More like doom

More like doom

The subtitle of Bollywood Boom is ‘India’s Rising Soft Power’. And Roopa Swaminathan goes to great lengths to explain what soft power means, starting with a long-winded example of her friend who chose to marry a rich suitor rather than a mere poet. Her friend’s choice, Swaminathan would have us believe, was the might of hard power. Then she proceeds to quote, at even greater length, Harvard professor Joseph Nye and our very own Shashi Tharoor on the wisdom of using soft power.

You wonder where all this is heading, vis-à-vis Bollywood, till finally she makes the point that India’s major soft power export is Bollywood cinema, and how America is finding its global soft power impact threatened by it. Thereafter, instead of substantiating this claim, Swaminathan diverts to a telephone conversation in English, Tamil and Hindi, to narrate how her upbringing has made her multi-lingual. After this rambling, it is back to Shashi Tharoor. And then Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent methods and India’s closed-door policy to outside influences after Independence.

She moves next to the 1990s... ‘Bollywood cinema, which had hitherto held the numero uno status during the closed-off decades, continued to reign supreme after the borders were thrown open’, she observes. Borders were thrown open? Is that linguistic licence or slipshod writing?

In the following chapter, she proceeds to talk about the popularity of Bollywood in Africa and Russia. Regarding Russia, for the most part of the chapter, she gives examples prior to 1990. Where Africa is concerned, she generalises about the continent like it is one country. ‘African women wanted to be and still want to be like Mother India’, she claims. According to her, ‘Another key element in Bollywood films that appealed to African men was the 'He-Man' roles that the leading men played... during the decades between the 1950s and the 1980s’. Did all the states of Africa have the same taste in cinema?

More howlers follow. Talking about how Bandri musicians in Nigeria added their own words — in praise of Prophet Muhammed — to Bollywood film music, Swaminathan observes, ‘This is especially noteworthy given that a strictly Islamic community from Hausa reproduced music from a Hindu country’. Hindu country?

Thereafter, Swaminathan devotes page after tedious page to describing the decline of Bollywood’s popularity in Africa. What happened to her theory about India’s rising soft power? It is no different when it comes to Russia, pointing out, as she does, that after perestroika and glasnost, Russians prefer Hollywood blockbusters.

Apart from not making a convincing case for Bollywood’s rising soft power, Swaminathan’s meandering narrative is riddled with factual errors. Harking back to the time when Raj Kapoor was popular in USSR, she refers to his film Mera Naam Joker and says: ‘Kapoor paid homage to Russia by having the protagonist — a young Raj Kapoor played by his real life son Rishi Kapoor — fall madly in love with an older Russian ballerina’. The fact is the young lad fell in love with his teacher, played by Simi Garewal.

Two paragraphs later, she includes Shyam Benegal in the list of Bengali filmmakers who exhibited their films in USSR. In the same paragraph she states, ‘Bengal’s filmmakers in the 1950s were influenced heavily by Soviet literature. West Bengal itself had a state communist government for multiple decades after independence.’  Simple fact-checks are glaringly conspicuous by their absence.
The faux pas continue through the book.

She describes Dil Se as a love story between a Hindu and Muslim! And in trying to impose her half-baked cultural-political theories on films, she says about Veer Zaara, ‘At no stage are the Pakistanis, who imprison him (Veer, an Indian military officer), shown in a negative light... but Veer systematically breaks the laws in pursuit of his love; they have no choice but to mete out punishment’.

If Swaminathan slumbered through the film, did her publisher sleep through her copy? Perhaps one of the biggest howlers in the book is the following statement: ‘In fact, if you take away the security element of India’s relationship with Pakistan, the regular border clashes that the two states indulge in and the almost century-long Kashmir issue between the two countries, what emerges is an India that knowingly or unknowingly appears to exploit the situation with its neighbour’.

The two countries came into being in 1947, so how is it an almost century-long Kashmir issue between them?

Factual inaccuracies apart, while tracing the rise of Bollywood as a soft power, she is vague about dates and self-contradictory in her observations. Starting the book with an example that happened ‘A few years back’, she relates, in a pseudo-chatty style, how ignorant a roomful of Americans from the Midwest were about Bollywood and its superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

A few pages later, she asks, ‘In all fairness, would the average American know something more about Bollywood today?’ And then replies, ‘Maybe. Maybe not’. Only to state in the following paragraph, ‘Bollywood is now, most definitely, in the American consciousness’. This pretentious book has no redeeming feature.

Bollywood Boom
Roopa Swaminathan
Penguin Random House
2017, pp 272
Rs. 278