Archive for April, 2008

Family Matters – two takes

April 30, 2008

On the one hand, a story in the Washington Post about lower class/caste men and women trying to break into the film industry (go here):

Today, a trickle of actors, dancers and screenwriters from India’s lower and middle castes are trying to break into a formerly impenetrable star system, full of actors from Bollywood royalty and other insiders hailing from high-caste families. New drama schools are training Indians from all castes. And Bollywood is starting to tackle more serious plots that could potentially star low-caste actors.

“Will you get more attention if you have the right surname and are part of an entrenched star family? Of course,” said Anupama Chopra, a film critic and author of several best-selling books on Bollywood. “But there is increasing space now for a booming Bollywood film industry, and there’s a feeling that if you are talented enough, well, maybe you will get noticed, no matter what your family ties are.”

And on the other hand, Time Out Mumbai offers a map of the film industry to illustrate how important family ties are (subscription required, link):

Despite enormous changes in recent years, the Hindi film industry is still influenced tremendously by society’s most basic unit. A snap survey of today’s noteworthy actors reveals that many of them were either born into a film family or married into one. Hrithik Roshan? The son of actor-turned-filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and the grandson of filmmaker J Om Prakash. Salman Khan? The son of scriptwriter Salim Khan. Aamir Khan? The son of filmmaker Tahir Hussain, the nephew of producer Nasir Hussain, and the cousin of director Mansoor Khan. Abhishek Bachchan? The son of Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri. Saif Ali Khan? The son of Sharmila Tagore. Kareena Kapoor? A member of the Kapoor clan. Kajol? The daughter of actor Tanuja and director Shomu Mukherjee. Rani Mukerji? A member of the Mukherjee clan and the niece of Bengali actor Debashree Roy. The only outsider to have made it in recent times without family connections is Shah Rukh Khan. Akshay Kumar qualified too until he married Twinkle Khanna, herself an actor and the daughter of actors Dimple Kapadia and Rajesh Khanna.

Many more DNA matches can be found among directors, producers, and distributors as well as among second-rung actors. These include Karan Johar, Rohan Sippy, Goldie Behl, Aditya Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Sidharth Anand, Sajid Nadiadwala, Anil Thadani, Meghna Gulzar, Amrita Arora, Zayed Khan, Esha Deol, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Ravi Chopra, Shaad Ali, Pooja Bhatt, Bobby Deol, Farah Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.



April 17, 2008

It’s the last week of classes here (grading to be done and so on) and it looks like I will have to take a break from blogging for a week or so. But I did want to announce the launch of an exciting new “multiblog” – Interjunction – that aims to facilitate conversations between the media and academia. While a magazine like Seminar does bring together academics and practitioners at times, and The Hoot focuses attention media in the subcontinent, there is no dedicated space for enabling dialogue between media studies and the world of media production. Interjunction is an important and timely intervention in this regard.

Workers and Unions in Bollywood Inc.

April 12, 2008

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (link) pays attention to an aspect of film production we don’t think about very often – who gets to be an extra in contemporary Bollywood films. Pointing out that directors these days look for “extras who fit the scene,” the reporter Amol Sharma documents the emergence of entrepreneurs who work closely with directors to help cast extras. And what’s more, these entrepreneurs, who carry CDs with images of potential extras and broker deals with directors and producers, are proving to be a threat to a well-established institution in the film industry – the Junior Artists Union.

Indian directors say they need to be picky about extras as they try to go global and appeal to the United Kingdom and the U.S. markets, where higher production values are expected. “You can’t keep using the same faces every time,” says Sudhir Mishra, director of the recently released “Khoya Khoya Chand” (Lost Moon), a love story set in the 1950s. Mr. Mishra bypassed the union to hire actors he felt could more authentically portray prostitutes, bouncers and pimps in a brothel scene.

Directors also try to boost the international appeal of their films by using foreign extras, often European or American vacationers rounded up at Mumbai tourist spots — a tactic that is particularly galling to unionized extras. Film producers “give excuses, like ‘We’re shooting in a pub, so we want to have some foreigners there,'” says Firoz Khan, a 25-year-old member of the Junior Artistes Association, the union for male extras. “It’s just excuses.”

The Junior Artists’ Union is fighting back valiantly, trying to figure out how they can renegotiate their place in an industry that is currently besotted by the language of “corporatization.” Read the whole article here, and here’s a video that accompanies the article:

It’s important to note that this isn’t an isolated domain of the industry that is under siege. In an article in Anthropological Quarterly, Clare Wilkinson-Weber maps the changing world of costume design and the growing marginalization of “dressmen:”

Dressmen have always employed informal methods and techniques in their work, and they now find their skills, knowledge, as well as their privilege of maleness in a male-dominated industry being eroded as Hindi filmmaking is transforming itself aesthetically and organizationally in response to global forces.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with a number of such “dressmen,” Wilkinson-Weber explains how the “de-skilling” of dressmens’ jobs has to be understood in relation to changing industry logics and specifically, the entry of a number of young, urban women who “claim superior knowledge of filmmaking techniques and of the fashion world that informs film costume” [The Dressman’s Line: Transforming the Work of Costumers in Popular Hindi Film, Anthropological Quarterly, 79(4), 2006].

I know very little about the history of workers’ unions in Mumbai, but this story points to the importance of industry-focuses studies that can provide nuanced understandings of production culture in “Bollywood Inc.”

Taaza Khabar

April 11, 2008

Aswin’s post about Khabar Lahariya reminded me that filmmaker Bishakha Dutta had made a documentary film called Taaza Khabar on the women who produce the newspaper. I have not seen the film but the Nirantar wesbite has some clips of the film here.

To add to the discussion: this initiative appears to have resolved to some extent the problematic NGO impulse to seek out the ‘voiceless’ and give them ‘voice.’ Nirantar’s role seems limited to training the women, not dictating the ‘issues’ they need to be concerned about. The women, at least from the website, seem to have autonomy in choosing what they want to investigate and report on. This is significant.

From Culver City to Chennai

April 8, 2008

Via Cartoon Brew (thanks, Amrita), a rather funny short that has two Sony Imageworks artists imagining their life in the event of their jobs getting moved to Chennai. And here’s what inspired them.

Grassroots journalism: Khabar Lahariya

April 6, 2008

There have been a number of commentaries of late criticizing the logics of mainstream journalism in contemporary India. In one widely circulated piece, Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai, reminds us about P. Sainath’s “rural journalism” and how the space for such writing does not exist anymore (here). It is, as Fernandes points out, quite clear that English-language urban dailies like the Times of India operate with a very specific and narrow notion of who the reader-consumer is. Given this state of affairs, non-market and local initiatives become increasingly important.

Via India Together, I learned about one such initiative – Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by women for audiences in the Bundelkhand region of India. Kalpana Ram provides an overview of how this initiative came to be and argues that more than circulation figures, Khabar Lahariya is important simply because it exists.

Khabar Lahariya began as an experiment in 2002, aided by Nirantar, a resource centre for gender and education. It is based in Chitrakoot district, one of the 200 poorest districts in India, where there is practically no industry and the majority of people survive on rain-fed agriculture. Literacy rates are lower than the national average; female literacy is only 35 per cent. The sex ratio is also below the national average, only 872 women to a 1,000 men. Incidents of sexual violence are high and the justice delivery system barely functions as criminal gangs operate with impunity under the nose of a complacent and often complicit administration.

Against this background, a group of Dalit and adivasi women felt the need to start and run their own newspaper because the existing media in the area did not report on the issues that concerned them. They wanted to break the stereotype that lower caste women like them would not dare enter the public domain. Despite their lack of education, they wanted to prove that they too could be journalists.

You can read the rest of Ram’s piece here. The Nirantar website carries more details, and to get a sense of how these women cover current affairs (taaza khabar), national and international news, women’s issues, panchayati raj, and much more, you can read an entire issue of the newspaper here (Hindi).

NDTV Lumiere

April 5, 2008

Over at MediaCommons, two comments pointed to the importance of situating initiatives like NDTV Imagine in relation to the network as a whole. I couldn’t agree more, and as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, transitions in the television industry are central to the film industry as well. It would be a mistake to continue to examine film and TV in isolation, especially given the importance of television rights to producers in Bollywood. Films aside, we are yet to map, in any systematic fashion, the workings of numerous filmy shows on television – song and dance talent/game shows of various kinds have been part of television for nearly two decades now (ZEE TV’s Antakshari began in 1993).

And now, NDTV has added another dimension to TV’s relationship with film with the launch of NDTV Lumiere.

Led by Sameer Nair, former CEO of Star Entertainment India, NDTV Lumiere has roped in Manmohan Shetty, founder of Adlabs, and Sunil Doshi, a film producer. The goal, as the video above suggests, is to develop NDTV Lumiere as a niche space for audiences interested in cinema from around the world. Instead of competing with Zee Cafe and Star World for “elite audiences” (see this), this seems like a smart differentiating tactic.

More broadly, I think this initiative signals the working out of a radically new set of relationship between two screens in India – at the level of industry logics, productions cultures, and audiences’ viewing practices. More on this in posts to come.

NDTV Imagine: A Family Drama

April 2, 2008

I am participating in a TV promos-themed week over at MediaCommons and my piece is featured on the site today. Here’s the video along with my note.

Over the past two decades, the landscape of television in India has shifted from one dominated by state-regulated Doordarshan to an increasingly fragmented environment in which numerous transnational (Star Plus, for e.g.) and translocal (SUN TV, for e.g.) channels compete for attention. In a post-Doordarshan world, success has been defined by carving up Doordarshan’s “national family” into a number of identifiable and marketable units – youth, children, women, and so on. In many ways, this is hardly surprising.

However, in an environment in which every major television channel is scrambling to devise further levels of differentiation (AXN’s “elite weekends,” for e.g.), it is surprising to learn about a new channel – NDTV Imagine, launched in January 2008 – that positions itself as TV that will cater to the “6-69” demographic and re-unite the “national family.” As Sameer Nair, the CEO, announced, “NDTV Imagine heralds the return of the General Entertainment Channel, the return of family entertainment for the entire family…bringing the entire family together to watch television.”

At first glance, and as several trade analysts noted, this does seem like a smart branding tactic. As the NDTV news reporter in the video suggests, perhaps the nation is tired of watching conniving mothers-in-law and extramarital flings and ready for other stories. But as I see it, the real story about NDTV’s imagination of the “national family” emerges only when we pay attention to NDTV Imagine’s brand ambassador, Karan Johar. A Bollywood filmmaker who has been responsible for redefining the “national family” with immensely popular diaspora-centric narratives, Karan Johar offers us a glimpse into how the “national family” is being re-imagined. At a launch party, Johar announced: everyone is saying that India is on its way to becoming a superpower. But the one thing we need to keep in mind is India’s biggest strength: family. And this will be NDTV’s strength…NDTV Imagine will also be a family, a joyous and hope-filled family…a happy, positive, and real family.

Karan Johar’s imagination allows us to consider how television channels’ branding strategies are caught up in broader struggles to define the “national family” in an age of globalization. In the Indian context, where a specific vision of “India Shining” has been aggressively marketed by a neo-liberal state with the help of media corporations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a space for other imaginations of the “national family.” For all their problems, I can’t help wondering if we’re better off with conniving mothers-in-law and their dysfunctional families than with Karan Johar’s “real,” positive, joyous, and shining families.

Copycat, copycat…

April 1, 2008

Via American Public Media’s Marketplace, a story on whether the entry of Hollywood studios into the business of film production in India might affect how industry professionals in Mumbai think about “copying” everything from scripts to lighting and camera angles. You can listen to the story here, and here’s a part of the transcript (full text here):

Rico Gagliano: Late one Wednesday night in the city of Mumbai, I do what hundreds of thousands of Indians do every day: head to the local cinema to catch a flick.


This one’s called “Welcome” — the slapstick story of an average Joe who finds himself engaged to the sister of a mob boss. Now even though the characters inexplicably break into song every 20 minutes, and even though the Hindi dialogue isn’t subtitled, I find the film strangely familiar. That’s because “Welcome”‘s story is the same as an American film: 1999’s “Mickey Blue Eyes.” And it turns out in Bollywood, that’s hardly unusual…

Sometimes it’s more than dialogue. Anjum Rajabali is a successful Mumbai screenwriter. He says he’s been on sets where everything was copied directly from a video of a foreign film.

Anjum Rajabali: There was a video monitor, and the VHS was actually playing. The angles of the camera would be taken directly from that. The actors would actually watch, and say, “OK, this is how you want me to do it? Fine.” Camera angles, lighting, properties…

…All copied. And film songs, of which there are several per Bollywood film, might not always be 100 percent original, either.

The story also relies on some quotes from CNN-IBN’s entertainment editor, Rajeev Masand, but what intrigued me most was Anjum Rajabali’s presence. Now Rajabali is a key writer in an industry that is only now beginning to recognize the importance of well written screenplays and, in fact, Rajabali heads the scriptwriting division of Whistling Woods International (the media and film school founded by director-producer Subhash Ghai – story here). It is odd, however, to hear Rajabali suggest that filmmakers are merrily “copying” scripts simply because they can get away with it and that once Hollywood studios begin investing more in Mumbai, this practice will wane.

I find this odd because Rajabali wrote Ghulam, an “adaptation” of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. A story of a petty criminal (played by Aamir Khan) who rebels against a more powerful thug, Ghulam is, as Ranjani Mazumdar writes in her book (Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City), an important film in several respects – for offering what Mazumdar terms a “jagged history of the national movement,” forcing us to think about contradictory relationships between history and memory, playing with anxieties surrounding masculinity and sexuality (Aamir Khan is a boxer in the film), and so on. By all accounts, Rajabali’s adaptation worked and it would be unfair to dismiss Ghulam as nothing more than an imitation.

Given his own work, I find it disappointing that he did not offer a more nuanced explanation. To be sure, there are several films each year that are direct lifts and have nothing original to offer. But in an industry that produces over a hundred films each year, there is more than just “copying” and I wish Rajabali had pointed to Ghulam as an example of how well a writer can factor in historical and cultural contexts to re-tell stories.