I learned of the uproar surrounding Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” — featuring Beyonce and Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor — before I heard the song itself. But nearly three weeks after the video’s release, many continue to express frustration over its depiction of India. It’s certainly an orientalist view of the country, but it could have been worse.
The video seems to have been predominantly set in Mumbai. It features Coldplay frontman Chris Martin singing on the rooftop of a lesser-privileged neighborhood, followed by children throwing colored powder everywhere. Beyonce is the lead actor in a make-believe movie called Rani, which is Hindi for Queen. Sonam Kapoor only appears for a brief moment, looking beautiful in traditional Rajasthani garb. It also features puppeteers, an old movie theater and a bioscope on a street corner.
For some perspective, let’s compare the video to another music video set in India: Iggy Azalea’s “Bounce.”
Although “Hymn For The Weekend” does feature saadhus (holy men), it does not zoom in and linger on their faces for heightened effect as much as “Bounce” does. Azalea desperately tries to be as Indian as possible and fails miserably at it. It seems she and her stylist didn’t realize that the white saree she wears (02:14) symbolizes widowhood — women who are mourning the loss of their husband dress all in white. They do not wear jasmine in their heads and dance on the streets.
Let’s shift back to Beyonce’s role in the Coldplay video. What is Beyonce doing with all those necklaces on her face? We don’t do that in India. But Beyonce isn’t trying to be Indian here; she is just being herself. One might also contend that she is wearing henna on her hands — that could have been avoided, but we could also let it pass as something to go along with her orient-themed brocade outfit, as well as the song in general.
A few points made in an article by Youth Ki Awaaz also shed light on the controversy: If a music video were to be set in India, why would they show us the fancy lobby of a 5-star hotel or an IT firm? That being said, is it okay that poverty is a running theme in these videos? And should Indians be offended by it?
Poverty in India is not only rampant and ubiquitous but an unfortunate reality. I do think that these videos tend to glorify it, but none of us lose our minds when Bollywood portrays highly unrealistic scenes or makes it seem like all Indians can afford fancy and elaborate wedding parties.
Let’s instead appreciate Coldplay’s video for what it did right, like showing a glimpse of Kathakali (03:23) and Bharatnatyam (03:20), two different forms of South Indian classical dance. Also Holi, our festival of colors, is an annual event. For the record, we don’t randomly throw colored powder at each other for no particular reason. And a bioscope is quite certainly a thing of the past; I’ve never seen one in all my 25 years living in India.
On the other hand, India is also not just all about poverty, castles and thrones. Next time an artist wants to set a video in India, maybe he or she could consider somewhere that isn’t Mumbai or Delhi. For example, the beautiful sandy deserts of Rajasthan, the tea gardens of Munnar in Kerala or Leh, or even Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. We have a very rich and varied culture, and all these places are like heaven on earth. There’s more variety in India — in terms of native languages, culture and cuisine — than anywhere in the United States or the United Kingdom.