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March 6, 2019

Breaking Box Offices: Indian Cinema as Soft Power

A hundred and five years ago, India was dazzled by Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian feature film that told a story from the Mahabharata (Massey, 1974). Eighteen years later in 1931, Ardeshir Irani directed the first Indian sound film Alam Ara (Beauty of the World) that was a turning point for the Indian film industry. The “talkies” created stars out of actors for the young to idolize, spawned the creation of regional cinema – Bengali, Tamil and Telugu talkies were made within a few months of Alam Ara’s release – and created the glamour that we now associate the industry with.

Bollywood, a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood, entered common parlance in the 1990s and is often used as an umbrella term to refer to the Indian film industry. Yet, in the year 2015-16 regional language cinema accounted for 82.18% of films produced in India, with Tamil producing 15.30%, followed by Telugu 14.50%, Kannada 10.73%, Marathi 9.46% and Malayalam 8.83% (Central Board of Film Certification, 2016)1. Hindi movies account for roughly 18% of all films produced in India. Each of these industries, boasts of a following abroad and contributes to Indian soft power, although undoubtedly, Hindi movie stars and films dominate the space.

Indian cinema has huge audiences from across the world including Africa, the Middle East, North and South America, Europe, Central Asia and Australia, and appeals to audiences beyond the Indian diaspora. For instance, Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif performed at the coronation of Bhutanese King Jigme KhesarNamgyel Wangchuk, a known fan of Bollywood, in 2008 (Roy, 2012), and Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have watched and “liked” Dangal (Press Trust of India, 2017). Michelle Obama while in office danced to the tunes of Bollywood songs (Sridharan, 2013) and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi once commented that “we all love to watch Hindi movies” (Roy, 2012).

Indian films have transcended language and regional barriers, gained acceptance across populations and developed a cult audience as it travelled beyond its own borders. Indian movies are unique for their amalgamation of dance, drama, music and poetry, drawing from ancient Indian theatre traditions such as Kerala’s Kathakali, Tamil Nadu’s Terukuttu and Maharashtra’s Thamasha. While often ridiculed among scholars and critiques for being overdramatic and escapist – a more pertinent question is, what is intrinsically wrong with escapism? Some of Hollywood’s most successful movies are escapist – the Star Wars series, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, the list could go on. Movies can act as a good source of entertainment and allow audiences to go on a short (and cheap) three-hour holiday. Nevertheless, the critique does not always hold true, for India has produced a good mix of masala2and “intellectual” or serious films.

Mother India, a hugely popular film, spoke of dignity of labour and that of the individual (Ahmed, 1992), a topic which resonated with audiences in the African continent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East (Mishra, 1989). Channel 4 aired it on British television “as part of its highly successful season of Indian cinema” (Mishra, 1989), it was nominated for an Oscar in 1958, and it is said that the movie continued to sell out even a decade after its first screening in Nigeria (Larkin, 1992). Satyajit Ray’s PatherPanchalitraces the life of a poor, rural Bengali family while subtly exploring the tense relationship between rural-urban and the ongoing changes brought by technology – electricity and a railway line – a theme that resonated with audiences across the world. When Ray’s PatherPanchalipremiered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, little did he know that he would dispel “the long-held feeling that India was unlikely to produce a great film” (Massey, 1974). The movie was so popular that it went on to win the Best Human Documentary award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, is the only Indian movie to be featured in BBCs Top 100 foreign movies ever made, and was described as having “introduced Indian cinema to the West as cataclysmically as Kurosawa’s Rashomon had done for Japanese films (Cherian, 2016).

What makes Indian cinema popular?

The growth of Indian cinema abroad between the 1950s and 1980s was exemplary. A large part of its success could be attributed to the Indian diaspora who were widely travelled and had settled in many parts of the world. Although the first Indian movie, Sant Tukaram, a Marathi film,had won its international award, prior to Indian independence in 1937 at Venice, it was the Indian diaspora that introduced the movies to the general public.They brought with them cassettes, Bollywood posters and other movie paraphernalia, presenting India’s colourful movies for locals to consume. In these three decades India produced multiple hits, notable among them Awara, Mera Naam Joker, Sholay, Pardesiand Disco Dancer, many of which remain popular even today3. Mirroring this development, India too has produced movies – America Alludu(1985), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenga (1995), Hyderabad Blues (1998), Hum Tum (2004), Swades (2004), Namaste London (2007), Kabali(2016) – that dealt with diaspora emotions, the longing to return to the homeland and similar themes that resonated with the diaspora, were instantly successful.

In Tanzania the first permanent theatres were Bharat and Krishna Cinemas that opened in the Indian quarters. It was quickly followed by the opening of the “major theatre”, Empire Cinemas, by HassanaliAdamaliJariwalla, a wealthy Indian entrepreneur, who “pioneered the first cinemas” in Tanzania and Zanzibar and screened Indian movies on the prime days of Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays (Brennan, 2005). In South Africa Bollywood movies are released every week in multiplexes across the country (Barlet, 2010). In the Netherlands, Indian movies are “very popular” among Surinamese Hindustanis (Oonk, 2007) who also helped in propagating the cinemas, most visible in The Hague (Verstappen & Rutten, 2007). Dutch theatres screen Indian movies regularly and since 2001, NPS, the official Dutch broadcasting network has been showing Indian films, mostly on Sundays which has helped reach a wider audience (Verstappen & Rutten, 2007).

Conversely, Indian cinema is prevalent in countries like Senegal, Nigeria, Russia, Japan and Peru, who do not have a sizeable Indian diaspora. In Senegal for example, Indian movies were introduced in 1953 with the release of Aan, and has gained cult status ever since (Steene, 2012). No wonder it came as no surprise to many when Akon, a Senegalese, sang ChamakChalo in Hindi for the movie Ra. One. Similar is the experience in Nigeria, one of India’s most successful export markets, where Indian cinema has permeated most households through theatres, DVDs, dedicated Bollywood television and radio channels, and dance clubs. The influence of Bollywood is most visible in Nollywood spin-off movies, local dance and Bollywood inspired Nigerian literature, soyyaya(Luedi, 2018). The Nollywood film ZeeWorld Madness (2017), that pokes fun at Nigeria’s obsession with ‘ZeeWorld Bollywood’, the channel that plays Indian cinema on television, is a testimony of Indian soft power. Telugu “power star”, Pawan Kalyan is admired as much in South India as in Poland, Rajinikanth’s Muthu (1998) ran for 23 weeks in Japan (Aiyar, 2017) and resulted in tremendous fascination for India visible today in the number of South Indian restaurants and “Rajini” fan clubs. The Telugu-Tamil-Malayalam movie, Mahanatiwas widely received in the North America despite little advertising. Moreover, online sources such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and HotStar have helped reach non-traditional audiences, most evident in the success of Sacred Games.

No paper on cinema as India’s soft power is complete without a mention of the roaring success of Aamir Khan’s Dangal, especially in China, a country where Indian movies had not enjoyed a breakthrough, and S.S Rajamouli’sBaahubali, across the world. Rob Cain, the film and television director, describes the two movies in Forbes as a “one-two punch” that “knocked out” everybody’s expectations (Cain, 2017). Baahubali opened in over 10,000 screens worldwide, ran for over 100 days in Japan and “shattered all previously held box-office records” for an Indian film in North America (India Today, 2018). The protagonist, Prabhas, was described as “a presence grand enough to transcend language” (Tsering, 2015), evident in its worldwide success. Dangal on the other hand, which released as Let’s Wrestle, Dad!, topped every movie in China except for Transformers: The Last Knight and earned $152 million (Cain, 2017). The success of these movies in the Chinese market is significant as it not only remained a closed market for Indian cinema but also restricts the entry and screening of foreign films through stringent quotas. Yet, other Indian films too captured the Chinese market such as Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar and P.K, and Salman Khan’s BajrangiBhaijan.It is clear Aamir Khan remains a potent Indian soft power in the Chinese market with his massive following and potential to influence a young, growing audience.

What explains the popularity of Indian films abroad, despite some countries restricting the entry of these movies through quotas? Factors like the cast, certification, timing of release, number of screen playing the movie, symbolic meaning of the movie, format of release, and perception of India by the movie’s foreign consumers, and the movie’s success in the home market determine the success of India cinema abroad (Hennig-Thurau, Walsh, & Bode, 2004). The relation India shares with the foreign country also greatly determines the entry and consequently the success of the movie. Nevertheless, most of these factors are common to most movies that enter any foreign market. Therefore, it is perhaps India’s cultural proximity that it shares with its neighbourhood and beyond that allows these films to engage with an audience in ways that Hollywood movies cannot. Moreover, the movies that have done well in foreign markets revolved around family, caste and religion barriers, conservative societies, morality, struggle, honour and family name, experiences which are also central to these countries. Indian movies are looked at as “decent” and allow the audience to be modern without being western, emphasize community oriented values rather than individualism than resonates with audiences in Asia, Africa and South America.

Cross-productions and influence on local cinema markets

Following the success of Indian movies in foreign markets, there has been an increased interest in cross border co-productions and India centric location shooting. One of the most popular of such films was a Soviet co-production Alibaba aur 40 Chor(1980) that starred Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman from the Indian side (Salazkina, 2010) 4. Equally popular was Raj Kapoor’s My Name is Joker (1970) that starred Soviet actors. In 2009 a major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros., entered India with its co-production Chandni Chowk to China (2009). Although the film failed to deliver in North America, interest from Hollywood continued and was soon followed by Sony’s co-production of Saawariya, Fox Studio’s Slumdog Millionaire, UTV Motion Pictures’ Chennai Express and Walt Disney Pictures’ P.K. Hollywood’s Nightfall and Crocodile 2 were shot and edited entirely in Ramoji Film City, the world’s largest film studio complex, opening the doors for other foreign films. Mainstream successful movies like The Jungle Book, Octopussy from the James Bond series, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Eat Pray Love, The Darjeeling Limited and Dark Knight Rises were either partially or fully shot in India.

It is of interest to note the influence Indian movies had on local directors. Melodrama as a narrative technique and other Indian cinematic attributes – centred on family, gender roles and emotional stories – were adapted by Malaysian directors to great degree, with many films having “more in common” with Devdasand Shree than Hollywood movies (Heide, 2002). Malaysian directors like P. Ramlee were greatly influenced by South Indian films and it is said that in the 1960s Malaysia, Malay moviegoers “started to prefer the Hindi-language” films which “were flooding the local cinemas” (Yusoff, 2013). King Ratnam, a Sri Lankan filmmaker debuted with Komaali Kings, a film that tells the story of the Tamilian population in his country. In Malaysia, Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s Jagat, a Malaysian movie made in Tamil, was an instant award-winning hit. The Hollywood movie Divorce Invitation (2012) was in fact inspired by a 1997 Telugu movie, Aahwaanam. Even in Brazil, the directors of the 2009 television show India: A Love Story,that boasted of over 30 million viewers in the South American nation, drew their inspiration from India.

The influence of Indian cinema as a soft power is best appreciated when this admiration for Indian movie stars, films and shooting styles generates a ripple effect in other sectors. The movies create an interest in India among viewers who in turn desire to consume all things Indian. Gaining traction abroad for instance are Indian inspired weddings with song and dance or Indian “exotic” locations, Bollywood themed night clubs and restaurants, the creation of the Brazilian board game – The Bollywood Game, and an increase in Indian tourism. Furthering Indian soft power are also actors like Priyanka Chopra who have now become a household name abroad, especially in North America. When mainstream primetime television shows like The Big Bang Theory or The Mindy Kaling Show include an Indian character as a protagonist it goes a long way in furthering Indian soft power. The effect of this influence can be reversed too – take for example the wooing of Indian film stars and directors by foreign governments to shoot in their country to boost tourism from India.

It is clear that Indian cinema was global even before “globalisation”. It travelled across the British Empire and made its way into film festivals prior to Indian independence, and continues to be a force to reckon with. If Indian cinema in the 1950-1980s produced movies like The Apu Trilogy, Awara, Mera Nam Joker, Indian cinema has today, belted out mainstream hits and new age movies for the audience to consume. The Lunchbox (2013) for instance was screened in over 70 nations with little to no marketing. Indian movies have become so mainstream abroad that in 2015 a video surfaced on the Internet showing Miss Nigeria and Miss Indonesia bonding over their love for Bollywood films and simultaneously singing to Dil To Pagal Hai. Regional cinema has found its niche and own foreign markets, contributing effectively to Indian soft power, despite Bollywood’s overarching popularity.

BFI Southbank even celebrated Indian regional cinema in 2017 giving a platform to movies that are otherwise overshadowed by their Bollywood counterpart. Today, Indian films are celebrated world over – they are invited for screenings at virtually every film festival, have become some of the highest grossing films worldwide, movie stars are being invited to co-host or perform at major events, and the number of co-productions and star cross-overs is on the rise. Despite the hurdles that Indian cinema faced, it is undoubtedly one of India’s most powerful soft power tools.

Is it being leveraged?

But has cinema been leveraged as a soft power tool by India? If the WikiLeaks 2013 reports are to be believed, US officials had once wanted help from India to improve its image in Afghanistan and contemplated sending Bollywood stars there (Swaminathan, 2017). The plan never came to fruition but what is important is that such a plan even existed and shows the importance hard power nations give to soft power. On the other hand, despite Bollywood’s popularity in Pakistan, it has done little to foster better relations between the two countries. Cinema can be used as a tool to inform foreign audiences about India, to influences their views about the country, and to encourage tourism and trade. It is unclear of the role that cinema can play as a soft power in international relations thus far, nonetheless it will need to be included as a part of India’s foreign policy to leverage Bollywood’s popularity to India’s advantage.


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1     Although Bollywood is used as an umbrella term, the Indian film industry consist of Kollywood (Tamil), the two Tollywoods (Telugu and Tamil), Mollywood (Malayalam) and Sandalwood (Kannada).

2     Masala films refer to popular Indian cinema.

3     In Russia, Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty enjoy a demi-god like status, especially among the older generation who reminiscence and sing to Awaraand Disco Dancer.

4     Hema Malini was already a household name in the Soviet Union with two successful films – Sholay (1975) and Seetaaur Geeta (1972).

(Ms. Shreya C is a Research Fellow at India Foundation.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of March-April 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)





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