By Praveen Das
To prevent this argument from going soft it’s perhaps best to start with a story, even if it’s an anecdote about an anecdote. Despite having never met the man in question, an acquaintance of mine from Mumbai once recalled how Amitabh Bachchan may have saved his life in the dusty valleys of Afghanistan. The storyteller, an Indian diplomat, who shall we say functions as part of the spear tip of Indian statecraft, was in the Central Asian nation soon after the Taliban’s ouster in 2002 and looking to make contact with a few leaders of the putative Northern Alliance. Suddenly besieged and presented to a different set of warlords he found himself unable to break the ice with them, and was soon gravely informed that they suspected him of being a Pakistani spook, the “enemy” they loathed. That is until he spied a tattered poster of Bachchan’s 1992 hit Khuda Gawah (‘God is the Witness’, a film shot extensively in Afghanistan) in the next room and decided to talk Bollywood — to immediate excitement among the Afghan warriors. Unable to recall any song from that film, however, he found himself back in the doghouse, until he started belting out ‘Mehbooba, Mehbooba’ from Sholay, the 1975 blockbuster that launched Bachchan to superstardom, and is perhaps the most famous Hindi film west of Amritsar. An agreement was soon concluded and the diplomat found himself warmly escorted back to his base with much fierce debate about the new “Khan ishtars” in Mumbai.
The tale might have perhaps grown longer in the telling but there’s no disputing how popular Indian films now are in many parts of the world. Clearly, going soft need not be inopportune. For well over two decades now foreign policy wonks have waxed eloquent about the merits of ‘soft power’ for nations looking to find their places at the global high table. India, with its old civilisation and spiritual customs based on universalist traditions, has always had several cards to play in this game. Indian commercial cinema, with its distinct rhythms, is the latest addition to the pack. As a noted strategic affairs guru puts it: “Bollywood has done more for Indian influence abroad than all the bureaucratic efforts of the government”. But there’s still some way to go, for both industry and creative artists cynically churning out assembly-line movies in the country, and for the state making more concerted efforts to better push what is arguably India’s most exciting export goodie.
Much water has flown down the Ganges since earlier generations of Indians were often told of how much Russians loved Raj Kapoor’s cloyingly Chaplinesque tramp from Awara, or of how Dilip Kumar was as much a heartthrob in Lahore and Dhaka as he was in Mumbai. Beyond old ties of cultural kinship in the subcontinent and bilateral arrangements between governments (which saw a handful of Indian films being regularly exported to ‘friendly’ countries like the Soviet Union or Mongolia), Indian cinema has struck out and conquered bold newer frontiers now. Indian superstars like Aishwarya Rai and Aamir Khan regularly walk the red carpet at big film festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Venice and are recognised globally. Southern superstar Rajinikanth was a cultural phenomenon in Japan for a while, where local fans dubbed him ‘Dancing Maharajah” and landed up in exotic Indian costumes for his movie premieres. Bolly superstar Shah Rukh Khan was conferred a high Malaysian state honour which even stirred controversy there with many protesting that local actors were ignored. Several actors also increasingly pop up in the tabloid press when holidaying abroad in the West — a surer sign of cross-cultural traction than any box-office grosses — and are now slowly experimenting with taking up meaty roles in films in a more globalised Hollywood.
There’s no denying Indian movie stars’ graphs have seen increasingly steep rises from the last decade into this one. If pirated videotapes in the 1980s kickstarted the revolution, the internet and its endlessly cyclical streams of video content — appears to have solidified this reach, taking Indian film to places as far afield as North Africa, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In fact there’s a reason Indian film distributors now delay releasing Hindi or Tamil films in many foreign markets, despite the lucrative business many films do there. Most pirated DVDs that land up almost immediately after film premieres on Indian shores come from these places.
In briefly analysing this trans-cultural appeal of Indian cinema two major factors must be noted. One, the size, breadth and rising cultural assertiveness of the Indian diaspora across the world has been a factor so huge it’s changed Bollywood in several noteworthy ways. The expatriate Indian’s outsize longing for identity and roots has helped reshape the country’s film trade. The foreign box office (BO) contributes so significantly to big movies in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu that several duds at the local BO actually go on to make profits from the diaspora dollar. Many films now have exclusive premieres in London and New York, unthinkable even a decade and a half ago. Pioneered by filmmakers like Subash Ghai — who was actually lampooned in the mid 1990s for ‘pandering’ to Non Resident Indian (NRI) audiences — the size of this market has even led to the content changing in Bollywood. Indian films have got slicker, costlier and are now set in locales across the globe with many actors often playing NRI characters, echoing vaguely NRI concerns.
Film markets at festivals worldwide now see sizeable Indian delegations hawking new productions for distributors to pick up or producers to take up. Outside of Bollywood, Tamil film producers now tie-up ‘FMS’ (Foreign, Malaysia, Singapore) rights before they get down to haggling with local distributors about territories and sales, while Telugu producers line up small European and sizeable North American releases for their new films.
NRIs, it seems, just can’t get enough of the filmy glamour from their old country in any way possible. Many film stars now earn big bucks from performing at ‘Bollywood Nights’ abroad. These arena shows, staged almost exclusively in countries with large NRI populations, have also proven so lucrative that several stars either long in the tooth back home or relegated to the background now make their money purely from ‘touring’.
Business is booming overseas, yet as any big producer, distributor or cultural commentator will tell you, much remains to be done to increase penetration beyond the diaspora. The odd viral video of Europeans doing ‘Bollywood dancing’ for small audiences or weddings with a Bollywood theme are still too few and far between for Indian cinema to be labelled a widespread crossover phenomenon. Unlike, say, with the martial arts films that crossed over from Hong Kong and China to the West over three decades ago; or Japanese creature features, manga or ‘J-Horror’ genres. They influence Hollywood, still the gold standard for big feature film production. To change that requires tinkering with the old formula for Indian cinema. It would mean going more ‘arty’ (a despised phrase in Indian film production circles) and looking to imbibe and reconstruct in singular fashion genres, themes and narrative experiments from elsewhere. And not just in form.
Which is, of course, easier said than done. A strong recidivist streak resides deep inside Indian filmdom. The formula may not be periodically dumped or retired for a new genre to rise to the top of the heap à la Hollywood. This in turn has a lot to do with why the formula is the way it is. Why fix what ain’t broke? And besides, this formula is the second reason Indian films have such a large global reach. It’s why they speak in unmatched dulcet tones to several other developing societies that have much more in common with Indian audiences than they suspect.
Think Local, Act Global
There’s a reason India is referred to as a subcontinent. The sum of its many ethnic, cultural and linguistic parts is perhaps greater than the whole. With over 25 major languages spoken and over 700 hundred dialects, not to mention large ethnic, cultural and religious divisions, nation building and unity was a challenge the founders and early builders of modern India took very seriously indeed. Cinema was soon harnessed to the task in the 1950s. Filmmakers and writers took on matters of great national and social import and until the mid 1960s (when romances got mushier and a new generation of glamorous lovers and sex symbols appeared onscreen) and early 70s (when public anger against a dysfunctional state and crony capitalism exploded on screens across India) sought to craft a cohesive cinema that provided ‘wholesome’ family entertainment while dwelling on traditional Indian values and customs. These films had to crossover from one region of India to another that had about as much in common with each other as two European countries do. They had to transcend barriers of language, class, creed and ethnicity. They began doing that for almost every big Bollywood release in roughly the late 60s to early 70s. The seeds of a global formula were sown right there. In fact, in addition to India’s remarkable (even if slightly flawed) tryst with liberal democracy, several theorists and historians have championed Bollywood in particular as a great force for national integration in what ought to have been a rather fractious country of infinite diversity. To put it a little simplistically, a template was slowly evolved and continues to form the basis of cinema to this day with very little variations on the theme, even if the forms have changed over time.
Also powered by audiences changing with a new liberalising India, new films from the mid 1990s began to be increasingly located abroad (and not just for the songs) while the melodrama remained firmly rooted in varying interpretations of ‘Indianness’. Over the year the characters got glitzier, the stars got shinier, the songs got dreamier, the love stories got mushier, the gangsters and vigilantes got nastier and the Hollywood-inspired action sequences got edgier, but the melodramatic tensions remained pretty much the same. It made — and still makes — for a heady mix. Yet at its core Indian cinema is still mostly all about family, culture, traditions and, of course, romance. And the increasing demands that modernity makes on each of those.
This is largely what appeals to audiences in countries that are grappling with the rapid changes wrought by the modern world and increasingly breakneck Westernization of societies. So from much of the Arab world to Central Asia and parts of South East Asia, from Africa and to many parts of Latin America, Indian films deal with societal tensions that people deal with on a daily basis. Despite the candyfloss glamour on top, which merely provides for the perfect escapism for such audiences. And an alternate ‘warm’ escapism, one that comes straight from the heart; as opposed to what Hollywood provides, which for these audiences tends to be either too cerebral, too Western or merely a visceral rush. The neo-Shakespearean tragicomic genre that Bollywood has made its own is a different fl avour to be savoured with everyone. No wonder it’s a hit.
Besides, there’s also one special secret sauce added into the mix. The one genre that India perhaps took and refashioned in singular fashion more than any other to make it its own more than any other: the old Hollywood musical format. Which was quickly fused with classical Indian traditions of devotional and theatrical musical performance. The spectacular results are there for the world to see. Indeed, whatever your cinematic inclinations you would have to admit, where would Indian cinema be without all that song and dance? The world agrees. Come, sing along. Or better yet, dance.
(This story is reproduced from the archives of Pickle Magazine)