant images of the eroticisation of the native body. In Ishq Bector’s video, the bai is given agency and is not an object to be merely looked at. She desires Ishq Bector and is hysterical about the same, though in a more subdued form. On the other hand, she is elevated to a new “sexy” kind of exploitation by transferring her body into a more desirable and gaze friendly attire. So the ordinary bai, engaged in a class struggle also becomes a sexual commodity. So, is Ishq Bector the returning imperialising gaze?
A different kind of representation of the bai can be found in Indian films. Here we see the female from the gaze of the subject thereby leading to interpellation of our own symbolic relations with the subject (the threatening male) and the object (the threatened female). This construction of the bai is from a sensibility that views women as vulnerable and the male gaze as threatening, here we have crude (but not inauthentic) representations of the male (a villain) whose sexual drives leads him to gaze (illicitly) at the female body. Here the subject (the villain) is able to gaze because the bai is weak and vulnerable and cannot challenge the act (see video below):
In the case of Aye Hip Hopper, it raises a further problematic because it also allows us to imagine the bai outside of the class struggle. Here the female articulates her desire and requests the male subject to return her affections in kind! She asks him to mop the floor of her love house! Of course, such a construction is not without a problematic. For example who is speaking here? Not a Real maid who has to toil from 5 till 8 every day, is exploited, and even kept under surveillance as the video below shows:
On the other hand, the launch of a small/cheap car (Tata Nano) arouses anxieties about the rise of this class of people as this cartoon here shows (trans: she is now coming up with new excuses for latecoming, like her car getting punctured). Thus, in the example of the home video and the caricature, the maid is returned to her class position where their upward mobility is viewed as a threat. In the case of the home video the person who made the video views the stealing maid as a threat to his hard earned money (as he very enthusiastically provides a running commentary just in case we did not get enough of his voyueristic ways). It does not even dawn upon the panoptic enthusiast that possibly the bai is underage and he could be breaking the law by getting her to work. What should be the right way for the bai to earn the extra money? On the other hand, the bai’s purchase of a car is viewed with considerable anxiety by the male member of the house.
The last two examples beg another question. What exactly is the concern of the middle-class, English-speaking, most possibly educated — and in the other case — the middle-class Hindi-speaking male? Is it merely to view a class of people in a certain way? Does it serve the purpose of resignifying their position so that the threat appears to be in check — as if to say yes, we are watching them, commenting on them thus everything is under control.
Comments most welcome!