In 'Bollywood Boom', Roopa Swaminathan outlines India's rising soft power
There is a reason why Aishwarya Rai's stint in Hollywood was referred to as a crossover whereas Deepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra's was not. Back then, it was a Herculean task to take a plunge into Hollywood whereas that may not be the case today. Though it is still excruciatingly difficult for an Indian actor to carve a niche in Hollywood, Danny Boyle's 2009 Academy Award Slumdog Millionaire winning film opened several gates for Indian actors to make that transition to Hollywood.
This proves that though India embraced globalisation back in 1991, the process took 18 years to permeate into the Indian film industry — popularly known as Bollywood. Bollywood may sound just like a step-sister of Hollywood; however, the language, syntax, grammar and scale of both the industries are poles apart. What was it then that allowed Bollywood to establish its stronghold not only in Hollywood but in other continents like Africa and Europe, and countries like Africa, China and Japan.
National Award winning author Roopa Swaminathan's book Bollywood Boom: India's Rising Soft Power explores that and much more. It starts off on an intriguing note when Swaminathan, in first person, narrates how her American friends perceived, or did not even have an inkling about, Indian actors and how they identify them now. While the millennials assume that Shah Rukh Khan was born a global star, the fact is that he began getting global recognition at least 10 years into his career.
But Swaminathan traces Bollywood's trajectory to a global standing within a diplomatic framework. She walks her readers through the concept of 'soft power' — an area that India is gradually gaining prominence (in). While there are multiple countries like the USA, Russia and China who dominate international diplomacy through their hard power, India is using Bollywood as a soft power in all these countries to influence the mighty hard powers culturally in order to not only be in their good books from the trade point of view but also ensuring peaceful relations with them in case of a war or tension.
Before making its presence felt in these hard powers, it was Africa that India took by storm with the vibrancy and effective storytelling of Bollywood. Though Africans were not well-versed with Hindi or any other Indian language, there were a few parallels between the cultures of both places that bridged the thousand-mile long gap between the two. The joint family system, the popularity of traditional song and dance performances, linguistic diversity and the history of being a colony of the West — these factors allowed Africa to connect to Bollywood stories that cut across the boundaries to project itself as an ideal escape route to the multiple issues-stricken Africa.
After Amitabh Bachchan of the 1970s ignited the love for Indian cinema among Africans with his larger-than-life anti-establishment 'Angry Young Man' persona, Africans found a new world that they could occasionally visit not only for leisure but also for hope. But it was Mithun Chakraborty's innings as The Disco Dancer in the 1980s that made its way into the heart of Africa. Chakraborty gained the status of a superstar in a continent that he had probably not even visited back then.
However, Bollywood's popularity in Africa faded with the LPG era in 1991. While the main source of Bollywood movies for Indians was through piracy, liberalisation allowed native Africans to come up with their own film industry Nollywood, which borrows heavily from Bollywood. But since Nollywood addressed local issues in regional languages, Africans no longer had to resort to stories of another continent that echoed the same emotions. They could now relish stories that were their own. Swaminathan's exploration of Africa as an avid Bollywood buff is fascinating because of its in-depth research and the idea of looking at a consumer group that has time and again been relegated to the sidelines because of its economic shortcomings.
In the same chapter, she discusses the impact of Bollywood on Russia, which inevitably revolves around a certain Raj Kapoor. The late actor still has such a massive fan following in Russia that he is referred to as the 'Charlie Chaplin of India'. From Awaara to Bobby, Raj Kapoor films were watched and loved for its sheer simplicity and profound subtext. In fact, Mera Naam Joker, which tanked at the Indian box office back then, became a classic originally because of its overwhelming response in Russia. Swaminathan narrates an interesting incident in which she mentions that Raj's granddaughter Kareena Kapoor was mobbed in Russia during her visit to the country. She admitted that she had not seen such a humongous fan following for herself or any contemporary back in India.
Swaminathan also touches upon Bollywood's influence on other Asian countries like Japan where no Bollywood superstar has enjoyed the same earth shattering popularity as Rajinikanth. For some reason, the Japanese loved watching Thalaiva on the silver screen and all his films, from Shivaji: The Boss to Kabali, were received with open arms. In fact, his next film 2.0 is being dubbed into over half a dozen languages including Japanese and the Korean.
With a lot of ground in Asia and Africa covered, Bollywood proceeded to extend its impact to the USA and the UK, a large credit of which goes to the so called NRI films. The diaspora community always looked forward to Bollywood releases because of two reasons. For the older generation, the reason behind the same was to indulge in a nostalgic ride as they still felt connected to their roots. But that was not the case with the younger lot. They connected to Bollywood only when it started catering to the globalised India rather than adhering to the old formula of family dramas.
Karan Johar's directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was a path-breaking film in this respect. It became the first Indian film to the UK top ten. What started with Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was escalated by Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Then, there were a host of such films that not only addressed the diaspora's personal issues but also their political concerns. Films like My Name Is Khan and Veer Zaara are such examples.
Thus, Bollywood gradually became a formidable power in the international entertainment market. The USA, which never considered Bollywood a threat, stood up and acknowledged its power when the US government requested its Indian counterpart to send Bollywood celebrities to the war-torn Afghanistan in order to pacify the USA-Afghanistan tension. In an interesting insight, Swaminathan explains how more than Bollywood, it was the Indian television saas-bahu saga that won the hearts in Afghanistan: Ekta Kapoor's Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was a rage in Afghanistan back then.
In its final chapter, Swaminathan compares Bollywood to perhaps its only competition in dethroning Hollywood as the global dose of entertainment. And that is China. Since China is the only country that is equipped with both hard power and soft power after the USA, its film industry could prove to be a force to reckon with. But India gains an upper hand even there because of its liberal treatment of cinema.
Notwithstanding the recent censorship issues, India is a vibrant democracy and allows filmmakers to raise pertinent questions, even against the Indian establishment as opposed to China which, while projecting itself as a liberal capitalist economy, is inherently as dictatorial as it was at the time of Mao. The same is the case with Pakistan, which never allowed its film industry to flourish, forcing its citizens to fall in love inextricably with Bollywood.
Overall, Swaminathan's books manages to capture a 360-degree picture of Bollywood's impact on the globe and its rise as an international soft power. But since the subject at hand is so wide, it does miss out on a few important aspects which I felt could have added to the appeal of the book.
Throughout the book, Swaminathan seems to be shaping the narrative in accordance with a global audience, including the diaspora and her 'friends' from the West. The constant thought of moulding her book as per the needs of her target group clouds her vision sometimes. There are multiple junctures in the book when she just takes off on a tangent and takes such a long detour that it interrupts the logical flow of the readers.
She feels a perennial burden to explain the context of everything, how Bollywood functions to India's position in a global and regional context, that she discounts the intelligence of a large group of her readers who have already read up on that. Thus, the book comes across as a guide to beginners since it starts from scratch but in its process of biting off so much that it cannot chew, it often deviates from a comprehensible narrative to information overload. Thus, it neither remains an ideal book for beginners nor for experts.
Additionally, since the subject at hand is so dynamic, the limitation of the shelf life of a book comes into play. There are dozens of developments that have shaped up since the book went for publishing that you feel a sense of void in some parts of the chapter. For example, when she talks about China vs India, you wonder why the resounding success of Rajkumar Hirani's PK and the recent premiere of Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal was not even given a passing mention. Is Aamir Khan on his way to becoming in China what Raj Kapoor was to Russia? That is a question that I would like Swaminathan to explore, possibly through a blog post.
Also, the far-reaching implications of digital giants Amazon and Netflix and their contribution to Bollywood's rise as a global soft power is also given short shrift. While she often mentions that the content in Indian cinema has undergone a drastic transformation in recent years, she fails to illustrate the same with the advent of the slice-of-life genre that dominates Bollywood today. This content revolution is also, or will be, equally responsible in making Bollywood a household name in every part of the globe in the near future.
Despite its limitations, Bollywood Boom: India's Rising Soft Power celebrates the Indian film industry in a way that is backed by substance, anecdotes, facts, numbers and most importantly geopolitical context. It is there that Swaminathan scores countless brownie points and proves her mettle as a National Award winning writer. In the process, she plays a part, in her very small yet significant capacity, in projecting Bollywood as the next 'it' thing in the international entertainment circles.