The Magic of Bollywood, Anjali Gera Roy (Ed), Sage Publications, Pp 334, Rs 750.00
OFTEN compared unjustly to its more affluent, professional counterpart, Hollywood, in the past two decades, Bollywood, a catch-all term for the Indian film industry, seems to have come into its own. Perhaps India’s best-known export to the West, Bollywood works on several levels. It brings the many shades of India vividly to life on the screen-weaving together tales from the lawless, remote hinterland, where existence is more or less hand-to-mouth, to the stories of people navigating their way through the labyrinthine maze of the big bad cities, where crime is a way of life. At another level, it connects the many NRIs (non-resident Indians) who, despite their varied cultures, can relate to the stories so vividly depicted on the screen. Most NRIs spend their free time catching up on the latest Indian film releases (my Sydney-based sister being one!). It is something that offers a sense of community bonding, a sort of umbilical link with the motherland. It is an affirmation of their faith in their own culture in an alien and at times hostile land. They may no longer have Indian passports, but Bollywood is just a DVD-rental store away!
Bollywood was popular right from the time India became an independent nation. Apart from India, it found popularity in Pakistan, the Middle East, Turkey, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. It was and remains a big draw among the NRIs in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. With India on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s three biggest economies, Bollywood is poised to grow even bigger and command an audience in countries where Indian films traditionally have had a smaller market. So, what is it the secret behind Bollywood’s enduring popularity? Is it the drama, the sometimes unconventional storylines or the interplay of emotions between the characters? Or is it the colourful song-and-dance routine that keeps audiences mesmerised? How far will Bollwood’s ‘soft power’ go in ensuring India has a bigger role on the global playing field in the coming decades? Deftly edited by Anjali Gera Roy, The Magic of Bollywood attempts to answer some of these questions against the backdrop of an increasingly globalising world order. The essays in this volume address Bollywood’s popularity in and outside South Asia, especially among the disapora-and the role it plays in international relations and diplomacy.
The term ‘soft power’ was coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye; it simply means to get what you want through persuasion rather than brute force. American fashions, Hollywood and its music are all a manifestation of United States’ ‘soft power’ that has dominated and impacted the world like no other. It was in fact Nye who commented in 2006 at Davos that Indian films, with an audience across the globe, are symbolic of the country’s ‘soft power’. In fact Bollywood has become inextricably linked with the image of India’s ‘soft power’, a testament to its global appeal. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bollywood has probably become India’s most enduring brand. Brand Bollywood, as essayist M K Raghavendra comments in the second chapter, is defined by ‘a certain kind of allure produced by a characteristic visual excess brought in by spectacle, choreography, costume and music’. Its influence can be felt in Indian restaurants, clothing, and décor.
The book also charts the impact of Bollywood in countries, such as Pakistan, Senegal, Indonesia and Germany, where the embrace of Hollywood is all-pervading. It is interesting to note that another country where Bollywood is really popular is Russia-perhaps in part due to the twonations’ shared communist ideologies? Another reason Indian films have a significant presence in Russia is due to their portrayal of themes, such as alienation and loss of identity due to globalisation, something which finds resonance amongst the middle class in both societies whereinequality is rampant. Blighted by decades of bloody wars, Afghanistan has nevertheless also shown an interest in Bollywood films. Sushma Swaraj, the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister in the NDA government spoke of ‘this entertainment and media explosion, which hasbrought India closer to its diaspora. More important is the fact that the diaspora has also majorly contributed in fuelling this growth.’ She went on to suggest that each Indian media and cultural icon was potentially ‘our’ unofficial ambassador abroad.
Scholarly and engaging, these essays explore the role of Bollywood through the prism of its ‘soft power’ to disseminate Indian culture and traditions to a wider audience. Experts from an array of fields, such as literature, cultural studies, music, media, sociology and theatre bring their perspectives to cover a raft of issues on the Bollywoodisation of culture and its power to influence issues of social and political relevance. If you are looking for a discussion of popular Bollywood films through the decades, skip this book. This is a serious work, a clinical study of the underpinnings of the world’s largest film industry, the issues that make it tick and its future in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.
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