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Indian film industry (Bollywood) – Perspectives and outlook
Written by Sameer Kamat
The Indian film industry or Bollywood as the Hindi movie making machinery is popularly know, has been an interesting case study – not just for movie fans but also for the business-world. It has managed to transition across cultures and countries and reach almost every part of the world with very little formal (if any) marketing. Tejaswini Ganti, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University, is an expert on the topic.
In this interview, Tejaswini shares insights about the Hindi film industry in India and why it is unique. She also has a few suggestions on how Bollywood can tackle some of the challenges it faces today. If you are interested in the business, commercial and operational aspects of the Indian film industry, this is a must read.
Hindi Film Industry – Interview with Tejaswini Ganti (New York University)
MBA Crystal Ball: Tell us a little about yourself and your interest in the Indian film industry.
Tejaswini: I’m a cultural anthropologist who has been conducting ethnographic research about the Hindi film industry since 1996. I lived in Bombay for a year in 1996 while conducting research for my PhD dissertation and then I did subsequent fieldwork in 2000, 2005, 2006. I have also observed Hindi film shoots in the U.S over the last decade. In anthropology our main research method is what we call “participant observation,” which means that we derive our information about a particular community, society, or group, from immersing ourselves in that particular social world and observing and interacting with people within it. Thus, for my research I spent a lot of time on film sets, filmmakers’ offices, editing studios, dubbing studios, outdoor shoots, and other sites of production; I also worked as an assistant on two different films. I carried out formal, sit-down, taped interviews with about a 100 people in the industry over the last many years, but the daily conversations and interactions that I had with industry members play a central role in my analysis of the film industry.
I teach at New York University in the Department of Anthropology and its Program in Culture & Media; some of the courses I teach include the Anthropology of Media; the Anthropology of South Asia; and Visual Anthropology [among others].
From the time I was a young child – probably about 3 or 4 – I have been an avid viewer of Hindi films; I’ve grown up with them both in my early years in India and then my subsequent childhood and adolescence in the U.S. Hindi cinema has always been a very important feature of my entertainment/leisure/social life, and I’m fortunate that I was able to turn a personal passion into a professional pursuit. That credit goes to my advisors in graduate school who encouraged me to think about pursuing research about Hindi filmmaking for my dissertation project. In the early 1990s, there was a growing interest within anthropology about media and popular culture, so I was in the right place at the right time.
MBA Crystal Ball: What makes the Indian film industry (Bollywood) unique?
Tejaswini: First of all, even though filmmakers, the government, and the media keep pronouncing it as such there is no such thing as the “Indian film industry” – in terms of nationally integrated structures of financing, production, distribution, and exhibition, even if there is some overlap and circulation of personnel between the six main film industries in India. There are many film industries in India of which the Bombay-based Hindi film industry, now better known as “Bollywood,” is the most well-known globally; however, Hindi films comprise about 20% of the total number of films produced in India, with an equal number [and sometimes more] of films being made in Telugu and Tamil every year. When all of the films made in all of the languages – about 20 or so – are tallied up, that is what makes India the largest feature film producing country in the world; Bollywood doesn’t make 800-1000 films a year, it makes approximately 200 or so a year.
Now to answer the question: I think what is quite remarkable is how despite years of hostile or indifferent government policies, high rates of taxation, complete disinterest by much of the organized sector, scarcity of capital, and a very decentralized structure, the Hindi film industry managed to survive and continue to make films that were successful, touched people’s hearts, and were seen by millions of people all over the world. The example of the Hindi film industry counters all of those theories trotted about by neoliberal economists and Republican politicians in the U.S. about how excessive taxation and regulation kills entrepreneurship – it definitely did not do that for the Hindi film industry! Filmmakers complained and continue to complain about the Indian government’s economic policies that affect them negatively, but it didn’t stop them from making their films.
The second feature that I also find unique is that Hindi films have circulated all across the world since the 1950s – Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Israel, Tanzania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland, Indonesia, Soviet Union, Peru, China, and many more countries without any significant diasporic community – without any marketing effort on the part of their producers. These films circulated far and wide and cultivated loyal audiences and the producers sitting in Bombay had no idea. It’s a hobby of mine to collect stories/anecdotes about where Hindi films have turned up – the most interesting example was when a student in an anthropology class at Barnard College where I was giving a guest lecture mentioned he had seen a Hindi film on video in a Yanomami village in the Amazon! In that sense, these films have managed to reach all sorts of unexpected and unanticipated audiences on their own strength with zero promotion or marketing. I often found myself telling filmmakers in Bombay stories about where all their films had reached and they were quite surprised!
MBA Crystal Ball: From a business perspective, what are the similarities and differences compared to Hollywood?
Tejaswini: They are both similar in that they are both large, commercially oriented, profit-seeking, globally circulating mainstream entertainment industries. However, that’s where their similarity pretty much ends. In contrast to Hollywood, the Hindi film industry is highly decentralized, has been financed primarily by entrepreneurial capital, organized along social and kin networks, and until the early 2000s was governed by oral rather than written contracts. The Hindi film industry’s structures of finance and distribution, sites of power, organization of labor, and overall work culture are quite distinct from Hollywood. It has been and continues to be an industry of free-lancers who come together for a particular film project.
Until the advent of what is referred to as ‘corporatization,’ which really started to take shape in some sort of serious manner about 5 years ago, there was no integration between production, distribution, or exhibition, although that is beginning to change now. Finally, a very important difference between the two industries is that Hollywood has always had the support of the US government, since the early 20th century, to help its goals of expansion, unlike the Hindi industry, which first took shape under a colonial power. The British were trying to figure out how to promote their own films in India and had no interest in fostering Indian filmmaking; after Independence, the Indian government treated films akin to a vice in terms of its censorship and taxation policies.
MBA Crystal Ball: How has the industry evolved over time?
Tejaswini: Wow, that’s a huge question — my entire book is about that actually!
MBA Crystal Ball: Gazing into your crystal ball, what key developments do you see in the next few years?
Tejaswini: Actually when it comes to media generally, and the Hindi film industry specifically, it is very hard to predict trends. The sort of changes that have taken place in the Hindi film industry from industry status, corporatization, and the advent of multiplexes to the celebration of mainstream Hindi cinema in the world’s most prestigious film festivals – none of that could have been predicted by members of the industry. When I first began my research, most filmmakers were absolutely certain that the Central government would never grant industry status to filmmaking, and yet two years later, it did.
However, if I have to predict, I would say that the increasing integration between the production, distribution, and exhibition sectors that I mentioned above will continue. However, even with large companies like Reliance Big Entertainment and UTV, it appears that the independent producer and distributor are still required to carry out the actual work of producing and distributing films. The increasing partnerships between Hollywood and Hindi filmmakers will also continue; although I can’t predict where that will lead.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the top management challenges faced by Bollywood today?
Tejaswini: There are a number that touch on a variety of issues ranging from marketing to data collection. First, I feel that filmmakers, which I’m using broadly to refer to producers, distributors, directors, and others, need to think outside of the box in terms of who they imagine their audiences to be and who they could be; they should not think that South Asians are the only audiences for their films, nor should they be locked into a mindset that views North American white audiences as some sort of holy grail, when the whole world has been watching Hindi film for decades.
Secondly, within India, I believe that filmmakers should not be content with making all of their money from a small segment of the audience, which is what the advent of multiplexes with their exorbitant ticket rates have done to the film business. The industry should be trying to grow its audience, not shrink it.
Thirdly, the industry is witnessing large infusions of capital through the entry of the corporate sector into filmmaking, but much of that capital is chasing the same stars rather than trying to cultivate new talent. Also there is a tendency for the trade to want to bet on star children and not risk taking outsiders for leading roles – I’m talking about the male leads – and I feel the industry should be trying to expand its talent base and not just automatically rely on industry members’ sons, grandsons, nephews, brothers, etc.
Finally, a consequence of the decentralized nature of the industry is that there is a real problem in terms of collecting reliable data about revenues – no one ever really knows how much money a film has made and success and failure are all relative to which position you occupy on the chain.
MBA Crystal Ball: Do you see parallels with other popular, non-Hollywood genres (e.g. dubbed martial arts movies were a rage about a decade back, but not any longer)?
Tejaswini: Not really, because I don’t believe Hindi films are some sort of fad; they may be a fad for some journalists or media outlets, but Hindi films are going to be made and be popular whether a small group in the U.S. [in media outlets or film schools] finds it exotic and curious or not.
MBA Crystal Ball: In terms of market reach, do you see the Indian film industry gaining a wider acceptibility (beyond the Indian diaspora)? Would language, culture and a highly typical desi flavour act as deterrents in the process?
Tejaswini: I already believe that Indian films have a global audience — neither language, culture, or songs have posed a problem in the past, but the challenge for filmmakers has always been to realize those profits. Part of the problem is that the global mechanisms for data collection – publications like Variety with its very EuroAmerican perspective for example — produce a very narrow picture that basically ignores and/or erases the global presence of Hindi cinema.
Also, there was nothing intrinsically universal or less culturally specific about Hollywood’s films. It was not the content, but a series of historical factors that have led to its global dominance from the devastating impact of World War 2 on the European film industries to the U.S.’s neocolonial relationships with Latin America and Japan. The U.S. is actually one of the most protected and closed film markets in the world as the MPAA is a very powerful lobby.
As I had mentioned, the U.S. government from the early part of the 20th century saw the economic and ideological potential of film exports and Hollywood was often referred to as the “little State Department.” In fact, Will Hays, the head of the MPAA in the 1920s asserted, “every foot of American film sells one dollar worth of manufactured products somewhere in the world.” So the issue of expanding market reach has to do with political and economic factors rather than simple content.
MBA Crystal Ball: What skills do we need to develop so that we get there?
Tejaswini: The Indian government needs to have a better long-term vision about how it wants to promote filmmaking in the global market. Filmmakers should dub their films into more languages to reach newer audiences, for while much of the world may be used to watching films that don’t feature their people of their own nationality, they do expect to hear their own languages. There should be better subtitling for markets where subtitling is more preferable and the songs definitely need to be subtitled and subtitled better!
Basically, filmmakers can’t afford to be pennywise and pound-foolish; that is, all of these efforts will require substantial investments, but one can’t expect to reach new markets without expenditure. If Hindi films in the past managed to reach so many audiences without any effort on the part of their makers, imagine what actually trying can do?
MBA Crystal Ball: Tell us a little about your books. What topics have you covered so far
Tejaswini: My first book, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2004, Routledge) which will be coming out in its 2nd edition later this year, explains the cultural, social, and political significance of Hindi cinema, outlines the history and structure of the Bombay film industry, and details the development of popular Hindi filmmaking since the 1930s. I was motivated to write this book because in the course of teaching a class on Indian cinema, I became aware of the need for a monograph that introduced the history, context, and form of Hindi cinema as well as the film industry and its production practices.
My second book, Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry, which has just been published by Duke University Press, explores the transformations in the Hindi film industry from 1995-2010, a period in which economic liberalization dramatically altered the media landscape in India – first with the advent of satellite television and then multiplex theaters. The book details how the Hindi film industry became “Bollywood” – a globally recognized and circulating brand of filmmaking, often posited by the international media as the only serious contender to Hollywood in terms of its global popularity and influence. A key feature of this transformation is that Hindi cinema and the film industry have acquired greater cultural legitimacy from the perspective of the state, the media, and English-educated/speaking elites in India, a result of what I argue is the ongoing “gentrification” of Hindi cinema and the film industry.
Despite odds, the film industry has been constantly growing. The budgets, the scale of operations and the skillsets needed are constantly expanding. And a booming industry needs skilled manpower to sustain that growth. If you have been fascinated by the industry, it can offer many career opportunities for those with solid business skills to take it to the next level.
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