The phenomenon of Bollywood in Europe

CULTURE POWER: The globalising 1990s saw the emergence of Bollywood. Shahrukh Khan with his honorary doctorate from the University of Bedfordshire.

CULTURE POWER: The globalising 1990s saw the emergence of Bollywood. Shahrukh Khan with his honorary doctorate from the University of Bedfordshire.

Indian art house cinema has attracted critical attention for many years now, and lately, popular Hindi cinema has also been under scrutiny by film studies scholarship. Yet, a three-day international conference just on ‘Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood'? And hosted by the University of Vienna, one of the oldest and biggest classical European universities, established in A.D. 1365?

The welcome message from Austrian President Heinz Fischer at the inauguration in the grand Museum of Ethnology was testimony to the fact that this new avatar called Bollywood has crossed over to non- South Asian audiences. The phenomenon calls for a debate: what is the relationship of Bollywood to Hindi cinema? How big is it really, why in certain countries and not in others? What are the distribution channels and the expressions of fan-dom? The immediate context is the huge, unprecedented fan base for Shah Rukh Khan in the German-speaking countries in the last five years. This has led to a virtual cult, with the fans — ‘Shahrukhis' as they are called – having become an insistent presence in the public sphere.

The conference brought together more than 40 scholars and practitioners from countries of Europe and North America, besides India. They were from media, culture and performance studies; theatre, film and video studies; cultural anthropology, philosophy, literature, and from production, direction, design and choreography. There were exhibitions and video installations on the material culture of fan-dom. Anna Mandel, the German artist, presented her paintings inspired by Veer Zara . Kesariya Balam , the first Austrian ‘Bollywood' film, was screened as also the documentary Mr. Khan Vienna Loves You by Mehru Hasnain. Nasreen Munni Kabir, film studies personality, gave the opening lecture.

From Hindi cinema to Bollywood

This is not the first time that commercial Hindi cinema has reached out to foreign audiences. In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor films were the rage in the (erstwhile) USSR. Mithun Chakraborty and Amitabh Bachchan in Egypt and Rajinikanth in Japan have had spells of heady fame. But these films were considered to be too melodramatic and emotional with ‘over-the-top' singing and dancing for Western sensibilities.

India's transformation in the globalising 1990s — with liberalisation came the advantage in the field of information technology, attractiveness as a market, rapid rise of a consuming class, growth and clout of diasporic Indians — also led to the emergence of ‘Bollywood'. Chroniclers track it precisely to 1995. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (‘Bravehearts shall win the bride') with its tale of love that conquers all, set amidst identity conflicts of Indianness abroad, became a runaway success, in India and in the diaspora. It set off the trend of films with a clear orientation to diasporic viewers, whose values and preferences were shared by the new Indian middle class. There was an emphasis on love, family and Indian culture, and concomitantly, explicit sex, violence, the villain and the macho hero were de-emphasised. Themes of poverty and other contemporary issues were eschewed in favour of fantasy and plush settings. Global Indianness was attempted through song, dance, costume, sets and location, by revving up the conventional formula with technical sophistication and by re-negotiating the terms between tradition and modernity. The biggest blockbusters were those that stuck to this formula. Karan Johar, the most prolific in this genre, usually locates his films in a diaspora setting. Only half his revenue is from India, that too from urban multiplex audiences, while the rest is from the diaspora, according to Komal Nahta, Editor of the trade magazine Film Information .

Bollywood actually connotes this specific genre; at least that is how it began. The term emerged in a playful column in Screen that was titled ‘Bollywood Beats.' It went global through the ethnic programming of Channel 4 in the U.K. Despite its many detractors, it has come to stay — true testimony to the power of popular culture. At the same time, Bollywood is an entire money spinning entertainment industry, including websites, music cassettes, cable, radio. Of these, cinema is only a small part, as pointed out by Ashish Rajadhyaksha. Bollywood style and personalities are also inspiring much of popular culture in India — fashion, design, ‘Page 3' public and private celebrations such as weddings, religious festivals and political rallies.

Beyond diasporic boundaries

Until recently, the avid consumption of Bollywood outside India could be explained in terms of the enormous growth of immigration to the West and the diaspora's increasing connectivity with home.

But how does one explain a 26-year-old Viennese secretary who speaks only German, spending chunks of her salary to travel to the annual Berlinale Film Festival to catch the latest Shah Rukh Khan release? Her home is a shrine decorated with his posters and CDs, and her trunk stores every single product endorsed by him. What does one make of this retired teacher from Kirchentellingsfurt, who as a teenager had turned her nose up at Beatlemania? Now with Shah Rukh, she says “it's like I am entering puberty again!” The fans in Germany and Austria are either pre-teen boys and girls, or then adult women from various age groups and classes; they are intense in their devotion. Ethnologist Bernard Fuchs has tracked the journey of Mini Khan, a doll version of the star that has become a prized trope for the original. A limited number is in circulation since the company closed production. A fan may look after a doll, make special costumes for it, take it along for film premieres, then pass it on to other fans in a different city, who may nurture it for a while. And thus it goes on, a bit like the utsava idol of a temple on tour and giving darshan .

A curious set of circumstances has triggered this phenomenon, starting with the Indian government's policy push to send not just art cinema but box office hits to film festivals. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, REM (for Rapid Eye Movies), a small German film distribution company, struck a deal with Yash Johar for his film Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham , which became the first Indian movie to run on mainstream German TV. The dubbed version that appeared on the popular RTL 2 channel, viewed both in Germany and Austria, had an astounding effect. “I was on my computer, with the TV on and I heard snatches of strange but gripping music. Distracted, I turned to the screen and was totally captivated by the dancing charm of Shah Rukh,” recounts an enthusiast. German-born researcher Anuradha Bhalla recollects the thrill of her entire joint family in Bonn gathering around the TV for the event. The DVD circuit in Asian grocery shops, patronised until then by immigrants, was suddenly buzzing with inquiries from a wider audience. Regular telecasts started. Fan-sites mushroomed on the Internet, complete with personal narratives, poems to the idol, wall papers, and fan fiction. Shah Rukh became a rage. Elke Mader, a social anthropologist at Vienna University and the chief organiser of the conference, estimates the number of dedicated fans on SRK Internet sites to be around 50,000. The viewership of RTL2 is around two million.

The phenomenon of Bollywood in Europe is not easy to interpret. The very excesses of the Hindi film, spurned earlier, are now savoured and celebrated. Filmy fantasy, promoted by REM as exotic India, reaches out to even women who may have never visited India. Two centuries ago, German romanticism had set the stage for an India of the imagination. Many venerable Sanskritists and Indologists made their signal contributions without even visiting India. Surely one has also to look within contemporary German society, its gaps and voids, which Bollywood is rushing in to fill. But all this still does not explain the charismatic meterosexual appeal of Shah Rukh Khan, ultimately based on his emotional connect with the audience. British Film Studies has taken Bollywood seriously with the work of Rajinder Dudrah, Rachel Dwyer, Rosie Thomas and others. In India, academics have been a bit inhibited so far. The conference is a sign that Bollywood Studies is poised for take-off.

( Kamala Ganesh is Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai .)

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 10:28:05 am |