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Reaching beyond the stars

Exploring “brown skins and silver screens"

by Mary Shafer

Jigna Desai

Jigna Desai
Photo by Bridget Brown

Jigna Desai

Assistant professor, women's studies


Ph.D., U of Minnesota

B.S., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

If she weren't a professor…

“I'd still be working with youth in some kind of social setting. I'd still be looking for the light bulb moment. And I’m still interested in observational cosmology. I’m still interested in the big question, 'How does the universe work?'”

If she could take three books to an island…

“I would hope I could include films! (I'd take Fire.) I'd take Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children [a novel about two children born at the moment India becomes an independent nation in 1947]. And I'd take Dictee, a novel by a Korean American, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. It's about Japanese colonialism in Korea, but it teaches you everything history, philosophy. I love to re-read it.”

Family ties:

“My mother, who lived in Africa twice, told my dad she wouldn't marry him if he didn't promise to migrate to the U.S.”

Her own lightbulb moment:

“I was a freshman when I saw the film My Beautiful Laundrette. It sparked my interest in questions of nationhood, citizenship, migration, and integration, and led to my dissertation on South Asian cinema.”

You could probably count on one hand the number of M.I.T. astrophysics alumni who do research in Hindi cinema. Actually, there may be only one. Her name is Jigna Desai, and she's at the University of Minnesota.

An assistant professor in the Department of Women's Studies, Desai calls herself a “1.5-generation South Asian in diaspora,"1 by which she means that, although she is a South Asian native (she was born in Gujarat, India) she grew up and studied in the United States. As a toddler, Desai migrated with her parents to New Jersey; the family later moved to Georgia.

While earning her bachelor's degree in astrophysics at M.I.T., she says, she realized that “teaching physics wouldn't get at the social justice issues that were important to me." So instead of a physics lab, she opted for the University of Minnesota, where she could get a minor in feminist studies while she earned her doctorate in English.

Now, five years after joining the faculty, she laughs to think that she's “lived longer in Minnesota than anywhere else.”

Connecting through film

To get your arms around Desai's research interests, you'd have to stretch far enough to include her ever-broadening search for transnational links among ethnicity, class, gender, culture, politics, and post-colonialism and then view these links through the prism of her South-Asian-turned-Minnesotan perspective.

“I’m always looking at the transnational framework,” she says, “and trying to find the connections between what's happening here and what's happening there. That has meant continually erasing my own ignorance.”

In her new book, Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film (Routledge, 2003), Desai explores these connections by examining films made by Indians who have emigrated to Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, as well as films produced in India.

Some of these films such as Fire, by Toronto filmmaker Deepa Mehta, with its depiction of same-sex love, have caused quite a furor in India. Others, such as Monsoon Wedding, explore how ancient tradition and modernity intersect in family life. Another, Masala, looks at life among the members of Canada's diasporic Indian community.

Assembling the puzzle

To Desai, who thinks of her work as an exploration of “brown skins and silver screens,” cinema offers a unique opportunity to indulge her passion for finding links. Bollywood, Bombay's version of Hollywood, becomes her vehicle to explore the South Asian piece of the puzzle.

“I’m always finding new connections to Asia in my work,” says Desai. “To see brown skin in a way that isn't stereotyped is rewarding, but so is seeing things like how stories of feminism travel in these films and how they become popular with non-South Asian women and how they tell their own stories.

“These films also are wrapped up in being enticing to youth,” she says. “How are South Asian young people watching them? Are they nostalgic for a place of real culture and real belonging? They're aware of trying to create a construct of race that fits them, because they realize that to be Indian is not ever to be fully American. The diasporic question is, how do you be Indian and live abroad? Films are significant to the ways migrant communities imagine themselves.”

Desai is keenly aware that films of India and the Indian diaspora are becoming more popular at a time when U.S.-South Asian relationships are being tested politically.

“In the films we can learn about a culture at the same time that there are hate crimes being directed at this culture, at the same time that there is a crackdown on immigration,” she says.

September 11 “politicized South Asians in ways those in the upper class hadn't considered,” says Desai. “For the first time, many actually became aware that they were brown-skinned. The upper class was surprised that they had to be careful. For them, it's been a matter of slowly creating awareness. People now have been moved to ask, 'How do we fit into this construct of race?'”

Living the connections

Jigna Desai

Jigna Desai with student SooJin Link
Photo by Bridget Brown

Desai calls Minneapolis and St. Paul “Somali cities" because of the large number of Somalis who live here. She finds the cities a rich source of insight about how “people are living in complex ways and are invested in international issues. For certain groups, these connections are everyday and lived.”

This is why, in another project, Desai is looking at Bollywood cinema to find out how it models and shapes cultural identity for South Asian college students. How is their cultural identity formed? What is at the center? What role does cinema play in this?

Desai's courses include an honors course on South Asians in America; an intro-level class called Politics of Sex, which explores the links among sexuality, gender, and colonialism; and a graduate class in postcolonial studies. Passionate about teaching, Desai says she especially loves that “lightbulb moment,” when her students really connect with an idea.

“With students, I try to encourage active learning,” she says. “They take things apart, put them back together. They role-play, debate, make films, create projects that help them define what their position is. I’m so proud of my students. I love to hear where they go.”

1 di-as-po-ra: the migration and settlement of people far from their ancestral homelands

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