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Ownership in Indian (Hindi) film industry – a politcally uncorrect statement

The changes in the structures of distribution and exhibition (both economic and technological) of the Hindi film industry promises a gradual fracture of its cinema, with what I predict as two main consequences:

  1. introduction of new aesthetics to cater to variegated reception
  2. changes in ownership

While it may appear to be rather odd to propose these two as connected phenomenon, this thesis comes out of the analysis of developments in the last couple of years and some statements by those currently at the helm of affairs. While it would be fair to label this prediction as premature, it should nevertheless be considered on the strength of its argument rather than projections based on empirical evidence. My argument rests on the need of late capital to extract surplus value in rapidly changing structures of distribution and exhibition. This is leading to changes in financing of films, thereby weakening the position of the earlier class of producers, financiers, distributors, and exhibitors. So yes, it is the political-economy argument.

In my various discussions with a section of key executives from the Hindi film industry the latter have repeatedly asserted the impregnability of Indian cinema to foreign films and ownership. The argument runs like this: the Indian film market requires culturally grounded understanding, which cannot be acquired by foreigners. Thus, Indians will always be at the helm of affairs. So, contrary to the assertions by producers and critics that Indian cinema is the bastion that will never be conquered by Hollywood, I would like to argue in the contrary, not wishing its downfall but interested in generating a debate on the key issues that might face the industry as it undergoes a process of rationalisation for late capital conditions.

Ashok Raj, writing in the journal Futures (‘The curse of globalised culture: the fall of Indian cinema foretold’ Futures, Vol. 36, Numbers 6–7 August/September, 2004) argued that Indian cinema was doomed on account of its contact with global cultures leading to its loss of authenticity. Though his article referred to Hindi cinema, his argument rested on the classification of audiences into urban and rural. Thus, the urban audiences were the “paying and consuming” audiences who were connected to global cultures and the new cinema (Dharma Productions, Yash Raj Films etc) reflected their aspirations of ‘extrinsic modernity’.

It seems that the two visual media–cinema and television–would be increasingly built on a ‘socially exclusive content and accessibility’ in which common people would be largely excluded. Large sections of poor in rural India, in fact, stand to be completely marginalised. The basic enduring capacity of cinema as mass entertainer will be under serious threat due to the rapidly deteriorating relationship with audiences caused by the very nature of the modern film.

In his essay, Ashok Raj scathingly argued against the new cinema, which was to be considered specious. Instead, he recommended a new cinema that was authentic to the aspirations and needs of the masses, which he located in the “classical” cinema upto mid-1966 and the few “angry young man” films of the 70s. Clearly influenced by Gaston Roberge’s writings, he talks about cinema in terms of “good” and “bad”, disapproving films made outside of the classical period for being lacking in intellectual or enlightening qualities. In his tirade against bad urban cinema, Ashok does make a few pertinent points, particularly when he narrates the changes in structures of distribution and exhibition. For example, the disaggregation of audience for visual cultures, particularly led by technologies of satellite television, cable, exhibition. To this I would like to add changes in structures of ownership.

It has been argued for long that the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of the Indian film market has made it impossible for any cinema from outside to exploit the huge market. In the process, one senses complacency (read panel discussion “Films. The new frontier”, FICCI-FRAMES, 2002). Back in 2002 there was a clear divide in terms of conceptualising audiences and finding ways to reach out to them through new aesthetic strategies and/or specialised distribution mediums. However, the central assumption of the debate — then and now — is that it is a long-overdue readjustment (or rationalisation) of the market. While this argument does not foresee a decline in the market for Hindi films (and perhaps rightly so), it nevetheless rests its argument on the premise that the change is merely a recofiguration (or rationalisation) of various aspects of Hindi cinema, bringing forth a new class of film entrepreneurs who understand the changes. While this is more or less how the industry has unfolded, the argument fails to take into account the change in the nature of capital itself. Unlike the earlier rentier/mercantile class of capitalists in Hindi (and indeed Indian cinema), the new capital differentiates itself by its need to extract surplus value.

The demands of the new capital requires reconfiguration of business practices and systems, something that the Indian film industry is not used to. For the late capitalist, investment in this market is risky. As argued by Ronnie Screwvala: “Indian businesses also have a reputation for taking western capital but denying investors a say in how a business is run” (Don’t say Bollywood as mogul goes global, Times London). Screwvala typifies the new managerial-economics in the new dispensation of the Hindi film industry. Not wanting any patronage from the state, they play by the rules of capital, seeking to maximise shareholder value through optimum and maximum extraction of value. Thus we notice that compared to the old guard of film entrepreneur, whose rentier practices were best suited for a protective business environment (leading to a certain aesthetic choices), the new environment is creating rationalised networks of production, distribution, and exhibition where access to capital and managerial skills are of greater importance than ownership.

Roger Parry’s India Media Fund opens up spaces for capital — owned by outsiders — to enter the the Indian media market. The fund plans to “offer international investors controlled access to India’s fast-growing media market”. According to Andrew Carnegie, a former News Corp executive who once ran Star TV in India and sat on UTV’s board:

“If you want to invest in the Indian media sector, you need to ally that capital with on-the-ground media operating know-how. Without that, you would find it difficult.” (Don’t say Bollywood as mogul goes global , Times London)

Yash Chopra, probably the only filmmaker of the old guard who made a remarkable shift to late capital, probably sensed the danger of this when he warned the film industry of being gobbled up. According to this report in the Indian Express:

Chopra said foreign entertainment behemoths like Walt Disney Inc of the US and Australian tycoon Kerry Packer are eyeing the Rs 8,000-crore-plus Indian film industry, which churns out over a 1,000 films a year (Yash Chopra warns Bollywood; go corporate or get gobbled ).

The interests of late capital and the new managerial class required for the transformation of Indian cinema are convergent. In the absence of access to capital to entrepreneurship in India, we will see medium-term entrepreneurs who will set up the networks of production, distribution, and exhibition, which will be scooped by those with bushels of cash. Consider the following headlines:

It is not difficult to imagine why the global biggies will not want a share of the Indian box office, even if it means funding the films. Besides companies such as Yash Raj Films and Adlabs, one has to strain to forsee any Indian-owned film company in 20 years time. With rapid urbanisation, film aesthetic too will undergo a radical change. With technological ability to meet variegated demand, either through low-cost/high-quality productions and targetted distribution, film companies will rationalise their practices. This will truly mean the death of Hindi cinema as we know it.


1 graham roberts { 04.12.07 at 3:06 pm }

As usual a lively, informed and thought provoking piece from (soon to be) Dr. Budha. It would be difficult to argue against the thesis – although clearly the ‘industry’ may take a while to realise the ramifications.
I agree that ‘hindi film as we know it’ may well be a thing of the past (As is any other ‘film as we know it.’ However, the issue of ‘Indian-owned’ film is neither here nor there – as indeed neither are the desires and/or needs of ‘late capital’ and the managerial class … the world is changing (to quote Tolkein) and the ‘global biggies’ are their own grave-diggers (to quote Marx).
Enjoy the graceful slow movement of the dinosaurs – but take head of the small creatures evolving in the undergrowth.

2 Ravi { 04.12.07 at 9:35 pm }

Hi Kishore,
Good thoughts, but I doubt whether substantive changes can result on account of the infusion of new/late capital into the Hindi/indian film industry.The advent of STAR and the associated flow of capital in the television sector has not changed the aesthetic of Indian television. On the other hand, STAR looks gobbled up by the Indian ethos of content creation and management.

3 Foxy times for Bollywood | Edit Room { 09.10.08 at 6:43 pm }

[…] venture into Indian cinema (read here). I had predicted changes in structures of ownership (read here), written about the formal subsumption of capital (read here). Majors such as Sony Pictures had […]

4 Foxy times for Bollywood | Subaltern Media { 09.10.08 at 6:53 pm }

[…] venture into Indian cinema (read here). I had predicted changes in structures of ownership (read here), written about the formal subsumption of capital (read here). Majors such as Sony Pictures had […]

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