Archive for October, 2007

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, 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 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, 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 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 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 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.

“Made in India”

October 28, 2007


I know, quite a stretch. But this image of Shahrukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is the first thing that came to mind when I read about Gap’s latest run-in with problems related to sweatshops and child labor in India.

The discovery of the children working in filthy conditions in the Shahpur Jat area of Delhi has renewed concerns about the outsourcing by large retail chains of their garment production to India, recognised by the United Nations as the world’s capital for child labour. According to one estimate, more than 20 per cent of India’s economy is dependent on children, the equivalent of 55 million youngsters under 14.

More here.

Friday Fun: What could have Gordon Brown said…

October 26, 2007

…when he was forced to answer questions about Shilpa Shetty and racism on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. earlier this year (details)? Well, he could’ve taken a few minutes to listen to this podcast to learn a few lines from Bollywood! Go listen…and then take a look the translation:

Hindi: Jo kuch hua mujhe pata chala
English: I came to know of what happened

Hindi: Yakeen mano
English: Believe me

Hindi: Mera usse koi taluk nahin
English: I have no relation to this

Hindi: Main kuch nahin jaanta
English: I don’t know anything

Hindi: Aur phir, meri tumhaari dushmani thodi hai
English: And then, I don’t have any personal enemity with you

Hindi: Dekho
English: Look

Hindi: Main Hindustan hameshaa ke liye chod kar ja rahaa hoon
English: I am leaving India forever

Hindi: Mujhe jaane do, Please
English: Let me go, Please

And if you would like to learn how you can order tea in Hindi, haggle with an autorickshaw driver, or become an effective public speaker, check out the library of Bollywood-themed podcasts at Cutting Chai!

(via Saja Forum).

Singstar Bollywood (and missed opportunities)

October 25, 2007

Sony Computer Entertainment has just launched a video game for the Indian market called Singstar Bollywood. A karaoke game, it has been developed jointly with Sony BMG and T-Series (which has one of the biggest music libraries in the country). Imho, Sony and Microsoft have finally woken up to the reality that gaming in India will develop as an intensely social experience and if they can figure out a way to rent out consoles and games on an hourly basis, that might attract more gamers than just periodic price cuts (link).

Anyways, reading about all this today takes me back to the winter of 2002 when I worked with two colleagues to come up with a prototype for a Bollywood music-based game for a videogame workshop organized jointly by Sony and the CMS program at MIT (during the Independent Activities Period in January). *sigh* Serves us right for not working harder and actually taking our ideas beyond the workshop.

Mobile Bollywood

October 24, 2007

Bollywood ringtones and games have emerged as a key source of revenue for cellphone operators, and it is clear that cell phones, more than the Web, are central to marketing/promo campaigns when it comes to audiences within India (link). Of course, film songs have always worked as brand extensions – songs have been part of the publicity machine for several decades now and with every new medium, we’ve seen innovative uses of film music. While state-owned radio and television didn’t do much, satellite TV channels introduced a host of film music-themed shows – from top ten rotations to flashbacks to talent shows like Antakshari, Sa Re Ga Ma, and Indian Idol.

As it turns out, the question of rights and ownership plays a crucial role and is a key factor that distinguishes Bollywood from Hollywood when it comes to developing content for the mobile platform. As an exec explains here:

Hollywood is a multibillion-dollar industry, but there are many companies in the value chain and that makes the issue of rights complicated,” said Nick Lane, an independent consultant specializing in the mobile phone industry. “With Bollywood, the main difference in getting the content onto the mobile phone is that the whole process is a lot smother.”

And this has been so for several decades now. When All India Radio banned film music in post-independence India, producers in Bombay canceled AIR’s license rights and channeled music and advertising money to Radio Ceylon instead. While programs like Showtheme and Chitrahaar on state-regulated Doordarshan didn’t bring in much money for producers, the flow of film content on satellite TV channels during the 1990s was negotiated with considerable ease (the story of entire films being screened on “pirate” cable channels is a different story). As far as I know, no one has done any systematic work on this question of rights and specifically, how it has shaped the flow of film content across media and made processes of convergence less fraught compared to Hollywood.

In fact, it might be worth thinking about the notion of “mobile Bollywood” in historical terms and across media and not necessarily specific to mobile phones.

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.

“Daily Me” and Democracy

October 22, 2007

According to Cass Sunstein, my media consumption habits, such as my personalization of a google page into a collection of news and information sources (including, *gasp* blogs) would slot me into what he terms a “daily me.” Thanks to “filtering” options, which allow me to read, see, and hear what I want and not what I *should* in order to be a well-informed citizen, I am now one among millions who do not care about many issues and ideas that matter. Sunstein writes in the first chapter of his new book, 2.0:

People who consider themselves left-of-center make very different selections from those made by people who consider themselves right-of-center. Most whites avoid news and entertainment options designed for African Americans. Many African Americans focus largely on options specifically designed for them. So too with Hispanics. With the reduced importance of the general-interest magazine and newspaper and the flowering of individual programming design, different groups make fundamentally different choices.

The market for news, entertainment, and information has finally been perfected. Consumers are able to see exactly what they want. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing. And if they have trouble designing it, it can be designed for them, again with perfect accuracy.

Not only does Sunstein assume that I live in an “echo chamber” and engage only with ideas and people I pick and choose, he argues that I could not have been a “daily me” in the “old media” world, that I would have been “exposed to materials that [I] would not have chosen in advance.” And now that I’ve begun blogging, there is no hope. Like other bloggers, I only read/see/hear that which I can blog about. I am utterly uninformed and need to be sent away to an information camp where well-intentioned men will teach me how to participate effectively in a democracy.

Review in The Guardian here. Henry Jenkins’ take on here.

TV and small town India

October 21, 2007

With Bollywood writers and directors re-discovering small town India, particularly those in the Hindi heartland (Bunty Aur Babli, Omkara, and so on), could Hindi-language TV be far behind?

A couple of years ago, satellite channels’ programming was largely metro-centric. However, today the smaller towns and villages are being targetted with stories that favour their sensibilities and characters.

With their reach restricted to cable and satellite homes in metros and big cities and watched mainly by people with higher purchasing power, satellite channels’ programming was largely metro-centric and targeted at the middle and lower middle class urban viewers. But for the past one year or so there is a subtle change happening in general entertainment channels’ entertainment content. With the number of cable and satellite homes increasing from 40 million two years ago to nearly 70 million now, satellite channels have started revisiting their programming so as to target viewers in middle-level cities and towns.

Story here.

Madlib discovers superstar Rajnikanth!

October 15, 2007

Rapper-DJ-producer Madlib’s latest album, Beat Konducta: In India, samples music and images from Tamil cinema and Bollywood. The one thing that *really* irks me about reviews of such work is the all-too-easy inclusioin of Tamil, Telugu and other “regional” cinemas within “Bollywood.” Check out an excerpt from this review in Metro Times Detroit:

He has an unmistakable affection for the source material, a love that’s rooted less in kitsch value or multiculturalism than it is in the fact that the movies coming out of Bombay in the ’60s and ’70s sure did have some funky-ass bottom ends. Madlib exploits that funkiness to his own purposes and comes out with a peculiar and personal sort of homage to South Asian sounds that — in ways both similar and opposite to Shankar and Kale’s — rejects traditional perspectives on “Indianness” and aims simply to create great music.

Now take a look at this promo video made by Madlib’s record company –

To slot superstar Rajnikanth into “movies coming out of Bombay in the 60s and 70s” is quite terrible. And in addition to folks who review and critique music, I wish artists would also step up and clarify a few things and not assume that Bollywood speaks for India.

[Sean, thanks for the tip]

“Made by Arabs, for Arabs”

October 15, 2007

Petrodollars and a booming under-25 audience in the Middle East…of course MTV Networks is interested!

MTV Arabia is the biggest test to date of the network’s two-decade-old localization strategy. MTV’s flagship music channel has seen its American TV ratings slip and has struggled online. Management believes the biggest growth will come overseas, and the network now pumps out a blend of international and local tunes from Russia to Indonesia to Pakistan. That has helped MTV and sister operations, such as VH1 and Nickelodeon, reach 508 million households in 161 countries. “This isn’t going to be MTV U.S.,” Bill Roedy, vice-chairman of MTV Networks, says of the latest offering. “It is Arabic MTV made by Arabs for Arabs.”

Story here.

Amitabh Bachchan the farmer…

October 11, 2007


…turned 65 and needless to say, every TV channel went crazy. Check out CNN-IBN’s attempt at “Deconstructing Amitabh Bachchan” here. And to hear the Big B explain why he has the right to be called a farmer, go here. [pic: CNN-IBN]

Bombay cinema and Doordarshan: Manjoo Singh on Showtheme!

October 11, 2007

One of the most striking gaps in both popular and academic writing on Bombay cinema pertains to cinema’s convergence with every “new” medium – radio, state-regulated TV, cable and satellite TV, the Internet, mobile phone, and of late, video games. Of course, it is much easier to sit up and take note of all the trans-media flows in contemporary Bollywood. The question is, in what ways did earlier phases of media convergence set the stage? Did producers’ and directors’ experiences with Radio Ceylon and All India Radio shape their reactions to state-regulated TV during the 1980s? Did this in any way influence how film content was taken up by transnational television channels like MTV and Channel [v]?

Over the next few weeks, I will blog about several interesting moments of convergence. And what better way to start than to return to the earliest instance of film’s convergence with television and specifically, a program called Showtheme! Some background: when state-regulated Doordarshan opened its doors to sponsored programming in 1983, signaling a departure from an earlier model of public service broadcasting with the express goal of utilizing television for “development” and “modernization,” some of the earliest and most popular shows were film-based. The Saturday evening Hindi language film, the film songs show Chitrahaar, and Show Theme, which used popular film songs and scenes to speak to a theme each week, always garnered high viewer ratings. In fact, by 1984 these shows had established an immensely lucrative “national audience” for Doordarshan.

Show Theme was produced by Creative Unit, a Bombay-based advertising agency, in collaboration with Network 7, a television production company owned and managed by Manjoo Singh. I had the chance to meet and chat with Manjoo Singh, the charming host of Show Theme, during the course of my fieldwork in Bombay – here are her recollections:

At the time, 1982-83, people at DD were thinking about sponsored programmes and Show Theme was the first one. Of course, there weren’t any other channels. Programs like Chitrahaar and the Sunday evening film was there. So at the time, Show Theme sounded like a good idea. We also connected themes to artists and these artists were getting TV exposure for the first time. For example, when Hero was released, we got Jackie Shroff to do a show on crime. At the time, people didn’t get to see much film-related material on TV. So for Doordarshan, Show Theme was great – they paid a fixed amount to us, and we would pay a part of that to producers for film material. The amount was fixed, irrespective of what movie it was or which star it was. But then, most producers and distributors were happy. Many of them felt that the show brought back the film’s saleability – a second release, maybe in smaller towns. And within Doordarshan, people were very happy and appreciative. For them, Show Theme was the perfect mix of entertainment and information.

And I still remember, I received a lot of compliments from Hrishi-da [Hrishikesh Mukherjee]. He said he enjoyed watching and appreciated how we incorporated really good themes into the show – two shows in particular.

One was on generation gap which showed how elders don’t understand youngsters and vice versa. That program was very effective because we touched upon all angles of the theme. We used clips and songs from Guddi, for instance. When that program went on air, I got calls from schools in Bombay saying we want to use it in our classrooms. On that level, it was entertainment but it was also information. The other one was a theme called koshish (effort), and we talked specifically about organ donation. We got letters from people after that show also. In some ways, we did then what soaps are doing today – getting a sense of many aspects of life, at an everyday level.

Show Theme had a first run, and then we re-started it. That time, Hero released so we got Jackie Shroff to do a show on crime. Then Meenakshi did one. We did a show with Anupam Kher because Saaransh had come out then. So we connected themes to artists. And these artists were getting TV exposure for the first time, showing them as they really are. So when an actress or an actor came on TV and were just being themselves, people were really interested in that. But I tell you, the research used to take a long time – we had to pick the right scene for the right theme and we did not have a large staff or anything. I have spent many, many hours thinking about and going through so many films.

Actually, my involvement with films goes back…I was making film-based radio programs also. There were sponsored shows on radio. Like there was a show called Kal Aaj aur Kal on film music – an interview with a singer or a music director. I remember Laxmikant Pyarelal, Lata Mangeshkar, and so on. It dealt with old film music – to show how the trends in music had evolved, how things had changed from the 50s and 60s, very nostalgic. And of course, some information about what they were doing now. Then another show called Awaaz-e-Andaz – a drama kind of show, a dramatic narrative. And the film dialogues would be played – people would identify which film or artist it was. There was a prize…people would send in letters. Films are so into everyone’s minds and hearts – I mean, people remember dialogues and scenes so well, it is amazing. And in 1983, when the opportunity came, I moved into TV. And Show Theme was first sponsored by Limca and Ponds.

The Show Theme team was not large – I had a writer and a researcher. She used to write the script for the theme and supervise the research. It wasn’t easy at the time to get films. We used to identify clips and then go to the distributors, transfer reels to tele-cine, sometimes the whole reel. We would shoot the stars in this one studio we had in Bombay. Then the second person was a production person who used to deal with permission, payment, getting reels – acquisition – coordinating with artists to set up dates, etc. Very early on, there was an agency involved owned by the person who publishes Stardust so they were involved. And they got the clients. They used to help us get artists. Their role was – because they were getting the sponsors, they used to help us with the show. They didn’t interfere with the creative process at all.

I can’t tell you how popular it was – it was at 11 on Sunday mornings. There was nothing else to compete with at the time, you know. But I also think it was really good for its time. Dramas like Hum Log and comedies like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi happened later – this was December 1983. And I remember, Show Theme was on the cover of TV & Video World, the only trade magazine at the time.

Within Doordarshan, people were very happy and appreciative. And within the film industry, producers, directors and stars were also happy and I made several friends. Everyone was appreciative and in those days, they felt that the show brought back the film’s saleability – a second release, maybe in smaller towns.

It worked and it was popular. People’s response was good also. I meet people who were young at the time and they remember some of our themes. I should tell you – we did a very nice show with Ila Arun at the time, where she sang these Rajasthani songs on TV. At that time, I was told by Sanjeev Kohli that they discovered her and did a record with her because of Show Theme. Think about it…Ila Arun – Indian Idol for that time!

Bollywood and Dollar-Pound Markets

October 9, 2007

A feature in Rediff outlines some key reasons why the dollar-and-pound overseas territories matter for producers and filmmakers in Bollywood today (link). Even modest 3-4 week runs in cities like New York, L.A., London, and Toronto make a significant difference and currency rates aside, here is another important factor:

The importance of the $40 million overseas market is understood better when the returns to the producers are factored in. In India, because of the exorbitant entertainment tax, a producer gets just about 35 percent of the box-office gross. But from a film’s gross abroad, a producer can net about 55 percent.

The feature also points out that Sony’s first Bollywood venture – Saawariya – will be closely watched to see if a better exhibition strategy makes a dent in digital piracy.

The market could also benefit if Bollywood films are released in more upscale theatres. In recent years, a few distributors like Yash Raj have shown their films in multiplexes that also screen mainstream movies. The situation could alter dramatically when Sony releases its first Hindi language film, Saawariya, in over 80 theatres across the country in November. Most Hindi films are released in about 60 theatres in North America.

And the most interesting part of this feature revolves around the problem of defining the market/audience and tracking sales (ticket sales, revenues, etc.). We know that this remains difficult to do within India – sales figures are fuzzy because under-reporting continues to be a problem and while multiplex pricing seems fairly standard across the country, ticket prices in single screen cinema halls vary a lot (even within the same city). And as Tejaswini Ganti documents, knowledge regarding territories and audiences is generated in and through well-established social networks among directors, producers, distributors and exhibitors. I’m struck by how this model of information-flow is, at least partially, defining Bollywood’s imagination of the overseas territories as well –

The calls and e-mail messages start flowing early in Toronto one Sunday evening, and the producers of new big budget films won’t have an idea if their films are on their way to being a hit or an also-ran film or a flop till they have pored over the weekend figures from New York, London, Dubai and in recent weeks, Australia.

Who are these people making calls and sending emails? Are they established exhibitors like Shiraz Jivani (of Naz 8 cinema in California)? What kind of work do U.S./U.K.-based distribution offices of key players like Yashraj Films perform? Do film journalists based in these dollar-pound countries track sales/revenues as a matter of routine? How does this information flow back to “trade-analysts” like Taran Adarsh in Bombay? I think it’ll be fun to come up with a map of this social/information network. Stay tuned.

“My film industry is bigger than your film industry”

October 8, 2007

Couldn’t resist posting the Goodness Gracious Me bhangramuffin’s (sanjeev bhaskar) take on Bollywood –

We hear a lot of Westerners dissing these movies saying that they is not realistic, but we say: KISS MY CHUDDIES! They is not supposed to be realistic. The question shouldn’t be: “Why aren’t those films more like the real world?” but: “Why ain’t the real world more like these films?” Why can’t we do triple back somersaults when fighting 20 thugs, while only being armed with a spoon? Why can’t we burst into song when we is on the bus? Let’s face it, what world would you rather live in, innit? I blame Western society, man…Bollywood makes more movies than anywhere else, like in the galaxy man. So next time you go dissing my posse, just remember – my film industry is bigger than your film industry…innit!