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The value of surprise

Friday, May 25, 2018

NYU anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti provided a holistic view of the Mumbai film industry at the Columbia Global Center, says Ronita Torcato

It is a mystery to me why Christian missionaries in India didn't get involved in cinema like their counterparts in China. Here, they became educationists and publishers. In China, American priests pioneered the art of the moving image by making documentaries on farming techniques and boosting crop production. Possibly one aspect of cinematic history that anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti could make a foray into in the context of the two books authored by her namely Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema and Producing Bollywood, and Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry.

In her recent lecture in Mumbai titled The Value of Surprise: Reflections from Researching the Bombay Film Industry, organised collaboratively by Columbia Global Center and City of Knowledge, Prof. Ganti, an associate professor in New York University's Dept of Anthropology and Media and Culture referenced these books.  She laced her talk with the insights gained over 20 years of fieldwork, observation, interviews and discussions with key players in the film industry.

India, as we all know, is the world's number one producer of films. How many do we make each year? At least 2000 at last count.  In India, our India, "anyone with money (and contacts) can make a film regardless of training. Distribution is harder; 60 per cent of the films don't make it to the wide screen."  This statistic was a revelation although I suppose that dismal figure is common knowledge to a Bollywood insider.

Still, it boggles the mind that cinema could ever be regarded as an unproductive enterprise. In China, the government was and continues to be an active player. Time was when the Mao regime solved the problem of a lack of film theatres by building mobile projection units. Today, China can boast of 41,000 screens, exceeding the US. India? Suffice to say that with 6,000 single screens in and around 2,500 multiplex screens, we are severely under-screened.

Interestingly, the Studio era in Bollywood was a very short chapter unlike Hollywood where half a dozen studios dominated the American film industry in the 1930s and ’40s and totally controlled production budgets, the selection of actors, writers and directors, distribution, exhibition, marketing, even owning the cinemas where films were screened.

"Although Hollywood and Bollywood are commercially driven, they do not function the same way. Bollywood is highly decentralised. There is no organised structure or division of labour. There are moments of convergence but no consolidation as in Hollywood. "Bollywood is then, a chaotic place, a fragmented industry with lack of transparency and no documented data. In such a scenario, Hollywood is aware dubbing is key. Not just in Hindi but also in regional languages like Tamil, Telegu and Bhojpuri. Where dubbing is concerned though, the boundaries between Hollywood and Bollywood "get bluŕred".

Of all the dubbed releases in India since 1974, the most notable has  been Jurassic Park. Grossing Rs 188 crore in 2016, the Jungle Book remake earned more than many Hindi films, The Avengers-Infinity War raked in Rs. 220 crores this year. When in the past, unknowns would do, Hollywood realised starpower in dubbing and roped in top stars like Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar. Most recently, Ranveer Singh dubbed for the Hindi version of Deadpool2.

Hollywood has trade unions that look after its own. Closer home, "the film industry has labour problems, sanitation problems, long working hours and yet it is a very successful industry".

Hollywood's market share is 10 per cent, grown by only five per cent in 20 years!

Indian film-makers, observed Prof Ganti, are trying to make more money from more people via such establishments as the multiplex (the cost of popcorn and a fizzy drink, never mind the ticket makes the cinema an expensive proposition).  But distributors would like to under-report success of films for obvious reasons.

And notwithstanding individual producers' assertions of being exceptional, Indian producers were removing music for foreign audiences with "festival cuts" although music (and dance) forms an integral part of desi cinema. It was noted that films by such film-makers as Imtiaz Ali and Vishal Bhardwaj haven't done well at the box office but both are considered A listers.

Prof. Ganti examined the notion of prestige Hindi films as having been dismissed as escapist entertainment for a long time because a developed nation makes meaningful cinema. Her take, "For anthropologists, everything is meaningful." Today, Bollywood is prominent in the global arena. In her Bollywood guidebook, she elaborates on the inside view; black money, stars, agents.

Responding to a question on the social structure of the film industry, she said that in Tamil and Marathi cinema, Dalit filmmakers are breaking the mould and not telling upper caste stories. In Bollywood, endogamy prevails, "they are their own caste and marry among themselves." And yet, Bollywood makes successful hits. A pan India hit is possible. The desire to manage the perception of a film is still there;film-makers try to  create a buzz with trailer releases and so on.

Prof Ganti's book Producing Bollywood explains how the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry  became "Bollywood," a global film phenomenon and symbol of India as a rising economic powerhouse. Ganti asserts that this metamorphosis would not have been possible without the rise of neoliberal economic ideals in India.

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