Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bollywood is not about movies

I will make a case below but let me lay out my conclusion first - Bollywood is not the Hindi film industry. Films are simply ancillary to it. Bollywood is a brand, a brand that helps corporations sell products using a small clique of new aristocrats. It is really about manufacturing artificial demand, by a tie-up of big media, consumer goods producers and film corporations. The movies and their release are at best ancillary to their purpose. The original Hindi movie industry has been taken over and supplanted by these corporations.

A Voyage of Discovery
I remember watching the Hindi movie "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" in Devi theater, Chennai, back in 1999. This was Karan Johar's first directorial venture. The movie release was preceded by the usual promotions. One of these was an article in the magazine India Today. The magazine had a photograph of a college lobby with lockers for students and Sharukh Khan walking bouncing a basketball. The article said Hindi films were going through a resurgence in costumes, artwork and stories (I guess in that order). When I watched the movie I could feel it. The college in that movie seemed "like in America". The students had individual lockers (while my college barely had a bathroom). Kids went to a giant summer camp and the actors went from country to country. You would be forgiven for thinking that colleges in Bombay actually looked like the newer ones in the United States.
Later I learnt that the movie was a big hit in the United States and UK. Nothing critical came to my mind while watching the movie.
A few months later India Today again published a "puff piece" (as journalists call it) on the Hindi film world. It said that the movie industry was attracting the interest of corporations, both in India and abroad. The article mentioned that story discussions were now done using powerpoint presentations! There was talk of bound scripts and market analysis and such. The article thought it was a great thing. What could go wrong with that?
This corporatisation of that industry was more and more associated with professionalism. There was excitement that our movies would now be as "good" as Hollywood movies - after all Hollywood movies were made by corporations and now, so are ours! People talked of "genre" movies and much was made of Ram Gopal Verma's "Factory" production house.
Ten years later, there is not much to show for that corporate revolution. The powerpoint presentations seem to have made the situation worse. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Soon I was in the United States and the flood of promotions even there was astonishing. The movie Devdas was on the (desi) airwaves, television and online all the time. The movie did not do well in India, but it did well abroad. Suddenly we were in Cannes, for no good reason. Our movies were still bad, but Aishwarya Rai was on the red carpet...you know, the carpet reserved for white people! Who designed Aishwarya's wardrobe? and so on.
Initially this was amusing but me and many of my friends were annoyed that Hindi movies were so "westernized". A standard movie started like "A guy and a girl are sitting in the Waterloo station, London, talking..". Most Hindi movies that we came to know about (that is, that were promoted) were very weird, to say the least. Almost all the movies were set abroad. Even if they were set in India, it was an India that most of us had not seen - it had palatial buildings in which NRIs landed in helicopters, for one. You would not see a normal road or tea shop.
Even "Dil Chahtha Hai" which was a great story, showed a "global" Indian - a person who flew to Australia and went to operas.
It would be fine if there were a couple of movies like this, but every movie was this way. It was as if the stars will not act in "local" settings.
It revolted me and many of my friends so much that most of gave up watching Hindi movies.
To make fun of this trend, I wrote a blog post four years back - here. That post is still one of the most popular posts in this blog. But I believe I got it fundamentally wrong.

Post 2006
In the last few years, the Hindi movie industry increased in its weirdness - which they now called escapism. Watching a movie like "Black" or "Saawariya" or "Jaane tu ya Jaane Naa" or "Kabhi Alvidha Naa Kehna" was excruciatingly painful. They all acted like they were born and brought up in the West, while talking perfect Hindi. The colleges, costumes and everything seemed..incongruent. It did not make any sense.

Please note that in the last ten years, Bollywood, in spite of its insistent rebranding and propaganda (that is what it is), is still a loss making industry. They mostly depend now on a nostalgic NRI community. Most Hindi movies flop.
You have to wonder, then, what is going on. I had noticed these trends:
1. That the national film awards committee now gave more awards to Bollywood movies and presented more of those movies in foreign award shows.
2. That the actors and actresses were generally drawn from a small pool of models, celebrities or star children. There were rarely any "normal" actor who was promoted. This is unlike, for example, the Tamil of Malayalam movie industries (although the trend is noticeable now in Tamil).
3. That the movies rarely addressed any "real" issues or social issues. They showed, at best, relationship problems. There were no comments on caste, or women's issues or even traffic.
4. That the stars rarely seem to suffer from a flop - they simply act in another flop movie and then another and so on.

Realization sets in
I decided early last year that I would look for economic reasons for people acting a certain way, instead of blaming individuals or culture. I wrote a long post on this here.
What are the incentives for Bollywood? That was the question I wanted to answer. In my post making fun of Hindi movies, I had assumed that their "imitation" of the West (that makes movies look like fancy dress competitions) was born out of foolishness. I thought they were simply like the idiots who wore flowing gowns to coffee shops.
But what if they were not? What if we are the real idiots?
In other words, what are the incentives that makes Bollywood run the way it does? How can they make so many flop movies and survive on the same cycle of incongruent stories, huge promotions and finally bad letdowns?
The answer came from a close friend. She asked me to look up the term "brand ambassador" and a few actors' names.
For example, if you search for Abhishek Bachchan and brand ambassador, you see that he is promoting Videocon DTH, Motorola, BIG 92.7 FM, Idea! and so on.
Hrithik Roshan, who has been giving out flops for a long time, is the brand ambassador of Acer, Provogue, ITCis John Players, Reliance Mobile and so on.
Well they are established actors, after all.. how about new comer Ranbir Kapoor? He has only acted in three movies of which two were flops, right?
He is the brand ambassador for Pepsi, Nissan and Panasonic India!
Where am I going with this?
The "actors" are not really actors. They are really fronts for an elaborate corporate game.
What has happened is this:
1. Corporations move into making movies
2. They realize, quickly, that instead of going the hard route of actually making good movies, they can make a lot of money for themselves and the stars by USING the movie as a way to sell merchandise, music and consumer products.
3. The actors now can make more money by making advertisements than in movies (By the way, in spite of all the talk about Hollywood, Hollywood stars do not act in many advertisements). Indian movie actors have become, basically, advertising models.
4. The actors tie up with products, the movie corporations tie up with products - and so people make money whether the movie is a flop or not.
5. Then they sell the movie for television viewership and make a lot of money there too.
Shyam Benegal described this in a recent CineBlitz interview - the focus is on becoming a star, because as a star you can make money sheerly out of a "brand" name. All that you need is name recognition. You do NOT need to have acted in any successful movie.
In other words, the movies are actually "events" which help companies launch product prmotions. They do not signify ANYTHING more than that. What we look for, story, screenplay, acting, camera - all of these are really irrelevant for the ECONOMICS of the Bollywood industry.

Hence, I present you the retard looking Ranbir Kapoor, the unibrow Imran Khan and the building of a brand.

In a giant tie up between corporate media,corporate production houses, consumer goods sellers and corporate PR firms handling each and every aspect of an actor as a brand - the Hindi film industry is now taken over by a bunch of carpetbaggers.

You know this - look at the amount of propaganda unleashed on us by the media houses prior to the release of, say, Gajini or recently, Kites. There is such a network of product tie-ups that is difficlut to untangle.
The sole purpose, now, of a Bollywood movie is to launch advertising campaigns. It has NOTHING to do with a movie.

This explains some of trends I commented on earlier.
1. It explains why the star pool is open to a small clique - because the members of the new aristocracy have better connections and better name recognition. If all that you cared about was branding, why would you use a nameless actor from Bikaner?

2. Very importantly, it explains the SUBJECT matter of these movies - if your whole goal is to increase consumption and promote a lifestyle that "looks" rich, then you can see why Bollywood movies focus on relationship issues in New York or action sequences in the Bahamas. Why would they ever show actual issues? Why would they ever show caste or communal issues? Most movies look like an American teenager's (a particularly stupid one at that) fantasy. This is not escapism - they have simply called it escapism to justify their path.

3. Also, it is pointless, given this, to accuse movie makers of copying other movies. If your core problem is that your movie industry is about selling products rather than movies, then who cares if those movies are copied?

The corporations have taken over the mantle of all those who came before them, in an actual movie industry and then replaced them with Public Relations images. And they have sold those images to us.

Who is the loser in this? The Hindi movie audience has been had for suckers.
Ten years after the much-hyped corporate entries, this is the result.

PS: There is a possibility that someone would read this whole piece and decide that the issue is really that I am culturally backward or anti-Western or even anti-Corporations. I will just point out a couple of things for such people:
There are many movie industries around the world that are run by corporations. Although they do have issues sometimes in quality and some bias in favor of corporatism, none seem to have reached the low-point of our industry. The Hindi movie industry was not at a very high standard even during the 90's. There was already nepotism in the industry. But the corporations took all that and made it the current monster (The only consolation seems to be that the movies still suck but at least they show London around). Reflexively cheering corporations was wrong.
The incentives now are set up to ignore good movie making. They think that is INCIDENTAL to the "product" success.
When I say good movies I do not mean "Pather Panchali" type. I know people jump at that. I mean commercial movies like Munnabhai, at least. Do not pass of Krish as some kind of great movie so that we all feel happy that "our" India made a super hero movie. That is all I am saying.
Finally, before you accuse me of being anti-Western, anti-progress (people think both are the same) and all that, hold on. I just don't think there are ANY colleges in India where the kids look, dress or dance like in the movie "Jaane Tu Ya...". I would love such colleges, believe me, I would hang out there all the time. It is just that the movie looks like it is a fancy dress competition where you say, "let all of us pretend that we are all in an all-Indian Ivy League college somewhere in the UK and that we are all born and brought up there and talk in Hindi and our parents are all Indian but let us just say we have English customs...and so on".
That is not escapism, it is pathetic. As I explained, that movie was really about launching another set of product promotions and making Imran Khan a brand so that he can become another brand ambassador.


Hari said...

Hi Ramiah,

Came across your blog, totally randomly and liked it very much, especially your logical order of listing things down..

BTW are you by any chance an MITian ? Saw your description of a college in chromepet.

Am an MITian too. 2007 batch.

I blog at EUPHORIA

Ramiah Ariya said...

Hari, thanks.
Yes, I went to MIT. Long back.

Raghav said...

Now, before you talk more, do confirm to the readers that this is MIT as in MIT, Chrompet and not its more famous namesake ;-)

From an aggrieved soul who passed with arrears :(

Ramiah Ariya said...

Raghav, I would be happy if readers went away with that impression. Why would I fight it?