Archive for November, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: TV, Culture, and Politics in Iran

November 30, 2007

For my course on Global Media and Culture this semester, I had considerable difficulty finding subtitled television shows from Egypt, Lebanon, or Iran. I knew about Lebanese-produced Star Academy thanks to Marwan Kraidy who wrote about the show for Media Commons (link), and I even found a wonderful interview of Begum Nawazish Ali, the cross-dressing host of Late Night Show on Pakistan’s Aaj TV, on Al Jazeera (link). But I was forced to cut back on our focus on everyday life in places like Iran and Pakistan and fall back to talking about Orientalism, Hollywood, and so on. And what’s more, with exceptions like Kraidy’s recent work on reality TV and Arab modernity, and Naomi Sakr’s book on satellite TV in the Middle East, there isn’t much work on TV (in sharp contrast to, say, Iranian film).

So I was excited to read about Zero Degree Turn, a superhit Iranian TV drama about the holocaust. And the best part is, there are several subtitled episodes available online! Here’s an excerpt:

Set in wartime Paris, Zero Degree Turn tells the story of a young Iranian man who helps a Jewish family escape occupied France. Hassan Fathi, the writer, says the show is inspired by Abdol Hussein Sardari, an Iranian consulate officer in Paris who issued Iranian passports to more than 1,00o European Jews during WW-II (more here and here).

Film Journalism: a new media twist

November 26, 2007

Over a three-month stretch in Bombay, I spent many hours chatting with film journalists in a range of print, television, and dot-com companies. These were by far the most interesting conversations I had and the gossip aside, I learned a lot about how the Internet has made film journalism one of the key sites of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood. While landing a full-time film journalist gig remains difficult, it is impossible to ignore the growing influence of blogs and sites like Passion for Cinema or Naachgaana.

However, even as the line between a full time film journalist and blogger-writers are beginning to blur, there is no denying that institutional affiliations continue to matter. Stars, directors, producers and others in the film industry recognize that film journalists play a key role – at the very least, their reporting provides the basis for much of what film bloggers do. And over the past 5-6 years, dot-com journalists have become key players, particularly when it comes to the crucial friday film review. As Raja Sen of Rediff explained -

In Mumbai, the world of film journalism is small. There are a handful of reviewers who are read every week, and now some websites are being read regularly. Like this one time, I met Shilpa Shetty a couple of days after Dus had released. And when I said I was from Rediff, she asked me, “are you Raja Sen?” I said yes, and she went on to say that Abhishek Bachchan had called her the previous day and asked her to read the Rediff review! Thankfully I had said good things about the film so she was happy! But you know, there is no doubt that websites like Rediff are now on the same plane as a Mumbai Times or Mid Day.

What’s most interesting to see is film journalists like Raja Sen beginning to experiment with the very structure of the film review. In the video below, Sen plays with a Dostoevsky short story (White Nights) and wonders what it would take to make it a Bollywood spectacle. Taking a dig at Bhansali’s Saawariya, he says towards the end -

Story theek hai (story is alright)

Now add 35 crores, 11 songs, and paint everything blue!

While I think this works as an interesting new layer to the film review, I doubt if other journalists and even the most committed film-bloggers will take to this anytime soon. Besides, I also suspect that this is part of a larger publicity drive for iShare, Rediff’s new video networking site, and nothing more.

Crossword your way across India

November 26, 2007

In today’s Chicago Tribune. Solve.

(via Sepoy)

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Friday Fun: Silk Smitha

November 16, 2007

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“Silk” Smitha, arguably the best (most raunchy) vamp of Indian cinema, is making a comeback of sorts. CNN-IBN has a story with a few delightful interviews here. As one fan puts it, “she could have put Bipasha Basu to shame!”

Do families matter in Bollywood Inc.?

November 15, 2007

Kinship networks have always mattered in the film industry in Bombay. As Tejaswini Ganti’s ethnographic accounts of the industry have shown, kinship serves as the most important “principle of organization and hierarchy within the industry” and that it “functions as cultural capital, symbolic capital, and a form of risk-management or insurance within the industry.” Every aspect of the film business, including the crucial activity of tracking a film’s revenues, determining its box office success or failure, and developing an understanding of the “audience,” relies on a web of personal contacts and relationships developed over a long period of time.

Is this the case today? Do families matter in post-1998 (when the government granted “industry” status to filmmaking) Bollywood Inc.? Consider this opening paragraph of an article in Mint which provides an overview of who the major players are (link):

Over the next two years, India’s film industry will actually start functioning like one. In this period, business groups and companies such as Network 18, the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-Adag) , UTV Motion Pictures Plc., Percept Holdings, Carving Dreams Entertainment Ltd, Eros International Plc. and Saregama India Ltd have lined up between 120 and 140 projects at a total cost of around Rs. 4,000 crore.

It is striking to note that large, established, family-run production banners like Yashraj Films and Rajshri Media are not even mentioned here. Of course, personal relationships continue to determine who gets plum acting breaks, a chance to direct a big budget film, and so on. At the end of the day, surnames like Kapoor and Khan do matter. But it is no longer possible to ignore the establishment of a network of social relationships defined not in terms of kinship, but through new circuits of capital. More from the Mint article:

The Indian Film Co. and UTV Motion Pictures raised around Rs. 450 crore and Rs. 300 crore, respectively, from the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market earlier this year. And Prime Focus Ltd and K Sera Sera Productions Ltd raised around Rs150 crore and Rs60 crore, respectively, from the Indian stock markets last year. Executives in the entertainment industry say that while funding matters, companies are moving to a studio model to address issues such as shortage of talent, rising demand for content, better cinema (or exhibition) infrastructure and emerging revenue generation opportunities.

The shift from mercantile capital (often, tax-sheltered “black” money) to what everyone likes to call a “corporatized” funding model is, however, only a part of the picture. The other key transition involves the development of television, mobile phones, and the Web as significant revenue streams. To be sure, established banners like Yashraj and Rajshri are responding creatively to these shifts and have even led the way forward in some respects. But it is abundantly clear that media execs like Ronnie Screwvala (UTV) are the ones restructuring the institutional framework of the film industry and Bollywood families have little choice but to keep up and figure out where they belong in the mix.

Tamil cinema and the NRI Question

November 14, 2007

I recently watched Sivaji-The Boss and it made me wonder why Tamil cinema (and other “regional” cinemas) doesn’t seem burdened with the NRI problem, of re-positioning the NRI within the national family. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a Tamil film along the lines of a DDLJ or a K3G, blockbuster Bollywood films that reclaimed and redefined the NRI as one of our own. I find this intriguing, especially given how strongly the Indian diaspora of late-modern capital (90s, high-tech migration) has been defined by cities like Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

In Sivaji, Rajni plays an NRI who returns to Chennai with the lofty aim of serving the poor by providing them access to free education, healthcare, and so on (synopsis here). It is striking that there isn’t a single instance in the film when Rajni’s outsider-status is questioned – in contrast to NRI-focused Bollywood films (Swades is the obvious parallel here), here Rajni’s outsider-status is located within a corrupt political landscape and he is like any other person (only richer) in a city like Chennai who cannot get anything done without the help of powerful politicians and wheeler-dealers. There is no hand-wringing about who Rajni is – he is a Tamilian, and that’s all there is to it.

The easy way out, of course, is to fall back on the national-regional hierarchy that has been in place for over 7 decades now (since the advent of sound in cinema) and suggest that “regional” cinema’s concerns are “regional” and not (trans)national. But would it not be more productive to conceptualize Tamil cinema as having always had a trans-national dimension in the sense that it interrupts the narration of the nation by Bombay cinema? This is the argument that Vijay Devdas makes in a piece on “Rethinking Transnational Cinema: The case of Tamil Cinema” (link). Devdas surveys Tamil cinema from the period after independence to the late 1970s to argue that -

“…over time, there has been a shift within Tamil Cinema from a pan-Indian construction of the nation, that was part of the anti-colonial cinema of British India, to the call for communally centred, closed, ethno-nation, premised on a discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism.”

It is perhaps because of the strength of this discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism that Tamil cinema feels no need to re-territorialize Tamil NRIs.

What Brown Can(not) Do For You

November 9, 2007

A week from now, I will be on my way to Boston to participate in a workshop at M.I.T where a group of academics will talk about Unboxing TV. Following the model established by Flow, this workshop is organized as a series of roundtable discussions with each participant outlining a provocation instead of reading a paper for 20-25 minutes. Take a look at the program and the provocations here.

I decided to take this opportunity to think through the MTV-Desi experiment, and use discussions surrounding MTV-Desi to think about the relationship between the South Asian diaspora and TV. Over the next week, I will be working through answers to the questions I raise and will have more to say. For now, here’s what I wrote:

In July 2005, MTV Networks announced the launch of MTV-Desi, a niche channel for South Asian American youth. Launched with great fanfare and made available on Direct TV, MTV-Desi featured Bollywood sequences and Indi-pop (sourced from MTV India), diasporic artists in North America and the U.K., and shows about desi life in the U.S. Recognizing the transcultural nature of South Asian American youth culture, executives and producers at MTV-Desi worked hard to define MTV-Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor Indian satellite TV channels could match.

Eighteen months later, MTV Networks pulled the plug on MTV-Desi, stating that the distribution model failed to draw in South Asian Americans. As one prominent South Asian journalist commented, “we published next to nothing on the channel, because I couldn’t find anyone who watched the satellite channel: no college students, no twenty-somethings with spare change. And it wasn’t just me. All the tastemakers I interviewed – DJs, other music types – said they didn’t know any MTV Desi subscribers either.”

While pricing and poor marketing were cited as the major reasons for failure, it is worth noting that MTV-Desi’s business and content-production strategies were shaped not only by the institutional politics of the U.S. television industry but also by the operations of satellite television channels such as ZEE, STAR, and Sony Entertainment that cater to South Asian audiences worldwide. MTV-Desi executives were also attuned to reports emphasizing that South Asians are now among the fastest growing minorities in the U.S. and, more importantly, as a niche demographic with tremendous purchasing power. Thus, at one level, it appears as if executives at MTV-Desi did nothing wrong in terms of identifying an audience community. So what, besides the premium distribution model, went wrong?

I wish to argue that the MTV-Desi experiment constitutes an important moment in the history of diasporic media production, and that a critical post-mortem will allow us to grapple with challenges faced by media producers and cultural critics in imagining and mobilizing a diasporic audience community. Outlining the changing dynamics of migration between South Asia and the U.S., and competing definitions of desi identity and being brown in the U.S., I will tackle these questions during our roundtable discussion:

- In what ways does the institutional framework of the television industry in the U.S. limit the possibility of imagining a “post-national” audience community?

- If Bombay, as a film and television capital, is dominating and defining the production and flow of South Asian content, what possibilities remain for diasporic television production?

- Does “diaspora,” as a socio-cultural and political critique of the nation-as-community, need TV?

Multiplex Effect(s)

November 7, 2007

One of the most interesting transitions in the world of commercial Bombay cinema over the past few years has been the experimentation with low-budget and offbeat films. While lavish nationalist-diasporic films that the likes of Karan Johar, Yash Chopra, and Subhash Ghai churn out are the ones that seem to define “Bollywood,” especially for viewers and critics outside India, films like Omkara, Dor, and Johnny Gaddar have drawn audiences, critical acclaim and, importantly, made money at the box office. To be sure, films like these would have been unimaginable in the commercial sector a decade ago.

Writing in the Mint (link), Gouri Shah takes stock of this development and argues that these low-budget films have succeeded primarily because of the shift from single-screen to multiplex theatres as the mode of exhibition in urban India (and to a lesser extent, in smaller cities and towns). Shah also writes that recent successes have prompted large production houses to set up separate divisions to focus exclusively on low-budget films with new talent across the board.

Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts Ltd has set up two divisions—Mukta Searchlight Films, which handles small budget films, and Malpix Films, which will launch its first Marathi film, Kaande Pohe, soon. UTV Motion Pictures Plc. has Spot Boy Motion Pictures and UTV Classics, while Percept Picture Co. recently set up Cause Cinema, which will look at projects with socially relevant themes as well as corporate films. Yash Raj Films Pvt. Ltd is also planning to set up a separate division that will focus on small budget projects or independent films, according to people in the industry familiar with the developments.

I agree, for the most part, that this is very much a “multiplex effect.” As Aparna Sharma explained in her Seminar piece, in addition to flexible scheduling that allows multiplexes to accomodate films of varying lengths, low budget films are lucrative for a multiplex because the number of viewers they bring in translates into “a greater, more competitive marginal value” (more here).

At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that an “indie” filmmaker has little hope of getting his/her film into a multiplex unless s/he is working with a large banner like UTV, Mukta Arts, or Yashraj Films. My Brother Nikhil (Onir, 2005), the film that, in many ways, started this trend, would not have worked without Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra’s patronage. To get a sense of how critical this patronage is, all you have to do is take a quick look at the films that NFDC, the government of India enterprise that defines “good cinema,” has produced over the past few years – not only are they predominantly in regional languages like Marathi, Kannada, and Tamil, none of them made it into a multiplex.

Spiderman-India

November 6, 2007

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I quite liked the comics, and couldn’t pass up a chance to be Spiderman-India (and an evil one at that)!

Political Bollywood: A BBC radio feature

November 6, 2007

Surfing around the Bollywood section of the BBC website, I came across a two-part radio feature called “political bollywood” that purports to…

…overturn the prevailing image of Indian films…look beneath the glitz, the glamour and the music and you will find that the medium is a canny social engineer, a purveyor of traditions and morality, and a key player in the tumultuous politics of India, the largest democracy in the world.

Beginning with an overview of film production and reception during the colonial era, the feature provides a rather good introduction to cinema in India – Phalke and allegorical/political mythologicals, cinema towards the end of empire, the introduction of sound, the studio era, socialist filmmaking, the use of Hindustani in Bombay cinema, the role of songs in articulating nationalist sentiment, and so on. The one major problem, however, is that this radio feature frames Bombay cinema as “national cinema.” Still, combined with an introductory text like Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Popular Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, this might be a good teaching guide. Listen here.

Friday Fun: Global Superhero Rajnikant

November 2, 2007

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There’s all this chatter about Virgin Comics roping in Priyanka Chopra to create a new superhero character for the Indian market (story here). But everyone forgets the man who started it all – superstar Rajnikant! But then, any true Rajni fan wouldn’t be fazed. After all, Rajni has taught us all well: en vazhi thani vazhi (my way is unique).


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