Bollywood Calling

 

 

Marketing in the global diaspora as exemplified by Bollywood cinema

 

 

Dina Iordanova

 

 

 

At the end of 2001, British film critics observed that one of the major changes on the international cinema scene was Bollywood\'s growing presence in mainstream distribution. In fact, this had been going on for a while. A few years ago, when »Kuch Kuch Hota Hai« brought earnings of £1,2 million, if a Bollywood movie occasionally reached the top ten at the box office, the media would report it as a mere anecdote. However, the presence of a Bollywood title in the top ten UK chart soon became commonplace. What made the year 2001 so special was the official announcement of Bollywood\'s arrival in the mainstream.


Derek Malcolm, the leading British film critic and FIPRESCI president, endorsed the newly acquired status of Bombay cinema last November, following the phenomenal box-office success of »Lagaan« in the early summer. This was around the time when the historical blockbuster »Asoka« was due for release (which then flopped, however). Malcolm\'s endorsement was confirmed by other critics a few weeks later, when, soon after the Diwali celebrations, a new Bollywood release - the glossy family weepie »Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham«, aka »K3G« - broke all previous box-office records. Only 41 copies of the film had been released across Britain, yet it made £473,355 over a single weekend (on average £11,500 per copy), thus promptly climbing to number three in the charts - only topped by films like »Harry Potter«, of which 537 copies had been released. In his overview of the cinema year 2001, the Guardian\'s Peter Bradshaw confirmed Malcolm\'s verdict on the growing popularity of Bollywood entertainment.

One could say that these are purely British observations, given that the UK has 1.3 million inhabitants of Indian descent. True, in the UK the trend can be seen more clearly. And yet I think it is a global trend that has marked the mainstream in a variety of ways. Think, for example, of the 2001 Cannes opening feature, Baz Luhrman\'s Moulin Rouge. This is a film in intrinsically post-modern style that stages a lavish, typically Indian dance sequence in its concluding part: a clear tribute to Bollywood dance routines.

Or take another example: at the film festival in Locarno at the height of summer, the predominantly white and affluent Swiss audience attending the open-air screenings on the piazza of this upscale location on Lago Maggiore voted overwhelmingly for »Lagaan«. The festival also saw the world premiere of Tim Burton\'s »Planet of the Apes« and a range of other Western attractions, yet the audience award went to this four-hour-long Indian blockbuster telling a colonial resistance story revolving around a cricket match in rural Gujarat.

Or another example: Andrew Lloyd Weber, whose artistic output has always come hand-in-hand with commercial savvy, is now working on a musical that will recreate the dance and song routines of the Bombay musicals.

To me, living in the English city of Leicester, the ascent of Bollywood into mainstream Western culture has been evident for quite a while. It is interesting, however, to see it publicly confirmed on a wider scale, particularly because I realise that my own growing awareness of these processes was, in fact, an acknowledgement of what students of globalisation have often described as the »glocal« - the global as represented in the local.

Parallel culture in the spotlight

The place where I live, Leicester, is a typical provincial English city, known for its enthusiastic gardeners maintaining impeccable lawns in front of tidy houses. It also has a sizeable group of disenfranchised whites inhabiting streets full of narrow terraced properties, squeezed close to one another and presenting a depressing picture reminiscent of classical British »kitchen-sink« dramas.

Leicester is the centre of the East Midlands, an hour and fifteen minutes by train from London\'s King\'s Cross, and less than an hour\'s drive from such quintessentially British landmarks as Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle. It is also near Birmingham, with which it shares a large Indian and Pakistani population (or »Asians«, as they call them here). More than 30% of Leicester\'s 350,000 inhabitants are from minorities, and every fourth person is of Indian ethnicity (even though most of these have not come directly from India, but from various countries in East Africa, like Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Zimbabwe). Leicester is also home to one of the biggest Sikh communities outside Punjab, as well as to large groups of Muslims, Jainists, and Buddhists. All these communities have their respective temples, mosques, and community centres. For all its diversity, it is a place quite different from the picture-postcard image of English towns, with their familiar thatched cottages and alehouses.

With such a large Indian population, it is no wonder that the place has a thriving ethnic subculture, parallel to the mainstream one (which I would describe as white British, but strongly Americanised). Alongside the numerous English pubs, there are scores of lively curry houses featuring authentic Indian dishes. Alongside the regular video rental places that stock Hollywood and British films (about 100 in total), one can rent Bollywood videos and DVDs at over 200 locations in town. In addition to the two multiplexes, the Odeon and Warner Village, which play the films of the mainstream distribution chains, one can go to single-screen theatres like the Bellevue, Piccadilly or Bollywood, and watch the latest fare produced by Bombay\'s film industry. Alongside other locally-based English media, a community-access television station produces local programmes and runs various Indian imports (http://www.matv.co.uk). The local BBC radio station co-exists with Leicester Asian BBC radio.

It may well be that cultural consumption within the parallel »ethnic« culture is more intense than cultural consumption practices of the whites (that is why I prefer to talk here of a »parallel culture« rather than a »subculture«, as I am not sure whether a phenomenon of such intensity is appropriately described by giving it a »sub«-ordinate status). It is best seen in the frequent movie-going habits of the Indians, where whole families enjoy a weekend together at the Bollywood - a pattern extensively discussed by Third Text\'s editor Zia Sardar (1998). Movie-going also appears to be a matter of the assertion of identity: as journalist Prasun Sonwalkar has noted, for many of the younger generation Bollywood is the only link to the country of their parents.

Until very recently, the »ethnic« subculture existed in a barely visible parallel world, rarely intersecting with the mainstream one. When visiting local Indian-run shops, one would see framed pictures of famous Bollywood celebrities on the wall - Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah - taken during their visits to Leicester. So, one used to think, all these mega-stars - the equivalents of Tom Cruise and Leonardo di Caprio - have all been here, come and gone, without the news of their presence making a splash in the media. No wonder - clearly, this parallel celebrity culture was not considered newsworthy.

However, Indian movies are now on the move from the fringes into the mainstream: once confined to the »ethnic« theatres and until recently not even rated, Bollywood titles are now a regular feature in the programme of the multiplexes. For now, most are advertised only with the original Indian title, and are screened without subtitles. But this is changing as well, and gradually the films are more likely to be subtitled than not, to allow non-»Asian« audiences to join in. And, of course, it all comes along with the proliferation of digital channels targeting Asian audiences - such as B4U, Sony, Zee TV - mostly run by Western-based Indian entrepreneurs.

Most recently, with some lobbying from local diasporic entrepreneurs, Leicester\'s regional management has recognised the significant business opportunities offered by this thriving interest in Bombay cinema. In the summer of 2001, a Bollywood love story was shot on the premises of the University of Leicester, involving about sixty local extras and creating temporary jobs for scores of others. It all makes perfect sense: just as Jackie Chan\'s Hollywood productions are often shot in Vancouver, a location offering stunning cityscapes and Chinese extras, the ingredients for a Bollywood melodrama are to be found in Leicester - Indian extras and beautiful English parks, with lawns where nice song-and-dance numbers can be staged. So the East Midlands Development Agency recently dedicated a branch of the local Screen Commission to cater to the needs of Bollywood producers who would like to shoot here.

In 2000 Swiss documentary filmmakers made a film about the Bollywood productions that come to film their dance sequences in the Alps (Switzerland being the favourite location for these dance routines, a tradition established in the early 1960s by the legendary Raj Kapoor in his Sangam). In 2001, the BBC followed suit by sending host Ruby Wax to the set of a Bollywood film (the box-office hit K3G) being shot on the premises of Blenheim Palace near Oxford, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Even though this coverage is still tainted by a degree of nosy curiosity about something »exotic«, Indian film crews shooting in Europe now receive more notice in the mainstream media than ever before.

Diasporic marketing and business savvy

One of the important features of the Indian global diaspora is that, in the process of its formation, the »dispersal« has not taken place solely along the traditional axes of South/North and East/West, but has been much more complex, diverse, and multi-dimensional. This diaspora has substantial populations in a variety of places, such as the UK, USA and Canada, but also in Australia, Fiji and other Pacific islands, South East Asia, East and South Africa, and the countries of the Arab Gulf. Vijay Mishra (2002: p. 236) estimates the market size for entertainment businesses targeting this diaspora at 11 million - 1.5 million in Europe (1.3 in the UK), 2 million in Africa, 2 million in Asia, 1.4 million in the Middle East, 1 million across Latin America and the Caribbean, 2 million in North America, and more than half a million in the Pacific.

It is a massive global operation which, in the case of film, involves a range of distribution forms - cinemas, video (both in PAL and NTSC), DVD (usually coded Region 0, i.e. not region-locked), and satellite television channels - all practices that involve smart pricing, thus eliminating the menace of unauthorised copying by making piracy unprofitable.

Here I will look at only one aspect of this global economy: its use of the Internet. Within the Indian diaspora, the Internet is used in a range of ways: siblings dispersed around the globe are now running web sites where they can report family news, Hindus living in Arizona who cannot travel to a temple can perform a pooja on-line, and so on. It is also on the Internet that active Indian entertainment entrepreneurship - both domestic and diasporic - reveals to what extent the consciousness of the »glocal« has come to define business practice.

Over the past three years, every major Bollywood star has launched a web-based fan club. Like the numerous other Bombay cinema web sites dedicated to discussion and trade, these »clubs« soon turned into sites of lively traffic and commerce, featuring clever tools for global marketing. As soon as you log in, you are asked to consider making an application for a new credit card, for example. One of Aamir Khan\'s web sites is paired with a global marriage agency, and features matrimonial\' advertisements from virtually all around the globe. Next to the matrimonials, an astrologer\'s online services are on offer: he can check whether the stars of the prospective couple might clash at some future time, or what wedding date their horoscopes suggest. A web site for blockbuster »Kuch Kuch Hota Hai« (http://members.tripod.com/~kuchkuch46/) tries to get you to download new ring tones for your mobile, all featuring themes from the film\'s songs. Elsewhere, you can purchase posters and wallpaper designs featuring not only the stars of the film, but also such celebrities as the up-and-coming pin-up Hrithik Roshan. Global brands engage in online marketing, as seen by the Gap product placement to be found at mega-star Shah Rukh Khan\'s web-site, (http://www.shahrukhonline.net/). There is even an online Bollywood stock exchange site, where you can purchase shares in forthcoming productions.

Originally set up as global businesses and structured around an operation with at least three offices (Bombay-London-New York), distributors catering to the diaspora have been thriving since the advent of the Internet. Eros Entertainment (http://www.erosentertainment.com), for example, is a family-run global operation that distributes in Canada, UK, the US and elsewhere, and would ship DVDs of »Bombay Cinema« to you no matter where you are in the world. Producer Yash Chopra\'s Yash Raj Films, a distributorship first established in 1971, also operates globally, and has exclusive rights to hits such as »Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge« and »Kuch Kuch Hota Hai«, in addition to carrying a range of Indian classics. It runs a fancy web site (www.yashrajfilms.com), which invites distributors and exhibitors from around the world to do online business directly with the company. So you can be a video-store owner based in the English Midlands or in Doha and get your stock directly from the source, skipping intermediaries and making the merchandise significantly cheaper. Yash Raj Films\'s DVDs are everywhere - you can buy them at a street market in Bahrain, check them out at my local Leicester library, or rent them at the largest DVD online rental store, www.netflix.com , operating out of California.

But let\'s make no mistake about it: if translated into the vocabulary of media and entertainment economy, these businesses are the Indian equivalent of corporate Hollywood. In a global context they may function as correctives to the dominant Western cultural output, but they are every bit as commercialised and oppressive with regard to independent artistic undertakings as Hollywood studios are to American indies. Toby Miller\'s concept of a »new international division of cultural labour« as related to »Global Hollywood« (2001) is equally applicable to a »Global Bollywood«, even if Bollywood functions as an alternative and corrective cultural economy existing parallel to the dominant, well-known and much-studied cultural economy of Hollywood. Still, as Ien Ang noted recently, we need to recognise that the »accelerated globalization of capitalism« we are witnessing results in an »increasingly assertive presence of ›the Rest‹ in ›theWest‹«. (2001: p. 1). Important studies of these processes made over the past few years have now been published, and have started to shape a new way of thinking about the global cycle of parallel cultural economies. Such as, for example, the pioneering work of a group of Australian scholars, led by Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair, who explored the »floating lives« of the intense and little recognised production-distribution-consumption cycle of the various cultures making up the global Asian diasporas (2001).

The story of the global dominance of Hollywood may gradually change through the increasing presence of alternative cultural producers like Bollywood in the Western public discourse. it is important to recognise parallel strands of cultural output that do not necessarily originate in the West, but are equally capitalist. With their breakthrough into the mainstream, these businesses are increasingly likely to reach beyond ethnic audiences and rely on revenues generated by a wider exposure. They are also likely to create new employment opportunities for members of the general public, and thus become a legitimate part of the mainstream economy. Of course, by doing this, they will also have become part of the supranational capitalist economy that, we are told, is likely to (mis)appropriate every act of diversity. It still remains to see whether diversity will be swallowed, or - what is more likely - adjusted in some new corporate twist.


 

 

   

Translation: Tim Jones

 

References

Ang, Ien. On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Cunningham, Stuart and John Sinclair (Eds.) Floating Lives: The Media and Asian Diasporas. Lanham, Md, and Oxford: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001.

Miller, Toby, Nitin Govil, John McMuria and Richard Maxwell, Global Hollywood, London: BFI, 2001.

Mishra, Vijay, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Sardar, Ziauddin. »Dilip Kumar Made me Do It,« In: Nandy, Ashish (ed.) The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, London: Zed Book, 1998, pp.19-92.

 

^