Conquering the world, one film at a time

Posted on September 25, 2012


Rare is the book whose Foreword begins with a blurb-ready rave. Given the task of introducing this anthology of essays on Bollywood, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, Sweden, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, enthuses, “Professor Anjali Gera Roy’s latest edited undertaking, The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad, is a joy to read.” That simple assessment, though, is quickly compounded. “Not only does it bring together a collection of very insightful and authoritative essays probing the multifarious reach and impact of Bollywood movies within and outside India, but it also sets the stage for a scholarly appreciation of the relationship between culture, politics, international relations, and the power games that such relationships entail.” Rarer still is the book whose Foreword, so concisely and admirably, lays out exactly what lies in store, in terms of text as well as tone.

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The editor, in her Introduction, advances the term “soft power,” which was coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye to connote “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.” Nye argues that the soft power of Asian nations such as Japan, India and China is on the rise, and that “Indian films, with a sprawling audience across Asia, Middle East and Africa, are the cutting edge of the country’s soft power.” Shashi Tharoor, subsequently, deposited this phrase into the language of diplomacy and defined it in relation to Bollywood, stating that “Bollywood is bringing its brand of glitzy entertainment not just to the Indian diaspora in the US, UK or Canada, but around the globe, to the screens of Syrians and Senegalese alike.” (And lo, we have a chapter titled Indophilie and Bollywood’s popularity in Senegal: Strands of Identity Dynamics.) Roy, though, is quick to stick a pin in Tharoor’s bubble of optimism, noting that he seemed to “reiterate exaggerated media claims about Bollywood’s global invasion that cannot be substantiated by hard facts as they appear to be at sharp variance with actual figures on cinematic exports.”

Therein lies the rub. How, without figures to analyse and interpret, do we substantiate so nebulous an entity as soft power? David J Schaefer and Kavita Karan attempt an answer in their chapter titled Bollywood and Soft Power: Content Trends and Hybridity in Popular Hindi Cinema. First, a systematic content analysis is performed on a random sample of the most financially successful Hindi films released between 1947 and 2007, and two sets of variables are conceptualised for coding and analysis: Indian content and external content. (The former includes Indian geography, Indo-Eastern culture, Indian political nationalism, traditional institutions, and classical arts; the latter comprises international geography, Western cultural practices, non-Indian political nationalism, modern institutions, and contemporary popular culture.) Then, a survey is conducted to assess the awareness of soft power variables among “elite members of the public.” The results, once we speed past rows of intimidating numbers, provide “a much needed systematic and empirical examination of the claims made by both proponents and critics of India’s goals of using Bollywood cinema as a means of extending its soft power.”

It is fascinating (and also somewhat surreal) to see such rigorous research being expended on something that we, in our country, consume as a given. The nature of this research undoubtedly positions this book for the academically minded reader (with more than a passing knowledge of statistical analysis), but even a skim-through is rewarding on a number of levels, giving us a glimpse into Bollywood’s inroads into markets like Germany and Indonesia and Toronto, the impact of Bollywood internet forums on Australian cultural diplomacy, Pakistani characters in Bollywood films, the transformation of Hindi cinema to Bollywood, and even the culture of the tawaif (courtesan) film, which Teresa Hubel acknowledges as “a distinctive Indian genre, one that has no real equivalent in the Western film industry.” How, you ask, is this related to soft power? Hubel explains, “There are few things more attractive to a Western audience that has been primed by its centuries-old fascination with Eastern femininity than the Indian courtesan figure, which reaches global audiences primarily through the exportation of subtitled DVD.” And you thought it was just a movie.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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