The Indian Economy Blog

April 30, 2006

Soft Power and Bollywood

Filed under: Basic Questions — Reuben Abraham @ 9:26 am

In recent times, two major Hollywood movies I watched, V for Vendetta and Inside Man both ended to Bollywood music. With the Wachowski Brothers, it comes as no surprise since Part 3 of the Matrix series ended to the chant of Asatoma Sadgamaya, but a Spike Lee joint beginning and ending with “Chaiyya, Chaiyya” came as a real surprise. At the same time, some friends of mine in the Philippines tell me the islands are being swept up by all things Indian, especially the culture. Bollywood movies play to packed halls in places as far apart as Israel and Japan.

Readers at my other blog know that soft power is a favourite theme of mine. Many of us get too carried away with elements of hard power (economics, military etc) that we completely forget about how successful the cultural domination of the United States has been in the past century, and therein lies a lesson for India. After all, India and Bollywood (used loosely here to denote the entire movie industry) possesses the only real threat to the cultural supremacy of the Hollywood machine, especially as the country becomes more relevant on the global stage. Andy Mukherjee picks up on a similar theme in a piece he wrote for Bloomberg a couple of weeks back.

The increasing acceptance of Bollywood — shorthand for India’s burgeoning film industry — in the mainstream of international entertainment is a telling commentary on India’s reintegration with the world after more than five decades of self-imposed isolation. Just last week, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp., told Bloomberg News he would bring Bollywood entertainment to the $3.6 billion casino-resort he plans to build in Singapore if he wins the bidding for the project. It isn’t a coincidence that the forces propelling the globalization of Indian popular culture are gaining momentum just as the economic potential of the nation and its market of 1 billion people is capturing the imagination of overseas investors.

As Hong Kong was emerging as an Asian Tiger in the 1970s, kung fu fighter Bruce Lee was becoming an icon of global youth. In 1980, when the Japanese economy seemed unstoppable, audiences in the West were getting better acquainted with the land of samurais through “Shogun,” the hit television series. In 2001, the year China joined the World Trade Organization, the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” picked up four Oscars. Bollywood movies, especially their catchy song-and-dance sequences, are the new flavor, making their presence felt at the World Economic Forum this year in Davos, Switzerland. The changing global image of India is, in turn, shaping how Indians assess their chances of success in an interdependent world.


  1. I’m not a big fan of the term “Bollywood” because of its derivation from Hollywood. Agreed, that some of the Indian films are plagiarized from Hollywood. Still, would prefer a local term, something like, Filmistan, for instance. This was (is?) a movie studio but think it’s defunct now? My guess is that the trade mark issues (if any) can be easily dealth with.

    However, suspect that Bollywood has been bandied about so frequently that we may have no choice. Only possibility is if the Indian film industry creates a new moniker, and launches a huge brand awareness campaign — but that would take many millions of dollars, with no immediate ROI.

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — April 30, 2006 @ 7:21 pm

  2. Reuben,

    Timely to point to my recent post on soft power:

    That India is considering soft power as an instrument of foreign policy is a good sign. And given India’s obvious strengths and potential for soft power it is easy, especially for the popular Indian media, to get carried away by its prospects. It is important to remember that putting that soft power to use will be rather hard. [The Acorn]

    Comment by Nitin — May 1, 2006 @ 6:55 pm

  3. Good point on soft power. I am not sure if anyone in the Indian Govt. is actively working on a strategy to develop this. For example, I can see we need to learn a few points on marketing our culture- every point of contact for a tourist can be worked on to get the experience to be a lot more enriching and entertaining. This would merely be one component of the srategy.

    Comment by little Ram — May 1, 2006 @ 10:02 pm

  4. Hollywood Vs Mayapur

    In my opinion, the impact of cultural export cannot be overemphasized. The world watches Hollywood movies and it wants to drink Coca Cola, eat at McDonald’s, wear Levi’s jeans and Nike shoes, and showoff new iPods. The Indian movie industry (let’s start calling it “Mayapur” shall we), although rivaling Hollywood in terms of sheer eyeballs does not translate into international consumer interest in Indian products (people in the Philippines or the U.A.E. don’t watch a Mayapur film and go “where can I buy a kurta?”). I think the reasons for this difference are multifold.

    Hollywood has the advantage of catering to a world that is already widely anglicized due to British colonial rule in the past. American products like Levi’s jeans and Nike shoes, Coca Cola etc. are marketed worldwide so they are there to instantly exploit the desire to “look American” created by Hollywood. In other words, Hollywood, Levi’s, Nike, Coca Cola etc. are all in sync. How many Indian kurta or chappal (or for that matter any other) brands can you name that are savvy enough to even realize that they may be able to create an overseas market inspired by Mayapur? But wait, before we start thinking about Indian products, we realize we have a bigger problem at hand. Mayapur itself widely patronizes American culture (I remember almost falling off my chair once when I came across a Shah-Rukh Khan song in which he dances in front of a huge American flag for no apparent reason!). Mayapur has so far been able to hook only international audiences that like to watch fine young men and women perform inspired pelvic thrusts to incomprehensible songs (not that there’s anything wrong with it, just that it’s a low-paying audience). This audience exists mainly in the middle-east or far-east whereas the greatest payoff in the movie business is in America (high ticket prices, low piracy, sophisticated video rental systems, merchandise sales, digital delivery systems…the list goes on).

    But before we go into any detail, let’s start at the beginning of the process of film making. The quality of screenwriting itself is questionable in India (you’ll be surprised at how ignorant even some of the big names in Mayapur are). In contrast, it’s almost impossible to find a struggling Hollywood screenwriter typing away on a laptop at a Los Angeles cafe who has not seriously studied the art of screenwriting. Almost every screenwriter, beginner or professional, is dialed into the latest technological tools for the job – and there are many extremely sophisticated ones that are really very effective. The numerous excellent film schools in the United States create a solid base of creative minds that have honed their skills systematically, and those who cannot afford film school still have great inexpensive internet based resources available to them. And we haven’t even gone into production and marketing aspects. A discussion about Film Production Project Management Methodologies is not even necessary to make the point.

    In conclusion, Mayapur will have arrived only when white men and women somewhere in Kansas or Oklahoma throw on kurtas and have masala dosa brunches without even thinking about it. Until then, Mayapur will continue to be called Bollywood – a bad copy of Hollywood, albeit with the occasional twist. It has a long way to go before it can even begin to see the real Hollywood market on the horizon.

    Comment by SacredCyborg — May 26, 2006 @ 1:42 am

  5. Please don’t worry about the Bollywood label. There is a thing in motion here that can’t (fortunately) be brought about by government or business promotion. Apparently you don’t know what you’ve got here. This cultural stuff is moving out into the world consciousness as art, not business. You chamber-of-commerce types might support it best by viewing it in that light.

    People want music and dance because it feeds their soul. Everybody here in the US who sees Inside Man is electrified by the rap remix of Chaiyya Chaiyya. I played it for my students in an American high school and they went crazy for it. It turned out two Hispanic chemistry students already had it on their ipods, but with the title misspelled so they couldn’t figure out what it was. Best way to market it: see it for what it is. Honor your artists. Invest in them, I guess. They’ve gotta eat. (God, did any dancers fall off that train?!)

    Comment by Mary Porter — June 7, 2006 @ 5:01 am

  6. I think merely looking at “Mayapur” in terms of the technical education one receives here before producing a film or before screen writing it, and not considering the amount of popularity it generates for itself in other parts of the world, with this very habit, would be an unfair outlook towards it!
    Looking at the various instances, one can definitely vouch for “Mayapur’s” potential for improving its already huge market share!

    Comment by SHREYA — July 4, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

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