Bollywood and Regional Cinema

Came across some interesting questions posed at Blogathon India, inviting bloggers to comment on a variety of topics relevant to Indian society and culture. One of the questions pertained to Bollywood: Does Bollywood overshadow regional cinema in India?

The scope of the question does not include Bollywood versus regional cinema outside of India. Nor does it include the pros and cons of the overshadowing of regional cinema. So I shall stay away from that argument, except a few notes at the very end, as I delve into reasons for why I believe Bollywood does indeed overshadow most of regional cinema (defined as, but certainly not restricted to, the specific film industries belonging to the Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Punjabi-speaking communities) in India. Much like everything else, the notes below are not free from bias (the title of this blog isn't, either).

1. Language
Remember this sign at the MTV studios on Times Square? (saying: We All Speak the Same Language).

That works perfectly for music. A little less for movies in India. Some of this might well have to do with the literacy rate hindering a serious effort in watching movies with subtitles (in any language). Add another layer of complexity with there being over 15 official languages (per this CIA World Factbook piece) in the country, with Hindi being the most widely spoken.

2. Reach (or market penetration)
It comes as no surprise, then, that more people are likely to watch Hindi movies, just given the number of people who speak the language (a little over 30% of the country's total population). They not only shape the infrastructure of the Hindi film industry (a.k.a. Bollywood), but follow the industry's products through its supply chain (see piece on Economics below). And throughout India, they are pervasive enough, in urban and rural areas. (Although a lot of what Bollywood produces today would not fit in well with a rural audience for content).

Aside: Two examples I can recall of portrayals in Bollywood movies of Bollywood movies being shown in rural communities...Swades (2004) and Nanhe Jaisalmer (2007). Any others you can think of?

Not merely fiction by any means. Here is a picture from this National Geographic link, accompanied by the text that follows:

"Under a tattered tent in Sangola, an all-male audience—common in rural areas—watches intently. Big-city viewers are livelier, says film scholar Manjunath Pendakur. "They cheer, boo, get into fights, even get on stage and dance." Part of the appeal: Devoid of overt sex, Bollywood films exude a subtle eroticism, especially in 'wet sari' scenes."

—Text and photograph from "Welcome to Bollywood," February 2005, National Geographic magazine

3. Supply Chain (within and outside India)
Discussed this earlier (in a slightly different context) in a previous post. Fans following movies have more tools than ever before to follow the films at different stages in their life cycles. For example, some of us in Miami, Florida, have been to film sets for a Karan Johar film. The soundtrack is yet to release. We're blogging away our thoughts. All this without seeing one trailer. We'll await the soundtrack. Buy it. Share perspectives, creating more buzz. Watch the film. Share perspectives again, creating even more buzz. Perhaps buy it on DVD (hope it's on HD-DVD, for which we'll pay more). And all this for a film that doesn't star Aamir Khan, or anyone close! ;)

Bollywood fans nutty enough (a good kind of nutty, I might add) to blog away their free time might be in the minority, but the Bollywood infrastructure perhaps encourages this involvement more than any other Indian film industry. Even if it means drinking Coke because someone like Aamir Khan or Aishwarya Rai said so, or buying a Toshiba television because Vidya Balan endorsed it. Add this to the note [above] on the prevalent language, and the case gains strength.

Of all the industries, Bollywood tends to make the most noise (often good!) surrounding its products. It's just good, targeted marketing. [Sadly, there's some bad marketing (read: skin show) too, but the kinds of people that that appeals to can speak for themselves.] Several filmmakers have made, over several years now, concerted efforts to showcase exotic locations outside of India to the Indian public. This trend was set by Bollywood. And when you become a bellwether of sorts, you know you are in the lead. [This, obviously, is directly proportional to the budgets for the films.] Yes, Bollywood is an eight-hundred pound gorilla.

Here is a classic case of supply and demand. Reminds me of my economics professor (an adviser to the United Nations, no less) who had me believing that everything in life can be looked at through the supply-demand prism. Difficult to dismiss...then and now. More Hindi-speaking people means more movie-watchers and higher stakes for the filmmakers.

Some of the biggest budgets are allocated to Bollywood films. The actors are likely among the most well-paid on a consistent basis (except for Rajnikanth, a regional industry superstar who did not do very well in Bollywood). This is backed by some Bollywood actors being among the highest tax-payers in the country.

Attracting and retaining talent
A classic term from the corporate community. But very relevant too. Combine the elements. The language. The reach. The opportunity. The economics, and a supply-chain that has complemented it for decades, to a point where it's a well-oiled machine. The glamor and the spotlight. Chances are that an artist would want to make it big in this industry ahead of the rest.

There are several examples of actors and musicians who started in regional cinema, and then moved over to Bollywood. A. R. Rahman is one good example. And how about people growing up on different continents who want to try to make their mark in Bollywood too? People like Katrina Kaif, Upen Patel. Oh, and how about some Pakistani pop/rock artists, who want to succeed there too (e.g. Atif Aslam)! Bollywood is perhaps more diverse now than it ever was.

I do not know enough of the other industries to claim that the Bollywood ecosystem attracts and retains top talent. My guess would be that there is hardly any shortage of talent in any of the industries. But Bollywood sure does seem to attract and retain the most popular talent. And in a supply-demand kind of world, that probably matters more than anything.

And finally
I truly hope that we watch more regional films. I have been guilty of not watching many at all. But at some point, those industries need to market to us Bollywood fans too, like they did with the film Ganga, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. A classic example of Bollywood stars promoting Bhojpuri films. Or Aamir Khan remaking the Tamil film Ghajini and retaining the title of the original. So I would tend to focus on the interconnectedness and the fostering of a complementary ecosystem, not one that is contentious.

The industries will do what they do best -- provide entertainment. The hope is, of course, that one industry does not overwhelm the others to a point where they struggle to survive. [Here's an earlier post on ethnomusicology and the threat posed by Bollywood.] But that won't happen any time soon, especially if the majority of the Bollywood scripts offer any indication. Besides, there are probably more movies made in South India than in Bombay anyway.

So, back to the question: Does Bollywood overshadow regional cinema in India?

The answer: Overshadow? Likely. Overwhelm (as in threaten existence)? Not even close. Hopefully not ever.

Do you have any experiences to share that confirm or contradict the thoughts expressed above? Have you seen any regional films that you might recommend to the Hindi-movie-watching crowd?

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Anonymous said...

People from sangola is very intersting for watch movie but there is no good Cinema theater in the city.


theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Sandip: It's a pity there aren't any noteworthy theaters there. Hope that changes soon!

I enjoyed your pictures of Sangola, especially the one with the railway station. Thanks for sharing!