A recent poll conducted by the Lowy Institute on Indonesian public attitudes to the world revealed that a significant number enjoyed Indian pop culture the most. This stood in stark contrast to how India fared in the overall poll — only 41% of Indonesians reported trust in India and only 38% had confidence in Narendra Modi doing ‘the right thing regarding world affairs’.
But there’s hope yet. Indonesia’s appreciation of Indian pop-culture highlights an opportunity in how India can better engage with Southeast Asia, a region which is strategically important to India underlined by its recent decision to join the Indo-Pacific economic bloc. India is also looking to strengthen its regional engagement under the Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy, a key example being its membership of the Quad alliance with Japan, the US and Australia.
Historically, India and Southeast Asia have shared many common attributions in how their foreign policy was conducted. During the Cold War, Indonesia and India were both prominent members of the non-aligned movement under Sukarno and Jawaharlal Nehru as well as being staunchly anti-colonial as decolonisation took place across Asia. Not co-incidentally, Sukarno was also the first guest to be invited to India’s Republic Day celebrations in 1950. Nehru also had strong ties with Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, as India supported him during the Vietnam War with popular slogans like ‘Amaar Nam Tomar Naam Vietnam’.
However, relations between India and the region have been patchy since. The Cold War bonhomie shared in particular by Sukarno and Nehru did not outlast their leadership and in the years since the countries have remained distant. A more recent budding bromance between Joko Widodo and Modi, both elected in the same year, fizzled out, with the potential for strategic policy convergence between the countries yet to be realised.
Yet, on the cultural front, India and Southeast Asia share deep linkages spanning a common ocean. Indian epics such as Ramayan and Mahabharat were carried from India to Indonesia by traders, warriors and craftsmen over hundreds of years along with other linguistic and religious exchanges.
Nowadays the connection is bridged via movies. It was the 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai featuring superstar Shah Rukh Khan that captured the imagination of the region. The movie was reportedly a bigger hit in countries like Indonesia than Hollywood’s Titanic released in the same year. Bollywood music also remains hugely popular in Indonesia, as shown by Indonesian police officer Briptu Norman Kamaru who earned a massive following online for his efforts singing another Shah Rukh Khan classic, ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’. A zoo in the Indonesian city Bandung even named a Royal Bengal tiger cub after the Bollywood star.
More recently, Indian television, particularly its daily soaps, have gained popularity in Indonesia. Indian TV soap stars have even visited small cities in Indonesia such as Cilacap to meet their fans. Modern adaptations of epics such as Mahabharat by Indian TV have also gained a huge following due to the historical links in rural Indonesia and smaller towns including Serang and Bandar Lampung. The Indonesian TV station that ran the majority of Indian TV shows, ANTV, was able to turn its fortunes around by showcasing Indian TV shows and became the most watched television station in Indonesia in 2014.
The popularity of India’s film and television industry extends across Southeast Asia. Shah Rukh Khan remains a star in Malaysia, where many of his movies were shot, and local authorities even knighted him to boost their tourism industry. Vietnam is hoping to attract Bollywood’s attention, while Thailand is already a popular destination for filming Indian movies, helped by the support of a large Sikh diaspora. Timor-Leste also has a place in the Bollywood club, and again, it was Shah Rukh Khan who popularised Indian movies and their music. One Timorese local gushed, “He is god for many Timorese. We wish he could come and visit this nation … he taught us love and romance at a time when we needed it to guide us to keep us alive and sane and also to dream of a better future.”
The appeal of Indian pop culture revealed in the Lowy poll suggests a manner in which India can better engage with the region — perhaps a visit by Shah Rukh Khan could reinvigorate the sluggish relations between India and Indonesia? Soft power should not be underestimated. Many countries use it effectively. South Korea sent K-Pop music stars BTS as a part of their delegation to the United Nations.
India’s pop culture appeal remains one of its strongest yet wholly under-utilised diplomatic tools. As India looks and acts East, instrumentalising this asset could provide it useful influence in the region.