Bollywood as India’s soft power?

A friend of mine recently circulated a TED talk by Shashi Tharoor, talking about Bollywood being India’s softpower. We study in Germany amidst a good mix of students from around the globe. And this was circulated to the entire class.

To explain soft power of a nation in particular, very briefly, is the ability of a region (I defer from using the word country) to influence another region and obtain what it wants, through co-option, in the form of its policies and cultural richness.

I immediately panicked when I saw the talk, almost like a knee jerk reaction. I couldn’t decide what was more confusing, being told that Bollywood is our soft power by someone I deeply respect, admire and voted for, or the fact that there seems to be pride in that fact.

Just to set the record straight, I have nothing against this kind of cinema, which is meant to be purely escapist/entertainment art. For the hordes of economically backward section of Indian population if three hours in a dark room makes them dream, puts a twinkle in their eyes, I am all for it, because they need to escape.

But for the urban middle-class and upper middle class, the so called ‘well educated’ and capable-of-thinking class to perceive Bollywood as our soft power! Now, that’s confusing.

The question is, what is it exactly are we are trying to portray ourselves as, through Bollywood? That all is well, bright and colourful in India? Or that it is a glossier, shinier version of India? This kind of ‘India Shining’ propaganda shows the kind of apathy we have towards the social degeneration being caused by increasing poverty and rapid urbanization in our cities.

We take pride that ours is a liberal and global economy, but are at a loss while dealing with the problems which come with it. Just as a thought, how many of us think about the stories of kids who are playing in the sand pile next to the million construction sites? Even if we do see and wonder, it will be only till the signal turns green. Then it’s back to the next deadline, paycheck and monthly plans of travel.

So many of us, me included, have been fortunate enough to have had good private education, and the opportunities it has opened up for us. But the reality is, basic education is difficult to access to a vast majority of the population, due to their poor economical situation.

It took us nearly 62 years post independence to pass the RTI bill. Child labour was deemed worthy enough to be lawfully abolished only two years ago; female infanticide is still rampant and increasing, thanks to technology. These issues, as everyone is aware, are the tip of the iceberg.

When a British director to portrays our slums, we get queasy and our “Bollywood” celebrities refuse to agree with the portrayal and blog about how the West romanticizes our poverty .But we are told to  accept Bollywood as the tool of our soft power!. We choose to cocoon ourselves in a warm fuzzy feeling of patriotism and we are proud of our Indian-ness, diversity and cultural heritage when it suits us. We are so easily seduced by the likes of people who tell us Bollywood is our soft power.

Everybody is aware of our diverse cultural heritage and that we have more to offer than Bollywood. Why not talk about how we can package our rural cottage industries and use that as a soft power? And our music, folklore or dance. How about our literature, authors like Arundhati Roy, who more or less had people all over the world coming to Kerala searching for Ayemenem. But hey, who needs to cook a whole meal when there is instant noodles, right?

When we have so much to understand and be aware about our own country, so much to be resolved amongst ourselves, it does not make sense to me to be portraying a shinier glossier version of ourselves. Also, I don’t understand our consistent need to be appreciated by the West. I can’t really envision the Western world wearing lehengas everyday, like we have adapted to jeans. And if the music and dance of Bollywood movies has become a mirror for our culture, the identity confusion increases.
In reality, as everyone knows, the word “Bollywood” in itself is borrowed.

But this is what scares me the most, just type in Bollywood as India’s soft power in Google-you will land up with 96,400 results!

Posted by Kavya Gorur

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