Archive for the ‘cinema’ Category

Islamicate culture and Bombay cinema

March 31, 2009

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.


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.

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.

On being desi in post 9/11 America

February 20, 2008

After a session on Goodness Gracious Me, I usually get students to watch Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic in an attempt to talk about cultural citizenship and the ways in which religion has become an increasingly important fault line. And until now, I’ve never found a film like My Son the Fanatic that might help us talk through these issues in the context of South Asian-Americans. Mississippi Masala only gets us so far. Last night, I learned about “Punching at the Sun,” a film that takes on the question of what race, nationalism, and citizenship mean for South Asian muslim youth in post-9/11 Queens, NY. Here’s the trailer, and you can watch the entire film on Jaman:

Links to reviews and interviews with the filmmaker Tanuj Chopra here.

Filmy Flashback

February 19, 2008

Poking around TIME magazine’s archives, I came across a piece featuring Baburao Patel – the eccentric, snarky, and influential editor of Film-India, an important fanzine that set the stage for Filmfare, Stardust, and so on. Here it is, from November 3, 1941 (link):

In Bombay’s movie fanpaper, Film-India, Editor Baburao Patel conducts an unusually piquant question-&-answer department. Last week Hollywood learned how Editor Patel does it.


Q. Are there any raw-film manufacturers in India?

A. No. But we have directors who expose the film and make it look more raw than ever before.

Q. What is the exact relationship between Anuradha and Rafio Guznavi?

A. Come, I give you the guess.

Q. I hear bad rumors about Director Shantaram. Every man from Poona and Bombay says that Shantaram has done such & such a thing. I am sure that he is not a person to do such a thing. I think that Mr. Shantaram is aware of his fame and would not have done that thing. So you must tell the public that Shantaram is innocent by publishing his innocence in the next issue.

A. And I must also publish my innocence about what you are talking.

Q. Please tell me, which is the easiest way to get a job in a film company?

A. Get hold of the most attractive girl in your town and bring her to a film studio. . . . The other way is rather roundabout.

Q. Whenever I see a romantic picture, its effect lingers with me for five days and I cannot prosecute my studies. What shall I do?

A. Stop seeing pictures. Studies first.

Q. How many of our actresses are virgins?

A. I don’t know much about the actresses being virgins. This is an antique commodity in a modern world and you may find it in rural surroundings.

Narrating AIDS

February 6, 2008

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mira Nair took on the challenge of narrating AIDS in India and brought together three other filmmakers – Farhan Akhtar, Santosh Sivan, and Vishal Bhardwaj. Called “AIDS Jaago” (AIDS Awake), these films have been doing the rounds of international film festivals and are now available on Jaman. The goal, as the press release (link) makes clear, was simply to tackle the worst stereotypes that continue to shape public understanding of HIV/AIDS and to do so through a compelling story. Needless to say, this is a stellar line-up of directors and what’s more, they managed to rope in a number of A-list film stars as well for each film.

While I’m sure the stars have been partly responsible for attracting attention, the film that struck a chord with me was the one that did not rely on Bollywood stars – Santosh Sivan’s Prarambha (The Beginning), with Prabhu Deva as a lorry driver who gets caught up in a boy’s journey to find his mother (who happens to be HIV+). But then, my opinion is partly determined by the fact that this film is set in and around Mysore and everyone in the film speaks in Kannada (with some Tamil mixed in for good measure). Yennyway, you can watch all of them here.

Radio and the creation of an “Indian public”

January 30, 2008

One of the most striking gaps in both popular and academic writing on media in South Asia relates to the question of relationships between media institutions. And this is especially relevant in the Indian context given the extent and range of film content that shapes radio, TV, the Internet, mobile, and increasingly, video games. This question shapes my research in important ways, and I am particularly interested in mapping the film industry’s relationship with radio during the first decade of independence.

While waiting for inter-library loan materials (such as “Indian Listener,” an All India Radio publication) to arrive, I decided to look into newspaper coverage and came across a number of interesting articles and advertisements that provide glimpses not just into how the airwaves became a key site for elites to define “national culture,” but also some sense of the rhythms of everyday life during the 1950s.

I will post images and snippets of articles as I work through them over the next few weeks, but to begin with, here is an excerpt from October 3, 1957 (The Hindu) that caught my attention right away.


I could not have asked for anything better – the juxtaposition of All India Radio’s broadcast schedule with an ad from Radio Ceylon (run from Colombo) speaks very directly to the ways in which the commercially operated radio station from Colombo challenged the nationalist elites at All India Radio who, after nearly a decade of obstinacy, relented and allowed the broadcast of film music and other “light music” on All India Radio.

As the story goes, All India Radio had banned “vulgar” film music arguing that it was critical to cultivate the tastes of the Indian “masses” by exposing them to classical music from both south and north India. Radio Ceylon, run on a commercial basis, spotted an opportunity and launched a number of programmes that revolved around film and film music, the most famous one being a countdown show sponsored by Binaca and hosted by Ameen Sayani (Binaca Geet Mala). If you click on the excerpt above and look a bit closer at the broadcast schedule on All India Radio, you will notice that listeners in Madras (now Chennai) who tuned into All India Radio could listen to a violin concert followed by Russian orchestra music. However, if they had purchased a radio set that was equipped to receive shortwave signals, they could tune into Radio Ceylon and listen to Shakeel Badayuni, a renowned poet and film lyricist (more here), and famous playback singers like Mukesh and Talat Mahmood.

And this is precisely what listeners in India did – for nearly a decade, each evening, they gathered around radio sets to listen to film music from Bombay being broadcast from Ceylon. An “Indian public/audience” was forged, to the surprise of bureaucrats at All India Radio, by a small overseas programming division of a broadcasting station from a neighboring country with the help of the film industry in Bombay. Moreoever, many of these shows were sponsored by companies based in Bombay and other cities in India that could not advertise on the state-controlled, non-commercial All India Radio (in this instance, the company sponsoring the show is Sanforized – Sanforized ke Mehmaan translates to Sanforized’s Guests). And these shows served as a template for producers at Vividh Bharati as they launched their programmes in October 1957.

Needless to say, I’ve only scratched the surface here. Over the next few weeks, I will return to this moment of media convergence and transnational flows (Radio Ceylon could be picked up in Southeast Asia and as far west as the east coast of Africa) with, of course, fascinating archival material. Stay tuned!

Friday Fun: Silk Smitha

November 16, 2007


“Silk” Smitha, arguably the best (most raunchy) vamp of Indian cinema, is making a comeback of sorts. CNN-IBN has a story with a few delightful interviews here. As one fan puts it, “she could have put Bipasha Basu to shame!”

Tamil cinema and the NRI Question

November 14, 2007

I recently watched Sivaji-The Boss and it made me wonder why Tamil cinema (and other “regional” cinemas) doesn’t seem burdened with the NRI problem, of re-positioning the NRI within the national family. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a Tamil film along the lines of a DDLJ or a K3G, blockbuster Bollywood films that reclaimed and redefined the NRI as one of our own. I find this intriguing, especially given how strongly the Indian diaspora of late-modern capital (90s, high-tech migration) has been defined by cities like Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

In Sivaji, Rajni plays an NRI who returns to Chennai with the lofty aim of serving the poor by providing them access to free education, healthcare, and so on (synopsis here). It is striking that there isn’t a single instance in the film when Rajni’s outsider-status is questioned – in contrast to NRI-focused Bollywood films (Swades is the obvious parallel here), here Rajni’s outsider-status is located within a corrupt political landscape and he is like any other person (only richer) in a city like Chennai who cannot get anything done without the help of powerful politicians and wheeler-dealers. There is no hand-wringing about who Rajni is – he is a Tamilian, and that’s all there is to it.

The easy way out, of course, is to fall back on the national-regional hierarchy that has been in place for over 7 decades now (since the advent of sound in cinema) and suggest that “regional” cinema’s concerns are “regional” and not (trans)national. But would it not be more productive to conceptualize Tamil cinema as having always had a trans-national dimension in the sense that it interrupts the narration of the nation by Bombay cinema? This is the argument that Vijay Devdas makes in a piece on “Rethinking Transnational Cinema: The case of Tamil Cinema” (link). Devdas surveys Tamil cinema from the period after independence to the late 1970s to argue that –

“…over time, there has been a shift within Tamil Cinema from a pan-Indian construction of the nation, that was part of the anti-colonial cinema of British India, to the call for communally centred, closed, ethno-nation, premised on a discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism.”

It is perhaps because of the strength of this discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism that Tamil cinema feels no need to re-territorialize Tamil NRIs.

Friday Fun: Global Superhero Rajnikant

November 2, 2007


There’s all this chatter about Virgin Comics roping in Priyanka Chopra to create a new superhero character for the Indian market (story here). But everyone forgets the man who started it all – superstar Rajnikant! But then, any true Rajni fan wouldn’t be fazed. After all, Rajni has taught us all well: en vazhi thani vazhi (my way is unique).

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!

Bombay cinema in Tamilnadu (1940s-1960s)

October 5, 2007

Watching Iruvar (Maniratnam’s film that traces the political careers of MGR and Karunanidhi) a few days back got me thinking about Bombay cinema’s “national” status and specifically, the idea that Bombay cinema managed to forge a “national audience” in post-independence India.

It is difficult to imagine a large audience for Hindi films in Tamilnadu given the agitations and struggles against the imposition of Hindi that defined politics in Tamilnadu for over three decades (from the late 1930s-early 1970s, chronology here). Anti-hindi protests organized by E. V. Ramaswamy’s (aka Periyar) in 1938 were taken up by other prominent politicians and served as a major campaign issue for the DK and DMK parties (more here). And I also wonder if distributors and exhibitors in Tamilnadu during this time period needed to bring in Hindi-language films given the strength of the Tamil film industry and the close ties between the Tamil film industry and mainstream politics.

My grandparents and parents lived in Madras during this time and were generally supportive of the anti-Hindi platform, and tell me that they did not get to watch many Hindi films during this time. An occasional big-budget Raj Kapoor film, but nothing on a regular basis. Besides, neither they nor anyone in their circle of family and friends spoke or understood much Hindi.

Yet, they are all fans of Hindi film music! Their anti-Hindi sentiments did not, in any way, interfere with their ritual of tuning in to Binaca Geet Mala (Radio Ceylon) and listening to the most popular Hindi film songs of the time. And once All India Radio relented and began broadcasting film music on Vividh Bharati, the popular Chaya Geet became a part of their daily routine. To this day, my grandfather spends a few hours each week listening to compilations of songs by playback singers like Talat Mahmood, Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi even though he doesn’t quite comprehend the lyrics.

I think our narratives of Bombay cinema’s mediation of the “national family” (and perhaps more broadly, of nationalism in postcolonial India) will be so much more interesting if we take into account the role that radio played.