Archive for the ‘diaspora’ Category

Outsourced, an initial review

September 24, 2010

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

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, one of the most popular and successful film-related websites. And now, that case study has been published in Media, Culture and Society!

From 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.

Public access TV and U.S. desi diaspora

April 2, 2009

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…

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.”

SAMMA ’08: giving up on television

January 16, 2009

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.

Of Chai and Samosas: Indian cinema and exhibition in the U.S.

May 8, 2008

Distribution and exhibition of Indian films (mostly Hindi language Bollywood films) in North America have been un-organized sectors for nearly five decades now. In cities/regions with a large concentration of South Asians – New York/NJ, California, Toronto, and so on – a desi family would often run a weekend business that involved screening films at university halls or by renting a screen (for one weekend) at a local cinema theatre. While things have changed in larger cities – from dedicated screens to entire multiplexes (Naz8 in California, for e.g.) for Indian films – there has been no concerted effort to organize distribution and exhibition across the continent.

However, given the ways in which the “NRI market” has been targeted in increasingly sophisticated ways by the film industry in Mumbai, perhaps it is not a surprise that a Bollywood company has decided to launch a major exhibition venture. According to a story in India West, Adlabs is in the process of acquiring close to 200 cinemas in cities across the U.S. (link):

The new theater chain will likely be branded as Big Cinemas and will program a mix of Hindi, South Indian, and first-run and second-run Hollywood movies.

It has already begun a quiet rollout: the company’s first West Coast property to open is the Norwalk 8 Theaters in Southern California, which will screen the subtitled Hindi thriller “Tashan” and the unsubtitled Tamil romance “Santhosh Subramaniam” starting April 25, along with a mix of second-run features such as “Fool’s Gold” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

If Adlabs does succeed in establishing a chain of theatres across the U.S., I have no doubt it will change the way Bollywood imagines and mobilizes an “overseas market.” In addition to bringing about a shift in distribution and marketing practices, this will also allow filmmakers to track revenues in a more organized and reliable fashion.

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.

Tracking Bhangra: DJ Rekha on NPR

February 18, 2008

On NPR’s weekend edition, a feature on DJ Rekha – listen here. The site has links to earlier features on Rekha, and a nice 6-minute piece from June 2000 on the rise of bhangra in the U.S. club scene (link).

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.

What Brown Can(not) Do For You

November 9, 2007

A week from now, I will be on my way to Boston to participate in a workshop at M.I.T where a group of academics will talk about Unboxing TV. Following the model established by Flow, this workshop is organized as a series of roundtable discussions with each participant outlining a provocation instead of reading a paper for 20-25 minutes. Take a look at the program and the provocations here.

I decided to take this opportunity to think through the MTV-Desi experiment, and use discussions surrounding MTV-Desi to think about the relationship between the South Asian diaspora and TV. Over the next week, I will be working through answers to the questions I raise and will have more to say. For now, here’s what I wrote:

In July 2005, MTV Networks announced the launch of MTV-Desi, a niche channel for South Asian American youth. Launched with great fanfare and made available on Direct TV, MTV-Desi featured Bollywood sequences and Indi-pop (sourced from MTV India), diasporic artists in North America and the U.K., and shows about desi life in the U.S. Recognizing the transcultural nature of South Asian American youth culture, executives and producers at MTV-Desi worked hard to define MTV-Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor Indian satellite TV channels could match.

Eighteen months later, MTV Networks pulled the plug on MTV-Desi, stating that the distribution model failed to draw in South Asian Americans. As one prominent South Asian journalist commented, “we published next to nothing on the channel, because I couldn’t find anyone who watched the satellite channel: no college students, no twenty-somethings with spare change. And it wasn’t just me. All the tastemakers I interviewed – DJs, other music types – said they didn’t know any MTV Desi subscribers either.”

While pricing and poor marketing were cited as the major reasons for failure, it is worth noting that MTV-Desi’s business and content-production strategies were shaped not only by the institutional politics of the U.S. television industry but also by the operations of satellite television channels such as ZEE, STAR, and Sony Entertainment that cater to South Asian audiences worldwide. MTV-Desi executives were also attuned to reports emphasizing that South Asians are now among the fastest growing minorities in the U.S. and, more importantly, as a niche demographic with tremendous purchasing power. Thus, at one level, it appears as if executives at MTV-Desi did nothing wrong in terms of identifying an audience community. So what, besides the premium distribution model, went wrong?

I wish to argue that the MTV-Desi experiment constitutes an important moment in the history of diasporic media production, and that a critical post-mortem will allow us to grapple with challenges faced by media producers and cultural critics in imagining and mobilizing a diasporic audience community. Outlining the changing dynamics of migration between South Asia and the U.S., and competing definitions of desi identity and being brown in the U.S., I will tackle these questions during our roundtable discussion:

– In what ways does the institutional framework of the television industry in the U.S. limit the possibility of imagining a “post-national” audience community?

– If Bombay, as a film and television capital, is dominating and defining the production and flow of South Asian content, what possibilities remain for diasporic television production?

– Does “diaspora,” as a socio-cultural and political critique of the nation-as-community, need TV?

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!

Eros expansion: from “regional” to translocal?

October 8, 2007

Over the past decade, London-based Eros Entertainment has emerged as the leading content provider across multiple platforms (on-demand, DVD, and online) for the U.K. and North American markets. According to a press release (link), sales of Bollywood films in the U.S. now represents a $1.5 billion yearly market that is expected to grow by 16% annually over the next five years bringing U.S. sales to over $3 billion.

A few months back, Eros International formed a joint venture with Ayngaran International, arguably the only legit distributor of Tamil language films in overseas markets. And most recently, Eros’s new media division has signed content licensing deals with media corporations in South-east Asia including SingNet (Singapore), Mauritius Telecom, and Radio Television Malaysia (RTM).

Press reports on this new deal in South-east Asia only mention Bollywood films, but I wonder if Eros Entertainment will also take advantage of their stake in Ayngaran to fortify the market for Tamil cinema in places like Singapore and Malaysia. With the exception of big-budget ventures like Sivaji-The Boss (Anygaran tied up with Eros for this film), we are yet to see filmmakers in Chennai think creatively about the overseas market. Hopefully Eros’ expansion(s) will spur the “regional” industries to imagine their audiences in more translocal ways.

Teaching hybridity? Try “an arranged shag”!

October 4, 2007

I was a little worried if students in my class would get Goodness Gracious Me – many skits in the show do draw, after all, on very specific aspects of everyday Brit life (from the mid-late 1990s, no less). But I shouldn’t have worried at all – the episode I screened opened with this hilarious skit about an “arranged shag” and in less than a minute, everyone was hooked! Makes it easy to then talk about diaspora, identity, hyrbridity, and so on.

Becoming Indian-American: a historical marker

September 26, 2007


I came across this wonderful “historical marker” while driving around in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland, and it got me thinking about the critical role of Indian Students Associations in shaping ideas of being and becoming Indian-American (especially during the early phase of migration – late 1960s-1970s). There have been a number of academic articles and books that map different realms of the Indian-American experience, but there isn’t a good ethnographic-historical account of “Indian” student associations.

And now I’m also curious about what “LOTUS, the first Asian Indian community newspaper,” can add to our understanding of media and diasporic identity during the late 1960s. Until I came across this historical marker, I believed that the story of print culture in the Indian-American diaspora began with India Abroad, a newspaper started by Gopal Raju in 1970 (in New York city).