Archive for February, 2008

Filmy Flashback: Silver Jubilee Filmfare Awards

February 29, 2008

A couple of years back, I chanced upon a set of Filmfare issues from 1977-78 being auctioned on eBay. And as luck would have it, I managed to get them (12 issues in all) for about $14! I figured I might as well use snippets from them and make “filmy flashback” a regular feature on BollySpace 2.0. To kick things off, here are some snapshots from the April 1978 issue that covered the Silver Jubilee of the prestigious Filmfare Awards!

Best Actor: Amitabh Bachchan, for Amar Akbar Anthony; Best Actress: Shabana Azmi for Swami; Best Supporting Actress: Asha Sachdev for Priyatama; Best Supporting Actor: Sriram Lagu for Gharaonda; Special award: Amol Palekar for Bhumika; and a Special Award to Naseeruddin Shah for Manthan.


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Circles of Sexuality

February 28, 2008

The latest issue of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN draws attention to the many transitions and conflicts surrounding sexuality.

Discussions on the wide range of human sexuality have begun in Southasia, albeit only in certain circles – universities, NGOs and within specifically interested communities. For the rest, alternative sexuality exists the way it always did, mostly clandestinely, at other times through rigidly defined ‘communities’. However, as television and film producers, authors and journalists continue to try to push certain envelopes, and appeal to additional (and younger) audiences, these discussions are inevitably cropping up with greater frequency within the mainstream.

But just how realistic is all of this talk? More importantly, just how pertinent is it to the lived experiences of Southasians, particularly long-oppressed sexual minorities?

Articles tackle the state of homosexuality in Nepal, class and conservatism in Pakistan, “virtual closets” in Bangladesh, NGO-isation of sexuality, and much more.

Recasting Women?

February 27, 2008

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I can never forget Lalithaji, or the crusading Rajni. I’m not sure if there was any intended correspondence between the woman in the ad and the TV character, but it worked. But in a post-DD world of numerous cable and satellite channels, not much changed in terms of women’s choices being framed first and foremost in relation to the family. Husband’s health, kids’ health, soaps and detergenets, colors for the room, and so on – it seemed advertising agencies simply could not think about women beyond a heterosexual/family frame.

According to this story, there are signs of some change:

Over the last few months, several non-gender specific categories such as breakfast cereal, alcohol, health drinks and even services such as radio have launched products aimed at women. The launches are part of a trend that recognizes women not just as primary decision makers in the Indian household, but also a large enough specialist target group or so-called mega niche that marketers can address.

My question is, will this new demographic construct lead to shifts in TV programming? I’d like to know how many women in this category watch the “women-centric” saas-bahu soaps on TV? Why does TV continue to segment the “women’s audience” into either a “youth” (MTV, etc.) or a “saas-bahu-family” category? I’m not suggesting that the U.S. model of Lifetime is necessarily the best way forward. Just wondering if this shift in advertising/marketing might lead TV producers and writers to imagine new programming possibilities.

Movie channels and syndication

February 25, 2008

While soaps, sitcoms, and mythologicals do attract audiences and at times help a new TV channel establish itself very quickly (Ramayan on NDTV Imagine, for e.g.), there is no escaping the fact that Bollywood has the largest program library and a reliable one at that. Every major television channel launched over the past decade or so has relied on Bollywood films to boost ratings and gradually diversify its programming. This trend, in turn, has been a major source of revenue for film producers. All the hype surrounding “new media” aside, TV rights constitutes a large percentage of a producer’s revenue stream.

Now, with major companies like Reliance, UTV, and NDTV entering the domain of “general entertainment” TV, the business of film rights is set to change. According to this report on the Indiantelevision trade site, established TV channels such as Sahara and SONY are syndicating titles to new entrants.

Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India has syndicated 70 titles to INX Media, the Peter-Indrani Mukerjea venture, for over Rs 400 million. For 9X, the Hindi general entertainment channel from the INX Media stable, this was an important part of the overall programming strategy. Movies have primarily driven the ratings of the channel.

Not surprisingly, the decision to buy syndication rights to a specific film or set of films is closely tied to the new TV channel’s branding strategy which, in turn, is premised on exclusivity (will this film air on a competing channel in the near future?). Entire story here. As far as I know, TV channels have not played the syndication game with soaps/sitcoms/other programs. It’s interesting to note that TV industry logics are still being shaped by the film industry.

On being desi in post 9/11 America

February 20, 2008

After a session on Goodness Gracious Me, I usually get students to watch Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic in an attempt to talk about cultural citizenship and the ways in which religion has become an increasingly important fault line. And until now, I’ve never found a film like My Son the Fanatic that might help us talk through these issues in the context of South Asian-Americans. Mississippi Masala only gets us so far. Last night, I learned about “Punching at the Sun,” a film that takes on the question of what race, nationalism, and citizenship mean for South Asian muslim youth in post-9/11 Queens, NY. Here’s the trailer, and you can watch the entire film on Jaman:

Links to reviews and interviews with the filmmaker Tanuj Chopra here.

Filmy Flashback

February 19, 2008

Poking around TIME magazine’s archives, I came across a piece featuring Baburao Patel – the eccentric, snarky, and influential editor of Film-India, an important fanzine that set the stage for Filmfare, Stardust, and so on. Here it is, from November 3, 1941 (link):

In Bombay’s movie fanpaper, Film-India, Editor Baburao Patel conducts an unusually piquant question-&-answer department. Last week Hollywood learned how Editor Patel does it.

Excerpts:

Q. Are there any raw-film manufacturers in India?

A. No. But we have directors who expose the film and make it look more raw than ever before.

Q. What is the exact relationship between Anuradha and Rafio Guznavi?

A. Come, I give you the guess.

Q. I hear bad rumors about Director Shantaram. Every man from Poona and Bombay says that Shantaram has done such & such a thing. I am sure that he is not a person to do such a thing. I think that Mr. Shantaram is aware of his fame and would not have done that thing. So you must tell the public that Shantaram is innocent by publishing his innocence in the next issue.

A. And I must also publish my innocence about what you are talking.

Q. Please tell me, which is the easiest way to get a job in a film company?

A. Get hold of the most attractive girl in your town and bring her to a film studio. . . . The other way is rather roundabout.

Q. Whenever I see a romantic picture, its effect lingers with me for five days and I cannot prosecute my studies. What shall I do?

A. Stop seeing pictures. Studies first.

Q. How many of our actresses are virgins?

A. I don’t know much about the actresses being virgins. This is an antique commodity in a modern world and you may find it in rural surroundings.

To Indira, with much love….

February 19, 2008

I was about seven years old, we had acquired a telephone at home and there was always a big fight over who would answer the call. Imagine my good luck when I happened to be the closest to the telephone on October 31st, 1984 and very proudly picked up the phone. It was my grandmother in Bangalore yelling something about the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi being assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. She also yelled something about turning on the television, also newly purchased – talk about newly realized middle class aspirations. My aunt in the US had called and told her about the assassination, which she had heard through the BBC. Sadly, All India Radio and Doordarshan, most likely waiting for the higher-ups in the hierarchy to release orders from the shocked government, were mum until later that evening.

As the news of the assassination spread, every evening for the next few weeks, our living room would be packed with neighbours and their friends and family, with theirs and my family’s eyes glued to our black and white television set (the one with the wooden doors that could be opened and closed). Salma Sultan, with her single rose bud in her tight hair bun, shed a single tear when she read the news of the assassination that evening, dispelling annoying myths that she was actually an early robotic experiment conducted by scientifically-minded folks at Doordarshan.

Indira’s death perhaps did more to resuscitate the Congress Party than anything else. It also, more importantly, changed how one thought of television and women in television. That critical historical moment did two things: one, it helped resurrect Indira’s image as a martyr – a female subject who could be recuperated either as a Mother figure or as a political subject who could be aggressive, non-submissive, and agential (an enduring figure that continues to be resurrected, think Lalithaji!). Secondly, television was recognized as an extremely influential medium to mobilize political support. Images of Indira Gandhi, her funeral and her grieving family became a mainstay in the political advertisements that were instrumental in Indira’s successor – her son Rajiv Gandhi – coming to power. Not surprisingly, Rajiv recognized that power, pushing for expansion and investment in the television sector. What happened after that event is also significant, because we see how deeply entrenched state regulation was in the dissemination of information or ‘news.’

Being in the South of India in Hyderabad, we were completely disconnected from the planned and systematic persecution of Sikhs in Delhi. What we continued to be exposed to on television were images of a supposedly grieving nation, and it was through national television that a ‘national family’ was imaged, a cohesive unit that somehow was beyond and came before class, caste, and gender differences.

The events of 1984 remain, in the history of the country, somewhat of an academic stepchild. One acknowledges its pesky presence but never bestows upon it historical veracity or legitimacy. This sort of makes it really difficult for me, Swati Bandi – a mere student of documentary studies, from the South of India and astonishingly illiterate in the ground realities of 1984 – when I am called upon to introduce a fiction film that meshes popular memory and history to address that pesky issue of the Sikh massacres post Indira-assasination! Yes, I am talking about Shonali Bose’s 2004 film Amu, being screened at an International Women’s Film Festival in Buffalo, NY.

As so much has already been written about the film, I think, for this blog, I will extrapolate and talk about what really interests me – the marriage of documentary and fiction film aesthetics to talk about an event that is fraught with tensions inherent in the recounting of historical ‘fact’ as it intersects with popular memory. Truth be told, the film underwhelmed me. It was self-absorbed and except for certain powerful moments in the flashback scenes in the refugee camps in Delhi, I was vaguely dissatisfied throughout. Yes, vaguely, like there is nothing outwardly terrible about it. For instance, I could not point out one scene and say “see, this is why you disappoint me, you film.”

The story is unraveled as the protagonist Kaju, a recent UCLA (film?) grad, ‘goes back’ to Delhi to discover her roots. The story is documented through her trusty video camera. This narrative device, seen often in documentary films made by filmmakers in the diaspora who ‘go back,’ is employed quite unproblematically by Bose. Amu, along with her native boyfriend, are allowed easy access to ‘documentary subjects,’ who recount the ‘truth’ – helping her uncover not only her own story as an orphan whose parents were killed in the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 but also legitimize, through the documentary camera, that version of historical memory.

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As I said before, I really would have to do much more research before I could talk about the horrible events of 1984 with any authority. Yet, since Bose does present Amu as the only film that addresses the anti-Sikh riots and argues, rightfully, for more attention to those events, it would have helped to move beyond certain narrational devices like forced moments between foreign-returned desis and natives, surficially addressing generation gaps, uneven accents and an exploitative ethnographic gaze.

This marriage between documentary film aesthetics and fiction film has huge implications for television. It is in this sector that one can move toward larger distribution of documentary films. NDTV already dedicates some hours towards screening documentary films. More exposure to the public can only help break the chains that bind the doc film genre in its ‘boring,’ ‘educational’ moulds. It is also in television that our notions of documentary ‘truth’ and our investment in the notion that the camera never lies can slowly be eroded (thankfully!). As the lines between fact and fiction blur (think TV news, for instance), documentary film can finally emerge as truly, wonderful entertainment.

Ok, I am dreaming but Indira Gandhi was on her way to film a documentary interview with Peter Ustinov when she was gunned down. Go figure.

 

Tracking Bhangra: DJ Rekha on NPR

February 18, 2008

On NPR’s weekend edition, a feature on DJ Rekha – listen here. The site has links to earlier features on Rekha, and a nice 6-minute piece from June 2000 on the rise of bhangra in the U.S. club scene (link).

TV and taste: the “saas-bahu” question

February 15, 2008

In a recent article in the avowedly “upper-class” Mint, columnist Vir Sanghvi wonders why television in India speaks to PLT (People Like Them) and asks the readers of Mint, People Like Him, why “so many of us (readers of Lounge, for instance) thrill to masala Hindi movies while remaining resolutely unmoved by the appeal of the mega-serials that have much of middle India so completely enthralled?” He writes:

As much as you may have enjoyed Om Shanti Om or even Saawariya, do you watch Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? When you flip from one Hindi entertainment channel to another, can you really tell the difference? Isn’t there a certain stultifying sameness to the manner in which over-made-up, overdressed women waddle around lurid and garish sets, pausing every five minutes or so for an extreme close-up, accompanied by loud and, frankly, disturbing explosions of music? Do you really find the jokes on the many stand-up comedy shows (spawned by the success of The Great Laughter Challenge) genuinely funny? Can you understand why Navjot Singh Sidhu laughs so hysterically at every weak gag uttered by each aspiring comedian?

It’s a strange thing, but even as Hindi cinema has become the great leveller, television has become a world unto itself, carving out a solid constituency in the lower- to middle-middle class (look, I’m sorry if this sounds snobbish, but there’s no other way to say it), while almost completely ignoring the upper-middle class and the elite.

Given that these shows remain highly popular and continue to draw the highest ratings points, it is rather easy to imagine what Ekta Kapoor, the architect of many a saas-bahu television serial, might say to Sanghvi and People Like Him. But it is not as easy to brush aside Sanghvi’s assumptions about taste, class, and the expectations of a medium like TV – in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that academic culture is yet to take saas-bahu serials seriously. I have heard nothing but dismissal of shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law) as regressive and that they do little more than reinforce gender stereotypes. But is this all we have to say?

Does the study of TV begin and end with this all-too-easy ideology critique? Would it not be worth exploring how Ekta Kapoor, a young woman, managed to become one of the most important figures in the TV industry? What about looking closely at how writers on this show think through characters like Tulsi Virani (Smriti Irani)? Do we have nothing interesting to say about Smriti Irani’s move from a TV soap into the realm of politics? And tempting as it may be, are we really prepared to call women and men (yes, men watch these shows too) across India who enjoy these serials cultural dupes? Without falling into the trap of 80s-anglo-american-style “resistant reading” ideas, would it not be important to explore the politics and pleasures of these TV serials in relation to everyday life?

In many respects, this piece by Vir Sanghvi reminded me of the discussion about taste cultures in the context of television scholarship/writing in the U.S., and the fact that there is hardly any “ideological and cultural diversity within television studies per se” (more here). Talking specifically about discussions at a conference (Flow), Henry Jenkins picks up on Greg Smith’s question – why JAG, a popular show never gets the kind of attention that a cult hit like Buffy does – and writes:

I would argue that our inability as a field to write intelligently about shows like JAG has something to do with our sense of cultural isolation from those people who live in Red States. One challenge may be to broaden our object of study. An even bigger challenge may be to expand who studies television and what kinds of perspectives are welcome at our conference. Very few folks at the Flow conference rose to defend JAG as a worthy object of study. My bet though is that there are people out there reading this blog who regularly watch JAG. Indeed, it was one of my late father’s favorite programs and I found watching the program with him helped me to understand how his generation saw the world.

Along the same lines, while I cannot bring myself to watch a saas-bahu serial, I did spend many hours watching a Tamil-language saas-bahu show with my mother. This was right after my father had died, and I was with my mum in Bangalore for a couple of months. At one level, the ritual of watching TV, quite simply, provided great solace. And for my mom, these shows with their strong (and yes, in some ways regressive) women characters were almost a balm for grief. During those weeks, I was, in Sanghvi’s terms, PLT. The “saas-bahu” question needs to be framed differently and not just in a banal isn’t-it-regressive vein.

It’s all about TV

February 14, 2008

Over the past few years, both popular and academic writing on the changing mediascape in India has focused mostly on Bollywood – take one look on Amazon and you’ll see for yourself. To be sure, there are countless topics to explore and a growing group of scholars and graduate students are mapping and analyzing the substantial changes in the film industry (mostly Bollywood). My own research is very much a part of this space, and I decided to focus on relationships between film, TV, advertising, and the “new media” sector for my dissertation.

But now that I’ve had some time away from the dissertation, and as I begin to think about turning the diss into a book, I find myself looking more closely at developments in the TV sector and wondering about how much more dynamic the TV industry has been this past decade. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that all the experimentation going on in the film industry is largely being underwritten by TV – be it through the entry of TV companies like UTV into the film business, the fact that TV rights allow producers to recover half or more than half of a film’s production costs (link), or the countless film-based shows on TV that serve as promotional vehicles and much more.

It did not come as a surprise, then, to hear about NBC’s decision to acquire 26% share in NDTV Networks (link) and the possibility that NBC will raise this number to 50% in the near future. NDTV has expanded beyond news and launched NDTV Imagine (a general entertainment channel), NDTV Good Times (supposedly India’s first lifestyle channel), NDTV Emerging Markets (a consulting unit), and NDTV Convergence (a digital media business that controls all Web/mobile content). And NBC isn’t alone here – both Sony and News Corp. have been involved in the TV market in India for much longer, and just last year, Viacom and Disney entered the picture as well (Viacom teamed up with the TV-18 group and Disney bought a 15% stake in UTV). It’s becoming increasingly clear that all the buzz surrounding the growth of the Internet and gaming sectors has been a distraction at best (mobile phones are a different story). It’s time we paid closer attention to developments in the TV sector – not only in terms of mapping changing ownership patterns but also re-assessing TV’s role as a cultural center for every imaginable audience demographic.

Three hundred Ramayanas and more

February 10, 2008

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question.” In an essay titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” Ramanujan sets out to explore how “hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted, transposed.”

I was reminded of Ramanujan’s essay and the collection, Many Ramayanas (edited by Paula Richman), when I recently learned about the Ramayana being narrated on television. In fact, the Ramayana seems central to programming strategy for NDTV’s new entertainment channel, NDTV Imagine. And according to this story, this new version of the Ramayana has been responsible for boosting ratings and distinguishing NDTV Imagine from other similar “general entertainment” ventures such as Reliance’s Bindass and ZEE’s Zee Next.

This latest telling of the Ramayana is produced by Sagar Arts (established in 1950), the family that first took on the task of figuring out how to narrate a mythology on television. Needless to say, the version that’s on TV now is slicker and producers are making full use of technological advances (videos here).

The last time a Ramayana was aired on TV – on state-regulated Doordarshan – a number of people were concerned that the televised version would come to possess an authority that would be difficult to question. Furthermore, Doordarshan presented the Ramayana as an expression of “national culture,” leading scholars like Romila Thapar to wonder if “other tellings of the Ramayana story might be irretrievably submerged or marginalized” (link). But again, as Richman suggests in the introduction to Many Ramayanas, it might be worth thinking about television’s narration of the Ramayana “not as heralding the demise of other tellings but as affirming the creation of yet another rendition of the Ramayana , the latest product of an ongoing process of telling and retelling the story of Rama.”

And it’s not just TV! Virgin Comics sets Rama in 3392 A.D.

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And Nina Paley, of course, gives us a Sitayana!

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R. K. Laxman: Looking back on the Common Man

February 8, 2008

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Via CNN-IBN: For 60 years, R K Laxman has shown us who we are. In those 60 years, he has jealously guarded from us who he is. Only family, friends and colleagues from The Times of India, where he has worked most of his life, can claim to know the man behind the famous signature. Videos here. [pic: The Hindu]

Yizo Yizo (The Way It Is) and Wetin Dey (What’s Up?): Revisiting “Development TV”

February 8, 2008

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Thanks to my colleague leo africanus, I could include Yizo Yizo, a groundbreaking and gritty TV show from South Africa, in my course on Global Media. Yizo Yizo is a terrific text with which to invite students to think about the question of “development communication” and the central role that this strand of communications research (carried out, for the most part, in mass communication departments in the U.S.) has played in shaping media policy in much of Africa and Asia. But what sets Yizo Yizo and Wetin Dey apart from other “pro-development” Miguel Sabido-inspired dramas developed in places like India during the 80s is the socio-cultural and political context – post apartheid South Africa.

Where radio and television in India were imagined and controlled by the state as a means for integrating the “nation,” in South Africa, radio and television were central to the project of racial and ethnic separation. Yizo Yizo, however, is in many ways emblematic of “post-apartheid” TV in South Africa – by which I mean not just the re-structuring of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the growing influence of transnational formats and genres on TV in South Africa (Big Brother Africa, for e.g.), but also the ways in which TV has emerged as a key site for the re-articulation of cultural citizenship. And Yizo Yizo is a brilliant text to work with for the simple reason that it is so uncompromising – it lays bare the many issues troubling township life in South Africa (violence, drug abuse, sexual harassment, and so on) in unprecedented ways. And needless to say, the show generated tremendous controversy and attracted considerable public discussion. TV done right.

While I’ve planned to screen an episode or two of Yizo Yizo in class, it looks like I now have to make time for another show – Wetin Dey, from Nigeria. A story in the BBC says that this show, produced by group of international TV, film and advertising producers, is designed to raise HIV and AIDS awareness across Nigeria (here). Nigeria, as we know, gets talked about in both popular and academic settings in relation to Nollywood and the enduring popularity of Bollywood. I’m hoping this show (clips available on BBC) will help add another dimension to our understanding of media production in Nigeria and force us to think anew about TV and the question of “development” in an age of global flows – Wetin Dey is, after all, funded in large measure by the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and produced in collaboration with a number of NGOs.

[Pic from BBC]

Narrating AIDS

February 6, 2008

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mira Nair took on the challenge of narrating AIDS in India and brought together three other filmmakers – Farhan Akhtar, Santosh Sivan, and Vishal Bhardwaj. Called “AIDS Jaago” (AIDS Awake), these films have been doing the rounds of international film festivals and are now available on Jaman. The goal, as the press release (link) makes clear, was simply to tackle the worst stereotypes that continue to shape public understanding of HIV/AIDS and to do so through a compelling story. Needless to say, this is a stellar line-up of directors and what’s more, they managed to rope in a number of A-list film stars as well for each film.

While I’m sure the stars have been partly responsible for attracting attention, the film that struck a chord with me was the one that did not rely on Bollywood stars – Santosh Sivan’s Prarambha (The Beginning), with Prabhu Deva as a lorry driver who gets caught up in a boy’s journey to find his mother (who happens to be HIV+). But then, my opinion is partly determined by the fact that this film is set in and around Mysore and everyone in the film speaks in Kannada (with some Tamil mixed in for good measure). Yennyway, you can watch all of them here.

Crate & Barrel goes Bolly-crazy

February 4, 2008

Netflix account, recommendations from friends, Indian takeout, maybe even a bottle of Kingfisher to make the evening *really* “Indian,” and you’re all set to pick up the remote and settle down for some good masala. Do you still feel something is missing? Crate and Barrel can take care of you -

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Comes with a Bollywood pillow (customizable, perhaps, with your favorite Bolly-hero/heroine?). More here.

(HT: Geoff)


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