Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The Cool Ambassador
"Have you seen Bluffmaster ?," asked my Indian-American friend's 9-year-old son. "No," I said, as I racked my brains to remember if there was a Dev Anand film by that name. "You must have heard the song Say Na Say Na," he went on. "Say Na to what. Well, no," I said. Then it dawned. This was a new Bollywood film.
I didn't recall hearing of it when I departed Mumbai and India a month and a half ago. On my return now, I learn the film had opened on the box office a few weeks after I left. So, I was not that off. Yet this young boy from a little town in the American Midwest knew all about Bluffmaster.
He has visited India only once when he was three. His parents, both academics and US citizens, have lived in America for close to two decades. That makes him a second generation Indian-American. He loves his Sony Play Station but is not obsessed with it. He plays baseball and basketball at school. And knows the games as well as their leading lights.
Acceptable Amalgam ?
He can reel off names of all the states that make up the United States and their capitals. He demonstrates with finesse, the arms-out, three-finger pose that rapsters use. He usually ranks on the top percentile of his class and is learning to play classic music on his violin. And yes, he adores Bollywood.
The little fellow is not alone. Thousands of children of Indian extract across the world dote on Bollywood films and music. So much so that their own parents are amazed. Not too long ago, they collectively wondered whether their children would ever pick up anything Indian. And they lamented how they would permanently drift away from their roots.
Their children today appear to have an acceptable cultural amalgam of western and Indian. That makes them similar to the post-MTV youngsters in urban India. But the many youngsters I encountered were not just Bollywood buffs. They were raving fan of the popular Indian Idol show and of contest winner Abhijit Sawant. He even has a DVD of Sawant and other Indian Idol finalists.
Bollywood created the original, celluloid connect with India's 20 million diaspora. Now, live television is building links with all of Bollywood's extensions; music, stage shows and of course contests such as Indian Idol. The result is an interesting and promising connect with the Indiabeyond the celluloid, one of middle class existences, dreams and aspirations.
While they are drawn to it for obvious reasons, the young diaspora connects with Bollywood for reasons other than their parents. While the oldies often watch Bollywood films for sentimental reasons, the young diaspora likes it because it's cool. In my friend's house, Himesh Rishamayya's Aashiq Banaya causes the kids to leap up from their couches. Play Kishore Kumar and you are rewarded with a chorus of groans.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) produced by Yash Raj Films in 1995 is regarded as the initiator of Bollywood's modern connect with diaspora. The film had a diaspora theme which perhaps did the trick. It didn't make as much as money as it could though, thanks to piracy, a continuing scourge. A Bluffmaster may not have a diaspora connect at all. But is already drawing attention with the young there. Because of the songs and of course Abhishek Bhachan.
Post Dil Chahta Hai
This suggests Indian entertainment has more options to reach out than ever before. This new market is asking for cool and global products. Its not asking for exclusively tailored (or hopelessly contrived) products for its perceived tastes. That segment may continue to exist. But the young diaspora seem pretty clear about what they want. Some call it the post Dil Chahta Hai (2001) era.
India produces between 800 and 1,000 films annually. Some 3.1 billion tickets were sold in 2004 but revenues were only around $1.16 billion (Rs 5,800 crore). A Hollywoodblockbuster in a good year can return as much, if not more. Expected revenues for Bollywood in 2005 are around Rs 6,500 crore. So, the revenue potential is huge. If the industry can mine it.
The figures are not available here but the international sales component for Sony and Zee, particularly in Bollywood linked programming must be rising. All advertising is local. Salman Khan for instance endorses a popular phone card to call relatives and friends in Asia.
Homogenous Global Culture ?
But a audience connect that goes beyond direct celluloid would surely mean greater opportunity for the content content. Particularly when some of it becomes real time and on-online. The way it has in India. The contests already see aspirants from the UKand the US. In time, the young diaspora will effectively decide and drive ratings from their drawing rooms. Like you can for Britney Spears.
Last month, I met Geoffrey Jones, an energetic Harvard Business School Professor who counts, among his many academic interests, diaspora communities and their contribution to the global economy. He's also studied the India's IT phenomenon by developing case studies on people like Mphasis Corporation chief Jerry Rao. And one of his most recent case studies (authored with two other profesors) is titled Can Bollywood Go Global ?
The study concludes by asking some interesting questions. It says Bollywood's prospects internationally rested on the future of global culture itself. Was the world heading for a homogenic culture in entertainment ? Or was the global culture becoming more diverse ? Some answers are there to see. India's young diaspora has redefined its cultural menu. To some extent they will pass it on to their peer groups.
We Invented Antakshri !
Sipping coffee in a somewhat functional but tastefully done up upper West Side apartment in New York, Alok, a PhD from Stern University who works for a management consultancy is watching Indian Idol. He is not exactly a die-hard fan. Nor is this writer for that matter. Alok's visiting parents had subscribed to Sony and Zee, the two channels most Indian diaspora are hooked to. We watch as a young girl with folded hands profusely thanks the country for voting her to the top. The tears of joy and gratitude seem real.
Alok's wife and he talk about how their Guyanese maid, whose great grandfather left India for good, is a Bollywood addict. As is, I learn, another cousin's son, who is a second generation American studying a PhD in a humanities subject at Columbia University. Alok says India should have pioneered this competition model and held on to it, rather than the other way round. "Its not too late even now," he adds.
(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times (Bombay edition) on January 17)
This writer would be most keen to know your reactions/comments on this issue and the following questions. The answers will help put together a forthcoming piece !
# Do you agree with this writer's suggestions ? Is there a new connect with the young Indian diaspora ? Or, is it old wine in a new bottle ! Is it good, bad. What are the fall-outs ?
# Do overseas parents have less to fear about losing their cultural connect with India ? Or is it the wrong kind of connect ?
# What do trends like this mean for India and Indian culture as a whole ?