“Barack OBollywood”: Afro-Asian Connections on the Viral Video Trail

Curator's Note

In December 2007, 22 year old white American viral video maker “CamPain 2008” set his newest creation “Barack O’Bollywood” loose on the internet. The accompanying curatorial caption: “East meets West meets acid” set the tone but left much to the viewer’s imagination. What I find most compelling is that Obama is shown to perform this Bollywood tune, albeit inadvertently. As with any great Bollywood “hero,” he lip-syncs, dances, gyrates, and glides effortlessly across disconnected landscapes. “Come,” he beckons, through the repetition of “aaja aaja aaja,” and tells us about the attractive girl he plans to secretly woo. While this is all very “hero-esque,” what we miss here are the more masculine elements of male dialogue and action that act as a necessary counterpoint to the spastic emotiveness of Bollywood songs and create a balanced and suitably masculine screen presence. The 800+ YouTube comments both compliment and disparage. Some question Obama’s authenticity: “But he is not asian! he has no asian blood in him!” while others emphatically endorse the creation: “LOVE this video!! Jai Obama! Jai, Jai :) [victory to Obama].” Some Indian American media outfits have commented that the video could act as an appeal to South Asians in the US (who are largely presumed to be Clinton supporters)—a significant statement for an ethnic group that shies away from discussing race, let alone affiliating with Blacks. As other clips of Asian American media have illustrated, there are so few images of Asian masculinity that attempt to break from effeminate male stereotypes. The question I pose, then, is what does it mean to make Barack go Bollywood? What cultural sense can we make of a lip-synching, prancing, gyrating Obama? For those of us not presently on acid, is this emasculating or empowering?

Comments

L.S. Kim's picture

Hello Shalini, Thank you for

Hello Shalini, Thank you for introducing this video into the In Media Res forum. It is, indeed, a bit bizarre beginning with the difficulty in reading it. That is, there is no clear message or meaning as to the relationship between Barack Obama and Bollywood performance or Indians. Because of the importance (literally the sign-ificance) of the image of Obama, there is an implied political meaning to the piece ~ but there is such a disconnect between the figure who hopes to be the next American president and the singing/synching and dancing/gesturing that I feel it is not semiotically productive (whether or not it was intended to be). Can you tell us what the lyrics of the song are, and the background of this particular Bollywood music?

hey shalini, wow! this would

hey shalini, wow! this would def be interesting to watch whilst tripping. i’ll echo l.s. in asking for a bit more context - though i think almost the reception here is perhaps more interesting. do you know anything about the 22 year old white guy who put this together? i.e. is this supposed to be making fun of obama and/or bollywood style or positing afro-asian connections - politically or culturally - or maybe it is precisely that ambivalence that makes the clip so provocative for so many different ppl?

Shalini Shankar's picture

Hi Jane and L.S.- Thanks

Hi Jane and L.S.-

Thanks for the feedback and questions. I know that “CamPain” has made other videos about the 2008 candidates that don’t pertain to Bollywood but are funny without being clearly offensive. As you note, Jane, it is that ambivalence that makes it difficult to decide if it is offensive or not.

As for the song, it is a song in which the male singer is secretly trying to woo a girl and she responds by saying to come get her and take her away (rough translation). The song first appeared in the 2000 film Mela but is perhaps better known for its appearance in Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s “The Guru” (2002). There is a scene where Jimi Mistry is prancing around in saffron robes to this song while dancing the macarena. As you can see, it really does not have any lyrical congruence with politics and is an odd choice in that regard.

Yet, given how widely circulated it is and how many have been moved to comment on it, it is hard to dismiss altogether. While I don’t think there is a clear political message in the clip itself, the semiotic meanings that emerge from reception seem to be significant.

Shilpa Dave's picture

Shalini, Wonderful clip and

Shalini,

Wonderful clip and commentary!

This is a difficult piece to decide what to do with. It would be interesting to do a comparison between this clip and the “Obama Girl” ad. The latter features him as the object whereas this clip shows him as the “woo-er.” This piece is definitely feminized but it doesn’t start out that way. His speech and the clips of him boxing establish that he has a strong voice and a fighting presence. The imagery of a new day dawning is clearly meant to be empowering.

And yet, this is undercut by the lip-synching. This clip takes his defining characteristic–his power to inspire with his words—and turns him into solely a mouthpiece. Is there an implication that he’s a performer complete with dancing girls?

I’m also influenced by the fact that the pink starburst and the song are in “The Guru” which deftly ties performance to sexuality and masculinity. But I wonder if the creator randomly picked the song and was consuming Bollywood (a la orientalism) rather than trying to create something new and empowering.

Shalini Shankar's picture

Hi Shilpa- Thanks for your

Hi Shilpa-

Thanks for your comment. I agree, this would be nicely compared with “Obama girl.” Like that video, it is difficult to take this piece seriously. I do suspect that the video maker got this from The Guru, rather than picking a more relevant song. You’re right that the beginning is masculine, and the starburst is feminine but more psychedelic than anything else. There is something about the physicality of Obama being moved around like a puppet that is quite unsettling. Maybe being linked to all those dancing girls makes him more masculine?

LeiLani Nishime's picture

Hello Shalini -- I can

Hello Shalini — I can certainly see why this video went viral. The lip-syncing parts are particularly striking, and I kept backing the video up to watch them again.

_The Guru_ was a flop at the box office so I don’t know how far I can stretch the connection, but the main character there was a false Guru who merely repeated his cliché’s (stolen from someone else) to needy, spiritually bankrupt, Americans. Maybe the macarena scene is a political commentary?

In response to your original comments, I’m interested in the question of Obama’s masculinity. Earlier on in his campaign, it seemed as if Obama was playing a more nurturing, “feminine” role in response to a more aggressive Clinton. I think there was a Salon.com editorial that pointed out how the Democratic contenders had become oddly gendered. Perhaps his stance made him a less threatening as an African American male. In any case, I’m wondering if it would be possible to see the video as both emasculating and empowering rather than either/or.

I gotta say, I’m stumped and fascinated by the dancing girls in his mouth. What is up with that?

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