Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. 

I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood’s relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of “national cinema” was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.


You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”