Brazil learns to drape the sari

India and Brazil, two emerging powers, also share a passion for melodramatic love stories on the screen. If India has Bollywood, Brazil has its ‘telenovela’.

Politics and economics are not the only things that bind Brazil and India. The two emerging economic powers with increasing geo-political clout also share a passion for melodramatic love stories on the screen. If India has Bollywood, Brazil has its “telenovela”, a dramatic soap opera.

Call it good karma, or that all-too familiar adventurous spirit which seizes many journalists in the middle of covering a UN conference, that led me to a woman who had a ringside view of the soap opera that had kindled an interest in India in the minds of millions of Brazilians. On a weekday afternoon last month, when I should have been stalking elusive international civil servants “negotiating” thorny issues on behalf of their governments, I slipped out of Rio Centro — venue of the mega meet on sustainable development, better known as Rio+20 — and headed towards Projac, the sprawling production studio of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest television network. I was on my way to meet Flavia Azevedo, a Brazilian who had designed the costumes for Caminho das Índias, a soap opera set in India, which took Brazil by storm.
The Portuguese word caminho translates into “path” in English. The somewhat bland official English title of the TV series, India: A Love Story, that rolled across Brazilian small screens for the first time in 2009, does not really capture the excitement it generated across that nation of 200 million. The soap opera, originally screened as six one-hour episodes per week, Monday to Saturday, became one of Brazil’s highest-rated programmes. It returned to the small screen in 2010, in an edited avatar.
Rede Globo’s telenovelas have a special place in Brazil: they not only have the nation riveted but are also sold to more than 100 countries around the world. Much like Bollywood.
I heard about Flavia through a chance conversation with her sister, Luciana, a teacher at Rio’s famous Pontifical Catholic University. Luciana’s eyes had lit up the moment she heard that I was from India. Like every other Brazilian I met, she was soon telling me about Caminho das Indias. However, there was a twist to her tale. Luciana actually knew someone who had been part of the project — her sister Flavia.
And so I found myself, with Flavia, inside a corner of Rede Globo’s production studio, which was a patch of India in all its colourful mirror-worked glory. On rack after rack hung traditional Indian couture. Flavia took me on a guided tour of the studio, and as she spoke, the story behind the costumes and the telenovela that had mesmerised Brazil and triggered a sari craze tumbled out.
The storyline of the soap opera would have mesmerised Indians as well — the main plot pits love against a social evil, in this case the caste system. Bahuan, a dalit adopted by a Brahmin family, falls in love with Maya, played by Brazilian actress Juliana Pais, an Aishwarya lookalike. She is beautiful and a Brahmin, working in a call centre. Needless to say, Maya’s family is scandalised. Predictably, forbidden love prevails. Then there is another character, Raj, whose family wants him to get married to Maya, but he falls for a Brazilian woman who tries to get to the bottom of Indian social mores, unleashing more complexities. And much like in a Bollywood film, there are sundry other characters with their own stories. There are families, friends, elders, a web of relationships, all meshed together, not to forget music, colourful costumes etc etc. Flavia pointed out the red lehenga which Juliana had worn at one point.
As I sat listening to Flavia, I couldn’t help but imagine how Indians would lap up this Brazilian blockbuster of forbidden love, complete with the Taj Mahal, which had made the sari a hip style statement among Brazil’s fashionistas. Initially, Rede Globo tried to buy saris over the Internet, but was not hugely successful. So Flavia came down to India, did the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit, looking for clothes which would look good on the Brazilian cast. While in India, she also learnt how to drape a sari. That particular skill came in handy as the demand for sari “theme parties” surged among the Brazilian elite. Flavia says she was asked to demonstrate how to tie the sari in a morning television show. Then there were phone calls from the rich and fashionable seeking her services for sari-draping. “For each sari draped, the charge would be $250. I made a lot of money...”, she said.
Today, the sari craze has faded, but there is a huge potential for cultural exchanges and diplomacy. “We still don’t know each other as people,” said Flavia. “Brazilians know the word namaste and Indians know about samba. But there is so much more. Brazilians and Indians have a lot in common. We like to celebrate, we like colour, we often treat life as a party. There is a lot one can build upon, along with the geopolitics and economics.”
Indeed, pieces of India filter through the streetscape in Rio, Brazil’s second-largest city. In the Sunday flea market next to Ipanema beach, one sees Brazilians selling statues of Shiva, wall paintings of Brahma. On hearing I am from India, one salesman slipped a tiny statue of Ganesh into my palm, gratis. The mirror-work bags from Rajasthan are also on display at various roadside stalls. In Rio, where samba classes, along with the martial arts of capoeira and jujutsu are hugely popular, one can find some great yoga studios.
Ask an Indian what s/he knows about Brazil, and apart from samba, you are likely to hear about football. Yes, of course, there is Samba and football and telenovelas. But there is so much more about the largest and economically most powerful country in Latin America.
While the Rio+20 conference was nearing its finale, the big news in Brazil was the deal it had struck with China, by which the two countries would be able to trade without using the US dollar as a medium of exchange. It was the kind of win-win deal that is increasingly possible in a multi-polar world. Given the changing dynamics of the world, it is only natural that Brazil and India, two emerging economies, will be drawn closer to each other.

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