From the caste system to clothes, Brazilians are curious about life in India, thanks to the hype created by a soap opera, Caminho das Índias.

“Do you have dalits in India? Do they live on streets?” asked Julia Gava Heitor, a high school student in Brazil. I was in the country as a member of the Rotary International's Group Study Exchange team. Had it not been for several other questions about Indian culture and society, a question about the Indian caste system from a Brazilian teenager would have been a real surprise.

Identifying yourself as an Indian seems to be reason enough to get flooded with questions about the use of “Arrey Baba”, its meaning, whether all Indian women wear saris and sing and dance. There could also be questions about Bollywood, the Ganges, its importance, a samosa, food...

Where does all this interest in India come from? It is tempting to assume it is due to the great relations the two countries have cultivated in the last few years, but the answer is, “We watched that soap opera about India on TV last year and it was very interesting.”

Main source

“Caminho das Índias”, a marathon soap opera that ran on Brazil's popular Rede Globo, appears to be the main source of information about Indian culture and society even eight months after it closed. The serial was telecast for six days a week at prime time clocking highest rating points and winning an International Emmy award for Best Tele-novela for 2009. The channel describes it on its website as “a thrilling tale exploring the clash between different cultures and traditions” that has already reached 90 countries through various other channels. With sufficient doses of drama, emotion and romance, its plot revolves mainly around the romance between Raj, an Indian executive from a caste of merchants, and Duda, a modern and independent Brazilian girl; and the obstacles faced by Maya, an educated and working girl of the merchant caste who falls in love with Bahuan, a well-educated dalit (which explains the first question). Incidentally, all characters were played by Brazilian actors.

Though telecast in Portuguese, the soap opera has made quite a few Hindi phrases and expressions such as “Arrey Baba”, “Namaste” and “Theek hai” popular among Brazilians. Bollywood, which was only an abstract concept until then, has now made its way into their homes as the soap opera liberally used hit songs like Kajra re and Beedi jalai le for its background score. It is not uncommon for Brazilian girls to dance a la Aishwarya Rai in Kajra Re.

Authenticity

Most of the Brazilians I met did not seem certain about how authentic the theme and depiction of India was, but admitted that they watched it with great interest because it was first time they got to see anything about India on television. “I knew for sure that what was shown was a lot of dramatisation and could not be entirely correct because it was after all a soap opera,” said Ulisses Belleigoli, president of alumni association of Granbery in Juiz de Fora. “But it did create a lot of interest in India.”

But it did create an unmistakable initial hype about Indian lifestyle. “Yes, our sales went up during the soap opera,” said Thiago, the salesperson at ‘Palma da India', the store in Belo Horizonte that sells Indian garments. However this did not sustain. Mukesh Kumar Sonee, who teaches yoga in Ouro Preto and organises tours to India every year, insisted there was no dramatic increase in the number of Brazilians turning up for yoga or seeking to visit India. “But I had to explain to the people here about the caste system and untouchability; to give them a correct perspective.”

And it also looks like it will take more effort and time to explain that Indian culture is much more diverse and plural than the grandeur of Taj Mahal and the palaces of Jaipur, or the lifestyle of the people in the Ganga region, on which the soap opera was based.