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Cultural exports

Rediff has a dynamite interview with Sekhar Kapur here (Link via Edward in IEW and Om Malik). I have always been a big fan of Sekhar Kapur's films. But I did not know that he packs so much intellectual firepower .....

I am with him on the size of the prize at stake. But I have serious reservations about the ability of Indian entertainment industry to exploit it. I think Kapur is seriously underestimating the ability of Western advertising-image making-entertainment complex to co-opt and influence local pop culture and sensibilities to meet its programming needs.

The effect of Western visual culture on Asia is subtle and incremental. Occasionally, its impact on an unsuspecting and otherwise unprepared people can be devastating. I read a depressing account of it in The Guardian sometime back. The kingdom of Bhutan was the last Shangri La of South Asia. The king has not allowed television into Bhutan till about a year back. Some people contend that what happened after cable got unfettered access is not a direct effect of TV. It was bound to happen anyway. But an increasing number of people are tying the ensuing wave of crime, drug problems and unexplainable violence to the pent up unmet wants created by cable.

In Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Misra narrated the tragicomic stories of the wants created among the noveau riche of suburban India in the eighties. This was right after Mofussil India got 'Dallas' and 'Santa Burbara'. In the decade preceding that, Pico Iyer went looking for Asian culture and instead found Video Nights In Kathmandu.

Now, I am not claiming that similar cultural export from the east is impossible. Just consider Japan's gross national cool. Its worldwide influence can be seen in everything from animation to religion. But it is rather hard and too often it results in superificial iconization for Western consumption rather than resulting in a dialogue.

My question is more over the ability (or even the creation) of an Indian entertainment complex that can successfully exploit the market for Indian entertainment products in the diaspora and at the same time cater to a larger International market. My doubts are because of two different reasons. One is the increasing creative bankrupcy of mainstream Bollywood filmmakers to develop products that the market wants (which should not be construed to mean Indian creative bankrupcy). "In 2002 Bollywood lost $50m and in the first four months of 2003, another $15m has gone" (link).

Then there is the question of building an infrastructure that can create such products. One of the reasons, Bollywood can continue to churn out such an amazing number of loss making films is because there is so much underworld mafia money going into the film industry. In a story published some months back, Hindu Business Line found that despite RBI's best efforts, less than 5% of financing in the vast majority of mainstream films are coming from institutional, organized financial sources. As it says, structural difficulties of streamlining the filmmakig financing in India is considerable. Unless that is sorted out, Bollywood would continue to be in a mess.

In the mean time, television has been growing at the expense of cinema and music. And where do you think that growth is going?

Enter Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He runs the second largest media company in India now. Most of the popular soaps are on Star. It is now stuck in the middle of all sorts of regulatory wrangles in India (The Economist has good ongoing coverage of the fight over StartTV and the perennially emerging Indian broadcasting regulations. But those stores are all priced. But here is an angry Hindu editorial ).

So, yes, I would like to believe in the vision that Sekhar Kapur showed us. But India is simply not prepared. And I find his optimism slightly scary.

Lastly, I am not even sure about the desirability of such an entertainment complex. The changes that we see in India now are not because of any deliberate attempt by an organized band of cool merchants to influence public taste. It kind of happens. The US is different. I am not sure that popular taste here is really bottom up. It gets influenced in myriad small ways by various arbiters of popular taste. Are we sure that we want that to happen in India?

This is one of those areas where I have not sorted out my thoughts. But the subject is of enormous importance and will determine more than anything else the future shape of South Asia.


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IThanks for your response. Interesting distinction between domestic demand and supply.

I have some further thoughts on the subject that I would try to put together in the next few days.

I read that Shekhar Kapur article a few days ago. One of the lines in the article read - "When the financial strength of a particular consumer group becomes stronger, that particular consumer group starts to extend its own cultural muscle". For me, that sentence represents the crux. It's in fact a well-known marketing principle. In short, I agree with the concept above.

We ought to distinguish a market segment from the vendor(s). The Indian youth of the upcoming years.. are a strong market segment. Granted. The assumption that Shekhar Kapur makes though, is that owing to an overwhelming domestic demand, the domestic supply (say Bollywood) conditions will be world-beating. Again, a generalization regarding which I cannot fully agree. What Kaushik has rightly pointed out is one part of it - about whether Bollywood as an industry will be able to exploit the market opportunity. I have another thought:

Will that market segment (nouveau youth!) demand "something" that is unique in the world? Something that the West does not currently provide? And hence if at all Bollywood provides, it'll have the first-provider advantage (although there's no term like that).

I'm drawing on the lines of the Fax machine.. one of the reasons why the Japanese companies got ahead of Xerox Corporation.. coz the domestic demand in Japan for the "Fax application" far exceeded the domestic demand in the U.S.

At the risk of sounding a j*rk, for me, Bollywood stands for fun-loving and low-IQ loving movie-goers. The questions are:
a) Will there be enough such movie-goers around the world in the years ahead?
b) Will someone reach out to these movie-goers (as a vendor) and tell them .. u aren't alone, welcome home to Bollywood!?!

So, how can India become "better prepared"?

I think you need an Indian entertainment empire (or empires) that can do cross marketing across media (print, TV, film, radio), that has enough eyeballs across demographics and which gets it. Outside of govt, we dont have it. Most of the Indian vendors are too small. They can all be gobbled up. What protects them is current GOI broadcast regulations. That is an artificial barrier to entry that eventually has to come down.

US media's localization efforts have so far meant soft Americanization of their products; not that there is anything wrong with it, but I think there should be equivalents of PBS and NPR and an Indian Sony competing on even footing to allow for diversity. India has strong domestic players in most sectors. Entertainment, because of a variety of reasons did not really get organized in a big way (take cable for example. It is still being run by your local neighbourhood goonda. And at least that, will not change ...)

But if you notice what the last few decade's consolidation of business did in US, it has essentially changed the entertainment sector in US, in a very scary way. Obviously, we have excell labor instead of scarce labor in India. And that makes a difference. But probably not in entertainment.

So far as media is concerned, consolidation is power and if you can not consolidate and have enough eyeballs, you can not scale.

Once you attain scale, you reduce your cost by standardizing; by localizing your core entertainment products across markets. The market will have indigestion if you try it at one go. But things change slowly.

But you are right about the size of the country and the vitality of Indian pop culture. And may be I am being paranoid; But I think the fragmentary nature of Indian media and entertainment sector is a prize waiting to be taken. And that is where the quandary lies. If you create large players out of them, you are eventually dictating choice and taste to the people. If you dont, you either live inside a wall or you are a takeover target.

As I said, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing and I dont understand this very well and I am probably unduly influenced by what dead Mr. Murdoch managed to achieve in USA such a short time :-) ....

So, yes, I would like to believe in the vision that Sekhar Kapur showed us. But India is simply not prepared. And I find his optimism slightly scary.

So, how can India become "better prepared"?

I see a Hindi movie and the occasional TV show during my trips to India (once a quarter) so I'm not too clued in. But my guess is that Indian culture (pop) will survive, and more than hold its own vs the Americans (or any other outsiders). There's enough energy and dynamism. I'm a big music buff, and am really taken with possibilities that desi influences could lead to..

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