Archive for February, 2009

FICCI Frames 2009: a decade of “corporatization”

February 12, 2009

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

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

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.”