Stories and images of China in U.S. news media vary from seeing China as threat or as an economic colossus with pollution, labor exploitation and human rights issues.

Shopping mall in Beijing, China.

Gold jewelry on display at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: M. Pendakur.

West Edmonton Mall, Canada.

Dubai Mall.

Ranjit Theater, single screen cinema in Mysore. Photo: M. Pendakur.

Young men at a single screen theater. From Bollywood Dreams by photographer Jonathan Torgovnik.

Super Star, Rajinikanth fights greedy capitalists who exploit students, in Sivaji


Rain sequences and sexual innuendo.

Helen, the queen of seduction, in a club dance scene in Caravan (Nasir Hussain, 1971):

Dance numbers offer color, costume, drama and music.

Major star Katrina Kaif dances to an "item number" in a Bollywood film.

Young men lined up to buy tickets at a single screen theater. From Bollywood Dreams by photographer Jonathan Torgovnik.

Ramoji Film City is one of the biggest film studios in the country, located on a large estate on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad in southern India.


Huge cut-out of Rajkumar on Bengalurís theater row. Photo: M. Pendakur

Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Majors lobby group, drops “America” from its logo to mask its true identity of being a Hollywood cartel.

Provocative poster for a recent film in Hindi.


Woman purchasing a movie ticket. From Bollywood Dreams by photographer Jonathan Torgovnik.



Digital pleasure palaces: Bollywood seduces the global Indian at the multiplex

by Manjunath Pendakur

This is one of the latest shopping malls in Bengaluru, a fast growing and sprawling city of nearly 10 million people, known for its Information Technology industry. What is special about this mall is that it houses the first multiplex cinema fully owned by Cinepolis, a Mexico-based transnational corporation, that boasts of a partnership with the beverage giant Coca Cola.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The growth of malls and multiplexes in India has been phenomenal. In the 20th Century, there were no indoor shopping malls in the entire country. Only 3 new malls were built in 2001, but in 2005 that number went up to 100 (Zakaria, 2006, p. 37). By 2010, 223 glistening malls arose with 785 cinema screens embedded in them (Adesaria, 2010).

The movie industry in the country started to refer to these venues as places where the “classes” go and the single screen theaters as venues for the “masses.” The malls and multiplexes are the latest symbols of a neoliberal India where the masses and the classes are being redefined. Why is this happening now and how are these multiplex cinemas and its audiences affecting India’s mammoth film industry? I shall explore these key questions in this case study by not only looking at the political economy of the film industry but also shifts in the cultural arena. Scholars and students, who are mostly familiar with text/aesthetic/auteur analysis of Indian films, may find this essay useful in better understanding them.

Class and caste

In order to better understand the film audiences and the recent trends and developments in the industry, we have to delve into class and caste in India. Because Indian culture revolves around caste issues, it can be bewildering to the outsiders to understand the intricate ways in which caste weaves into a person’s life. Class as a category is about property ownership and some people overcome the odds against them and climb up the class ladder. A person is born into a caste and they may convert to other religions to get rid of their caste identity, but people remember a family’s caste history.

Class and caste often intersect in India. While generalizations are difficult because of vast differences from region to region, India is a society that is stratified by class and caste. In certain parts of the country, lower castes have broken through the barriers to attain economic and political power (for example, the Nadars of Tamilnadu and Lingayats of Karnataka). Each community or members of a caste have developed their own cultural practices. There are hundreds of castes and, for the most part, these caste categorizations do not necessarily match up with what people do these days. In other words, with modernization and urbanization caste divisions are somewhat diffused, if not completely evaporated.

Caste is a powerful identity marker. One may rise above their class position by acquiring wealth. It is, however, much harder to erase a family’s identity and history. Muslims, Christians, and other minority religious groups are not part of the Hindu caste system. Hindus set aside a whole lot of people as ‘untouchables’ who are, for all practical purposes, outside the caste system. Indian government outlawed untouchability, however, the stigma is difficult to erase. The former untouchables, who go by the name ‘dalit,’ constitute about 16% of the total population. They have mobilized under the multiparty political system and are seeking justice and equity legally and politically.

Caste creeps in quickly at critical moments in a person’s life, for example, in birth, death and marriage. Indian popular cinema deals with these tricky issues related to caste differences and offers a progressive, egalitarian vision of society. However, a century of “preaching” through cinema for eradicating caste has not had much of an effect on caste and class divisions as they continue to persist in contemporary India.

We know that India’s population has grown to about 1.2 billion people. India’s Census in 2011 covered 35 States/Union Territories, 640 districts, 5,924 sub-districts, 7,935 Towns and 640,867 Villages (http://censusindia.gov.in/). According to Census data, more than 50% of India's current population is below the age of 25 and over 65% are below the age of 35. About 72.2% of the population lives in some 638,000 villages and the rest 27.8% in about 5,480 towns and urban agglomerations (http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/population/

When we compare these data to the 2001 Census, we see that nearly 2,000 villages have disappeared from their count. This is the tip of the iceberg of migration of landless and poor people leaving for bigger towns and cities looking for opportunities. The neoliberal policies since the 1990s have led to an agrarian crisis never seen before. More than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide to escape from poverty and their inability to feed their families. Lack of government subsidies, crop failure due to climate change, corrupt bureauracy, and global competition driving down prices of agricultural commodities are the reasons for this calamity

In rural areas, where more than 70% of the people still live, a family’s class position is directly related to their land ownership. Some landowners are involved in money lending and some are absentee landlords. Those who do not own any land have no choice but to sell their labor power to eke out a living. The land-owning class is divided into four groups—Rich, Middle, Small and Marginal/Tenant. Small peasants are also involved in selling some of their labor power to the other landowning classes, while the Marginal/Tenant farmers have only their labor power to sell (Vakulabharanam et al, 2010, p. 5). In some better developed states such as Karnataka where I grew up, factories in rural India produce various commodities for sale in the cities—rice, cooking oil, sugar, and plastic bags. Such places have workers who are not tied to land.

The middle class (urban and rural)—consisting of property owners of all sizes, traders, officials in the military and the state machinery, teachers, professors, high technology workers in the corporate sector—has grown to about 300 million people. They have disposable incomes that are attractive for new investments in leisure and other consumer industries. Skilled workers’ average annual salaries in the Information Technology sector are in the range of Rs. 400,000 ($8000) to Rs. 652,000 ($1300). A senior software engineer who works for companies such as Tata Consultancy, InfoSys, or Oracle may earn higher than Rs. 1.1 million a year ($22,000). While that is a lot of money in the hands of a small percentage of the workforce, their salaries are less than what is paid to comparable workers in Singapore and China. In contrast, in the city of Bengaluru, a domestic worker earns monthly a meager Rs. 800 ($16) to Rs. 1500 ($30) for 4-6 hours of work. That person usually goes to 4-5 houses to cook, clean, wash clothes, or do other household chores in order to earn more. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner is usually included. Some of them own scooter and have a cell phone, but owning a house or an apartment is enormously expensive in that city and beyond their reach. Such workers would usually come from outside the city and live with other family members. They are not the clientele for the malls and multiplexes, but they will see movies at a local, single screen theater.

The paradox of rich and poor has existed in India throughout the feudal period and the colonial period and it persists in the modern, democratic India. The wealthy in the country have done splendidly well under the neoliberal regime since 1991. Forbes magazine has reported that by 2008 there were 53 US dollar billionaires. They are like the robber barons that sit atop the pyramid of wealth in the country and, in collusion with the state, have plundered the natural resources for private profit. The accumulation of wealth in the rich’s hands is unimaginable for most people in the country, as they struggle for one decent meal a day. Mumbai, the epicenter of Bollywood film culture, is the locus of more than 6 million poor people who live in terrible conditions without clean water, sanitation and roads in their communities that are labeled “slums.”

Cinema-going experience

To cater to the new consuming classes, the very idea of integrating cinema theaters in malls is relatively new not only in India but also in other parts of the world (Rockstar, 2011). In the past, well to do Indians traveled to Singapore and Hong Kong to experience modern shopping malls. Now they go to Dubai. These massive shopping complexes showcase imported goods, designer clothes, gold ornaments and electronics.[2] The first multiplex cinema (16 screens) appeared in Toronto, Canada at the Eaton Center, a downtown mall back in the late 1970s and immediately after that multiplexes were being included in the malls of other U.S. cities. Chicago, for instance, had one such multiplex in the Water Tower shopping mall and other multiplexes developed in and around suburban areas.

India and China, with more than a billion inhabitants in each, have caught up with the likes of Japan and Singapore. One recent report about China in the Los Angles Times states,

“Over the last four years, the number of screens in China has doubled to more than 6,200, a figure that's projected to double again by 2015. Box-office receipts hit a record $1.5 billion last year, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television” (Pierson, 2011).

The report further states,

“The cinema-building binge is powered in part by ideology. The Communist government is a major investor in film production, distribution and movie houses. Film is a way to strengthen state influence at home and export Chinese culture abroad.”

For nearly sixty years after China and India decolonized, news from those two Asian giants was framed in such way their complex societies, their histories, and their economic and political struggles fitted a preordained picture in the Western mind. For instance, the dominant images for India were snake charmers and the emaciated bodies of famine stricken children. The unprecedented economic growth in India, huge pool of scientific labor, spread of urban culture and consumerism changed the dominant media representations starting in the 1990s. Stories and images of China in the news media vary from a major ideological and financial threat to the West’s supremacy to an economic colossus that has incredible challenges with pollution, labor exploitation and human rights issues.

In addition to China and India, people in various parts of the developing world are witnessing urban multiplexes. While I am presenting a case study of India’s film industry and the various trends and internal battles, Jump Cut’s international readers may find it useful to compare the Indian example with their own countries.

Going out to see a movie in India is still a family affair. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and children of all ages make a night out of seeing movies at large, cavernous halls that feature a single screen. This was also the experience of U.S. moviegoers in the 1930s and 1940s. Going out on a date to see a movie was not common until recently. Dating in middle class families, even in urban areas, is still frowned upon. I, however, saw young couples at multiplexes in major cities because the large city gives anonymity to one and all. Arranged marriage is still the norm irrespective of their class and caste. More common are groups of friends—men and women—going to see a movie as a social event. Families enjoy socializing during the intermission.

The single-screen cinema is also a reflection of the class structure because the ticket prices vary depending on how far the patron is sitting from the screen. Those who cannot afford the balcony seats, sit on the main floor. Women can choose to sit separately from men and they can enter from a separate entrance. That is not the case with multiplexes because they are located in urban or suburban settings and draw on a more affluent audience that is also generally college-educated. I saw couples sitting together to watch movies at multiplexes in Bengaluru and Mumbai. In both—single screen and multiplex theaters—the audience is lively. They come ready to respond to what is going on with their favorite stars on the screen. They whistle, clap and even act out their favorite lines and songs from that movie. Cell phones ring during the screening and people do texting also. Some people are annoyed by such behavior and choose not to go to movies in the theaters. Furthermore, to get to a multiplex they have to contend with traffic, noise, pollution and other problems of the big cities, and choose to stay home and watch television.[3]

To appeal to this diverse audience, the Indian producers and directors created a movie “package” with a long narrative, usually running to three hours, punctuated with songs, dances, and unbelievable fights. This form goes back to the early days of cinema and was perfected so to speak after the arrival of sound in the early 1930s.

Government censorship curtailed sexual representations to some extent, but producers and directors with political influence have managed the Censor Board to their own advantage. Others devise clever ploys to get around the rules to please the mass audience. Provocative images of women with lots of cleavage exposure, dance numbers that have bump and grind movements, and sexual innuendo in dialogue and song stand in for actual sex on the screen. Rain sequences and the wet sari scene are still common. Each Bollywood film may have what is known as an “item number,” a provocative song and dance performed by a woman, often surrounded by drunk men. In the last century, there was always a dance number in a nightclub, represented in the films as a den of illicit liquor, smuggling, and other antisocial behavior. These days, heroines perform such provocative dance numbers.

Directors go to extraordinary lengths and producers spend a sizeable portion of the film’s budget to create lavish sets (or go to foreign locations) and employ expensive dancers to fill the sets along with the principal actors. Such scenes are meticulously directed with a great deal of care and attention to color, costume, drama, and movement. These item numbers and other song and dance sequences are highly popular with the audiences. Some patrons see a movie multiple times, just to enjoy the music and dance numbers.

These “elements” that constitute ‘entertainment’ in a film are like the ingredients in a spicy Indian curry dish or ‘masala’. In fact, audiences in India refer to the local films as ‘masala movies’; however, in the last ten years the term “Bollywood” has gained currency as a label for this popular film form. It draws heavily from the Indian myths, epics, folk and other cultural traditions. The narrative is not linear, but stories within stories are woven into the plot structure. Melodrama is punctuated with comedy sequences and, in many a film, comedians have a parallel story line along with the heroic struggles of the male protagonist. Kissing is not a taboo any more, although it is generally avoided. The masala film form has persisted through the decades while Bollywood producers have made more genre specific films (horror, comedy, suspense thrillers) that have found an audience in the multiplex theaters. Most of them have song and dance numbers because the mass audience loves music and the film song serves to enhance the narrative as well.[4]

In general, malls and multiplexes have developed in the big cities and are beginning to expand into small cities. Single screen theaters are predominant in small cities at this time and also in district and county towns. As India’s capitalist development is uneven, not all areas of the country look the same. The economically backward states lag behind compared to some of the cities and towns that this essay deals with. As can be expected, private capital flows into areas where audiences have purchasing power to buy expensive tickets at the shiny multiplexes.

In 1991, the Indian government abandoned socialism that was the vision and direction set by the nationalist movement to create a more equitable and just society. Instead, the government embarked on the neoliberal path, a radical departure from the “command and control” economy that was led by state control of strategic industries and services to an economy that favored private ownership and control (Das, 2000, 2002). To accomplish this new goal to create a fundamentally different, but a capitalist economy the Central Government revamped some of the laws and created new ones. One such major change was the enactment of the Competition Act, 2002 that is aimed at facilitating a competitive regime for private capital as well as state-owned enterprises. The other action that has had a direct bearing on the film industry is allowing 100% foreign direct investment in all sectors of the fast growing entertainment business. These policies and the new regulatory regime to build a capitalist society are often billed in the media as India, Inc. or India Shining.

While not all of that has been completed yet and there is widespread concern and opposition to some of these policies and the high level of corruption among the political elite, the signs of ‘success’ of neoliberal policies have received wide media attention in the West.[5] By these accounts, India is poised to become the third largest economy in the world by 2040 (Zakaria, Newsweek, March 2006, p. 35). Michael Elliot of Time gushes with the following words,

“Fueled by high-octane growth, the world’s largest democracy is becoming a global power. Why the world will never be the same” (Time, June 26, 2006, p. 37).

Another article notes that India has the highest number of billionaires in Asia, “pushing Japan to the No. 2 spot for the first time in 20 years” while pointing to

“80% of Indians who live on less than $2 a day, making India the country with the world’s largest number of poor people” (Time, 2006, p. 18).

I argue that the structural changes in the film industry must be seen in the larger context of political economic change in India. Otherwise, the meaning of what people experience and whose experience we are talking about will be completely missed. I will also illustrate the impact of how the capitalist state structures the economy favoring one class versus another, and one group of capitalists versus the other, all in the name of serving the public at large. It is crucial to understand the role of the state as a mediator in this globalization process where various sectors of power compete to gain a privileged market position and higher profits.

Size and importance of the film industry

The particularities of how the film industry works in India strike the outsiders as disorganization and chaos. Major stars sign up for dozens of pictures at a time. As such, producers have to scramble to get dates to complete the film. In a star-driven industry, the producers are at the mercy of these ‘bankable’ names. Entire crews are taken abroad to beautiful locations in Switzerland or other areas of Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States, and South America in order to get every one in one place for extended periods of time to complete principal photography. There is stardom and celebrity status not just for those actors, but also music directors and composers get top billing because popular cinema is studded with songs and dance numbers.

Super Stars of Hindi language cinema:
Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Shahrukh Khan.

Songs are recorded well in advance and releasing an album of those songs is celebrated with pomp and ceremony, just as a film’s opening is. Because the Indian moviegoers love music and songs in films and those songs get played on radio stations over and over again, the public is well aware of an upcoming film. Men and women who sing these songs for movies are accorded high status in the industry, just as rock stars do in Western culture.

Until 2000 banks did not loan money to the film industry. That changed soon after when the Indian Central Government recognized film and entertainment as an “industry.” Vertically integrated corporations were almost non-existent in production, distribution and exhibition. It was mostly a cash economy, dominated by family-owned businesses and the underworld, which made it nearly impossible to establish how much money was transacted and for what purpose (Pendakur, 2003, pp. 51-55).

None of the agencies of the Central Government provide systematic data on the size of investment, revenues, profits, taxes collected, number of films distributed, tickets sold, and films exported. The same sad state of affairs exists in the industry organizations in the country. The best we can get are estimates. In 2001, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimated the Indian entertainment industry size to be around Rs. 96 billion ($1.95 billion) and projected a steep growth thereafter. Recent estimates suggest that the media and entertainment industry grew by 11 percent between 2009-10, from $12.9 billion to $14.4 billion and was supposed to grow by 13% in 2011 (India in Business, 2012). The film sector’s revenues totaled $1.9 billion in 2010 reflecting a decline from the previous year by 6.7%. All projections into the future are, however, rosy based on population growth and projected higher ticket prices. The film industry revenues are expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2014 (India in Business, 2012).

The Motion Picture Association of America’s branch in India commissioned a study by the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers that provides another picture of the size of the film industry. The researchers studied Hindi language films and what they call “key regional language films” to come up with their estimates. In 2008, according to this study, the Indian film industry size is estimated at $2.5 billion and was expected to grow by 11.5 percent over the period of 2008-11. The domestic box office accounted for $1.8 billion with overseas box office, ancillary rights, and home video making up the balance (MPDAI, 2010, p. 10). By 2013, domestic box office was predicted to grow to $2.8 billion primarily due to the growth in average ticket prices. Whichever study is chosen for our purposes, it is clear that the revenues are growing and, as we shall see later, ticket prices are also rising.

An estimated 1.4 million workers are employed directly in the motion picture industry in various capacities at the hundreds of studios located in the principal cities of India. The industry creates other jobs related to the core businesses of production, distribution and exhibition. Those jobs amount to approximately 3 million (MPDAI, 2010, p. 4). Trade unions have been around a long time in this sector but they are weak.

More than 1000 feature films are produced in 23 languages, including English (CBFC, 2010). Such a diverse and complex industry was almost impenetrable to Hollywood until the 1990s (Pendakur, 2006, pp. 89-90). With India’s borders wide open for Hollywood imports, the number of films that the Hollywood Majors bring in has doubled as are their revenues.[6]

The 12,000 plus screens in the country reportedly sell a lot of tickets but no one can provide an accurate count. Variety reported in 2007 that 10 million tickets were sold every day (James, 2007, p. 8). I estimate ticket sales to be at least three to five times that number because the theater owners underreport sales in order to evade taxes. It is especially the case in small cities and rural towns where the theater owner and the distributor’s agent collude. They recirculate the tickets from the entrance back to the box office several times for the same show. A more recent report suggests a total of 3.5 billion tickets sold every year and was expected to rise to 4.5 billion by 2011 (Bhushan, 2008).

There are roughly 27 million Indians living outside India, and they love to watch movies on the big screen and acquire DVDs and music CDs. Only the Hindi language cinema has been able to tap into this worldwide audience. As a result, audiences from Nairobi, Kenya to Los Angeles, USA enjoy Hindi language films. More than half the films made in India are produced in the four southern states, and even some Hindi films are made in the south, but Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films do not play in theatres all over the country or worldwide. They may be shown at morning shows in cosmopolitan cities such as Mumbai or get a wider release in Bengaluru with its diverse film audience. Generally patrons for those films tend to be those specific linguistic communities. In fact, this holds to be true for Indian cinema the world over. Hindi films have had a global audience whereas regional language cinemas remain the domain of specific language groups or cinephiles.

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