The Making of “Desi” Culture on MTV

Curator's Note

In this video titled, "You are not an Indian," a young male addresses viewers who like him are neither just American nor Indian but desi. Wearing a t-shirt with the word "desi" written prominently in Hindi across it, the young man points out that desis are not South Asians but of South Asia. People of South Asian origin in the United States commonly refer to each other as Desi. The term means "from the homeland" and simultaneously invokes one’s identity as South Asian but also as being "outside South Asia". As the young man reminds his viewers, the difference is key. Being desi implies being critically engaged with the "realities" of India rather than uncritically celebrating the hype surrounding its contemporary global image as high-tech nation. The young man’s take on what it means to be a desi is just one of many voices featured on MTV Desi, a satellite network inaugurated by MTV in 2005 focusing on South Asian American music and youth culture. Young desis featured on the network often discuss what being desi means to them. In the process they articulate "desi" to discourses of gender, race, ethnicity, transnational alliances and cultural nationalisms. By marking itself as Desi, the network MTV Desi is positioning itself as more in tune with South Asian American youth culture than the India-centric channels that dominate the South Asian satellite TV market in the U.S.


Avi Santo's picture

I showed this clip in class

I showed this clip in class yesterday as part of a lecture on diaspora identity and “in-betweeness” and my students loved it. We talked about the placement of this spot — advocating against financially investing in the “homeland” — on MTV Desi, which clearly imagines a different type of transnational consumer. We watched the clip in conjunction with MIA’s “Sunshowers” music video

and MC Panjabi’s “Beware of the Boys”

How do these all work together to construct Desi identity on MTV?

Is it possible that a more

Is it possible that a more globally aware and nuanced “desi” is emerging out of this? It will be interesting to see how they position themselves in relation to or against the NRI populations that image a romanticized and fetishized “Des” while living in “pardes”.

Can these productions get past urbanity?

just some thoughts - I did enjoy the clips both of you provided.

Madhavi Mallapragada's picture

Well, great clips Avi. This

Well, great clips Avi. This idea of investing in the homeland is a very prominent discourse, particularly in the late ’90s with a change in state policy towards NRIs, liberalization and banking reform in India and the global aspirations of India’s leading banks. I find them very prevalent on the Web where it is fairly common to articulate NRI identity with mobility and travel (virtual banking, e-money transfers) while rooting belonging to one’s ageing parents and one’s home. So send money home to one’s parents is often the message of the ad, while the overall idea is send your dollars to india’s foreign exchange reserves. I find the ad that i featured problematic in some respects. Particularly the idea that to be desi one has to ignore the idea of India rising and focus on the ills of India. There is no in-between space that is articulated here. I think the different ads work different to construct very competing discourses on what it means to be desi.

Finally, MTV desi is being cancelled, so are MTV Korea and MTV Chi. It will be interesting to see what reason MTV has to offer for this cancellation.

Madhavi Mallapragada's picture

Hi radhika! Your question

Hi radhika! Your question made me think about how desi is often used just as a generic term for Indian-American and NRI for Indian citizens in America. Yet both groups do their share of imagining a romantized des even as there are many “Indian-American” and NRI groups that don’t. So it is interesting in this context to think about the diverse and deliberate ways in which desi-ness is being imagined in the US. i think desi is definitely being mobilized to imagine a more nuanced identity along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality and location. But that is not the only way it is being mobilized. I see plenty of desi voices on the soon to be extinct MTV Desi where they offer cliched definitions of desi being the best of East and West, desi as being one with a great culture, good food and being exotic!

As for your question about urbanity, have to think about it

I think that the only reason

I think that the only reason India should be invested in is to improve its economy. This clip is great because it reveals the thruth about the Desi society. I also think it is neat how MTV saw a way to capitalize by naming its “Asian” programming MTV Desi giving it a chance to appeal to the South Asian poplation as well as the Desi populuation.

the man speaking in the ad

the man speaking in the ad seems extremely passionate about the point he is trying to make. However, this passion may come across as angry, rude, and out of bounds to those who don’t fully understand the point he is attempting to make. When people come across as angry, people begin to put boundaries up against the entire group being represented. This definitely gets the shock factor, which I am assuming was MTV’s goal, but taste was oviously not in the agenda.

Avi Santo's picture

or perhaps not your taste.

or perhaps not your taste. It is important to think about who the target audience for these ads really is…

Avi Santo's picture

What "truth" does it reveal?

What “truth” does it reveal? It certainly complicates assumptions about Desi relationships to India/ South Asia, but is it any more “true” than an advertisement encouraging Desis to invest India, instead of against it?

Yes, this is true, Avi. It

Yes, this is true, Avi. It is not my taste nor Jill’s, but it would be of interest to those who are desis. Most desis, I think, would agree that while they are ‘of the homeland,’ that they relate more to the American ways rather than the Indian ways. While it may be true that India is gaining worldwide attraction because of its economy and nuclear proliferation-especially from the U.S)- it is still very poor and very tough to lead a good India. Desis are living in America, a rich nation with unlimited opportunities. Why would a desi want to be associated with India then?

I agree totally with what

I agree totally with what Juan said. Being a desi myself it is still hard to connect with the way life is in India. I was born here in the states and this all I pretty much know. I can sit and watch MTV Desi and try to relate but it’s not really showing me anything because it is all so americanized. I think one of the best ways american desi’s can relate to indian born desi’s better are by the televsion shows that are being shown on networks such as Zee TV. In some of those shows and movies they help people relate better because it is not as americanized.

I agree that the forceful

I agree that the forceful nature of this clip completely got his point across and made us listeners get the total point. As unscholarly as this sounds, this situation is basically correlated to the ‘bandwagon’ when one only roots for a team if they are winning. I believe this is an apporach that alot of people take and it needs to stop; It is obnoxious and wrong. The truth comes out when a nation is in despair and nobody wants to be associated with it. Just look back to 9/11 — many were ashamed of their culture. Are the actions of some and the situations of our origins something to be ashamed of?

I liked the clip. To me, it

I liked the clip. To me, it seemed as though he was making a proposition towards Indian-Americans and the NRI population to not fall into the stereotypes behind the term Desi, but to stand up and support the country that they claim to love so much. The only way that he could get the attention of his targeted audience was to challenge their heritage. The “shock factor” is needed to get such strong points across.

After watching this clip,

After watching this clip, for the second time, in fact, I agree that it does use a direct, “in-your-face” shock value style to make it’s points. However, it seems that the speaker has not, perhaps, taken into account the possibility that not every “Desi” neccessarily desires and yearns for this connection with “the homeland.” I agree that while this complicates the assumptions about relationships between Desi’s and India, it is important to take into account the potentially equivalent or greater desire to connect with “American” culture, though that term may be difficult to be definite boundaries around.

I imagine that the

I imagine that the liminality of being a Desi invokes mixed thoughts. This gentleman speaks passionately, and as I watch it I tried to figure out his purpose. Was it to convince others to abandon their identity or connec with it? Such an approach seems like a strange way to go about change. I suppose awareness is his goal, but such an aggressive tone may ward of many.

I agree with both Jillian

I agree with both Jillian and Avi. The man in the video did seem rather angry. I’m not very familiar with the Desi community, but I’m curious to know about every sub-culture in the US. I think this clip would be great for every Desi to watch. On the contrary, anyone outside the target audience, like myself, needs to understand that this man’s passion and unique delivery can be understood better by someone who can relate to his situation.

The statement that stood out

The statement that stood out the most to me is where Madhavi says will you still be proud if India or Pakistan falls. I truly believe that you make your own way. Because there is a whole generation of in-betweeners, they have to develope their own truths and show people and prove to themselves that it is not a bad place to be in between, take up the challenge and use all the good resourses that come with being in between.

The shock value of this clip

The shock value of this clip is necessary to spur interest. Madhavi encourages Desi to achieve during the final part of the speech. This is an attempt by Mtv to disguise their revenue international revenue schemes. The clip appears on MTV DESI, which shows relationship between the name of the network and the push for acknowledgement of the DESI identity. This somewhat reminds me of the “I want MY mtv” marketing slogan taken to new more effective levels.


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