Review: The Magic of Bollywood
The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad
Edited by Anjali Gera Roy
Rs. 750 pp 334
If Rajesh Khanna was India’s first superstar, Rajnikanth is, his fans insist, our only megastar. They never fail to underline his international following, especially his popularity in far-off Japan. To test the claim, I got in touch with Noriko ‘Moon Moon’ Inagaki, member number 001 of the Rajni Fan Club in Tokyo, a couple of years ago.
The interaction busted quite a few myths. For one, the Japanese audience didn’t love our megastar at first sight. In Muthu, the earliest of Rajni’s films released in Japan in 1998, they were attracted by the doe-eyed heroine Meena. Then the simple story’s “positive vibes” drew more in. None of the later Indian releases in Japan, including Bollywood ones, have been such a hit. Also, contrary what we have been led to believe, none of Rajni-san’s films since Baba (2002) have been released in the Far East. Noriko travelled to Malaysia, Singapore and even Chennai to watch some of his later films.
Not for the first time, were we caught hypnotised by the formal and informal promotional machineries of our dream factories. It’s a serious matter — more so since the middle of last decade when, prodded by foreign affairs mavens such as Shashi Tharoor, the Indian government took formal note of the ‘soft power’ of Bollywood around the world. In Davos in 2006, Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term to underline the power of attraction rather than coercion, took note of the growing phenomenon. The official stamp came in 2008 when Manmohan Singh told would-be government officers to use it as an instrument of foreign policy. We owe it to ourselves to go beyond anecdotal evidence and understand the limits of this power.
The Magic of Bollywood, a collection of essays corralled by IIT Kharagpur professor Anjali Gera Roy, tries to fill this gap for the first time. Almost half the book’s 16 essays deal with Nye’s notion of ‘soft power’ as experienced at home and away. The rest breaks down Bollywood’s hypnotism into hard granules like content, audience and use.
The book gets going after a bit of ping-pong with the legitimacy of the term ‘Bollywood’. Sunitha Chitrapu lays down the context in numbers: though Indian films enjoy a market share of almost 95% at home, their share of the global trade is not more than 1%. In contrast, the share of home market enjoyed by the film industries in the UK is 19%, in Germany 25%, and in France 45%. The rest mostly belongs to Hollywood. India, with much smaller production and promotion budgets, offers the largest ‘resistance’ to Hollywood.
Away from the subcontinent, too, much of Bollywood’s following comes from the South Asian diaspora (nine out of 10 viewers). To other audiences, Bollywood is not always seen as a wonderfully kitschy package of song and dance. Their points of attraction are informed by their own negotiations with the concepts of entertainment, beauty and identity. My experience says that if someone in Cairo is asking you not to be “like a Bombay movie”, he or she is asking you not to ramble. Students at a Rio film school told me that their fascination for Bollywood flowed from the tresses of Dimple Kapadia, in whose honour they had put up an Orkut online group. Omme-Salma Rahemtullah shows that in Toronto, Bollywood has become — partly through a film club called Besharam (Shameless) — a cultural currency among sexual and religious minorities.
Other audiences need more effort — just ‘being there’ hardly helps. Andrew Hassam writes that there has been little impact on non-Indian Australian audiences of the fact that at least 60 Indian films have been shot Down Under since 1996, when S Shankar’s Indian introduced kangaroos in Indian films. It’s only recently that distributors in some overseas markets have seen commercial sense in introducing subtitles and contextual marketing. Florian Krauss shows that this has led to, for the first time since Awaara, a mini revival in Indian films in Germany. Meena Pillai says the recent beam-up abroad has also to do with Bollywood’s conscious attempt at making more ‘pluri-cultural’ films like Dil Chahta Hai and Salaam Namaste.
One remarkable departure is the fascination for Bollywood among the francophone Hausa people in northern Senegal, especially their women. They love the ‘anti-Western’ nature of early Hindi films like Mother India, says Gwenda Vander Steene, as also the similarities in the façon de vivre (ways of living), clothing and etiquettes.
It’s a different matter in Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia, where audiences have always adored Hindi films but politicians have hated their hold over their populations. So India cannot wilfully wield its ‘soft power’ beyond a limit even closer home. It underlines the evolving wisdom that soft power may mean little without the backup of hard power; together they provide what Nye himself has called ‘smart power’. Now that’s a brand new jargon fit for a whole new book.
Amitava Sanyal is a Delhi-based writerR Soft Web Hosting