Title: Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power
Author: Roopa Swaminathan
Publisher: Penguin Random House India Pvt Ltd
Price: Rs 399
Anything related to Bollywood instinctively interests Indians and fuels their curiosity. But the same cannot be said about non-Indians or foreigners, no matter how much author Roopa Swaminathan tries to make us believe otherwise. The whole thrust of the book ‘ Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power’ is directed towards convincing us how Bollywood is influencing global audience and how India is leveraging its soft power in the global pecking order riding high on the worldwide success of Hindi films.
Roopa is not outright wrong when she points towards the growing spread and penetration of Hindi films across the globe, and even enumerates facts and figures to bolster her claim, but to say that Bollywood is an influence per say or has any major impact on shaping cultures or views internationally, is still a doubtful proposition. Roopa is over ambitious and tries to believe that we have arrived on the global scene as a big force to reckon with but it is yet too early to say so. By numbers India may be among the major film-producing countries, but by revenue share it is still way behind Hollywood, as per the data given by Roopa herself. Moreover, India is not just about Bollywood; her regional films have been a cultural influence in the global arena even before Bollywood was out there. That apart, it must be admitted that Bollywood films, even if they are doing well offshore, are largely catering to an Indian audience dominated by Punjabi and Gujarati cultural diapora and still don’t make any major cut in an appreciative and understanding foreign audience, who still consider most Indian commercial flicks as song and dance jamborees. Meaningful films are few and far between and Indian cinema, in general, is nowhere near French or Italian cinema, both in content and in treatment, if we leave aside some creations by master craftsmen like Satyajit Ray or Adoor Gopalakrishnan. But then they are not Roopa Swaminathan’s topic of deliberation. She harps on Bollywood’s power, forgetting that the main purpose of Bollywood world today is making huge money by presenting on screen a culture that is a mishmash of everything— which has an Indian flavour and tint but no soul. These films are mostly made to be sold abroad and satiate NRI tastes, who gobble up anything Indian. Creativity of any high standard is often not visible, even if we have some of the finest actors and directors around. In such a superficial ecosystem where filmmaking is a business and not an art, it is hard to believe that such films can have any influence worth their name to sway global audience in favour of Indian films or culture.
Yes, exceptions are there and those exceptions have been played up as best as possible to drive home the point that Bollywood indeed is India’s rising soft power but again despite all the efforts by the author, it is clear that Bollywood films have made only sporadic inroads in diverse countries from time to time, waxing and waning in popularity and reach depending more on political, economic and socio-cultural conditions during which the films have circulated, rather than any intrinsic value they hold. And this is not a new phenomenon; as Roopa’s own statistics show, Bollywood films were reaching Africa and Russia even in the ‘50s and foreign actors, mostly second rung, have off and on always been part of Hindi or Indian cinema. Only the glitter and visibility has increased and so has the play of money. Quality wise if the films have worsened or improved is a matter of debate, but as a ‘soft power’ which could tilt diplomatic decisions, we are still ridiculously away. Our human development index is among the worst in the world!
However, despite the uncertain premise over which the book hovers, the writing is engaging. Roopa has done a good job in allowing a generous interception of unheard anecdotes, snippets and Bollywood stories which can be engrossing for any reader who is little aware of Bollywood. Also, there are various figures and statistics that further makes for an engrossing reading. Hindi cinema world, with all its aura and glory, by default draws us towards it. Roopa had her job done easy by virtue of the topic she chose to expatiate, even if the effort at the convincing job is visible and rather raucous. Stacking up more and more facts and figures to prove a point doesn’t necessarily lead to any progression of logic. It doesn’t make the truth any truer if it is there. If it is not there, no amount of fact would suffice to make a falsity a truth. Those deeply interested in Bollywood can certainly go for this book, but only for the interesting filmy stories it has, not to believe that Hindi films are taking the world by storm!