Colorful costumes in a dance number evoke folk traditions.

Stars have what ad agencies consider "aspirational value" for marketing high-end fashion and accessories.

Aishwarya Rai at Cannes.

Katrina Kaif promotes Nakshatra brand of diamonds.

Shahrukh Khan dances with fans at a Toronto mall, 2010.

This historical epic made much more money abroad than it did in India.

Hum Aaap Ke Hai Koun? No villains, no poverty, just big extended families, wealth, lots of song and dance, young love, and women sacrificing for their families. It was a great international hit.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge: falling in love abroad and overcoming patriarchy back home—another international hit.



Bollywood mania spreads

“Why do I love Bollywood movies? To an Indian, that’s like asking why we love our mothers; we don’t have a choice. We were born of them...My aunt’s family emigrated to Uganda from India a century ago; she now lives in England and has never been to India…none of the children under 5 in her extended family spoke English…The children, two or three generations removed from India, were living in this simulated Indiaworld (of Bollywood).”Suketu Mehta, novelist.

Mehta’s statement captures the ongoing love affair between the South Asian diaspora and Bollywood, and as we will see, the enthusiasm for this cinema has spread widely. In a matter of 15 years, the general awareness and perception of critics of Indian cinema all over the world has dramatically changed. Instead of being relegated to the margins of Hollywood and European art cinema in leading capitals of the world, Bollywood has in so many ways earned respect and widespread attention. Major news outlets in the U.S. and Canada cover Bollywood movies’ openings and other events, stars and events, and the industry matters on a regular basis. What is interesting is that it is not simply excitement about the large market in India or worldwide for Bollywood cinema but also the masala form itself. Leading universities in North America and Europe are offering courses in Indian cinema, holding conferences and seminars. Dozens of books have been published. Major Hollywood directors began to take note of Bollywood’s impressive inroads into the international markets, and especially into the US-Canada markets. For instance, Baz Luhrman borrowed stylistic elements from Bollywood for his 2001 film, Moulin Rouge, and even included the hit song Chamma Chamma, the music for which was composed by Anu Malik. Luhrman told a Times of India reporter in Delhi:

“I first came to India 15 years ago with my wife. We wanted to do a stage production of Benjamin Britten's version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' This is the visit when I was also influenced by Bollywood and felt the need to integrate elements from it in my work” (Sharma, 2011).

The star composer and major trend setter for Indian cinema (not just in Hindi language films but also in several south Indian languages) is A. R. Rahman. He won two Oscars for Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song in the British film, Slum Dog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008). The musical extravaganzas performed live with Bollywood stars, singers, composers and dancers appeal to sell out crowds in cities worldwide. For Canada Day celebrations in Toronto last year, at a large gathering of multicultural audiences young Indian-Canadians performed dance numbers to Bollywood tunes and taught the ‘moves’ to the audience.

Stars have what marketing executives call, “aspirational value.” In other words, their fans aspire to buy those commodities—clothing, watches, makeup, handbags, expensive jewelry including diamonds, and foreign travel—endorsed by their favorite screen idols. Indian movie stars have been hired to represent international product brand names at home and abroad. Aishwarya Rai, the leading lady of many Bollywood movies, started endorsing L’Oreal products worldwide in 2000. Others have followed suit. Some of the major stars have been employed as ‘brand ambassadors’ for various Indian states. Amitabh Bachchan, who has played the lead role in hundreds of Bollywood movies, provided the most controversial endorsement to the state of Gujarat
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These days, it is common to see major stars from Bollywood sitting on the juries of prestigious international film festivals at Cannes, Toronto, and Berlin. Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Nandita Das and others have played roles in Hollywood films. The most recent was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011) in which Anil Kapoor played a lecherous Indian capitalist who controls a satellite crucial to the plot. Bollywood films have world premiers in key markets—London, New York, Sydney, Toronto—with all the glamour and glitter that is attached to such promotional activities for big budget films. Tom Cruise, major star and producer of Hollywood blockbusters, attended the premier of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in Mumbai. The latest to join in this excitement for Bollywood culture is FinnAir with a commercial that celebrated India’s Republic Day on January 26, 2012. It is a song and dance number inside a plane by the whole crew to the delightful surprise of passengers heading to Delhi.
Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London has at least five Bollywood stars to show off.

All this excitement and international recognition is pretty heady stuff, but Indian popular cinema has had a long presence in countries where Indians migrated during the colonial period either as indentured workers or for trading, education and other purposes. After the abolition of slavery in the late 1800s, millions of poor Indians were taken to the far reaches of the British Empire as indentured servants and most did not return home. More recent migrations of workers from India to the Gulf countries began in the 1980s. Nearly a million Indian migrant workers, consisting of skilled and unskilled people, now serve in construction, engineering, education, nursing, and domestic labor
They are the “reserve army of labor” who are forced to return home after a few years because they can get only temporary work visas.

The pattern of immigration to the United States and Canada has been different in the sense that it is miniscule compared to the situation in the Middle East and most who come to North America do not return. Until the 1960s, immigration for Indians and Chinese workers was nearly impossible because immigration laws explicitly forbid Asians. However, during John Kennedy’s brief administration in the United States and Pierre Trudeau’s long tenure as Prime Minister of Canada, more professionals were given visas to enter and settle down as permanent residents. Family reunification policies in Canada also helped Asian immigrants that were related to those who had come during the British colonial period. Once they attained permanent residency, they were also allowed to “import” brides or grooms for their offspring from the home countries.

All in all, the Indian diaspora stands at an estimated 27 million people scattered across 190 countries around the world. They support their families back home by remitting funds to India that amounted to $21 billion in 2003 and rose to $55 billion in 2010 (Mukherji and D’Mello, 2011).[15] They are also avid moviegoers. In my own case, I have seen Bollywood films playing in Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, Burkina, Tehran, Cairo, London, New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Toronto. Even those who don’t understand Hindi go to see Bollywood films because they entertain the whole family. In West Africa where they speak French, I saw audiences enjoying Bollywood imports at single screen cinemas and to my surprise the prints were not even dubbed into French.

Until the early 1980s, only the ‘art’ cinema made it to the film festivals and college campuses in the U.S.-Canada markets. Indian films that were made for the Indian masses had been extremely popular in the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa and Latin America. They were primarily Hindi language exports. Tamil cinema traveled a bit more compared to other language cinemas because the Tamil diaspora in East Asia was keen on watching films from the home country.

In recent years, some Hindi films have grossed higher revenues abroad compared to their performance in the domestic market. Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2008), an epic historical drama about the Mughals, is one such example of a big budget production with major stars, sets, and locations. Its success in India, measured by box office revenues is a mere $3.4 million, whereas the revenues from international markets for the film amounted to $ 23.4 million or 87.2% of the global revenues (Box Office Mojo, 2012). This shift began slowly first in the U.S.-Canada market when people bought VCRs and poor quality videos came into circulation. In cities with large Indian populations—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—Indian entrepreneurs began to lease single screen theaters over the weekends and started screening 35 mm prints of popular films. I remember going to these single screen cinema halls in Chicago with my teenage daughter in the winter months when the outside temperature would go down to 20 degrees F below zero and the theatre operator would not switch on the heating system. These entrepreneurs also owned a local video rental operation. For example, Video Sound, Atlantic Video, and several other stores on Chicago’s Devon Avenue were quite successful at rental and sell-through of VHS tapes of Bollywood and other language films. Video Sound also screened Hindi language films at Adelphi, a Rogers Park area theater.

All of this began to change with the success of Hum Aaap Ke Hai Koun? (Soorj Bharjatya, 1994), and subsequently, Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge (Aditya Chopra, 2005). In the Gateway Cinema with 1600-seat capacity, these two films were sold out for weeks. Both the films offer not only the visual pleasures of song, dance, and a narrative that surrounds family, but they are also about an India that the diaspora audiences crave for. Hum Aap Ke Hai Kaun? is a story about two Hindu families, idealistic in their representations, and their large extended family and friends. It is filled with numerous songs, dance numbers, and family get-togethers. It is about falling in love and also about women sacrificing their life for the welfare of the whole family. In this film, there are no villains or super human heroes of the earlier Bollywood films that fought against corrupt politicians, the police, and rich people. There is no poverty and people live in big mansions, conduct businesses internationally, wear expensive clothing, jewelry and drive imported cars. Class or caste conflict that was grist for the cinema of the earlier decades simply disappeared.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge played with the concepts of nostalgia and alienation of Indians abroad in a culture dominated by Anglo-Saxons. Centered around a small, trader’s family in London, and their extended families in India, the film connected the themes of the strong desire to maintain family ties and also maintain Indian traditional culture where patriarchy reins supreme. A star studded and song and dance filled narrative takes the audience on a tour of Europe and brings them “home” to a town in Punjab where familial bonds are stronger than what is presented as life in Britain. The protagonists in the film, played by Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, fall in love while they accidentally meet on a tour of Europe. When the heroine’s father learns of the situation, he takes her to India to get her married to a man whom she never knew. The hero has to overcome the patriarch’s strongly held belief in the arranged marriage system. The father of the bride also has to change his views about how British-born Indians are in terms of their character and accept the protagonist’s love for his daughter. Instead of eloping with his lover, the hero wins her parents’ hearts by his honorable and loving behavior. The music in both films and the song and dance numbers were big successes with the audience all over the world, just as their mass appeal of love triumphing over various odds posed by custom, tradition, family, and patriarchy.

The biggest markets till the 1990s had been in the Middle East and, as such, producers in Mumbai did not take the foreign market expansion in the West seriously. The huge success of the two films mentioned above woke them up.

By 2007, there were nearly 100 cinemas located in some 20 states in the US that regularly screened Hindi films in the 35mm format (Fahim, 2007, p. 1). Some of the biggest multiplex chains in the US—AMC, General Cinema—also started to show Bollywood movies in one of their many screens in cities such as Chicago and Newark. UK, Australia, Canada became substantial markets in terms of revenue generation for these films. Industry insiders reported that markets for Hindi films were growing at approximately 12.6 per cent per year inside and outside the country (Joshi, 2006, p. 75). Australia, which used to be worth $50,000 in distribution revenue potential for a Hindi film grew ten times (Joshi, 2006, p. 75).

Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada films command screenings also, although not to the extent of the Hindi films. It is not unusual to see a Hindi film open simultaneously in Mumbai and other Indian cities as well as London, Toronto, New York, Sydney, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities worldwide where South Asians live.

The films used to be marketed by a handful of Indian-owned, small private firms. Eros International and Video Sound were the leading distributors that brought Indian entertainment to the US shores. Seeing the success of films in the early 1990s, major Indian companies began direct distribution in the US-Canada and other markets. For instance, Yash Raj Films established an office in New York. Similarly, Sony Entertainment Television, which has a significant presence in India through SET, decided to enter film distribution and in turn began to finance Hindi films. SET established an office in New Jersey to oversee their Bollywood distribution operations in the U.S.-Canada markets.

The presence of South Asians in these two countries is of considerable importance not only because of the size of this community but also because of their high purchasing power. The U.S. Census Bureau created a new category called ‘Asian Indian’ to better report numbers based on national origin. By 2010, Asian Indians (people of ancestry from India only) totaled 2,843,000. If we added people with ancestry from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the numbers went up to 3,373,758.

The South Asian households are not typical in the sense that a number of relatives may be living under the same roof in order to help each other and also accumulate enough savings before branching out on their own. As such median household incomes are larger than the average U.S. household

Nevertheless, they love Bollywood movies and music. Asian Indians in the United States are concentrated in various cities of California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Seattle, and Miami as follows (Proximity, 2012):

  • Chicago-Joliet-Naperville area 171,901
  • Los Angeles 119,901
  • San Francisco 119,854
  • San Jose, 117,711
  • New York-Northern New Jersey 526,133
  • Seattle 52,6512
  • Portland 15,117
  • Miami 41,334
  • Orlando 26,105
  • Tampa 23,526

Bollywood commands an audience of not just Asian Indians but people from around the world, especially Indo-Caribbeans, people from various parts of Africa, East Asia, Middle East and Central America (Guyana, Suriname). In areas of the United States where a higher concentration of South Asians lived, Indian entrepreneurs had launched multiplexes to screen Bollywood movies. For instance, in North Bergen, New Jersey at Columbia Park Cinema 12, half of its screens were dedicated to Hindi films (Fahim, 2007, p. 1). It is now owned by Big Cinemas that shows Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, and Hollywood films. In Los Angeles, another major city with a sizeable South Asian population, Naz8 screens imported films from India regularly. Just as Devon Avenue in Chicago has restaurants, travel agencies, grocery stores, clothing shops, video stores, and bookstores to cater to South Asians, Naz8 is located in Astoria that has a whole street filled with such stores.

Naz8 multiplex in Astoria, Los Angeles. Photo: M. Pendakur

As consumption of entertainment becomes more diverse, not just feature films but also television shows, music CDs, live entertainment (especially in which the major stars perform), Internet and mobile platforms, and video-on-demand, South Asian entrepreneurs are setting up new businesses to extract revenues from the market. The latest of these is BODVOD, a company that is offering Indian movie entertainment as video on demand. In an interview the co-founder, Vinod Bhatt, described his company’s operations:

“In terms of what the company does, we hold exclusive rights to a basket of movies and music primarily coming from India—primarily Bollywood music and movies—and we package, distribute and market that on pretty much all digital platforms. Mostly video-on-demand, anything delivered using IP protocol-Google Video, iTunes, etc., as well as services run by mobile carriers and also mobile devices” (Aditham, 2007, p. 4).

Bhatt further noted the following about the size of the market:

“To date, our distribution is actually in about 11 million households, on all of Time Warner and all of Cox. We’re covering probably around 70% of the South Asian population in the US today…I think when you look at the South Asian market in the country today, it’s probably the most affluent group out of any of the ethnic or even non-ethnic groups that exist. I think the median household income is $68,771 according to the latest census update. When you look at education levels, about 61% of them have a college degree. Then on top of that, they’re overall Web and tech-savvy with 81% of them having broadband access in their homes” (Aditham, 2007, p. 4).

Even though Bhat’s assertion that all South Asians are technologically savvy is exaggerated, such high subscription rate among them for broadband services is impressive. Interestingly enough, if Indian imported content is available for a certain price on cable television and in the video-on-demand format, the huge library of films from the earlier decades, which older audiences consider as their ‘golden age’ of cinema, will have demand. It is also likely the fine films produced by directors such as Guru Dutt, Shantaram, Bimol Roy, etc., just to name a few, or certain films of the 1970s and the 1980s which came to be known as the ‘New Cinema’ will become available without the annoyance of commercial interruptions on television. Online sale of DVDs of cinema in various Indian languages and genres has grown with Amazon becoming an outlet for better quality DVDs unlike the pirated versions in the Indian-owned grocery stores. Netflix has a large collection of Indian films in the DVD format and their collection of streamable videos is likely to grow in the near future. These developments are clearly phenomenal improvements for Indian cinema’s availability to South Asians in the U.S. markets when compared to the down-market, chilly theatres of cold Chicago in the mid 1980s.


Bollywood is thriving on the foundation of the high-octane economic growth of the last 15 years, higher disposable incomes in the hands of the bulging middle class in India that demands more entertainment and also growth of revenues from global markets. The spread of Bollywood culture abroad and the excitement it commands in the Western media and in the large, South Asian diaspora around the world have added more confidence to the investors in Bollywood cinema.

The malling and multiplexing of India, along with the introduction of digital distribution and exhibition, are remarkable shifts in the film industry. They reflect the changes in national policy intended to reshape India for the 21st century global economy as a capitalist power. The balance has been tipped to serve the priorities of enhancing the capitalist market and the fast growing middle class. The upscale mall and the luxurious multiplexes, while expensive for those Indians who cannot afford to buy a full meal every day, are nevertheless offering a wider variety of film entertainment to an elite audience. The multiplex audience, perhaps the most globalized of all, appear to enjoy the benefits offered by these developments and, as they walk past the world famous brands of merchandize at the glistening mall, they get to enjoy the best that Indian, and even Hollywood cinema, can offer.

I have shown in this paper that the state’s intervention in the economy is not simply about the broad strokes of policy to liberalize the command and control economy of the previous 50 years, but it is also about sorting out conflicts that arise between contending capitalists. More often than not, as we have seen in the case of multiplex theater chains and their battle with producer-distributor combines, the state functions as a mediator to preserve the interests of competition. It is not a neutral arbiter of power. As we have seen in this case study, the net effect of the state’s mediation buttressed big investors in the multiplex theatrical market. The large firms in production-distribution on the other hand lost out this time.

The state attempts to legitimize its intervention by arguing that it serves the public (consumers of films or ticket buyers at the multiplexes) and, if competition is preserved, the market mechanism ends up serving the broader public good. However, as we saw, ticket prices actually went up.

The digital theatre has written the swan song for the age-old distribution and exhibition system in the country where prints were shipped to thousands of theaters by bus or rail. A digital file arrives via satellite to these newly converted theaters that feature DTS, Dolby and surround sound. The older classification of theaters—A, B, C centers—has become irrelevant in this time of change because a new film can be released simultaneously in large cities and small towns. The distributors use computer technology to establish a higher degree of control over the single-screen exhibitor.

It is clear to me that not all people will benefit by these technologies or structural changes equally. In cities where affluent populations live and where transport and energy supply may be abundant, exhibitors and distributors benefit by introducing new distribution technologies. The large, urban middle class certainly has access to a wider selection of films from within and outside India. The multiplex market has also resulted in more opportunities for new filmmakers and established producers to make a greater variety of films. However, the audience will end up paying higher and higher prices at the box office to support these new ways of finding digitized pleasure.

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