Archive for the ‘new media’ Category

Bollywood & the “new media” question

September 6, 2010

How do we map and analyze the relationship between “new media” and the Bombay film industry? In what ways have various new media technologies and platforms shaped the ongoing transformation of the Bombay film industry into “Bollywood”?And how do we then think about inter-media relations in a city like Bombay in historically grounded fashion?

This is a question I have been interested in for several years now, and one that is central to the book I’m working on. It emerged from fieldwork I conducted towards my dissertation (back in 2004-05), and subsequent research in Bombay confirmed my initial sense that radio, state-owned television, cable and satellite television, and the Internet and the mobile phone have all shaped the film industry in important ways. To begin tackling this problematic, I decided to work on a case-study of Indiafm.com, one of the most popular and successful film-related websites. And now, that case study has been published in Media, Culture and Society!

From Indiafm.com to Radio Ceylon: new media and the making of the Bombay film industry,” will be in the journal’s September 2010 issue. Writing this piece was crucial as it served as an opportunity to develop an argument for the book project, and also allowed me to locate contemporary issues of media convergence in a broader historical frame. In particular, stories about Radio Ceylon and the Bombay film industry were fascinating, and proved very useful for arguing that historically informed analyses of inter-media relations are crucial if we are to develop more complex and textured cultural genealogies of the Bombay film industry’s ‘global’ flows and influences.

What fandom could teach the ICT4D community

June 3, 2010

A few years back, I spent an entire summer hanging around info-kiosks – part of a major ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) initiative – in south India (Tamilnadu). As it happened, I ended up spending quite a bit of time in one particular site, partly because a group of high-school and college age guys were part of the scene. These guys also happened to be members of a Vijay fan club, and given my interests in participatory cultures, I was more than happy to hang out and chat with them.

A few weeks into the summer, I showed up as usual on a Monday afternoon and found the kiosk empty and the Vijay fans were nowhere to be seen. I learned later that day that these guys has been told to stay away from the kiosk. Someone had found out that this group had been using the computers in the info-kiosk to watch (and copy) VCDs of Tamil films, some Hong Kong action films, and perhaps even a few “blue” films (porn). Word had come from the coordinators of the ICt4D initiative that such activities would not be tolerated, and if folks in this village couldn’t understand that these kiosks were for “development” and “progress” (munnetram, a word I heard often from the programme coordinators), they would shut it all down and set up the kiosk in a place where people understood its uses.

From the perspective of the predominantly urban and middle-class professionals involved in this project, this was disappointing. Watching films, toying around with Microsoft Paint to design a fan club poster, etc. marked a betrayal of sorts. Look, they seemed to say, here we are providing access and teaching them how to use communication technologies and this is what these boys do. It was clear that there was no place for pleasure in the ICT4D world. Or, at the very least, pleasure ought to be deferred.

I’ve always struggled to make sense of this incident. At one level, it wasn’t surprising. Contemporary iCT4D initiatives could certainly be located within the history of development communications in India (and across the Global South). One example that comes to mind right away is Hum Log, the “pro-development” soap opera that Doordarshan mandarins concocted with assistance from Miguel Sabido, renowned as the father of “entertainment-education.” And even then, the question of pleasure was always set to one side. Surveys of audiences focused on what was learned. The over 400,000 letters that people across India sent in, expressing thoughts about Chutki and Badki (the feisty young daughters in the show), for instance, did not seem in the least bit important.

I’ve always struggled to come up with an adequate explanation of why we need to focus on pleasure and participation even as we think about “development.” Not anymore. Lawrence Liang to the rescue!

In a recent essay, Liang points to French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s take on a set of journals that workers in 19th century France wrote. These workers  (iron smiths, metal workers, and so on) were not interested in reflecting on the terrible conditions of their lives but instead, in  “poetry, philosophy and indulging in the pleasures of thought.” Liang extends this to the ICT4D world:

What the workers wanted was to become entirely human, with all the possibilities of a human being which included a life in thought. What was not afforded to works was the leisure of thought, or the time of night which intellectuals had…

If we were to translate what this means for our understanding of ICT and the subject of development, we find that most interventions frame the poor as objects of the discourse of digital access, and they are rarely seen as the subject of digital imaginaries. How do we think of the space created by ICT as one that expands not just the material conditions but also breaks the divide between those entitled to the world of thought, and those entitled to the world of work? In other words, what is the space that we create when we frame the discourse of ‘digital divides’ only as a matter of technological access? How do we begin to look at the technological lives of people beyond developmentalism and take into account the way it changes aspirations and subjectivities?

I wish I had been able to frame the incident I mentioned above in this way. In conversations with programme coordinators and fellow-researchers (who were studying other ICT4D sites in India), I was unable to articulate why a group of young men tinkering with computers, watching films, and going online to interact with Vijay fans in the world at large is actually very good news and not cause for despair. This is, as Liang puts it, “a classic instance of what Ranciere would term as an ‘exclusion by homage’.” I, for one, am yet to hear of an ICT4D initiative that moves beyond such exclusions to think more broadly about possible uses and engagements.

Public access TV and U.S. desi diaspora

April 2, 2009

This is partly in response to Jason Mittell’s recent post in which he outlines very clearly the challenges facing Public Access TV in the U.S. (thanks fr posting the slides, Jason!). He begins by pointing out that PEGs (Public/Educational/Governmental channels) “traditionally have served as community media centers, local anchors in a media system that has skewed toward national and global models.” While acknowledging that digital media technologies and platforms have created many new opportunities for media production and circulation by individuals and communities, Jason reminds us that digital divides do exist even in the U.S (in the case of a town like Middlebury, particularly along generational lines).

At the same time, given the pace of changes in the media landscape and ongoing regulatory changes (see this Flow piece for more details), the future of public access TV does look bleak. Taking stock of all this, Mittell asks if we ought to acknowledge that the public access model has “outlived its necessity.” And if we do, how do we go about ensuring the formation and sustenance of new kinds of community media systems?

I know very little about the history of public access TV in the U.S., but it is a topic I need to learn more about as I think about the history of South Asian-American diasporic media production and circulation. But for now, perhaps I can draw on my own experiences in the U.S. to make a few observations and raise some questions.

During the 1990s, enterprising desis in large metropolitan areas like New York/NJ, D.C., Atlanta, parts of Florida, the Bay area, L.A., and so on began leasing 30-60 minutes from the local public access channel to broadcast a variety program. This variety program, broadcast on Saturday mornings, would typically be a mix of film-related content (songs and some filmy gossip) and news concerning desis in the U.S., with advertisements from desi businesses (restaurants, jewelry stores, etc.) and companies interested in doing business with desis (Western Union, for e.g.). These shows were local, and often, family affairs. Needless to say, in the pre-satellite, pre-Internet era, desi families across North America looked forward to this one hour show each week.

Today, in a world of satellite television, p2p networks, blogs, and YouTube, it is indeed difficult to envision a role for public access television in relation to diasporic media production. And indeed, most of us would point to this mediascape as evidence of how media broker relations between different localities. But if I step back for a minute and leave media out of the picture, I see right away that the struggle over defining the “local” is a defining aspect of diasporic life.

We can now move on to suggest that where diasporic communities are concerned, the “local-ness” of public access TV does not mean a connection to the local in the way Mittell suggests it is for Middlebury residents. Desis used public access television to re-make the “local,” if only for an hour each week. Public access TV allowed desis to keep alive some connections with “home” and, in many cases, created a space for desi parents to introduce their children to some aspects of life in South Asia. Written from a diasporic perspective, public access TV has also had a very global life. And where South Asian-American media production/circulation is concerned, we could even argue that public access TV laid the foundation for satellite television companies like EROS/B4U, Zee, etc. In fact, one dot-com entrepreneur I know began as a producer of a one-hour variety show in southeast Michigan and went on to develop the same content for the Web.

The question is, is there something to be learned from the intersection of diasporic life and public access TV that might help us re-imagine PEGs today? I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer at this point. I will keep thinking about it though…

A Corner of the Digital Bazaar: YouTube India

May 27, 2008

On May 7, 2008, YouTube announced the launch of another “localized” version – YouTube India. What’s the difference? According to press releases and reports, YouTube India is different in that it will: (a) feature a localized home page, and (b) discover and highlight videos popular and relevant in the Indian context. As Sakina Arsiwala, international manager of YouTube, put it, “this site contains all the videos found on YouTube’s global site, except we’ve applied an “Indian lens” to the content, meaning that the video charts you see reflect what Indians are watching now, the featured videos are programmed to cater to an Indian audience, and we’ve signed up dozens of local partners who are proud to distribute their content through YouTube.”

Further, given the popularity of YouTube’s global (read American) site – YouTube has 5 million unique users in India, and has added 200,000 news users every month from India last year – there is no doubt that other India-specific sites such as iShare, meravideo, videodubba, etc. will face stiff competition over the coming months. Given its cachet, YouTube has already managed to strike deals with a number of prominent film and television production companies in India and ensured that YouTube.co.in will be the site where sought-after content will be available.

At first glance, this seems rather familiar and in fact, brings to mind an earlier moment of “localization” – the mid-1990s when television channels like MTV and Channel [V] went about fashioning Indian avatars in order to make their content/programming more relevant to audiences and advertisers within India (Def Leppard and Guns ‘n Roses could not, at the end of the day, help MTV attract youth across the country). While this is a useful parallel to draw, there are some important differences to note. I would argue that the launch of YouTube India highlights two major struggles in the Indian digital bazaar and, more importantly, signals a shift in the way we think about localization and national communities.

1. YouTube.co.in: A “Trans-national community”

The idea of a “national community,” as we know, has always been central to the workings of film and television industries around the world. In the Indian context, the Bombay film industry has always positioned itself as speaking to and for a national community and so have several major television networks. Even today, emerging networks such as NDTV seek to position themselves as catering to a national community (albeit one that includes diasporic audiences – see this). We also know that this has always been a difficult task for film and television industries. Given that the Internet allows us to transgress local and national boundaries with even greater ease, how do we go about drawing national boundaries around YouTube or, more broadly, online communities that cohere around an astonishing range of videos? This is the problem that India-specific sites continue to struggle with. Sites like meravideo.com, aapkavideo.com, and videodubba.com defined themselves as national (and nationalist, in some cases) alternatives, in opposition to a global YouTube.

YouTube, however, has managed to position YouTube-India as a site where Indian audiences get to participate in the ongoing production of a global online video community and not just in a narrowly defined national space. In fact, when you visit youtube.co.in, there is nothing on the front page that suggests that the site is a “local” or “regional” version of a more global YouTube.

2. Making money in the bazaar

The second major problem that new media companies in India (and other comparable markets like Brazil) continue to struggle with is monetization. Internet use and broadband penetration remains low compared to other parts of the world and as a consequence, Internet advertising has not emerged as a key component of business models for new media initiatives (in 2007-08, Internet advertising in India was estimated at Rs. 225 crores/Rs. 2.25 billion). Here, the fact that YouTube’s India strategy is part of Google India’s larger ambitions represents a major advantage over competitors.

Instead of focusing on a short-term goal of generating advertising revenues, Google India executives have decided to perform the role of consultants who will, over the next 5-10 years, work closely with advertising and marketing agencies and advise media professionals on how online advertising can become a major element of their media planning. As Shailesh Rao, managing director of Google India, explained, the company has already set up five “verticals” (financial services, local and classifieds, travel, media & entertainment, and technology & health communication) with experts who will “educate, train and guide businesses to leverage the most out of online advertising.” It is this evangelizing mission that may, in the long run, prove to be the most important dimension of YouTube’s localization.

Beyond Filmy Music

May 16, 2008

The latest issue of Time Out Mumbai takes an in-depth look at how a range of musicians in India are taking advantage of a “democratised playing field:”

As the big music labels continue to complain that the internet is killing the music business, independent record companies and artists are reaping the benefits of a democratised playing field. Who needs a studio when you’ve got Fruity Loops on your computer? Who needs MTV when you’ve got YouTube? Who needs Planet M when you’ve got MusicYogi? This might be the most exciting time to be a musician. Tabla star Aneesh Pradhan, who set up Underscore Records with his wife, renowned vocalist Shubha Mudgal, tells us how they have successfully marketed non-mainstream sounds. Thermal and a Quarter tell us how they’ve managed to have three hit albums without being signed up to a label. We also profile the new releases of three recently formed independent record companies and speak to their founders about how music labels can thrive in today’s download-happy universe.

Read it all here (free registration).

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.

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.

Is anyone not setting up a TV Channel?

October 29, 2007

In May 2000, Man’s World ran a cover feature with the headline: “Is anyone not setting up a dotcom?” The piece grappled with the seeming contradiction of a rapidly growing dot-com economy even though the number of Internet users within India was very low during the same time period. One paragraph in particular pointed to the yawning gap between the promise of cyberspace and the everyday realities of “third-world” India where a majority of the population had no access to the Internet:

This country has about 1 million Internet subscribers, perhaps 3 million net-enabled users in all. If they were all in Bombay, that isn’t even every fifth person. And yet, every billboard in Bombay is taken by a dotcom. India this, Info that, My Search Engine, Your Personal Email, Woman Power, Man Power, Kiddie Power…it boggles the mind…the magazines the boys at the signal push at me, the newspaper my vada pav comes wrapped in; they are all full of this alone. All the signs point to the Internet and the World Wide Web, the brand new virtual world where lives and fortunes will be remade.

We now know that this apparent contradiction between low Internet usage and a booming dot-com sector is best explained by the fact that the development of the commercial Web in India had a distinctly diasporic bias. By diasporic bias, I mean that dot-com companies and the websites they created relied on and leveraged the Indian diaspora in first-world countries to become both commercially viable and culturally significant. NRI eyeballs, to put it a bit crudely, were what mattered. We also know that only a handful of the hundreds of dot-com companies established during this time managed to survive and some are still struggling to make money.

I was reminded of this moment of media exuberance as I read this piece by Sevanti Ninan (in The Hindu) which opens with these lines:

Ever seen a boom that is more about spending than earning? Where very few are making money but everybody is itching to invest? Well, we are in the middle of one. Favourite adjectives for the state of the media industry today are: booming, galloping, taking off.

The only difference is, Ninan is talking about the TV industry and not dot-coms. In the piece, she outlines how the television sector in India has gradually become a market cap industry in the sense that all round faith in the media sector is attracting investors even though they are fully aware that very few of the new entrants have managed to turn profits over the past few years. “Entire bouquets of new channels are now materialising with fat budgets reserved for advertising campaigns to establish them,” writes Ninan. Even a very well-established brand like “NDTV” has not translated into profits. And the similarities to the dot-com moment don’t end here.

How do we explain the success of TV companies that are making money (UTV and CNBC-TV18, for e.g.)? As in the dot-com case, there are two key factors: economies of scale and reach, and the ability to deliver compelling content that, in turn, helps construct and sustain a stable “audience commodity.” Ninan also provides a good overview of other stakeholders who will play a role in shaping the structure of the TV industry in the near future. More here.

p.s. Most of all, this reminds me of the first con-job in Bunty aur Babli – the one where Bunty convinces a petty financier to invest a small sum of money in a news channel!

Networking for the “bottom of the pyramid”?

October 28, 2007

Most IT initiatives targeting the digital divide in countries like India are overwhelmingly focused on rural India. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a the entire ICT4D (Information and Communication for Development) community maps the digital divide onto a rural-urban dichotomy. Generally speaking, urban India’s encounter with IT and cyberculture has been taken for granted and is largely middle-upper class and English-centric. Finally, it looks like entrepreneurs are making amends -

The best-known networking sites connect the computer-savvy elite to one another. Babajob, by contrast, connects the Indian elite to the poor at their doorsteps, people who need jobs but lack the connections to find them. Job seekers advertise skills, employers advertise jobs and matches are made through “friend-of-a-friend” networks. For example, if Rajeev and Sanjay are friends, and Sanjay needs a chauffeur, he can surf onto Rajeev’s page, travel onto the page of Rajeev’s chauffeur and then see which of the chauffeur’s friends happen to be looking for similar work.

Sean Blagsvedt, founder of babajob.com, also seems to have paid close attention to the dynamics of social networks in India and figured out ways to incorporate them in ways that would make babajob.com financially viable. And needless to say, VCs can’t wait to get involved.

In India, a businessman looking for a chauffeur might ask his friend, who might ask his chauffeur. Such connections provide a kind of quality control. The friend’s chauffeur, for instance, will not recommend a hoodlum, for fear of losing his own job. To recreate this dynamic online, Babajob pays people to be “connectors” between employer and employee. In the example above, the businessman’s friend and his chauffeur would each earn the equivalent of $2.50 if they connected the businessman with someone he likes.

While I understand that this is an important and timely innovation from the perspective of Web 2.0 business in India, there are at least three significant problems that cannot be overlooked. First, babajob.com will only help if you have a connection or two already. A migrant construction worker, for instance, has little to gain by having a profile on babajob.com. Second, the name itself bothers me – “babajob.” The word “baba” connotes very clear class distinctions and positions this network far away from sites such Linkedin.

Finally and most important, the fact that babajob.com is itself in English makes it abundantly clear that this isn’t so much a social network for the poor as it is a network for elites in cities like Bangalore to find cooks, drivers, peons and so on. Pankuja, for example, doesn’t speak English and is unlikely to log on to babajob.com to check out job postings or begin using the Web for other purposes. At one level, this is little more than a word-of-mouth elite network that now has an online version.

More here. Check out this slideshow explaining how babajob came to be. And you can browse profiles of job seekers here.

Unboxing Indian TV

October 22, 2007

A few days back, Hindustan Times carried a story about YouTube gearing up to launch an India-specific website. The story quotes YouTube exec Shashi Seth:

Television viewing in India is limited to just television, even though it is extremely vibrant. With YouTube, television production houses can internationalise their copyright content, even monetise it. Our advertising service will throw up region and topic-specific overlay ads on videos. This revenue will be shared with the copyright holder.

Given the state of broadband connections in India (see this), I wonder if this new media initiative is also driven by demand for desi film and TV content in the diaspora. For instance, YouTube’s tie-up with Eros Entertainment was, to be sure, devised keeping in mind the need to bring overseas audiences into the Bollywood marketing/promo arena. And as Nikhil Pahwa points out, it also remains to be seen how this initiative takes on countless other desi-content websites like videochutney and desiscreen. I’m hoping this works out though.

If a TV production house like Balaji Telefilms or even MidiTech does sign a contract with YouTube India, it will be interesting to see if that affects satellite TV subscriptions. Given the terrible pricing structure – $54.99/month for a Hindi-language mega-pack and $24.99/month for a Tamil or Bangla channel – I would love to have the option of watching specific shows online for a smaller fee. I wouldn’t even mind a season-pass fee for a show like Indian Idol instead of paying a monthly fee for saas-bahu serials I won’t watch anyway.


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