Are We There Yet …….. Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema or Bollywood’s Cultural Diplomacy

Amit Sarwal

In 2012, two official reports, Australia in the Asian Century and Beyond the Lost Decade, published from Australia, made positive references to Bollywood in terms of enhancing “intraregional tourism” and fostering positive “engagement” between Australians and Indian diaspora.

Today, India is quintessentially everywhere––be it the 25 million strong Indian diaspora,Indian cuisine, Indian crafts, Indian writing in English or Indian cinema. Indian government in the last 8 years, with the help of MEA and ICCR, has focussed more on projection of India’s soft power diplomacy.

One Day Symposium Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema organised at the     University of Western Australia (13ShashiTharoor, a seasoned Indian diplomat and minister in the present government has also used Joseph Nye’s term “soft power” in relation to Bollywood’s global invasion. He stated: “Bollywood is bringing its brand of glitzy entertainment not just to the Indian diaspora in the US, UK or Canada, but around the globe, to the screens of Syrians and Senegalese alike.

” Recently, I came across Prof. Anjali Gera Roy’s edited collection, titled The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad (2012). This is the first systematic study which charts Bollywood’s popularity within and outside India in detail – focusing on its role as part of India’s “soft power” in international relations and highlighting Bollywood as diplomacy by using case studies from various countries.

The term “soft power” is widely used in international relations with reference to winning the hearts and minds of people or the ability to achieve political ends through attraction by using culture, political values and institutions. The only limitation is that no state can fully control the new media sphere.

Using soft power has been a strong suit for USA and Hollywood. But financial prowess of Hollywood often threatens the identity of its new emerging partners like Bollywood. Two detailed cables sent in February 2010 from the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai that were disclosed recently by WikiLeaks are a proof of this fear.

The cables well document Bollywood’s style of working, its underworld connections, its emerging global aspirations and analysed the failure of some joint productions. The diplomat mentions that Bollywood industry sources confidently make films despite sustaining huge losses because of “the attraction and glamour” that it offers.

As the present model is based, almost like gambling, on huge finances, and Indian film production studios view any partnership with Hollywood as a competition.

No doubt, India’s biggest brand ambassador and export to the world is Bombay cinema or Bollywood – exported to more than a hundred countries it is todaya multi-billion dollar fastest growing industry which churns out over 900 films year with an estimated audience of 23 million per day approx.

Apart from the best export it has been working for the past 100 years as an “image maker.” Many people’s knowledge of India, impressions (favourable or bad), views and opinions are based on or because of Bollywood. It is the most significant weapon, a WMD – Weapon of Mass Dissemination – in the cultural armoury of India.

This is because as a genre, it is coloured by India’s cultural and political history, situation and experience as a nation that saw the rise of colonialism, the anti-colonial and nationalist movements, independence, partition, several wars, riots and the Emergency, all of which contributes to its re-creation or representation, almost every day, of modern India through un/ordinary situations.

Bollywood has definitely reached and embraced global audiences if not invaded the globe like Hollywood. It has been continuously refashioning itself according to the times.

But unfortunately, there is no magic bean that will break out of this valley of cinemas and make Bollywood change its clichés sensibilities and style to put it at par or fight with the American giant, or Hong Kong cinema. Bombay cinema with its heavily entertainment-centric nature, as opposed to the greater intellectual pretensions of Indian art-house cinema, is usually rated a much less-meaningful medium in terms of the quality of its content, and thus is generally unable to compete globally with Hollywood at international festivals unless the product has an art-house look or feel to it – an Indian cinematic product for the Western market.

The intellectual snootiness has led, consequently, to an extension, if not total application, of Hollywood’s standards and yardsticks to the Indian scene, with the result that Bombay cinema is seen as beneath consideration. What critics and followers of Bollywood all over the world do not realise is that they are on a lengthy journey and like kids bubbling with enthusiasm they are already fed up with their daily doses of Bollywood, so the inevitable question of doom: “Are we there yet?” But this constant questioning would only make the journey more stressful for both the filmmakers and audiences. The answer to this has already been given by master filmmaker Raj Kapoor in hismovie Shree 420:



sarpelaal topi roosi

phirbhidilhai Hindustani.

And similar sentiments were voiced by pop singing sensation Alisha Chinai’sin her famous song from 1990s album: Made in India, which beautifully presented a kitschy fusion of Bollywood and Hollywood imagery:


Japan se lekar Russia, 
Australia se lekar America. 
Mil jayegaeksathiya, ekdeshiya. 
Made in India, made in India, 
Dilchahiye bas made in India.

The song sent a clear and powerful message: “You can take Indians out of India, but you can’t take Indians away from Bollywood” – India with a golden heart or heart of India. It is a long journey and like all long journeys the middle seems worse and chaotic, for the obvious reason that we start comparing the beginning and end or our beginning with other people’s journeys and experiences. Unless we stop comparing and caring what other people think of our cinematic culture we won’t be able to appreciate the uniqueness of both ours and theirs, and will thus constantly live in fear and awe.

For me, we are not just celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema but it is also a celebration of 100 years of cultural diplomacy that Bombay cinema has created through long collaborations and friendships.Even 60 years after partition, being constantly at war politically and culturally, official censorship and injunctions against screening of Bollywood films and music, it is Bollywood, legally or illegally, that has kept hopes of bringing peace one day between India and Pakistan.Even though, Bollywood actors like Salman Khan and RazaMuradappeals to save the Indian prisoner Late Sarabjeet Singh,fell on deaf ears.This does not mean that Bollywood’s impact should not be underestimated. Its reach is often based on anecdotes rather than hard facts, data or studies.

The power of Bollywood could be simply gauzed by the fact that in 2009, despite the assertion by the Australian authorities that the attacks on Indian students were not racially motivated, film star Amitabh Bachchan decided not to accept an honorary doctorate degree “from a country [Australia] that perpetrates such indignity to my fellow countrymen.”

Others joined the in support, especially the ones who have shot super-hit films in Australia like SiddharthAnand (Salaam Namaste, 2005), Sajid Khan (HeyyBabyy, 2007), and (AneesBazmee (Singh is Kinng, 2008).Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, even met an invited delegation of Indian journalists in Canberra, telling them about the importance of contributions of Indian community to Australia’s culture: “We have a deep affection for your country and both of us enjoy Bollywood and cricket.”

So, ironically the pressure from Bollywood-wallahs, amidst the student crisis fuelled by Indian media, did something good in India-Australia relations. Australia now recognises the importance of the positive experiences of the Indian diaspora for it in terms of building ties with the larger public in India.In October 2011, while working for Australian Director BazLuhrmann’sThe Great Gatsby, Amitabh Bachchan finally accepted the honorary doctorate from Queensland University of Technology.

This was seen by political and cultural gurus as a move to strengthen bonds between Australia and India. Bachchan in his acceptance speech acknowledging Australia’s prominet role in education sector said that he is honoured and humbled by the award: “I do believe large numbers of Indian students seek education in Australia and I hope that continues to grow.”

On 6th May 2013 La Trobe University officially renamed its Agora Cinema as the Yash Chopra Cinema for one year and have launched a series of Indian film screenings on campus. The University will also bestow on Amitabh Bachchan the inaugural La Trobe University Global Citizenship Award and start Sri Amitabh Bachchan Doctoral Scholarship for a deserving Indian student in addition to screening a retrospective of his films too.

Coming back to the omnipresent question: Are we there yet? Most cinema critics, in India and abroad, don’t shy in presenting their hostility towards mindless popularity of Bollywood and its low-brow propagandist nature but they too can’t deny the fact that Bollywood is an intoxicating mix of all the rasas(essence or emotional energies) that Natya Shastra talks about.

It is simple in criticism and at the same time complex in reinterpretation because of the idea of India and our multifaceted identities.But when it comes to analysing and negotiating bilateral cultural contacts through Bollywood films and other cultural tools, right now studies are mostly conducted at centres through programs and well established scholars in South Asian studies, media studies, language and literary studies, or Hindu Studies.

I think today, La Trobe University and Australian National Universityare the only universities in Australia which have continued with a wide range of activities to engage with Indian culture and language. There is a need, to re-conceptualise Bombay cinema in terms of its history, politics, society and economy, as well as in the light of changes in both the technology of film-making, and of the discipline of film studies.

For a much needed systematic and empirical examination of multifarious reach and impact of Bombay cinema can only be achieved by a dedicated film studies institute or say an Institute for Study of Bombay Cinema or Bollywood. Given, our close relationship and Australia’s passion, it is high time that we work towards setting-up an institution for promoting Indo-Australian collaborative projects and keeping in touch with the discourse, filmmakers, critics and viewers of Bombaycinema.

(Dr AmitSarwal is Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia and also the Founding Convenor of Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network. He recently co-convened a symposium titled ‘Salaam Cinema: Past, Present and Future – Celebrating 100 years of Indian Cinema’ at the University of Western Australia, Perth).


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