I totally agree when people say that India's biggest export to the world is Bollywood. Living abroad I have often been surprised at how many people know of Bollywood movies, especially in the countries of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. I encountered my first shock when I first arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When walking in the park, my father found a movie theatre. On discovering that they were playing a Hindi movie, he excitedly bought us four tickets. My mother and I were amazed at why a bunch of Russians, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, and others, we lived in a cosmopolitan area, would be interested in watching a Hindi movie. On entering the theatre, we found an old Anil Kapoor movie playing from the 1980s, of which I cannot recall the name. The theatre was around half full, with mostly old babushkas, grandmas, in the audience. The print was so bad that there was a blackout every 10 minutes, and the dubbing so weak that there was only one expressionless man's voice doing all the characters voices’, with you being able to hear Hindi and Russian at the same time.
I found that many times, if people knew anything about India at all or had favorable views about the country, it would be because of Bollywood. I'd meet people who started to sing old Hindi movie songs when I'd go to the bazaar, wanting to talk about Raj Kapoor, who to my embarrassment I didn't even know of. In school, an Uzbek guy in my class started talking to me about Bollywood movies, whose names I can't even recall! He ended up being extremely surprised and disappointed that I hadn't even heard of any of these movies. My best friend, a Malaysian, would come up to me and talk about old Bollywood actors, once focusing on Ashok Kumar. I, being extremely confident that I knew more about Bollywood being from India, told her that there was no actor named Ashok Kumar, she must be mistaken, only to find out the next day there was such a person! Being an Indian, even as part of a group of international students, I was usually treated in a special way. Once on a trip to Amir Timur's (or Tamlerlane's) ancient city of Samarkand, a lady discovered that I was Indian and asked me to go on the stage and sing a Hindi song, which I never did!
Moving to Russia, I thought that things would be somewhat different, hearing stories of how Russians hated Asians and were xenophobic. However, to my surprise, I hardly ever encountered racism. When going to the rinoks, open air markets, the infamous Tajiks and Azjerbaijanis, known in Russia for being cheats, would give away free belts, or discounts, just because we were Indian, and they loved Bollywood movies. Once walking on the streets in St. Petersburg, I asked an old man where the tram was. He looked at me from head to toe, then asked "Are you Pakistani?" "No, Indian," I replied. The man then broke into a big smile and started telling me tales of how much he loved Bollywood and Raj Kapoor and used to watch Bollywood movies in his youth. He recounted how during Indira Gandhi's trip to the USSR, there were banners of "USSR, India, bhai bhai". He loved Hindi music and when he visited the US, he went to an area full of Indian immigrants. At an Indian store there he sensed the wonderful smell of curry and stood in the store for twenty or thirty minutes, just listening to Indian music. He then sung "Mera jhoota hai Japani" for me in Russian, which was quite amusing, and went on to talk for half an hour. I just stood there smiling and listening though I was in a great hurry, realizing that old people are often lonely and if you can bring a smile to their face, time is immaterial. Finally, he let me go and walking towards the tram, I was filled with thoughts of how great a cultural export Bollywood is.
Though most people describe Bollywood as extremely cliched, with the stories always being about two people in love and their families not wanting them to marry, Bollywood was really popular in the CIS. Ashok Sharma, Indian Ambassador to Surinam, who has served three times in the CIS region during his diplomatic career says, "The popularity of Bollywood in the CIS dates back to the Soviet days when the films from Hollywood and other Western countries were banned in the Soviet Union. As there was no means of other cheap entertainment, the films from Bollywood provided the Soviets a cheap source of entertainment as they were supposed to be non-controversial and non-political. In addition, the Soviet Union was recovering from the onslaught of the Second World War. The films from India, which were also recovering from the disaster of partition and the struggle for freedom from colonial rule, were found to be a good source of providing hope with entertainment to the struggling masses. The aspirations and needs of the people of both countries matched to a great extent. These films were dubbed in Russian and shown in theatres throughout the Soviet Union. The films from Bollywood also strengthened family values, which was a big factor for their popularity with the government authorities in the Soviet Union."
On being asked if there was any censorship, he goes on to say, "If there was any film dealing with political subjects whose ideology was not liked by the Soviets, such films were either not accepted or were censored to suit the needs of the Soviet system. For example, the Soviets were initially reluctant to show the film “Gandhi” in the Soviet Union because it preached non-violence and was against the kind of revolution being preached by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A great contribution was made by Mr. Raj Kapoor in promoting Indian films in the Soviet Union. His films like ‘Awaara’, ‘Shri 420’, ‘An Evening in Paris’, ‘Mera Naam Joker,’ etc. were extremely popular in the Soviet Union. At the same time, his film “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” ran into some trouble because of its partially nude scenes and the film had to be censored for the Soviet market. The main reason of Raj Kapoor’s popularity was that the hero in his films always acted as a “have-not” aspiring to make it big in life. In some aspects, Raj Kapoor’s films were in line with the Communist ideology and were acceptable politically."
Regarding the popularity of Bollywood, Ambassador Sharma adds, "Another reason was that the film for the entire Soviet Union territory was sold to the Soviet authorities very cheap, sometimes even at the cost of the print only. The Soviets could make any number of prints from the master print and could run it for as many shows as they wanted without the payment of any royalty. This was a very big factor in the popularity of Indian films in the Soviet Union, which did not want to spend big money on the import of Western films or the production of their own films. Russians and citizens of other CIS Republics also like music, melody and dances and this need was also fulfilled by Indian films. In the early 1980s, Mithun Chakravarty and then Amitabh Bachchan also became very popular. Mithun Chakravarty became extremely popular with his film ‘Disco Dancer’. The disco dancing and disco culture was supposed to be a part of renegade Western culture by the Soviets. The youth in the Soviet Union had no access to the Western films, but liked Western music. Disco Dancer gave them the opportunity to have a taste of Western culture. Mithun Chakravarty acting as a Messiah of the downtrodden was also liked by the Soviets and the public in the CIS. Films like ‘Sholay’ also became popular because it had almost everything, which the entertainment hungry Soviet people wanted. Most of the films produced in the Soviet Union those days were full of ideology or were about the revolution and the war. Such films were monotonous and the public required entertainment. This need was fulfilled by the import of extremely cheap Indian films as no royalty was to be paid to the Indian producers."
Nevertheless, I have noticed that Bollywood is not as popular in the CIS, as it apparently was during the 80's, as the older generation seems to know a lot about Bollywood, while the younger generation is ignorant. According to official reports obtained from the Indian Consulate in St. Petersburg, the reasons for this could be that after the break-up of the Soviet Union there was no central agency to import Indian films. Hence, Indian films were imported by only a few exhibitors and gradually they lost their market. In addition, in the 1990s the foreign territories became the main revenue earner for the Indian film industry and they were not ready to sell to the CIS territory for a pittance as before. Also there was no longer a ban on Hollywood films, most of the theatres running them throughout CIS. There was no effort on the part of the Indian film industry or individual producers to promote the export of Indian films to the CIS and an important market was lost. Even now, pirated cassettes VCDs and DVDs of Indian films are available in all major towns in the erstwhile Soviet Union and a large number of people watch these films on TV. However, new Indian films rarely come to theaters as there are no distributors or exhibitors of Indian films in the CIS. In most of the CIS countries, Copyright Acts have no sanctity and the foreign films are shown without the permission of the producers or the satellite rights holders. In most of these countries, the channels run the videos or DVDs of these films illegally. Most of the Indian films were shown on the television channels in CIS countries till recently in violation of copyright laws. However, some Indian film producers have taken steps to stop this practice and the number of such pirated telecast has gone down. This has further erased the popularity of Indian films from the minds of the CIS viewers.
The Indian Government has done almost nothing to promote Bollywood anywhere in the world. Bollywood has long been treated as a milching cow to extract as much taxes as possible by various Tax Departments. There is no Export Promotion Council for Indian films and there are no incentives given by the Government for the export of Indian films. As a result, most of the export of Indian films is done unofficially and the country loses a lot of revenue and foreign exchange.
Being questioned if the Indian missions abroad do anything to promote Bollywood, Ambassador Sharma states, "In the CIS, Indian Embassies organize a film festival of Indian films every year, but their appeal is very limited and only a few screenings are done. Apart from this, there has been no promotional activity in the CIS or any other countries."
I wonder how the promotion of Bollywood can be improved, and he says, "Bollywood films can increase their market abroad by improving the quality of dubbing in foreign languages. They should also be made shorter as the audiences abroad do not want 3-hour long films. The piracy is a big problem and has to be tackled jointly by the film industry and the Government of India. As soon as the films are released in India, they are shown every where on TV channels and cable networks without any benefit to the film producer. The VCDs and DVDs of Indian films are also available within a few days of the release of the film every where in the world. This theft of intellectual property has to be controlled if Indian films are to become commercially viable and technically superior. Most Indian films are not able to recover their cost and, hence, big projects cannot be taken up. The Indian film industry also has to carry out a reform process in which the emphasis should be on corporate like production companies and not individual producers and directors. This will give them better financing options and financial muscle to compete globally." This leaves me contemplating. If the Bollywood industry and the government join hands and create a proper export council, they can both benefit, with the Bollywood industry earning greater profit and the government making revenue and foreign exchange, as well as strengthening diplomatic ties with a cultural export. Many reports I have read by Indian diplomats posted abroad, go on to say that Bollywood is really the greater promoter of Indian culture abroad, yet the ICCR keeps promoting Indian culture in terms of Bharatnatyam, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Satyajit Ray, intead of Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan. Going to music classes in an Indian Cultural Center abroad, I have often heard students complain, “Why can’t we sing film songs instead of the ragas?” Let’s face it-if these things aren’t popular in our own country, then how can we expect foreigners to appreciate them? And if there are people who already appreciate Bollywood, then why not use it as a tool of cultural diplomacy?
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Tanya is presently a student of journalism. She is interested in music, travelling, and generally having a good time.
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