Tejaswini Ganti, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York University and author of Bollywood, A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, was one of the academics presenting a paper at the conference hosted by NYU earlier this year. The subject of the conference was The Social and Material Life of Indian Cinema, and it was chock-a-block with a slew of Hindi movie experts (and counted among audience members one very animated Ms. Arundhati Roy).
Amardeep Singh has a terrific post on Tejaswini’s book here.
The young professor, writer and mother set aside some time for a long, in-depth interview about Hindi cinema recently. The first part of that interview appears here, the rest will follow in subsequent days.
Maria: Let’s start with movie audiences and the assumptions that filmmakers hold about them. Can you speak about the NRI audience versus the broad, broad Indian audience?
Tejaswini: As in, how filmmakers construe that difference?
Tejaswini: When analyzing this industry, the thing that I always keep in mind, and always like to point out to whomever I’m speaking to, is that there’s this broader, complex reality of audiences, people everywhere, what they like, don’t like, how they respond, and that is infinitely complicated and then there’s the discourse and discussion about audiences that the industry indulges in, the media, the press, and even viewers themselves also indulge in, which is usually much more simplistic, much more stereotypical, reduces all the complexity of the way people respond to films.
And then we have these truisms that operate about audiences, and we have them in the U.S. regarding Hollywood but definitely in the context of the Bombay film industry they revel in lots of and lots of truisms about audiences and definitely there is a distinction that Bombay filmmakers make between an NRI audiences and audiences in India, that’s one large distinction. Then of course they also distinguish among audiences within India and that’s a whole other set of issues that I’ve written about a lot.
But definitely one of the first differences that filmmakers always talk about in relation to NRI versus Indian audiences is that not every film will circulate overseas and do well in the NRI market, but the NRI market is overall presented by filmmakers – I’m talking about how Hindi filmmakers talk about the NRI audience – generally conservative when it comes to the stars. There are certain big stars who do well in the NRI market, not every film can get released, not every film will do well. You yourself know this; you’ve been following it. The three Khans do well, there’s a fewer number of people that do really well abroad in the NRI market. That’s one distinction.
There’s a basic assumption that some audiences outside of India are less apt to go for experimentation with stars, non-stars, and then there’s the whole issue of content, themes and the Indian press since the late ’90s has been critical of the NRI audience and disapora audiences because they feel that those of us that live outside of India only like a certain type of film, which are what I call the glossy, happy family wedding films (genres of Hum Apke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). They feel that those are the only type of films that do well here and hence there’s been a kind of criticism or blaming of NRI audiences for a phase in the Bombay film production history where those were the main type of films that everyone was wanting to make. And somehow the Indian press says “Those people out there are nostalgic, they only want to see these type of films”, we’re driving the market, so to speak.
Another dimension about NRI audiences that doesn’t come up as much in the press but definitely in my conversations with filmmakers is that they are really aware that in an overseas market they’re less able to compete with Hollywood films in certain genres, like the real huge action films which have these huge budgets, they feel they can’t compete at that same level because they don’t have the same budgets.
Hence, there’s a tendancy for the NRI market is these films with a lot of songs and dances and cultural spectacles which Hindi filmmakers do so well. That gives them a kind of edge within this market and they feel they can’t do these other types of films that could be equally popular in India don’t have as much popularity outside India among NRIs because of the fact that NRIs could be watching these big budget Hollywood films.
With NRI audiences, there’s this funny dichotomy where they are presented as nostalgic, and interested in seeing things that remind them of India, but they’re also represented, since they’re outside the country they’re seen as educated and more cinematically literate because of those other types of films, so there’s a kind of duality about the NRI audience whereas the Indian audience gets, of course, characterized based on region and class and the whole set of distinctions that the filmmakers generate as well, and that’s a whole other topic.
Maria: Has any filmmaker, or anyone in the business, admitted to you that they’ve consciously made decisions in a movie about what they’re going to do, with a view to attracting an NRI audience?
Tejaswini: No one admits that overtly because at the end of the day, the filmmakers want as many people to see their film as possible, they want the widest audience possible.
It’s funny, I see the kind of analysis the press indulges in, that the filmmakers indulge in, is usually a post-facto analysis. After the film hasn’t done well in certain places, they’ll say “Ah well, it’s really only meant for these other places.” The industry operates mostly with hindsight analysis, so the kind of niches that people talk about usually are generated after something’s done well or not so well in certain markets.
Having said that, there’s definitely been a lot of public debate over the last, since the film Taal came out in ’99, when Taal did better, there were a few films that year that did better overseas than in India, and that actually generated a lot of debate in the industry about “Who are you making films for? Is it enough to make films for the overseas market?” And some people said “Sure, why not?” and other people said “No, we can’t do that, you can’t be sustainable that way.”
I would say that a lot of discussion about this, no one will overtly say “I’m only making films for certain markets” although there are people like Ram Gopal Verma who says “I’m only making this for the urban audiences” or multiplexes…
So there definitely is a change in the discourse about who they’re targeting within India. Frequently I feel that there is a defensive type of response and I did see a little bit of the Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna shooting and talked to Karan Johar and he understands that he is popular overseas and knows his films haven’t done as well in certain parts of India.
So that’s how the market has shaped up, so then that becomes part of how you identify and describe yourself. You don’t necessarily set out saying “I don’t want to make films that people everywhere don’t want to watch.” They take what’s happened and use that to spin the analysis.
So it’s all post-facto analysis, except with the recent case of very small budget films only getting a limited release, but that’s a whole other different set of issues that have come about in the last 3 or 4 years with the rise of the multiplexes.
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Stay tuned for the next installment of the series, and more with Tejaswini Ganti about the Hindi film industry.