Tadjik Baimurat Allaberiyev (37) sings Jimmy Adja

May 3, 2010 at 11:09 pm

The song is from the popular Indian film Disco Dancer (1983), a response of sorts to Saturday Night Fever; the original clip from the film can also be seen on YouTube. A Tadjik citizen of Uzbek origin, Baimurat is a guest worker in Russia, where, in 2008, he became a local viral sensation that has been compared to the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the UK. Born near the Afghan border and having worked as a cotton picker, he now works in a storeroom in a shopping centre in Kolomna, central Russia. His overnight celebrity status secured coverage in The New York Times and other high profile media around the world; he also had the opportunity to state his opinions on the enormous popularity of Indian cinema in the former USSR.

Why is this clip of particular interest to me? Because
– first, it shows a cinema viewer from a remote country; we know very little of the film viewing habits of the audience in Tadjikistan.
– second, the subject is a migrant worker who lives in diaspora. We thus learn what film material has been available for him to view. I would speculate he may have seen the 1983 Indian film in a cinema and perhaps, later on, on a DVD. He says he learned the song from listening repeatedly to a cassette.
– third, it points at the fact that his popular culture preferences are not as commonly believed and in this case reveal that a Bollywood product is definitely more popular than, say, a Hollywood blockbuster.
Thus, it is yet one more example that feeds into my interest toward Cinema at the Periphery. In Korea, there is even a dedicated Migrant Worker Film Festival, which caters to this type of Gastarbeiter audiences.*

© Dina Iordanova
4 May 2010

*Hwang, Yun Mi, ‘Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea,’ In:Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities >, 2010.

Screen International: International Blockbusters

November 23, 2009 at 1:51 am

I am wondering what the magazine is actually covering by way of reviewing international films. Indeed, there are a number of articles discussing the dynamics in international and particularly Asian film industry lately. When it comes to reviewing concrete films, however, there is a strange discrepancy to be observed. There are always reviews of the American films that are at the top of the international box office, as well as of some of those from Europe. However, almost none of the Asian films that appear in the top forty (or, for that matter, even in the top ten) listings, are being reviewed. Over the past several months, for example, Screen International offered a somewhat belated yet adequate coverage on the Nordic hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Danish-Swedish co-production, but barely any coverage on the other top-40 European films, which in most cases originate from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. One of the few box office hits from Asia to see a more detailed review was Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, the tale of the fateful dog that waited on the city train station in Shibuya for his dead ‘salaryman’-owner every day for a number of years after his dead. It is a beloved Tokyo story; the statue of the dog can be seen at this most famous intersection in the city.

However, except the brief ‘capsula’ reviews of some of these titles, endurable 2009 box office hits from Asia, such as South Korean Haeundae and Take Off, Indian Kambakkh Ishq, Kaminey, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or the Japanese 20th Century Boys and April Brides were not written about.

The most endurable Asian presence in the global top ten box office of this past summer (2009), the Japanese baseball drama Rookies, which made nearly a hundred million from its very limited territorial distribution, was not covered either. It is interesting to note that at the time of this writing it appears there is no entry for the film at the IMDb, either. It only lists the TV series on which the film is based.

In my view, the function of the magazine which bills itself as ‘trade’ would be to serve the trade by bringing information on what is hot and what sells. If I am a distributor, I may be particularly interested in knowing more about films that made tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, as they clearly have got commercial potential. Instead, the review section of Screen International offers reviews of small festival films that are regularly assessed as lacking adequate commercial potential. On the one hand, there is information on the performance of global blockbusters but no information on the actual style/content of those. On the other hand, there are reviews of artistically worthwhile (or sometimes disappointing) films that lack in commercial potential. Ultimately, the message as I receive it, is: Only commercial cinema from the US merits coverage and attention, this is the only sphere where money can be made; the only aspect of international cinema that deserves our consideration includes arthouse and indie films with no popular appeal.

© Dina Iordanova
23 November 2009

Syostry/Sisters (Russia, 2001, Sergei Bodrov Jr.): Invisibility at the Festival Circuit

December 16, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Is it possible that a certain type of circulation through the festival circuit can keep an excellent film away from the eyes of entrepreneurial producers who shop around for re-make material? Evidently yes. Otherwise I cannot imagine how a little gem like this one has not yet been re-made in Hollywood, provided it has everything one takes, and more, for a perfectly shaped tense psychological crime thriller. It seems it is the specific circuit of exposure of this film that pre-determines its relative obscurity: Sisters has been in good international circulation and it has played at the festival circuit, so formally it has been ‘seen’. Yet it has either appeared in those sidebars that remain overlooked at the large festivals, or it has come to the limelight at secondary festivals that are not attended by the players interested in optioning or remakes (and are thus enhancing its ‘invisibility’).

The film premiered in Russia and had a good run domestically in 2001, with awards from the Russian Guild of Film Critics and at the Moscow International Film Festival. It then played at the Venice Film Festival, from where it was picked up for Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema (October), Vancouver (October), Thessaloniki (mid November), Trieste Film Festival (January), Rotterdam (end of January), Karlovy Vary (July 2002), European Film Week in Hungary (December 2002). It has had a regular run in Russia Estonia, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, sometimes on television. It received international awards and nominations at Tromsø International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Bratislava International Film Festival. And this is, more or less, the circuit that has granted the film its relative invisibility, one that can be accounted to the timing of festival entry, and other circulation factors.

This excellently scripted film relies on a simple premise: the dynamics in the strained yet supportive relationship between two half-sisters. The older one, Sveta (played by Oksana Akinshina of Lilja 4-Ever fame) is 14; her father has abandoned her as a baby and her mother has remarried. The mother’s current husband is Alik, a charismatic gangster who hails from the Caucasus and is linked to Chechen and other mafias. Dina (excellently played by Katya Gorina), the younger sister, is about eight. She is Alik’s daughter. Even though she knows her father has just been released from jail, Dina enjoys her father’s love and care; she feels superior to Sveta and reminds her on every opportunity how much her father cares for her. Soon enough, however, a group of intelligently-looking gangsters are after the girls, especially after the Dina, whose possible abduction they see as a good opportunity to blackmail Alik into paying back some old debts. Even though Alik thinks he can protect the girls, it so happens that they are soon on the run and on their own. It is a perilous period during which the sisters are close to disaster more than one time, and during which they survive mostly thanks to Sveta’s industriousness and dedication. It is an ordeal which makes these otherwise quite estranged sisters finally bond with each other.

There are many ingredients that make this small film particularly charming. The girl’s fascination with dancing dressed as Indian women, to the music from some Bollywood blockbuster is a feature true to reality (Russian women are known to seek escapism in exotic India). The song performed here on several occasions, and at the end of the film where the sisters dance to its tune dressed in saris, is credited as Dekhar hai pehgi bar (referenced to Nadeem Saravan, Sameer, Alka Tagnik, S.P. Bala). Then, there are the numerous references to Russian-Korean singer Victor Tsoi (1962-1990), a cult figure of the Soviet perestroika period, whose music is featured in the clip that I am embedding here from You Tube, as well as in the film.

When the sisters are in trouble, they are accepted by a large Gypsy family from whom they immediately pick some survival tips. The representation of these supportive pragmatic Romanies subverts the stereotypes that are usually in circulation when it comes to depicting this ethnic group. Sveta’s need for a fatherly figure is partially relieved by a brief encounter with an unnamed young gangster (played by the film’s director himself) who takes a friendly interest in her superior marksmanship skills.

Sisters is the only film that Sergei Bodrov Jr. released as director. Son of well-known transnational filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, he had come to early fame in Russia as an actor of cult standing, mostly for his roles as Danila Bagrov in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brat (1997) and Brat 2 (2000). He was working on his second directorial project in the Caucasus, when his crew became a victim of a massive and unexpected mud slide. His life was cut short at the age of 30.

© Dina Iordanova
16 December 2008

UMP Plc: Investing in Bollywood II

August 21, 2008 at 12:01 am

UMP Plc is is an Indian media and entertainment company with global operations. It is involved in producing films in Hindi and other Indian regional languages, in co-producing with Hollywood, in animation and gaming, as well as in global distribution through various networks and across platforms. It is the company behind recent box office epic hit Jodha Akbar (2008), the acclaimed Rang De Basanti (2006), Mira Nair’s America-set The Namesake (2006) and M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent offering The Happening (2008). The driving force behind most projects of is producer and company director Ronnie Screwalla, one of India’s film entrepreneurs that has been enjoying high profile internationally, even if with occasional controversies involved.

Registered on the Isle of Man, the UMP Plc is the holding company of UTV Motion Pictures (Mauritius) Limited and related to the Mumbai-based UTV.* It floated about 23% of its value on London’s AIM in July 2007 with the ticker UTVM, trading in US dollars. With shares priced at US $2.90 each, the IPO raised capital of US $70 million gross (US$65.7 million net); it allowed the company to reach market capitalization of $302M. The company then changed its name to UMP Plc. in February 2008.

Prior to the AIM admission, UMP was the wholly owned subsidiary of UTV Software Communications Limited (UTV India), a media and entertainment company with interests and subsidiaries in the US, UK and South-East Asia engaged in TV content production, motion pictures, interactive (animation & gaming), broadcasting, advertising production, multi-language dubbing and post-production.

According to Investors Chronicle (January 2008), house broker Jermyn has forecast cash profits before tax of £21m for full-year 2008, and predicts compound annual growth of 40 per cent up to 2010, with a target price of $4.50. A more recent IC article (14 August 2008) is also optimistic, listing several bull points for UMP: high-growth Indian film industry; strong industry relationships, and successful overseas expansion. The bear points, however, include the lack of financial history and tightly held shares.

Having traded now slightly over a year, UMP Plc.’s shares have moved between $3.50 and $1.85 at their lowest point, and at the moment of this writing are at $2.25. The market capitalization in August 2008 is at $263.34M, with 117.04M shares outstanding. The Highlights of the company’s first and only so far Annual report (2007-2008) set the revenue at $40 million, the net profit after tax at $16 million, and the EPS at 0.158.** The statement on shareholding indicates that 77% of the 104,137,931 shares are owned by Promoter and Promoter Group while public shareholding stands only at 23% (24,137,931). Of these, the largest public shareholders include Amoeba Capital Asia Fund 3,448,276 (3.3%) and Deutsche Bank AG, London (3.3%). In addition, during the company’s annual meeting in August 2008, a Special Resolution was passed, which authorizes the directors (without the need for further sanction) to allot and issue up to 21,000,000 ordinary shares of US$0.05 each to such persons and on such terms as they think fit and to grant options to various persons performing services for the benefit of the Company; an arrangement that is to be revisited at the next annual meeting.

Like other Indian players, UMP is working on expanding its interactions with Hollywood, and it has done quite well so far. They have clearly shown that they do not intent to stick to the Bollywood recipe; the general pattern in their work so far has been to make Western style pictures while capitalizing on connections with the large Indian diaspora (writer Jhumpa Lahiri, directors Miar Nair and M. Night Shyamalan, etc.) It has acquired rights to distribute Miramax’s library in South East Asia. Building on the recent success of films such as Jodha Akbar, UMP claims to be among the top 20 distributors operating within the US. They also claim to be the only Indian studio to have projects with major Hollywood studios. Indeed, they co-produced Mira Nair’s The Namesake (which was distributed internationally within the art house circuit) with Fox Searchlight and, with 20th Century Fox, M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) starring Mark Wahlberg in which UTV reportedly invested over $27 million (about half of the film’s $57M budget). The Happening was hyped up as the most high profile Hollywood co-production by an Asian studio but on release it was considered to have underperformed in comparison with other Shyamalan films (it still made its budget two and a half times over). Most recently, UMP was engaged with the production of a low-budget Hollywood film ($2 million), Ex-Terminators, a Texas-based dark comedy starring actress Heather Graham. There has also been talk of an agreement with Hollywood actor Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment to produce two more Hollywood films. Having also co-produced Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife (2007), the UMP are clearly prepared to move on to become a Hollywood player.

Besides Ronnie Screwvala (50) who is also the founder of the UTV Company, UMP’s other directors include Andrew James Carnegie (44) a specialist in corporate finance and CEO of the media advisory firm India Media Partners Ltd, Charles Vanderpump (58) a financial specialist who acts as a director of various Isle of Man-based companies, and the CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur (33) who has prior experience in advertising, marketing, PR and corporate communications from Newscorp’s Star Network television operations in India, Middle East and Hong Kong. Carnegie and Vanderpump are also on the board of directors of UTV Mauritius, and hold respectively 90,000 and 10,000 shares in UMP.

So what is my two minutes narrative on what I think of UMP as a possible investment? Hmmm… On the one hand it looks promising. It is a company that clearly aims to expand by going beyond the narrow Bollywood niche and seeks to enter more dynamic relations with Hollywood and diversify. Energetic Ronnie Screwalla is most likely a plus. Unlike the IFC, the UMP is clearly looking beyond the typical Bollywood formula for entertainment, and thus it has better chances for growth.

On the other hand, however, the lack of transparency is staggering. The volume at which this stock is traded is small, with little liquidity. The target price of $4.50 sounds over optimistic to me. The authorization to issue a 21 million extra shares at a fraction of the share market price is worrying, it would likely impact the capitalization and the cashflow. A search for Indian Media Partners on the Internet produces only a log-in portal with no public information or an accessible site whatsoever. Less than 25% of the shares are publicly traded, which means that shareholders have next to no say in the affairs of the company and cannot possibly influence the way it is run.

Unlike the Indian Film Company the shares of which have never risen beyond the price of their IPO, the UMP has seen a rise of $0.60 or nearly 22% at their highest point. On the other hand, UMP’s EPS after a year of trading stand at $0.158 which compares negatively with the EPS reported by the IFC at 3.56p. But at the end of the day, it comes down to accountancy standards, and it is difficult to judge where only one annual report is available for each company so far. Neither company pays dividend.

According to information from Investors Chronicle’s, UMP comes out ahead of other Indian film related companies due to its advancement in diversifying its operation, and this indeed may be the case. Over a year the shares have made a loss of -23.5% ($2.95; -$0.68) but there have been shorter term gains of +8.10% over 3 months ($2.10 ; +$0.17) and of +4.37% over 6 months ($2.17; +$0.10). This suggests that if timed correctly, an investment in UMP could be profitable. Only it is difficult to say what impacts the timing for purchase into this company, as there seems to be no clear link between their films and the share price: the shares have tumbled by more than 35% precisely during the period when their most profitable film up to date (Jodha Akbar) was enjoying the biggest ever release given to an Indian film in February 2008.

Thus UMP may be a good purchase for insiders who would get the tip when to buy but not for retail investors.

© Dina Iordanova
21 August 2008

* Related companies: UTV Motion Pictures (Mauritius) Limited is an India-based global movie operation which was incorporated in the Republic of Mauritius on 12 October 2004 and houses the movie production business of the entire UTV group. UTV-Mauritius initially carried on the business of movie distribution in regions outside North America, UK and India; however, it has recently acquired the rights to exploit Bollywood, Hollywood, Indian regional language and animation movies throughout the world. The Mumbai-based operation, UTV India, began as a television content company in 1990 and has developed into an integrated entertainment content production and distribution company with three business streams: content (movies and television), new media (animation and gaming) and broadcasting. It is an established corporate entity in Indian movie making and it is listed on the NSE and the BSE. In the financial year ended 31 March 2006 it had gross revenues of Rs 2,130 million (approximately $48 million).

** According to the IC’s January 2008 article, the meantime, UMP expects to generate $250m in gross box office revenues in the 2008-2009 financial year.

The Indian Film Company (IFC): Investing in Bollywood I

August 6, 2008 at 10:39 am

I believe that the market for Indian film is significant and have been interested in investing in some of the companies that recently listed at AIM in London. When I tried to research, tough, I realized that most of the writing I see on these companies seems to be done by financial journalists who have very little knowledge of (nor interest in) the actual product that these companies produce/distribute and almost no understanding of the dynamics of the specific market for this type of filmed entertainment. Quite often I found myself disputing things that journalists claimed, simply on the basis of my closer familiarity with Bollywood product and my interest in the transnational exposure of this cinema over the years. This made me to want to carry out my own scrutiny on the publicly traded companies, a matter on which I am planning to write a series of articles, especially as I see that the coverage on these matters is on the increase with new developments that bring Hollywood and Bollywood closer together.

Today I am looking at The Indian Film Company.

The Indian Film Company seems to have been created especially for the purposes of trading at LSE’s AIM market, where it listed in June 2007 for an IPO placed at 100p, which allowed it to raise about £55 million (£53mil. after adjustments). Since then prices have been moving between 93 and 44p. The current market capitalization is below £30m and the stock sells at 52.7 p on August 6.

Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif in Welcome.

The company, which is engaged in film production, is registered in Guernsey and has subsidiaries in other off-shore heavens such as Cyprus and Mauritius (Film Investment Managers Ltd). Chairman is well-known Bengali film director Shyam Benegal and CEO is Sandeep Bhargava. Over 21% of the shares are owned by 47-year old Raghav Bahl, one of the company’s directors and an Indian media mogul, linked to Network 18 and Studio 18. The IFC is part of a complex conglomerate of companies: It is linked to Viacom 18, a joint venture with Sumner Redstone’s Viacom (VIA), which has been in in existence since May 2007. The other arms are Network 18, a conglomerate of media and filmed entertainment companies, and the film-focused Studio 18. The company does not have employees but outsources all the work. It seems that they mostly have investment in production (with a portfolio of just below 20 films) and not so much stake in distribution.

The catalogue of Studio 18 includes several blockbusters, all starring the up-and-coming megastar Akshay Kumar (who the IFC does not appear to hold on a contract), often relying on the interest in stories involving cultural transplantation between India and the West. Their first hit was the jingoistic Namastey London (2007), followed by box office hit Welcome (2007), which climbed up to a third place on the list of top-grossing Bollywood films last year. The much-anticipated Singh Is Kinng (2008), co-produced with Australia, is about to open on 8 August 2008 and promises very good box office potential, with significant hype created in advance.

IFC’s first annual report was released on July 24, 2008 and is available from the company’s web-site. It reveals that the main planned area of activity is to acquire, co-produce, or produce more of the same type of films and keep exclusive worldwide distribution rights to these. The reported revenues for the first year are £11.45 million, the profit – £2.18 million, the EPS – 3.56, and the P/E – 21.8.

The company’s own estimate of the size of the Indian film market worldwide is at £1bn annually, growing at 16% per annum.

Investors Chronicle covered the IFC twice. In January 2008 it made a recommendation for a speculative buy, when the price was at 76p, but then later in the year, in July, the same analyst said that shares were actually fairly priced at 60p. At the moment of this writing shares are at 52.70 (August 6).

In assessing the IFC, I could not help remembering Peter Lynch‘s recommendation to try to come up with a two minute-long narrative on the reasons for which you would like to buy into a certain company. In this particular case, I could not really deliver a narrative which would make a convincing case for buying into the IFC. My narrative contained more reservations than exciting promises. The company is mostly engaged in production, it is not clear how they relate to the major distribution players in a field where it is distributors and not the producers that call the shots. The films that the IFC is engaged with are films of blockbuster potential yet they are also films of limited appeal as they are typical products of formulaic Bollywood that is yet to be seen crossing over and capturing audiences beyond NRIs (Non-Resident Indians). Thus while the market may be sizable, it is also self-contained, and it is highly unlikely that these films would sell successfully in territories without substantial Indian diasporic presence. It may well be that with the release and potential success of Singh Is Kinng we will see a temporary leap upwards in share price. But on the long run I see investing in this company as a risky proposition.

© Dina Iordanova
6 August 2008

From Bollywood to You Tube

August 1, 2008 at 12:54 am

Below is the text of the Press Release that the University’s Press office did on the occasion of the large Leverhulme award I recently received.

From Bollywood to YouTube, an academic at the University of St Andrews is to investigate the ways in which non-mainstream film reaches the masses.

Professor Dina Iordanova, St Andrews’ first Chair of Film Studies and a leading international authority in her field, will receive a prestigious grant from The Leverhulme Trust to carry out the study “Dynamics of World Cinema: Transnational Channels of Global Film Circulation”.

The innovative project will examine the circulation of global cinema by comparing the four main channels: the system of global Hollywood, the international film festival circuit, various alternative production centres like Bollywood as well as internet-enabled channels such as YouTube.

Professor Iordanova said, “We know a lot about Holywood’s global operation, and we have all sorts of box office data and charts on them. But we know next to nothing of the other side of the equation, of those films that are not in the blockbuster sphere, that are distributed via less visible channels but are still popular.

“In the course of our study, we will establish how much money non-Hollywood films actually make and are likely to reveal that they enjoy a growing domestic and international commercial success.

“The study will examine the phenomenal growth of film festivals around the world and will assess if they indeed have become an independent distribution circuit. We will also explore the film distribution for ethnic minorities (for example, Bollywood imports), and reveal that it is an operation of astonishing commercial success.

“Finally, we will also assess the impact that new internet-enabled channels such as YouTube, online forums and download sites, have on the changing dynamics in world cinema.”

The £240,000 grant will allow Professor Iordanova to undertake the pioneering two and a half year investigation into the ways film travels nowadays to reach a growing and increasingly diverse community of viewers that are interested in getting more specific content than the blockbuster playing at the cinema around the corner.

She explained, “What makes us distinct in relation to earlier studies is that we will correlate all those diverse strands of film circulation that are extremely active nowadays but somehow remain below the radar. By putting all information into comparative perspective and by revealing patterns of interaction, we will show the real dynamics of world cinema. We expect to bring to the attention traditionally ignored aspects that will undermine the view of Hollywood’s undisputed global dominance.”

Originally from Bulgaria, and having worked in Canada, the US, and England, Professor Iordanova’s background is in philosophy and aesthetics. Soon after acquiring her PhD in 1986, she realised she needed images to come along with the theoretical concepts. She made a profession out of her habit of seeing a movie a day, and switched to the new field of film studies in 1993. Today, she has numerous publications on in international cinema to her credit. She has recently edited a special issue of Film International dedicated to film festivals, and is now working on a book chapter about recent Asian epic cinema.

She continued, “This is a radically interdisciplinary project, which brings together transnational film and media studies, globalisation and diaspora studies, political economy and humanistic scholarship. Given the Trust’s interest in major issues of contemporary culture, The Leverhulme was the best organization to fund it. We are truly grateful for their recognition.”

Professor Stuart Cunningham from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, a leading specialist in the area of creative industries, is co-investigator on this unique and innovative project. He will spend a month in St Andrews during the second phase of the research. Two post-doctoral fellows, one from Hong Kong and the other one from New York City, are joining the team set to start work in October.



Professor Iordanova is available for interview on di1@st-andrews.ac.uk or at 01334-467-474 (by appointment).
Her current work is showcased at www.DinaView.com



Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, Mobile: 07730 415 015 or Email: fa12@st-andrews.ac.uk
Ref: Leverhulme film 240708
View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk

Snoop Dogg, Akshay Kumar and Singh Is Kinng (2008): More Transnational Film Professionals

July 29, 2008 at 2:02 am

View here Snoop Dogg’s and Akshay Kumar’s video for the still-to-be-released Indo-Australian Singh Is Kinng (2008), posted by johalballin on YouTube. Like is the practice in Bollywood, the music is released before the film to create hype and momentum.

Not just an encounter between Bollywood and Hollywood, the film is yet another prime example of the transnationalisation of highly skilled labor in filmmaking which I have been covering over the past few days. A look at the ‘below the line’ sections of the crew reveal whole teams of non-Indian assistant directors, art designers, and special effects people, who come with background from productions like Inspector Gadget or the Australian Western, The Proposition. The stuntspeople have been not only in Australian and US productions, but also in films made in China, Japan and other Asian hubs, and many of the miscellaneous crew members have Bosnian or Croatian-sounding names, reminding me of the forced dispersal of families from former Yugoslavia to all parts of the world nearly fifteen years ago, just about the time needed for their children to grow up and get entry level jobs in transnational filmmaking.

See also Part I and Part II of Transnational Class of Film Professionals.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

Bollywood: The Global Dance Number

July 16, 2008 at 12:58 am

It was in a multiplex in Singapore nearly ten years ago. Hollywood productions were scheduled in the five other theatres but I ended up in the sixth one where the then latest Indian blockbuster, the Tamil-language Jeans (S. Shankar, India, 1998), was playing to a full house. It was the usual Indian masala fare, a comedy cum romance, the narrative interrupted by lavish musical numbers. One of the early ‘NRI’ films, taking place amidst diasporic Indians in the USA, some of the musical intermissions were set in places like Disneyland or on the lawn of a suburban Californian bungalow.*

Toward the end, however, there was a musical number of a kind I had not seen until then. The lovers were singing and dancing in a continuous swing against an incessantly changing background setting, taking them from one place to the next. They started off in front of Taj Mahal, but then the backdrop changed and they were dancing in Paris, in front of Tour Eiffel and L’arc de Triomphe, then they went on dancing in Rome, the Coliseum on the background, then in New York, in front of the World Trade Centre, and then — near the Egyptian Sphynx. I no longer remember the other stops of their dance itinerary but it included places of the kind that an advertisement for a “private-Concord-around-the-world-in-the-year-2000” promised — Davos, Chichen-Itza, Stonehenge, Samarkand — everywhere you may want to be in an around-the-world-adventure. Powerfully focused on each other, the world was in the feet of these Indian lovers. They were changing costumes and places without breaking the pace of the dance. They were beautiful and rich, nothing to do with the slums of Calcutta. They were not confined to an ethnic enclave or a remote quiet place where they could love each other in seclusion. The background of their love affair consisted of prime tourist attractions, which they were consuming and dispensing of as picture-postcards, a universe defined solely by their mutual attraction but comprising of a multiplicity of places. The wonders of the world were no longer reserved for affluent Western tourists, now they were nothing more than a backdrop for the Indian couple.

One could find the roots of the global dance number in classics such as Raj Kappor’s Sangam (1964), where the newly weds go to Switzerland and a musical number evolves on the background of spectacular snowy landscapes in the Alps (hence the Alpine setting having become a favorite for a long tradition of Bollywood films).

The global dance number, however, is different. It is seen in those films preoccupied with migrations and places. In these films, East and West, North and South, center and periphery are no longer used as meaningful grid coordinates, and entrenched spatial division lines gradually become void of meaning. The hierarchy of places is subverted and changed ‘from below,’ challenged by former outsiders who come and conquer the places that may have been out of reach for them back in colonial times. The discourse on place is no longer a prerogative of the ‘center’ reflecting on its ‘margins.’ What formerly was deemed a ‘periphery’ is endowed with new vitality that challenges the traditional narratives of locale and movement and replaces them with new takes on place and itinerary.

* See Kaori Shoji’s review of the film in Japan Times from 2000, according to which it played in Shibuya in Tokyo, especially the remarks about Aishwarja Rai (I quite agree, this was the first time I saw the actress, and I also had this feeling of being somewhat overwhelmed). I also remember that this film, Jeans, was part of the international menu on the airplane on which I was returning back to the UK, I believe it was Thai airlines. It is interesting to note and probably research how many Indian films (and not only Hindi, but also Tamil and other) these airlines include for their passengers.

© Dina Iordanova
16 July 2008

There is a new book of relevance, by Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti, Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance

Namastey London (India, 2007) dir. Vipul Amrutlal Shah

July 10, 2008 at 5:32 am

Namastey London, starring up-and-coming international stars Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar, is a film that triggered interesting remarks about Indian jingoism among British Indians who distinguished themselves from it.

The film depicts Hindu Pakistanis and Punjabis as brothers, and shows all Indians behaving with utmost tolerance among themselves, a take that I found highly contentious. As usual, all these British-based NRIs are shown inhabiting lavishly furnished homes, being hugely successful in business and the professions, and feeling perfectly at ease in the West, as seen in a range of other recent Bollywood films (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, Hum Tum, Kal Ho Naa Ho). In addition, all the exploitative attitudes and racism are shown as coming from the snotty Englishmen.

I would include Namastey London for consideration in the context of a project that would pay attention to all those narratives that come from the former colonies with the intention to expose the arrogance of the West. A number of such films are being released every year around the world, seen and admired by scores of people, yet this strand of cinematic creativity and ideology remains unnoticed because these are films that come from a variety of countries. If one watches across borders and acknowledges the critical mass and the cumulative effect of their narratives, one would clearly see a growing trend.

The film is also interesting for its particular brand of nationalistic Indian propaganda. It makes overt references to another Indian national esteem project, the much superior Lagaan – Once Upon a Time in India (2001).

Namastey London became number 9 at the UK box office and was successful internationally. In spite its commercial success, however, the film received very little coverage in British media, with only bullet reviews of no more than 200 words, usually making some dismissive remark. This in itself is a particularly noteworthy, as its pronouncements on the British surely deserved some analysis. The script of the film has been almost immediately selected to be kept in the Academy of Motion Picture’s library of scripts.

© Dina Iordanova
10 July 2008

Om Shanti Om (India, 2007) Farah Khan

June 27, 2008 at 12:04 am

I finally got hold of this box-office-record-setting hit, which is being distributed by Eros International in a fancy fancy two-DVD box set, and was seriously disappointed with it. For several reasons, which I will outline here briefly.

1. Om Shanti Om, with its contrived plot and cartoon-like characters, has become a smashing box-office hit, topping the list of highest-grossing Indian films. But it is clealy a film that is exclusively targeting an audience of Indians and NRIs in the diaspora. Western critics’ reaction to it is lukewarm at best, and it barely would succeed in bringing on board new fans of non-Indian origins. I was thinking we could speak of a trend where Bollywood films are becoming more palatable to mainstream audiences in the West and where they would soon be embraced by fans who, like me, are open to diversity in cinema but are not necessarily Indian. This film, however, is not closing the gap and, even if admired by Indian fans, does not seem to have the cross over potential of other recent titles such as Fanaa or Krrish. Its success also confirms the sad truth that it is, most of all, a lavish and relentless promotion campaign, and not so much artistic achievement that account for commercial success and global popularity in Bollywood.

2. When I teach about Bollywood, I cannot help making extensive parallels with Hollywood’s system from the studio period: the similarities in the production and distribution/exhibition approaches and the reliance on star power are just too many to ignore. In Om Shanti Om Bollywood comes even closer to Hollywood in that it features and exposes (but also glorifies) cut-throat tactics, competition, intrigue, and lavish excess. The film showcases conspicuous beauty and wealth, presents a celebrity line up that has got no other purpose but push up the film’s commercial appeal, and stages a parody of the Filmfare award ceremony with star cameos that are meant to thrill the fan base. But even if the pronounced intention of the film is to condemn the amorality that appears to be endemic to the world of commercial filmmaking, in effect it celebrates it all.

3. The storyline is poorly constructed. It evolves around reincarnation and retribution, involving an episode where, in the second part of the film, villainy is exposed through a Hamlet-like staged reconstruction of a hideous cover-up. But there is nothing like an in depth psychological build up, and as it is the case in traditional Indian cinema, all main characters remain unchangeable: whoever is bad stays bad from beginning through to the end, and whoever is good, invariably remains so. Om, the ‘junior artiste’ protagonist of the first part, is a naive wide-eyed devotee of the beautiful and utterly implausible star Shanti; Om, the protagonist of the second part, enjoys an overindulgent stardom which makes him a truly unconvincing bearer of high moral ground.

4. I found the film’s post-modern aesthetics, promoted by former choreographer (and now writer and director) Farah Khan, truly over the top. I tended to think of Shah Rukh Khan in much better terms before this film, but here he is nothing more than a poster pin-up boy showing off a body sculplted in the gym on every possible occasion (No wonder, the DVD comes with a glossy poster featuring his amazing six pack). The ‘symphony’ of colors in costumes and settings often turns into cacophony. Besides the memorable tunes of two of the dance-and-song sequences (Dard-E-Disco, Om Shanti Om), the music did not agree with me; I found the singing in extended singing sequence in the musical narrative of the second part, the scene meant to expose the evil deeds of the villain, most off-putting.

One of the few things I liked in Om Shanti Om were the final credits, where, in a truly democratic move, the director Farah Khan has all members of the crew — both from above and below the line, down to light technicians and spot boys — parade on the screen in a cheerful dance rhythm.

© Dina Iordanova
27 June 2008