Priyanka Chopra's refugee t-shirt row: What was that 'ganji from hell' really saying?
By Nisha Susan
Last month, novelist Omair Ahmed wrote the following lines while glumly reviewing Suketu Mehta’s new novella What Is Remembered? “Indian immigrant fiction is largely a production by upper middle class Indians — the bhadralok united — who find that being upper middle class in the US is not the same thing. This terrible disappointment forces them to reflect on their own people and country, generally with contempt for the lower orders.”
After having spotted Priyanka Chopra on the cover of Conde Nast Traveller, in the most discussed white t-shirt in India, it’s been hard to not think of those lines and to not share Ahmed’s glumness.
When we first saw this t-shirt, my colleagues and I joked and called it the ganji from hell and then made what we called a translation.
Perhaps this is what PC and her stylist Cristina Ehrlich really wanted the T-shirt to say, we said.
Subsequently there has been a ton more of discussion about the niyat, the good/bad intentions of the t-shirt. We also puzzled over the detail that the T-shirt had been designed by V Sunil, the same person who designed the Make In India logo.
Priyanka Chopra’s t-shirt is like a funhouse mirror. Depending on where you stand while looking at it, it gives you a special and twisted reflection. The question is, which way was PC facing when wearing it for the cover of the Indian edition of an international magazine?
Is she standing in the US looking India-wards, saying “don’t call me a refugee/migrant/outsider, call me a traveller”? In which case PC and the crew behind this cover seem blissfully unaware that “I am a traveller” is one of the most heavily mocked contemporary tropes. Everyone has made fun of the smug privilege of the “I quit my job to travel the world” posse. I mean everyone from the Indian blogger Local Tea Party (“So I have concluded that it is better to avoid all this inspired travel business and nonsense because as Indians we anyway have to come back and deal with Airtel customer care and other such important things in life. All such magical things happen to white people because first of all they can just buy a ticket and show up at the border without any plan.”) to the less nimble New Yorker (“I’m a free spirit, whose father owns a South American rubber empire.”).
Is she standing in the US looking out at the American landscape she has cut swathes through, saying don’t call me a refugee/migrant/outsider, call me a traveller? That t-shirt doesn’t look much better now. What ridiculous meaning would it have to turn your back on the label refugee in 2016, a label that tortures 60 million people around the world. Or the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘outsider’ which are floating about in a toxic, boiling cauldron in the US. During this US Presidential elections one candidate has a. promised to build a wall on the border to keep Mexicans out because they are “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” b. promised to deport all “11 million illegal immigrants”, even the children born in the US c. sworn to prevent all Muslims from entering United States and d. continued to spread the canard that the first African-American president faked his birth certificate, and was therefore not in office legally.
Most of Hollywood has responded to Trump’s worldview with disgust and outrage. This includes American-born actors of colour such as Kerry Washington, lead of Scandal and member of Stop Hate Dump Trump, and those who are still citizens of their country of birth such as musician Shakira, who has said that “no one living in this century should stand behind so much ignorance”. It makes a sad kind of sense then that Priyanka Chopra would, in the middle of this heated debate, participate as a member of the ever-ready-to-please ‘model minority’ — Asians in America. This is, to quote Everyday Feminism, a stereotype that generalises Asian Americans and pits them against other communities “by depicting them as the perfect example of an if-they-can-do-it-so-can-you success story”. In recent times, some Asian Americans have joined the race debates with cultural productions such as Fresh Off the Boat and social media movements such as #ModelMinorityMutiny and standing beside Black Lives Matter activists.
Ever seen the confusing garment called a 'skort' — both skirt and shorts? This t-shirt has turned out to be equally mutant. It combines a cluelessness about what Third World folks living in the Third World think about travel and a cluelessness about what people of colour feel about living in the First World right now. It isn’t the political statement made by Lupita Nyong’o’s headwrap at the premiere of Queen of Katwe or her sculptural traditional hairstyle at the Met Gala in New York in May 2016. It isn’t the complicated dance of identity that Nyong’o is performing while being an extremely successful Kenyan-born actor in Hollywood. This is the mildly annoying, aspirational equivalent of Indian ads in which people are walking down fake-Paris streets carrying straw baskets with baguettes.
What an admirable career path Chopra has blazed in a quick couple of years in Hollywood. This cover appearance, on the other hand, has fallen rather short in the inspiration stakes.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is an online women’s magazine