The Hard Truth About Soft Power: Bollywood Is Yet To Believe In Its Own

Gautam Chintamani

Jun 23, 2017, 09:36 PM | Updated 09:36 PM IST

From Roopa Swaminathan’s book 
From Roopa Swaminathan’s book 
  • Despite its potential, Bollywood as a soft power has never really come into play. In fact, it appears that most of its success as a ‘soft power’ has been accidental.
  • This has to change, because it would be a criminal blunder if the soft power acquired through Hindi cinema’s reach and appeal is left untapped.
  • A few weeks ago at a dinner party, a person mentioned how almost everyone present was picking up an English or non-Indian song to be played. He sighed that if you had access to or understood an alien culture, you couldn’t criticise it beyond a point and added that this is why it was important that Bollywood movies continued to be shown in Pakistan. Described as one of the most powerful and hitherto under-utilised soft power tools in India’s arsenal, ‘Bollywood’, or popular Hindi cinema, is now being looked at in the same light as Hollywood, which has for long been considered one of the United States’ most poignant tools to push its agenda globally.

    In a recent book, Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power, author Roopa Swaminathan talks about how the “world is feeling the impact of Bollywood like never before.” She adds that Bollywood’s spectacular success can be gauged from the time where a film like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai made it to the UK Top Ten upon its release to now, when someone like an Irrfan Khan is a recognisable face across the world.

    There might be a conscious acknowledgment of the power that Bollywood wields across the globe in terms of identification, but how much of a soft power is it truly?

    The book cover of ‘Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power’ by Roopa Swaminathan
    The book cover of ‘Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power’ by Roopa Swaminathan

    Coined by Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, ‘soft power’ was defined as the “the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.” Back when it first originated, soft power was defined as being non-coercive, and Nye argued that a country’s soft power could come from three resources – its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). What makes Hindi cinema, especially Bollywood, worth exploring as a soft power tool is the attraction that it has historically enjoyed across a vast cross section of people and cultures. In her book, Swaminathan talks about Bollywood’s impact on the Indian diaspora and cites the example of a woman from an economically lower stratum of the British-Indian community in Leicester inspired to change her life after watching Provoked, a film based on the life story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who, after almost a decade of being sexually abused by her husband in England, set him on fire.

    Between the 1960s and 1980s, masala Hindi films of the time were a rage with African men and, like Raj Kapoor with the Russians before them, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty had an immense fan following in non-Indian markets in Africa and Europe. Some factual inaccuracies, such as getting the year of Awara’s release wrong (Awara was released in India in 1951, not 1950), notwithstanding, Swaminathan’s book does make a valid point that perhaps Raj Kapoor and his sar pe laal topi rusi (the red hat on my head is Russian) persona “brought innocence and optimism to a country that was yearning for both.” This could explain the showman’s popularity in the former USSR or communist Europe where, like Swaminathan mentions, Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship transformed local cinema into more of propaganda than art or even plain entertainment.

    In the past, the US has used Hollywood to not only fund wars, increase recruitment in the armed forces (Top Gun reportedly increased service sign-ups within days of its release) and even convinced the entire world that it was only America that could safeguard freedom, liberty and equality for all.

    To a degree, Raj Kapoor’s happy-go-lucky Chaplinesque tramp and Hindi cinema’s ‘everything would be peachy by the end’ template did the same for the Russian masses, then later became a breath of fresh air for war-torn Afghanistan in the 1980s and later Pakistan, where Hindi cinema, to put it mildly, is nothing less than a craze.

    Pakistan first officially banned the screening of Hindi films after the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and while there is no complete ban as of now, certain Hindi films such as Raees, Naam Shabana and Dangal are banned every now and then. Experts in Pakistan seem to believe that the lack of competition to Hindi films somewhere killed cinema in Pakistan both artistically and commercially. But the increased popularity of Bollywood films among Pakistani audiences generated a wave of investment in multiplex cinemas that grew from none to 100 in number in 2015-16, when Pakistani cinemas screened a record high of more than 200 Indian movies. The sheer lure of Bollywood in Pakistan where, according to Aijaz Gul, a leading Pakistani film critic, “there is not a single town, a single village, a single ‘mohalla’ (neighbourhood) where Indian films and television programmes are not being seen.” The DVDs of new Hindi films hitting the streets even before they are officially released in India is a tool that perhaps Pakistan fears, at least on the face of it.

    The lack of a powerful local industry and the rising global acceptance of Bollywood, where a Priyanka Chopra can spearhead an American television series or an Amitabh Bachchan is enticed to play a Jewish gangster by director Baz Luhrmann in his $130 million The Great Gatsby, more than prove that there is no real comparison between the status of Pakistani and Indian cinema. The local Pakistani youth might find Bollywood liberating and, in a way, a ticket to global recognition. Take the case of Fawad Khan; he is not the same ‘star’ if you take Bollywood out from his filmography. Perhaps this is the reason why a Hafiz Saeed demanded banning Kabir Khan’s Phantom (2015) as it showed Pakistan in a ‘bad light.’ The film’s plot featured a crack team from India that infiltrates into Pakistan to avenge the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The popularity of Bollywood films might just influence impressionable local minds that Pakistan could, in fact, be the breeding ground for global terrorists.

    Intriguingly, and rather ironically enough, for India to understand the degree of the resource it possesses in terms of soft power, it needs to look across the border towards Pakistan where their version seems to be working better. The constant influx of talent from across the border, be it actors or singers, has more than created a mindset in the industry, a huge chunk of the general population and even sections of the media, that not having people-to-people exchange (read Pakistani actors working in Hindi films and regular Indo-Pak cricket rubbers) is detrimental to the possibility of real peace between the two countries. At the risk of being branded pro-war or anti-peace, this writer believes that more people demanding the likes of Fawad Khan working in Bollywood than someone back in Pakistan questioning why Anupam Kher was denied a visa to attend a literature fest or why films like Phantom or Naam Shabana were banned or why Dangal was being asked to remove the Indian tricolor and the national anthem to pass Pakistani censor with equal gusto is but a testimony to whose soft power packs the harder punch. One can understand that Phantom and Naam Shabana do show Pakistan in a negative light, but the Salman Khan film Tubelight being stalled or stopped from being released as it might become a tsunami devouring the two Pakistani films Yalghar and Shor Sharaba, scheduled to release around the same time, is far from equal music.

    Compellingly enough, another aspect of Pakistan’s soft power can be gauged in the manner that certain aspects are dealt with in Hindi films. Take, for instance, the manner in which Dawood Ibrahim still manages to capture the imagination of mainstream Hindi cinema in more ways than is obvious. The man behind the 1993 serial blasts that shook Bombay, Ibrahim is one of the most-wanted criminals in the world and there were rumors about him funding films in the 1990s. Supposedly based out of Pakistan for years now, does Dawood or his gang still continue to have alleged financial dealings (hawala) with mainstream Hindi cinema? Perhaps, for how else could one explain why certain damning issues pertaining to the criminal mastermind or his said patron, Pakistan, never make it to the narrative in mainstream Hindi cinema? Despite crime being one of the most popular genres in Hindi cinema, most Bollywood films, whether directly or indirectly, continue to show ‘Bhai’, as Ibrahim is referred to, in a stylised manner – D-Day, Company, D, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara! Of course, the narrative in these films may show him meeting a ‘dreadful’ end, but barring Black Friday (which was based on S Hussain Zaidi’s book that chronicled the 1993 Bombay serial blasts), almost no film explores his role in the 1993 blasts. Or are we to believe that India’s most-wanted criminal and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s third most-wanted fugitive in the world is not a worthy subject for popular films to explore and D should just be seen as a film buff who enjoyed meeting actors from Hindi cinema whenever he could?

    So, what has changed in the recent past that is making Bollywood come across as the soft power tool it needs to recognise? Swaminathan writes that the past decade has “changed the landscape of world cinema, especially the role that Bollywood film play in it.” She presents a compelling illustration that, in the 1980s or even the 1990s, trade magazines in the US such as Hollywood Reporter and Variety barely mentioned ‘Bollywood’, but by the beginning of 2003, these films started making steady and increasing inroads into the US ‘top forty’ lists. This somewhere makes Bollywood theoretically a far stronger force than Pakistani films or even a bustling local Chinese industry.

    Today, China might be one of the biggest markets for films worldwide with 31,000 movie theatres, but India, and moreover, Bollywood, not just survived Hollywood but also thrived in the face of competition. In 2015, China’s box office receipts were around $6.78 billion, of which Hollywood accounted for 38 per cent, while during the same year conservative estimates suggest that Hollywood’s 2015 share in the Indian box office receipts was around 25 per cent. But this was ‘Before Baahubali’, where just the sequel, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, made over Rs 1,500 crore in the domestic market, or a Dangal, that display how ‘Bollywood’ or Indian films are not only getting stronger domestically but also breaking new ground globally.

    Despite its potential, Bollywood as a soft power has never really come consciously into play. And, for all intent and purposes, it appears that most of its success as a ‘soft power’ has been accidental. Take, for example, Phantom being banned in Pakistan for it could spread ‘propaganda’ that could mislead the general population, or Aamir Khan’s Dangal setting new box office and critical records of sorts in China. The latter’s themes, which include women empowerment and a statement against female infanticide, have made the local Chinese audiences as well as critics ask why their government is not promoting films on social themes. This development can be the foundation of a fresh new chapter in the book of Bollywood being a soft power. In both the cases, a ‘Bollywood’ film that just a few years ago would have been brushed aside for being unbelievable or escapist or both has displayed the potential to make people question their governments (read Pakistan and China) and that is no mean feat.

    Gautam Chintamani is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ (2014) and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak- The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ (2016)

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.