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Response to Hindi cinema – rhetoric or substance?

There is both recognition and discomfort in many quarters across South Asia over the rising popularity of the India cultural industry. Countries skirting India are responding to the challenge, though it is more rhetorical than substance. It is argued here that for a truly diverse South Asian film culture to evolve, policy needs to go beyond statements, tax breaks, subsidies, and exhibition quotas.

The problem is typified in Maldivian Minister of State for Arts Hussain Shihab’s statement:

“Maladivian filmmakers are influenced by popular cinema, almost addicted to Indian film styles. But I advised them in my capacity that though popular cnema is crucial for a movie industry, it should also strive to create an own identity and I believe they took me seriously,”

How can the Maldivian create his own identity if his films, though cheered by critics and the hoi-polloi, is not received by the audiences, who would prefer masala fare. How did the masala fare come to be the gold-standard for entertainment. Simply because no other alternative was nursed in India and the film industry did what any rational capitalist would do — repeat a formula that works!

In the exploding media-rich markets, Hindi film images are flowing without any alternative that audiences could use as a reference point. And the industry is rather pragmatic and rational towards what it sees as markets. In comparison to the enthusiasm shown by the media industries to capitalise on the anti-Pakistani rhetoric unleashed by the extensive media coverage of the Kargil war, the lowering of tensions by 2004 led to a dramatic turnaround. The Indian film industry today is no longer considered an unorganised sector that is funded, managed, and organised by mercantile capitalists. Well integrated into the rapidly evolving “advanced” economy, and recognised by government and industry bodies the new capital in the Hindi film industry seeks to maximise profits.

In the lowering of the rhetoric against Pakistan, producers see economic opportunities in a large Pakistani market. Komal Nahta, a trade analyst, claimed that the Pakistan exhibition could provide the leading producers excess revenues of Rs 50 million . Not only does this reflect the new liberal economics of the country, but also masks the unintended hegemonic consequences of a lop-sided film policy. Pakistani producers are acutely aware of the threat from Indian cinema but unable to acknowledge their own vulnerability to the soft power of Hindi films they raise alarms of “damage to moral fabric of Pakistani society”.

The problem has been exacerbated by satellite television and home video, which have undermined the local exhibition sector. Though exhibitors stand to gain from screening of Hindi films, analysis of policy statements of the Pakistan Culture Ministry reveals that Hindi cinema is viewed with hostility, requiring intervention by the state by encouraging tie-ups with other film industries – even when the proposed tie-ups are with film industries that have little or no aesthetic similarities. In a national conclave on the future of the film industry in Pakistan last year, the Federal Culture Ministry invited producers and filmmakers to find ways to arrest the decline of the exhibition sector.

Given that distribution and exhibition sector woes could be resolved by allowing access to Hindi films, it appeared odd that their representatives were kept out of the conference. Said minister GG Jamal: “…the government would encourage Pakistani filmmakers to co-produce films with those from other countries such as Iran and China, and the culture ministries of Iran, China and Pakistan would hold talks in this regard soon”. The official support for production partnerships with countries other than India within a week of declaring that no more Indian films would be screened in Pakistan betrays the fears of a cinema that is perceived as hegemonic.

Even in Nepal, the hostility to Hindi films is just about concealed. Again, it is the exhibition sector that benefits the most from the flows of Hindi films into Nepal. As conceded by the Maldivian minister, the Hindi film style and content has been quite popular and is setting the benchmarks for what will be considered viable cinema.

This has implications for film policy across South Asia. On one hand, the Hindi film style has been normalised to such an extent that to sustain local industries would perhaps require them to adhere to the Hindi film form and style. So even if film policy were to support local productions via subsidies, tax breaks, and exhibition quotas, it would merely achieve in creating a local version of what emerges from Mumbai. The question then would be, why not Indian film companies invest in those industries themselves?

Film policy in the region should instead play a role in promoting a film culture — through mass and higher education, support for cinematic diversity in broadcasting policy. It is not the film industry’s agenda to promote a film culture besides the one that it thinks will sell to most people.

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