Outsourced, an initial review

September 24, 2010 by

I”ll do a longer post on NBC’s Outsourced in a week or two (yes, I am planning to watch a few more episodes). For now, here’s my review – an edited collection of my tweets as I watched last night.

9:30 pm: Just in time. Finished reading review of #Outsourced in the NYTimes. Two sentences in particular make me optimistic: “the jokes change in tandem with the world’s balance of power,” and ?Outsourced is a comedy about Indian capitalism that mostly makes fun of American decline.”

5 minutes in: so far, Manmeet (“man meat”) aside, the jokes have been meh, but not too bad. But what’s with the color scheme in the office? *aaagh*

10 minutes in: Struck by how terrible the music has been. A Panjabi MC number can be justified, kind of. But the title song of “Omkara,” a Bollywood film about Hindi heartland politics?

White dude in a garish call-center office, and the song goes “sabse bade ladaiyya re…” (“the most bad-ass fighter in the land”)? Seriously?

12 minutes in: I’ve decided I’ll stick with the show for at least 3-4 episodes.

15 minutes in: This Rajiv character fits the “sly native” stereotype, no? And Madhuri the diffident brown woman who becomes the white guy’s project? *Sigh* What to do. It’s hard to completely let go of po-co jargon.

20 minutes in: Is #Outsourced struggling to write past stereotypes? Yes. Offensive? Not really. Not yet, at least.

25 minutes in: someone should write about accents. Thinking of Shilpa Dave’s article “Apu’s Brown Voice: Cultural inflection and South Asian accents” (in this anthology)

End of show: Above all, #Outsourced is problematic b’cos it is a step backwards where American TV’s imagination of Desi identity and culture is concerned. Instead of building on The Office (Mindy Kaling), Parks & Recreation (Aziz Ansari), and other shows, this one fails to imagine and explore Desi culture and identity *within* the U.S.

Once again, Desis are positioned elsewhere. The very idea of Desi is outsourced.

p.s. no longer sure what that NYTimes reviewer saw.


Bollywood & the “new media” question

September 6, 2010 by

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 by

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.

Syllabus: Media globalization (grad seminar)

January 8, 2010 by

All the twittering about syllabi got to me! I suppose I had to get around to re-reviving Bollyspace one way or the other.

Following Alisa Perren, Ben Aslinger, and Annie Peterson, I am posting the syllabus for a grad seminar on Media Globalization that I am teaching this term. Needless to say, there are several ways to approach this topic, and I did struggle to achieve focus. But in the end, I decided to structure the course in terms of a problematic that I am grappling with as I work on my book manuscript – relationships b/w space, place, and media production. I should also note that this draws from courses designed by faculty at other colleges and universities, most notably: Michael Curtin (University of Wisconsin-Madison, CA 950: Globalization of Media) and Marwan Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania, COMM 821: Theory and History of Global Communication).

Looking forward to suggestions.

International and Comparative Media

This course focuses attention on the changing dynamics of media production and patterns of circulation in an era of increasing global connectivity. We will draw on scholarship from media and cultural studies, cultural geography, and political economy to explore media production and circulation in a number of different locations including India, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Lebanon, U.S., and Canada. The first half of the course is designed to provide an in-depth understanding of the development of global media/communication theories and various debates that have shaped this field over the past 5-6 decades. The rest of the course is dedicated to exploring the logics of film, television, and digital media in varied sites as a way to map the spatial dynamics of media globalization. This course also provides an opportunity for students to develop an original research project on an aspect of global media industries.


1. Jan. 11                         Orientations

Kwame Anthony-Appaiah, “The case for contamination.” Jan 1, 2006, New York Times.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (excerpts)

Amitava Kumar, “Theory by other means.” Rethinking Marxism, 17 (2), 2006.

2. Jan. 18                         Mass Communication and the world: the development paradigm

Walt Rostow (1960) The Stages of Economic Growth (pp. 1-16, 145-159)

Wilbur Schramm (1964) Mass Media and National Development (pp. 114-144)

Daniel Lerner (1964) The Passing of Traditional Society (pp. 43-75, 398-412)

Everett Rogers (1976) “Communication and Development: The Passing of the

Dominant Paradigm,” Communication Research, 3(2): 121-133.

Karin Wilkins (1998) “Gender, Power and Development,” The Journal of International Communication, 4(2): 102-120.

3. Jan. 25                        Mass Communication and the world: the Cultural Imperialism debate

Screening: Distress Signals

Herbert Schiller (1969) Mass Communication and American Empire (pp. 153-170)

Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi (1997) “The many faces of cultural imperialism,” in Golding, P. and Harris, P., Beyond Cultural Imperialism (pp. 49-68), London: Sage.

Joseph Straubhaar (1991) “Beyond media imperialism: Asymmetrical interdependence and cultural proximity,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8(1): 29-38.

Anandam Kavoori and Kalyani Chadha (2000) “Media imperialism revisited: Some findings from the Asian case,” Media, Culture and Society, 22(4): 415-436.

4. Feb. 1                        Media and National Culture: beyond development

Screening: Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (Doordarshan, 1983-84)

From John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith (Eds.), Nationalism New York: OUP, 1994:

  • Max Weber, “The Nation”
  • Gellner, Ernest. “Nationalism and Modernization,” “Nationalism and High Cultures”
  • Eric Hobsbawm, “The nation as invented tradition”
  • Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities”

Homi Bhabha (1990) Nation and Narration (pp. 1-7, 291-322)

Purnima Mankekar, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics (pp. 45-103)

Lila Abu-Lughod (2002) “Egyptian Melodrama,” in Faye Ginsburg et al. (Eds.) Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain (pp. 115-133)

5. Feb. 8                        Framing Globalization

David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990 (pp. 120-188).

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 2000 (pp. 325-369 and 393-414)

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996 (pp. 27-47)

John Tomlinson, Globalization and culture. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1999 (pp. 1-27)

Radhika Parameswaran, “The other side of globalization: Communication, culture and postcolonial critique,” Communication, Culture and Critique, 1: 116-125.

6. Feb. 15                        The local and the global

William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 (pp. 215-287)

Toby Miller, et al. Global Hollywood. British Film Institute, 2001 (pp. 259-332)

William Mazzarella, “Culture, Globalization, Mediation,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2004, 33: 345–67

Visiting Scholar:

Feb 18: Colloquium in Communication Studies (Brian Larkin, Barnard College), 4:00-5:30 pm.

Feb 19: our seminar gets to meet and chat with Brian Larkin (9:00-10:30 am).

7. Feb. 22                        On hybridity

Screenings: Goodness Gracious Me; My Beautiful Launderette

Hall, Stuart. “Diaspora and Cultural Identity,” in Braziel, J.E. & Mannur, A. (Eds.),

Theorizing Diaspora. MA: Blackwell, 2003 (pp. 233-246).

Moya Luckett, “Postnational television? Goodness Gracious Me and the Britasian diaspora,” in Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar (Eds.), Planet TV. New York: NYU Press, 2000 (pp. 402-422).

Kumar, S. (2005). Innovation, Imitation, and Hybridity in Indian Television. In G. R. Edgerton & B. G. Rose (Eds.), Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader (pp. 314-335). Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.

Marwan Kraidy, “Hybridity without guarantees: Toward critical transculturalism,” in Kraidy M. M. (2005), Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

8. Mar. 8                        The problem of space and scale

James Carey, “Space, Time, and Communications,” in Communication as Culture. Boston: Hyman, 1989.

Harold Innis, “The problem of space,” in The Bias of Communication. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 1951.

Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy, “Orientations: Mapping mediaspace,” in MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press, 2004 (pp. 55-80).

9. Mar. 15                        Global Cities and Networked Economies

Screening: Coding Culture

Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999 (pp. 407-459).

Saskia Sassen, Global Networks, Linked Cities. New York: Routledge, 2002 (pp. 1-38).

Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Towards the study of spatial flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6(2): 202-228, 2003.

10. Mar. 22                        Space, Place, and Media Production: Hong Kong, Vancouver

Michael Curtin. Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Serra Tinic. On Location: Canada’s television industry in a global market. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 2005 (excerpts)

11. Mar. 29                         Space, Place, and Media Production: Hollywood/Bollywood

Nitin Govil, “Hollywood’s Effects, Bollywood F/X,” in Greg Elmer & Mike Gasher (Eds.), Contracting Out Hollywood. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005 (pp. 92-116).

Allen Scott. On Hollywood: the place, the industry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press, 1999 (excerpts)

Tejaswini Ganti. Bollywood. New York: Routledge, 2004 (excerpts)

Kumar, Shanti. “Mapping Tollywood: The Cultural Geography of ‘Ramoji Film City’ in Hyderabad.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 23 (2006): 129-38.

Ravi Sundaram. Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism. New Delhi: Routledge, 2009 (excerpts)

12. April 5                        Media, modernity, globalization: Nigeria

Screening: Nollywood Babylon (2009), at the Detroit Institute for Arts. March 13 (further details in class).

Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Timothy Mitchell, Questions of Modernity. Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press, 2000 (pp. 1-35).

13. April 12                        Media, modernity, globalization: the Arab World

Marwan Kraidy, Reality TV and Arab Politics: Contention in public life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

14.  April 19                         Presentations and Course wrap-up

Student presentations of research papers.

Public access TV and U.S. desi diaspora

April 2, 2009 by

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…

Islamicate culture and Bombay cinema

March 31, 2009 by

For the longest time, one had to assign an article by Mukul Kesavan – “Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif, the Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema” – to go with a screening of Umrao Jaan, Mughal-e-Azam, or even Jodhaa Akbar. We now have what seems like a terrific book-length study of Islamicate influences – language, poetry, music, and so on – that have shaped Bombay cinema for several decades.


The blurb informs us that Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen argue that “it is in the three genre forms of The Muslim Historical, The Muslim Courtesan Film and The Muslim Social that these cultures are concentrated and distilled into precise iconographic, performative and narrative idioms.” More info here.

Hollywood studios stumbling in Bollywood?

March 26, 2009 by

A number of FICCI-Frames 2009 posts are languishing in draft form on wordpress, but the past few weeks have been very hectic. I will get to them as the semester winds down, but I did want to do a quick write-up of an article about how Hollywood studios’ are struggling to establish themselves in Bombay.

Anupama Chopra has a piece in the NYT outlining how Hollywood studios are discovering that “negotiating the distance between Burbank and Bollywood is trickier than expected” (full story). It’s been a decade since studios like Sony, Warner Bros., and Disney entered the world of film production in Bombay, but they are yet to make any noticeable impact. And why is this?

Chopra attributes it to the fact that Hollywood studios are still learning how to navigate and work within an industry where interpersonal relationships shape every aspect of the film business, where Hollywood-style contracts simply don’t work as well. Yes, it has been a decade since “corporatization” became a buzzword in the industry, with every major production house figuring out how to make the transition from a family-run, entreprenurial unit to a more “corporatized” model. She also quotes Karan Johar who argues that Hollywood studios might not “understand the pulse of this audience.”

Johar isn’t saying anything new – if anything, it’s tiresome. Put Johar or anyone else on the spot and ask them to explain their understanding of the “audience,” and you won’t really get anything concrete either. As Chopra reminds us, it’s not as if Bollywood filmmakers’ hit-to-flop ratio is anything to write home about. But there is something to be said for how long it takes for established business practices to change. What is crucial to note is the fact that Hollywood studio execs are being patient and, most importantly, beginning to recruit top talent within India. Shahrukh Khan’s bravado notwithstanding, execs like Vijay Singh of Fox Star Studios are working, slowly but surely, and there will be several interesting changes in the coming years.

FICCI Frames 2009: a decade of “corporatization”

February 12, 2009 by

At a national conference on “Challenges Before Indian Cinema” held in Mumbai (10 May, 1998), the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that the government had decided to accord “industry” status to the business of filmmaking in India. Among a series of financial and regulatory concessions that accompanied this major shift in state policy – reduction in import duties on cinematographic film and equipment, exemption on export profits, and other tax incentives – the most significant one was a declaration made in October 2000. The Industrial Development Bank Act of 2000 made it possible for filmmakers to operate in “clean” and “legitimate” fashion, instead of the mix of personal funds, money borrowed from individuals at exorbitant interest rates (in some cases, from the Mumbai underworld), and minimum guarantee payments advanced by distributors which characterized film financing in the Bombay film industry.

This reorientation in state policy was not limited to ascribing “industry” status to the film business and creating the opportunity for banks and other financial institutions to invest in film production. Beginning in the late 1990s, the state has played an active role in articulating a vision of a “corporatized” film industry that would resemble Hollywood in terms of technological, economic, business, and regulatory practices (part of a broader “creative industries” policy framework that the government was formulating with help from consultancy firms like McKinsey and Pricewaterhouse Coopers).

The film industry was brought under the purview of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), and made part of a larger FICCI Entertainment Committee comprising leading players from film, television, cable, radio, music, animation, and live entertainment sectors. In addition to “facilitating the policy framework for the growth and development of the film industry,” this committee also began organizing an annual convention called FRAMES, which brought the film industry into contact with prominent Non-Resident Indian (NRI) venture capitalists, influential diasporic filmmakers, NRI media producers and executives (such as Ashok Amritraj of Hyde Park Entertainment), the IT sector in India and abroad, representatives from countries interested in co-production treaties, executives from transnational media corporations such as Sony and Warner Bros., global consultancy firms, and financial institutions.

Beginning in 2000, FRAMES emerged as an important state-sponsored site where the notion of “corporatization” was debated and eventually normalized as exactly what the Bombay-based film industry needed in order to shed its image as a dysfunctional “national” cinema re-imagine itself as “Bollywood Inc.” Consider, for instance, this excerpt from the inaugural address by R. S. Lodha, President of FICCI, at the 2002 conference:

We see ourselves as a facilitator and a promoter – and we have been trying to catalyse policy change in a direction that will make our industry truly world class and globally competitive. We carry our agenda with great conviction and this conviction stems from the belief that India does have the potential to emerge as a global powerhouse of the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry in India has historically grown in a somewhat unstructured manner and if I may say without much of government support or incentive. Therefore, our effort has been to provide a shape and vision to the industry and get it recognized as one of India’s core competencies (March 2002).

I do not wish to suggest that the idea of “corporatization” was normalized in a matter of months, or that everyone involved knew what exactly the term meant. Between 2000 and 2003, several stars, directors, producers, and other persons and groups in the film industry expressed reservations about the feasibility and indeed, even the necessity of corporatizing the film industry. However, in March 2003, following a disastrous year in which 124 films out of 132 reportedly flopped at the box office, when Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting (I&B), inaugurated FRAMES by asking filmmakers to “introduce an element of corporate governance” and “respond to the demands of present competitive business,” “corporatization” seemed just the tonic that the industry needed.

Over the next few years, “corporatization” became a catch-all buzz word that alluded not only to new modes of film financing and the attenuation of the underworld’s hold over the film industry, but a series of changes at every step of the filmmaking process including preparing a bound script, developing and working with schedules, getting stars to sign and honor contracts instead of proceeding with verbal assurances, in-film branding through corporate tie-ups, aggressive marketing and promotions that reflected processes of market segmentation underway in India, and the entry of large industrial houses, corporations, and television companies into the business of film production and distribution. As one news report noted, “Bollywood has an itch and it has much to do with the perennial drone of corporatization as panacea for its ills” (Business Line, March 2003).

What is the state of Bollywood after nearly a decade of “corporatization?” This is the question that a number of panels at FICCI Frames 2009 will address. And I will be in Bombay attending these sessions! You can read more about Frames 2009 here, and take a look at the 3-day agenda here. There are several interesting sessions focused on the changing television landscape as well, but I’m afraid I will have to prioritize and attend the Bollywood-related panels. While I hope to post some quick notes, impressions, and celebrity-spotting news (maybe a few pictures) at the end of each day, I suspect proper entries will take shape only after I’m back in Ann Arbor.

Secret Slumdog Millionaire, a reality show?

February 4, 2009 by

The Economic Times reports that the producers of Slumdog Millionaire are considering producing a reality TV show called Secret Slumdog Millionaire, a variation on a U.K. show called Secret Millionaire. Instead of doling out money in impoverished communities in the U.K., millionaires will now scour the slums of Mumbai and identify “slumdogs.” A television insider says, ““It’s a fantastic idea….The millionaires who sign up will see real poverty in Mumbai and it is going to be very moving when they reveal their identity and offer these people help” (full story). Needless to say, the producers want to get going asap so they can cash in on the film’s tremendous popularity.

They are, of course, “bracing themselves against charges that they are cashing in on poverty.” Bracing? Heh. If the protests surrounding the film are any indication, I’m sure we’ll see much more drama around the television show. Given that Reality TV-as-social-welfare shows like Extreme Home Makeover have not entered the Indian television landscape, this will be an interesting show to follow and see if it sets the stage for other experiments in reality TV.

Corporate Bollywood?

February 3, 2009 by

During the mid-late 1990s, a series of police investigations revealed the extent to which the underworld was involved in Bollywood, with some officials claiming that close to 60% of films were being financed by the mafia. In January 2001, Sucheta Dalal wrote:

As many as 20 films released recently are suspected to have been financed by the underworld don, Chhota Shakeel, who allegedly forced film stars into signing movies and rescheduling their shooting dates, he told PTI here. Since the arrest of Mr. Nazim Rizvi, producer of the unreleased film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, allegedly financed by Chhota Shakeel of the notorious Dawood Ibrahim gang, Crime Branch sleuths had got a lead and were now zeroing in on more ‘go-betweens’ in the film industry, he said. ‘A few more arrests within a couple of days are expected.’ (Jan 8, 2001, Indian Express).

This was nearly three years after the Indian government, global consultancy firms like Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and eminent film industry personalities like Yash Chopra declared that Bollywood would be corporatized. The film industry was folded into the Entertainment division of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), and prominent producers and directors swore to do everything in their power to “corporatize” and “globalize” the industry. What did “corporatization” that mean? By according “industry” status to the business of filmmaking, a number of people and companies hoped for, among other things, significant changes in film financing. To be sure, “clean funds” from banks, media companies like UTV, venture capitalists, and U.S. companies such as Fox and Warner Bros. did begin to define a new circuit of capital in the city. But claims of “corporatization” were always regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In 2005, questions about the mafia’s involvement in Bollywood were raised again following the arrest of Abu Salem, an underworld don who had tried to assassinate film directors Rajiv Rai and Rakesh Roshan. At the time, Yash Chopra, chairman of FICCI’s Entertainment Committee, quickly issued statements asserting that the situation had improved and that there was no cause for concern. “Money is easily available,” declared Chopra.

Now, after a decade of corporatization, film companies going public, and global media corporations making a beeline for Bombay, is the situation any better? I’m not optimistic. Just a few days back, Vijay K. Taneja, who ran a mortgage loan business in Fairfax, Virginia, and was known as a Bollywood promoter and film producer, was “sentenced to seven years in prison Friday for one of the largest bank fraud scams in the state’s history” (full story). Defrauding banks and his customers, Taneja has produced at least two major films – Humko Tumse Pyaar Hai (2007) and Aap Kaa Suroor: The Real Luv Story – featuring stars such as Arjun Rampal, Bobby Deol, Mallika Sherawat, and Himesh Reshammiya. Aap Ka Suroor was made on a budget of $16.5 million, pretty substantial by Bollywood standards.

So much for corporatization. This story certainly skews the triumphalist narrative of the role played by the diaspora in the globalization of Bollywood. But more than anything else, I was struck by the fact that this forges the link between real estate money and the Bombay film industry once again!

p.s. for a terrific account of the relationship between film, real estate, and other industries in Bombay, see Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s essay, “The Curious Case of Bombay’s Hindi Cinema: The Career of Indigenous Exhibition Capital.”

News media and regulations in an age of social media

January 28, 2009 by

Besides attracting attention to the failures of the intelligence agencies and political establishment, the recent terror attacks in Mumbai also focused attention on television news channels. Even as the 60-hour ordeal came to an end, we began wondering if television news journalist may have hindered security operations. And to anyone who followed this news coverage, it was also clear that the debate over how to react was a limited one – quick and decisive action was the only response that was entertained.

Not surprisingly, discussions about media’s role (and responsibilities) in such situations came to rest on the question of regulations with petitions being introduced and debated in the parliament. Media organizations, for their part, argued against any regulations. An editorial in the latest issue of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) provides a very thoughtful overview of this debate (link), and invites us to think about what is surely a complex issue: oversight of commercial media institutions.

Arguing that the “entire drama is little else than a contest of wills between the political establishment and the media, and a subtle effort to spread the blame thin for what was a patently flawed response to a national tragedy,” the editorial concludes on a deeply pessimistic note:

The manifest failures of the political establishment though, cannot obscure the fact that older notions of the media serving as a vigilant watchdog over public affairs have once again proven hopelessly romantic and outmoded. The media is a slave of the market. Its social role is little else than to serve as an echo chamber for the voices of the rich and the powerful, however shrill, irrational or lacking in coherence these may be. If there is to be any credible oversight of the media, the initiative has to come from the public at large, rather than from an official establishment that is deeply implicated in its functioning.

In this specific instance, I am inclined to agree with this assessment – that the ratings discourse-driven television corporations have no incentives to rethink their practices. But I wonder what the editors have in mind when they say that media oversight initiatives need to come from the “public at large” – are we talking about an Ofcom like organization? Build on terrific existing spaces like The Hoot? Work to expand the reach and influence of news sites like India Together?

This is an important discussion that needs to take place, and I would add one other element to this: mobile media technologies and practices (social media, broadly speaking) – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, mobile phones – which played a key role in shaping the flow of information during this time period. I would argue that any “public”-led media oversight initiative will work only if it is able to able to understand and build on these mobile media practices.

Circulation and cultural reach

January 27, 2009 by

In the rush to declare Bollywood as being “globalized,” clips such as these are wonderful reminders of the long history of Bombay cinema’s global circulations and the many south-south interactions that define media flows.

[via ultrabrown]

SAMMA ’08: giving up on television

January 16, 2009 by

Held in the Time Warner conference center in New York City, the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit opened with a keynote address by Peter Ligouri, Chairman and CEO of Fox Broadcasting. Neal Shenoy, one of the founding members of SAMMA, set the stage for Ligouri with a quick opening note about South Asians making quite a splash in the media world over the past few years. Mohinder-Heroes, Sanajaya Malakar-American Idol, Kal Penn-Namesake, Spielberg-Ambani, Richard Gere-Shilpa Shetty kissing…you get the picture.

However, Ligouri himself did not address the question of media production focused on South Asian-American culture . He chose to speak generally about challenges facing media corporations, and why he thought it prudent to ignore hype surrounding new distribution platforms. “Content is king,” he reminded everyone present. But given the setting, the question of why South Asians continue to remain marginal on American television came up as soon as he ended his talk. And his answer, predictably enough, was that demographically speaking, South Asian-Americans were simply not a commercially viable niche market yet. Ligouri, and everyone in the room, ignored the underlying assumption that no one else in the U.S. would be interested in watching, say, a sitcom that revolved around a desi family.

Here, then, is the trouble with desi culture and television. On the one hand, desi youth in the U.S. are stuck with American television institutions and their advertising revenue-based logic. And on the other hand, they have to contend with Indian television corporations (ZEE, Star, SUN, etc.) that couldn’t care less about desi culture in the U.S. and continue to churn out saas-bahu dramas. Unless media professionals in the U.S. are willing to learn from what shows like Goodness Gracious Me were able to achieve, television, I’d argue, will always remain marginal to desi culture and identity in the U.S.

Jai Ho, A. R. Rahman!

January 12, 2009 by

A. R. Rahman, as many of you will doubtless know by now, has won the Golden Globe award for best original score (link)! And what a nice way for me to break blog silence…here’s one of the many videos that Rahman fans are uploading (thanks, Aravind):

Guha on Indian media and entertainment

November 7, 2008 by

I had an opportunity to attend the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit (SAMMA) held in New York City this past weekend (line-up here). The summit attracted a range of industry professionals who are involved in one way or another with “South Asian” media production. Like other industry conventions, this included panel sessions in which media professionals spoke about business strategies and new market opportunities, keynote addresses by industry leaders, and workshops with successful entrepreneurs. As such, it was a wonderful site for understanding what sorts of shared understandings regarding South Asian and South Asian-American culture and identity are shaping media industry practices. I will describe the summit and specific panels in future posts, but wanted to rant about Pradeep Guha’s keynote address.

Former President of the Times of India group and, until recently, CEO of Zee Telefilms, Guha is, without a doubt, one of the most influential media executives in the world. And given his track record and vast experience, I understood why he had been invited to speak at the SAMMA summit and was excited to hear what he had to say about the dynamics of the media and entertainment industry in India. I was disappointed and even outraged at some of his comments and thoughts.

Predictably enough, his presentation began with a series of powerpoint slides that illustrated how the media and entertainment industry, like other sectors, was “shining.” Drawing from reports produced by consultancy firms like Pricewaterhouse Coopers and KPMG, Guha seemed intent on reinforcing diasporic media professionals’ beliefs about the booming media industry in India. No complaints about this part – harmless enough I suppose.

But there were two arguments he made about the relationship between media content and audiences that made me cringe. The first relates to the print media and the criticism that newspapers such as the Times of India look more like tabloids and less like newspapers. With initiatives like Medianet (which allows businesses to buy editorial space in the Times of India) becoming standard operating procedures across many major newspapers in the country, and the utter disregard for stories that are outside the “India Shining” discourse leading to what Sainath calls a disconnect “between mass media and mass reality” (link), it’s no wonder that businessmen like Guha have come under criticism for “dumbing down” content. And how does Guha respond? At this keynote, he argued that the surge in literacy levels as created “neo-readers” who need banal content. These neo-readers, according to Guha, cannot possibly be drawn to newspapers if the content was not entertaining. And hence his catering to the “lowest common denominator.” As Sainath points out, this argument isn’t that different from a drug-peddler saying he does it because the junkies demand it.

The second argument Guha made related to mainstream television in India. He draws a distinction between the film and TV audience, claiming that Bollywood now addresses the urban and diasporic audience much more than television does. Arguing that television corporations are completely dependent on advertising revenues (and the ratings game, given that subscription-based revenues are next to nothing), Guha thinks TV will continue to speak to “heartland India” and not to urban and diasporic audiences until the revenue model for television changes. And what’s more, he lamented that he himself doesn’t care for this kind of television programming, but could hardly help it given that he had to run a profitable business.

What surprised me even more was the fact that these comments did not seem to bother anyone else in the room, leading me to wonder if South Asian-American media professionals knew enough about the media industry in India to question Guha’s assertions and if they have completely and uncritically bought into the “India Shining” rhetoric. It’s interesting also to consider the fact that an organization like SAMMA, at this historical juncture, needs the Indian media industry (and folks like Guha) on their side so they can position themselves as brokers b/w L.A./NYC and Mumbai. More on SAMMA later, but for now, here’s Sainath taking the Indian print media business to task:

p.s. I suppose a brief explanation of my break from blogging is in order. I had hoped to resume blogging on a regular basis after returning from fieldwork in Bombay this past summer, but other distractions on the home front (visiting parents/parents-in-law and several road trips with them) kept me busy. Then the semester began and so on. In any case, given that I have neither the time nor the inclination to make this blog anything more than a space for working through some thoughts about desi media and culture, I suppose a few blog breaks are perfectly fine.