The objective of this essay is to look into the theoretical underpinnings of the divergent discourses that underlie the two biggest and most famous film industries of our time. The only common features in these two industries are that they are both very large and growing rapidly, and increasing in the sophistication of the movies they produce. Otherwise, they are as different as chalk and cheese. While Hollywood has been accused of promoting an agenda of cultural imperialism, Bollywood has an entirely different, more politicized texture.
In this essay, we shall be analysing the reasons for these different discourses, with general reference to other scholars. Bollywood vs. Hollywood theorisation around cinema and globalization structured in opposition between western commercial and culturally imperialist cinema, and third world non-commercial, indigenous, politicized cinema. From its inception as a source of entertainment, cinema has played a huge role in not just adding joy and value to people’s lives, but also in terms of spreading certain messages and values to the public.
A classic and infamous use of cinema to spread what we would now call diabolical propaganda was in Nazi Germany during World War II and later in the communist countries. In the hermit kingdom of North Korea, to this day, cinema is only used as a means of spreading propaganda. The purpose of this essay is to explore the differences between the cinema that is created by Hollywood, the giant American film industry and Bollywood, the even larger but more disorganised Indian film industry.
Specifically, we shall be looking at how theorisation about globalisation and cinema are structured in opposition in these two industries. According to many critics, Hollywood dishes up classic ‘culturally imperialist’ cinema, seeking to portray the cultural might and superiority of western culture and commerce and also spread it in other countries. To some extent, this criticism is not unfounded. The influence of Hollywood was vital in spreading certain values, which are purely western, including the kind of things people say and eat.
The allegation of ‘Coca-Colanisation’ while high on rhetoric, is not entirely devoid of merit. On the other hand, the Bollywood industry, the large and burgeoning Indian industry, does not seem to have any kind of imperialist motive. Its films seem to be inward looking, examining Indians, Indian problems and promoting Indian values, whether good or bad. However, Indian cinema, unlike Hollywood cinema, very often has a clear political agenda. Films made there, especially in the south, very clearly try to appeal not just to the wallets, but also to the votes of the viewers.
A classic example of this is South India, particularly Tamil Nadu. The film industry there has played a vital role in the politics of that state. The current leader of opposition was a famous film actress, the Chief Minister was a scriptwriter, and the previous chief ministers were either actors or in some way connected to the film industry. Much the same is the story in the state of Andhra Pradesh, another south Indian state. In understanding these two divergent discources, it is vital to look at the motivations behind them. To be sure, the motivations are very different.
A scathing indictment of the western culturally imperialist cinema is contained in Stiglitz’s book, Globalisation and its Discontents. Stiglitz directs his fire towards the two agencies most often referred to in the context of globalisation, the IMF and the World Bank. He argues that the two agencies have together contributed towards robbing developing third world nations not directly, but through insidious and badly conceived policies. What role does cinema have to play in this? I believe that cinema has a significant role to play in this.
First, nothing influences the common man more. This is true in the developed world, but much more so in the developing world. The impact of cinema is very powerful, not only because it employs so much colour and music and is therefore captivating, but also because movies grab eyeballs for much longer than, say, television or radio programmes. And with the proliferation of both small screens and multiplexes in both the smallest of towns and the largest of cities, it has become commonplace to find that the time that a person spends on visual media in the developing world is increasing.
Finally, the spread of English as a language as a global language and its value as a language of empowerment in the developing world has meant that films made in English are becoming more common and more powerful influencers. A superb study of the homogenising of the world order and the uniting of people through commerce is found in Freidman’s book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty First Century. It would be wrong to suggest that like communist movies or Nazi movies, films made in Hollywood are explicitly designed to propagate an ideology.
But subtlety often is more dangerous. When the western world is often portrayed as an affluent paradise, people in the developing world start looking outward in search of all things good, when in reality there is enough in their own countries to satiate every need. A classic case in point is India, which till 1000 A. D. was the largest economy in the world. Although rising rapidly again, people in India, or atleast many of them, are convinced that everything made abroad, anything ‘foreign’ in origin is good, and anything made in India is ‘local’ and therefore bad.
In the same vein, Indian culture and dance, food and drink and products, handicraft and machinery, are devalued and not favoured by many people. In his counter argument to this, Jagdish Bhagwati, in his book In Defence of Globalisation argues that in fact, the large multinational companies which are the beneficiaries of this cultural imperialism are actually not trying to impose themselves and their values on the local populace, but in fact adapting to the needs and sensitivities of the local people.
This weakens the claim that there is an attempt at cultural imperialism, because a motive cannot be ascribed to an actor if the beneficiary, the entity for whom the act is being carried out, has a completely opposite motive. What could be the reason why Western cinema’s dialogue is so hugely focussed on the wallet and cultural practice, while that of Bollywood is more dispersed, and politicised? I think this has a lot to do with the nature of the cultures and the nature of the nations which are the hosts of the respective film industries.
Hollywood is situated in America, for long the most powerful nation and the largest economy in the world. As the largest economy, it needed the integration of the markets and resources of other nations in order for its industries to expand and grow. Therefore, subconsciously, the film industry also changed to meet the needs of the country. The point I am trying to make is that the film industry tends to reflect, deliberately or otherwise, the need of the country. That need may not be a good one or worthy of encouragement.
For instance, during the cold war, in many cases, Russia was made the villain, and Russians were often portrayed as cold, heartless and evil even. The same is the case in Bollywood, where for a long time, during the years of active conflict with Pakistan, movies showed Pakistan and Pakistani people as being villains, terrorists and scheming to cause harm to India. In both those cases, it is doubtful whether that was desirable. Was it desirable to portray Russia or Pakistan in a poor light? What purpose did it serve?
Are all Russians or Pakistanis bad and scheming people? Certainly not. Then whose interest, whose viewpoint was being championed? It may seem at first blush that the viewpoint that was being championed was that of the Government. The Governments in these countries, while allowing people to be free, often influence the minds of people in subtle ways. For example, during the India Pakistan conflict years, often times, the press releases of the Government would exacerbate the degree of hostility between the two nations.
Whenever a terrorist attack took place on Indian soil, the newspapers would have information released by the police and investigative agencies, which would read ‘Pakistani hand suspected’. Much the same was the case with America and the Cold War with Russia. The net result of this is that the people start believing that there is a certain enemy which they must fight against, or atleast show feelings of hostility towards, in order to be patriotic and loyal to their countries. This is quite similar to the argument which Edward Said makes, where he points out that the way in which an identity is forged is by a process of ‘othering’.
What is ‘othering’? Othering is the process by which a group of people, in order to create an identity for themselves, choose another group of people as the other, the enemy, the opposition, and the identity of the first group is crafted in opposition to the identity of the enemy. This has happened throughout time, across religions and communities and tribes. The nation state is a relatively modern creation, and has usurped this process of othering to create the national identity. This was used to great effect by the Nazis in the systematic persecution of the Jews.
If one were to go to Berlin or Potsdam particularly, which was the seat of the Wannsee Conference was conducted and the final solution to the Jewish problem planned, there are horrific and detailed diagrams showing how the Jews looked and how they were differently formed from the Aryan Germans. I say all this because it directly illustrates my point, that people, because of the messages relayed to them by the Government, form an identity in opposition to the identity of other groups.
Their identity being formed in opposition to the other groups, the movie industry also orients itself to tell people what they like to hear, namely that the other group, the opposite group is bad and the enemy, or in the case of Hollywood, culturally and economically inferior. Ironically, a classic example of this cultural stereotyping and in some sense, imperialism, is Asia, and in particular, India. The only image which a westerner sees of India is that of squalid shanty towns, diseased people and all manner of creatures jostling for space on busy public roads.
In reality, this is far from the truth, as a trip to modern India will show. Undoubtedly, it is much more chaotic and noisy than places abroad, but it is far superior to anything that the western media, and in particular Hollywood would have you believe. I must make reference to the movie, the Bourne Supremacy, because it perfectly illustrates the point I am trying to make here. In this, the second movie of the series, Jason Bourne, the hero and protagonist, runs away to India to escape an assassin who is on his trail. In India, he lands up in Goa, a famed beach destination and extremely beautiful too.
I visited Goa a few years before I saw the movie, and I was quite surprised and not very pleased when I saw the portrayal of Goa in the movie. It is shown, like the rest of India, to be crowded, with people honking incessantly, with rustic accommodation, and the air of a place which is decidedly backward compared to the West. While Goa may not have the glass and steel buildings of a nation like Germany or the lights of Las Vegas, it is actually a modern, clean and very interesting city with a lot more dimensions than that movie showed us.
Therefore, the reason that the cinema is culturally imperialist in the West, strangely, is because the people want it to be that way. The people in the west cannot yet come to terms with the fact that large parts of India have progressed far beyond what they have been told and that the symbol of India is no longer a few cows walking on the street. Cinema represents to people what they are comfortable viewing and what they want to see, so it makes much more sense for a filmmaker to show India as a squalid crowded slum filled nation because that is what the audience believes.
Showing a modern part of Delhi or Bangalore which could be from any city in America would leave them puzzled and shake their notions about what things are like, which people find an uncomfortable experience. That explains to an extent why Western cinema is the way it is, but does it explain why Indian cinema is the way it is? Does it provide a satisfactory explanation for why Indian cinema is so highly politicised and filled with drama? Yes it does. Song and dance is quite a big part of Indian culture and there has been a tradition of having larger than life characters in movies in India.
And a larger than life character who does good for the people is precisely the sort of man you would want to elect, wouldn’t you? When Barack Obama was on his election blitzkrieg, the one thing that stood out about him for me was that he seemed too good to be true, in some ways. Here was a man who promised to change the very nature of politics, from a contest to a healthy partnership. He certainly, during that exciting election, seemed larger than life. And that did him wonders.
Therefore, because the Indian public desires a larger than life individual in their movies and because a larger than life angel is the sort of person people would vote into power, Indian cinema has been usurped by the political class, and is now actually viewed as a ticket to political power. This is more true in South India than in other parts of India, that is true, but it can be said that this is at some level a nation wide phenomenon. It must not believed then that the choice of discourses in cinema is undemocratic, and that the cultural imperialism of the West is part of a diabolical plot to subjugate the developing world.
In fact, it is an extremely democratic process, with the reason for the discourse stemming from the people themselves. We can round off the essay by looking at four examples of movies from the two countries and studying the discourses which these movies generated. The two movies from Hollywood which I will be using are Air Force One and Armageddon, while the two from Bollywood are Ghadar- Ek Prem Katha and Air Force One, I have chosen for a predictable reason. The movie, if you have not already seen it, is about the hijacking of the plane of the President of the United States and its eventual destruction by a group of Russians.
This movie was made well after the Cold War, but it serves to illustrate the point I have been trying to make, which is that movies show us what we want to see. There was no obvious need to vilify the Russians, but the industry dishes out popular fare, much like a restaurant. Armageddon helps to emphasise the point. In the movie, the Russians and the Americans team up in a mission to save the world. (Naturally, the burden is on the Americans to save the world, it does it with the Russians).
There is a scene from the movie where the Russian spacecraft is shown, and as opposed to the American vessel, which is shiny, modern and advanced, the Russian one is creaky and old, and breaking down, and many of the things that go wrong later can be traced to the faulty and worn out equipment used by the Russians. What is the message? First, that the Americans are the leaders of the world, and deservedly so, because they saved it from destruction. Secondly, the message is that they are superior to the only other country which was even capable of helping them, and therefore, by extension, they are superior to all other nations too.
As opposed to that, is the southern Indian movie called Baba, in which the biggest star in the South, Rajinikanth, places a man who fights against injustice and oppression of the Government and provides succour to the people from governmental apathy and tyranny. Baba, the hero of the movie is not too different from Robin Hood, and there is a deification of the simple (and poor) man who is being victimised by the Government. The other movie is Ghadar-Ek Prem Katha, a movie about a Indian man who falls in love with a Pakistani girl who is lured away to Pakistan by her evil father.
This heroic man then journeys to Pakistan, where he braves an assault from hundreds of Pakistani men and succeeds in single-handedly bringing back the love of his life to India. What is the message in this movie? The message in the first is that the poor and the victimised shall always triumph, and that this man (who yet shows no desire of becoming Chief Minister) will help you win. The second shows the strength of true Indian love, and of the power of the man to overcome all odds. Notice how these movies are inward looking. They do not project the nation in any way, but project the people in a certain way.
I think that this sums up the dichotomy, Western cinema has moved beyond just people and has started to talk the language of the State, Indian cinema even today talks mainly to the people.