Friday, October 28, 2005

Lifestyle Exhibition – more a Mela than a Mall

Does anyone recall, back from the protectionist days of the late 1970s and 1980s, yearly trips to lifestyle exhibitions in Madras, Bangalore (and other cities, I assume)? These were exhibitions where you could buy anything and everything for discount prices – the latest vegetable cutters (which never work once you bring them home), washing machines, fridges, all sorts of cleaning supplies, vacuum cleaners, clothes, decorative stuff, etc. etc. And as a kid, I’d look forward to the annual exhibition, usually held in Palace Grounds, ‘cos I’d get to eat cotton candy, pani puris, and go for a ride on the super-exciting Tora Tora!

Anyway, my parents visited this year’s ICE Exhibition in Bangalore and came back with quite a loot. As my mom fished out one item after another from plastic bags, I expressed approval at some of her purchases, clicked my tongue in irritation at some, and kept quiet when she displayed something I would not have bothered considering. Once everything was put away, there came the inevitable: “you know, there are so many other things that you’d find interesting. There is so much you can buy to take back to the U.S. which you can give away as gifts…cheaper than your outlet mall or even the dollar stores!”

So off I went yesterday with my mom and dad, inspite of the rain, to my first Lifestyle Exhibition in nearly a decade. As I moved about, saying no to shopkeepers who insisted their wares were the best buy under the sun, enquiring about prices here and there, and occasionally entering a stall, I couldn’t help wondering in what ways this exhibition was different from the many malls that have cropped up all over urban India. It wasn’t quite a mela…but it was closer to a mela than a swanky new mall, but again, not quite.

An exhibition is a once-a-year gig (or seasonal perhaps, like a mela? Does anyone know?) – nothing permanent about it, and of course, that is a great USP (unique selling proposition) to have. But that also accords the exhibition a carnival-like status that the mall cannot even dream to approximate. The exhibition, like a mela, is part of a city’s memory. And that memory is re-kindled and reconfigured every year. The trip to the exhibition always involved thinking about what last year’s visit was like, and gleefully anticipating treats and surprises this time around.

The din is another obvious difference. Movie dialogues blasting out of an electronics stall mix with film music (or Indipop in some cases) from a neighboring one, and this is rivaled only by the noise generated by salesmen, gadget demos, and customers. There are no sound-proof doors like in the new malls; in fact, there are no doors at all. The mela and the exhibition understand bazaar culture and don’t think of noise as an irritant to be controlled but rather, as a necessary component of shopping in public, as part of a public.

Then there are the shopkeepers/salesmen/saleswomen. The range of emotions that a salesperson draws on during the course of a transaction is quite amazing. There is some pleading – sir, madam, please, just take on look, just one minute sir/madam, best product, best price sir/madam, and so on. Once you’re in the stall, looking at or handling the product in question, it is all about information, and delivering that information with utmost conviction. Tech specs, price comparisons, range of use, warranty, and so on. The salesperson has about a minute to impress. And now, the bargaining. The salesperson has to size up the customer and then decide whether the bargaining process is worth getting into. If yes, then s/he begins with a firm “no sir/madam, this price you won’t get anywhere…final price.” There is quite a range of scenarios that can unfold at this stage and I will spare y’all the details.

And then the food. There is a food court of sorts, but unlike the mall, here the smells are overpowering. Imagine a rainy afternoon in B’lore, now enter a 20ftx20ft area under a canvas tent. You’re standing in the center and around you are open stalls making and selling – potato bonda, chilli bajji and other deep fried delights, lip-smacking chat, the usual Bangalore tiffin items (masala dosai, chow chow bath), lots of amazing filter coffee courtesy Coffee Day, ice cream, cotton candy, and so on and on. Not your overpriced double chocolate mousse and double-shot latte at a swanky barista where you’re waited on by folks who’re paid to be nice to you. Here you have to be brusque or you’ll be shoved out of line in a matter of seconds (unless you’re an old lady or small kid). You’ve got to speak up: Boss, eradu bonda illi!

Finally, the people. There is no way I’m going to hazard class-based distinctions here, but I am willing to speculate that unlike a mall, a mela or an exhibition bring different zones of the city into contact and thereby, different kinds of people too. Vague? Maybe, but I’ve run out of time and this has turned out longer than a decent blog post warrants. So, I’ll end with a list of things we bought:

  • A cotton bedspread (from Erode, Tamilnadu) with nice floral prints and big elephants. Typical desi print you’d find in any desi home in North America. And yes, I did buy pillowcovers to go with the bedspread.
  • Banians. Don’t cringe, they’re very practical things to wear in humid places. Besides, every ad for banians I’ve seen here involve hot women. But I’ll say this much: I don’t wear Rupa ki baniyan (sorry, bad PJ).
  • Sweet saunf at a Rajasthani stall that had lots of other goodies too.
  • A khadi kurta.
  • A VIP Aristocrat suitcase.
  • 2 cups of coffee – I generally wait 2 weeks before I start stuffing my face with chaat and fried stuff…my body needs the time to get used to being here.
My next post will be a thoughtful piece on the "banian," a piece of clothing that continues to serve millions around the country yet suffers from being labeled uncool by urban yuppies.

Article Published in Biblio!

I have an article in the current issue of Biblio! Following the Graduate Student South Asia Conference at the University of Chicago (Feb 2005), one of the organizers worked with Biblio to put together a few essays on popular culture in contemporary South Asia. Essays include a critical piece on the notion of “public culture” (William Mazzarella), a consideration of how popular culture and the discipline of media studies will shape the future of History (Dipesh Chakrabarty), a reflection on the “dilemmas for current scholarship on time in popular culture” (John D. Kelly), a short analysis of post-1980 Bengali cinema (Sharmistha Gooptu), censorship and the close-up shot (Babli Sinha), and finally, my piece – a look at Bollywood, new media, and participatory culture (titled Rowdies, Rasikas, and Fans).

This issue isn’t up on the Biblio site as yet (and the site requires registration). So until I find the time to scan the article and post it here, if anyone wants to take a look at the article, send me a note (

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I am in Love with Shahrukh Khan…but I’m a Journalist!

One of the first interviews I conducted as part of fieldwork towards a dissertation on fans, Indian cinema, and new media, was with Ash (pseudonym), editor of a Bollywood-focused website. Ash’s story brings into sharp relief a number of questions regarding the world of film journalism, especially in its global, Bollywood variant. [I am not concerned here with the regional language press].

Ash’s introduction to the world of Bollywood cinema was with the SRK starrer, K3G. In her own words: I was hooked. This led to her exploring a number of other films and soon, she began participating in online discussion groups devoted to various aspects of Indian cinema. Ash went on to say that she would love to meet SRK, and has been trying for a few years now.

We talked about all this for a while, and then the conversation turned to her work as a film journalist and editor of a major Bollywood site, and generally, what it meant to be a fan and a journalist. She said: well, we all know that the word "fan" comes from "fanatic," but I'm not that kind of a fan. And then went back to talking about how much she'd love to meet SRK. She also explained that when she does meet him, she would like to have a "normal" conversation with him. And after a small pause, added, "but you know, I'm afraid I will lose it when I see him face-to-face."

We laughed a bit about this, and proceeded to talk about her work. As a journalists, she said, "I have to be careful not to let my love for a star bias what I write...either for or against my star or other stars. I cannot lose control."

I have a feeling this is something that will be repeated a number of times as I go off to interview film journos in Mumbai...a neat little balancing act between two subject positions - as a fan, and as a professional journalist. I also think that I will have to look more into how new media have brought about key changes in the domain of film journalism (arguably one of the key modes by which Indian cinema becomes a "public" institution).

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Inches & Centimeters…Megabytes & Gigabytes

This is something that has struck me over the last week that I've spent in Bangalore. During the day, I'm navigating Bangalore on foot, in a bus or an auto. I come back home and walk over to a cybercafe right opposite my flat. Two kinds of movement...

It seems there are two scales of movement that drive a city like Bangalore. Everyday, when people step out of their homes and onto the streets, they move by inches and centimeters, often literally. Pedestrians, cyclists, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, cars, trucks and buses move on Bangalore’s choked roads, avoiding hitting each other by mere inches or even centimeters. During rush hour, in many parts of the city, traffic only moves by inches and centimeters. It is how you navigate the city…slowly, often with intense irritation, but knowing that little can be done. Appealing to local government has little impact...

Indeed, it seems as if most branches of government also move at this pace. If the road you live on is full of potholes and the entire neighborhood is sick and tired of it, then one day, you bring together a few folks and pay a visit to the Councilor (the local govt official at the Ward level). The councilor is usually a sympathetic man who listens to your complaints with great sincerity, visits your neighborhood, and agrees with your assessment of the infrastructure. He promises action and leaves. And then, the papers and the files - they move (if at all they do) by inches and centimeters, from one government desk to another, occasionally leaving one office to reach another, similar, bureaucratic cage.

Now consider a different scale of movement that drives Bangalore, in its high-tech offices and thousands of cybercafés that dot the landscape. Megabytes and gigabytes. Information and images zip through cyberspace at speeds that we don’t quite fathom in any tactile sense. At Electronic City and ITPL, thousands of engineers and managers work round the clock to keep Bangalore moving...and then they leave their offices and in a matter of seconds, are back to the world of inches and centimeters. Ditto in cybercafés. On a daily basis, hundreds of people (mostly 20-somethings) travel unimaginable distances that, while virtual, define their lived realities in very material ways. They log on to chat or surf the web for news, music, movies, porn, and of course, to blog.

Are there other life-worlds that criss cross these two highly visible ones? Sure there are…and they’re critical to reducing the friction that these two kinds of movement inevitably generate. Migrant construction workers who dig roads to lay optic fibre lines, the immense service sector that has emerged to support the high-tech sector, senior citizens who take care of the grandchildren while the parents work 10 hours days with 4 hours commutes, and on and on the list can go. But for a number of reasons, the kinds of movements that define these folks' isn't as visible...or alluring. I've thought about this in other ways, but never in terms of movement, both real and virtual. Interesting, no?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Buy a t-shirt, proceeds go to quake victims

If you haven't already done so, visit Chapati Mystery and if you feel so inclined, buy a nifty t-shirt - proceeds, as is explained, go to quake victims.

Meeting ARR fans face-to-face!

I spoke with the moderator of the ARR fan collective yesterday. He asked me what my schedule was like, and went on to invite me to a meeting on Saturday. He also said he’d like to meet with me before going to the meeting. I’m excited at the prospect of attending a fan meeting, but also a bit nervous about how I will be received.

I know I’d be hesitant about an academic lurking around, taking notes, asking questions that would not normally be a part of the meeting, and so on. But I also know that I wouldn’t mind having an academic around as long as the academic was, at least to an extent, a fan. Fan-scholar, scholar-fan. These terms, that are at the center of much discussion in media & cultural studies, now matter to me much more. I have to, however provisionally, figure out what these terms mean to me, and how I am going to present myself to a group that I intend to study.

I’m nervous about something I cannot control completely – I can spend time preparing an introduction that makes clear my level of involvement as a fan and as an academic. I can also tell them about how fandom is at the very center of developments and transformations in the “new” media industry in India and around the world. In all probability, I will also end up saying something about how fans have been (mis)represented in both popular and academic discourse in India.

Sounds like I’m making this more difficult than it is, or should be. But I cannot afford to not have the support of the people I will be meeting on Saturday. These guys are regular participants, and key in terms of pushing the group as a whole in one direction or another. Their interests often define what the group as a whole wants to achieve.

So, as I was thinking about this last night, what book did I have for company? Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. It is hard to read a book like that and not feel, even if only momentarily, that my concerns are utterly inconsequential. But I suppose the sensible response is: as long as I’m fired up about the questions I’m asking, I should keep at it. Come back over the weekend to hear about the meeting!

On another note, I'm off this afternoon to check out the newly opened Oxford Bookstore in Bangalore. As their website says:

Oxford Bookstore, Bangalore is the largest bookstore in the city. The bookstore is spread over 6000 sq feet of dynamic vibrant space at Leela Galleria. The Shelves
Leveraging on relationships built over 80 years with various publishers, it offers over 100,000 titles spread over 89 sections along with books, music, gifts, Internet, Cha Bar, gallery space and stationery, videos, CD, CD ROMs, DVD. The store is committed to bringing the best in international publishing and book retailing to the city. This is the third such store in India.
Pictures of the bookstore tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Bangalore

There is so much to write about my flight from NYC to Bangalore, one blog post just won't cut it. So here are some interesting snippets, and hopefully I'll come back to some of them over the next few weeks.

Item #1: Flying Kuwait Airways during the month of Ramadan.
I suppose seasoned international travelers won't find this surprising, but I did. The Kuwait Airways brochure in the seat pocket had detailed information about prayers while flying. There was a neat justification offered for why getting out of the seat and praying in the aisles was not something Allah would approve. There was also a complicated set of calculations for figuring out a praying schedule while crossing multiple time-zones.

Item #2: Pop Culture Wife, Marxist Husband
As I sat waiting to board the flight out of NYC, all I could do to entertain myself was watch a football game on TV (the Badgers were playing Minnesota). A middle-aged Indian woman came and sat next to me, and after a few minutes asked me what I thought about the ads on TV in the U.S. compared to India. I muttered something about how TV in India has pretty much settled into a similar pattern. I didn't expect what came next - a highly informed take on the complexities of advt and youth culture in the state of Kerala. She then asked me what I was doing, heard me out, and began saying something when her husband entered the scene. She introduced him as a disgruntled old Marxist who disagrees with everything she says about contemporary TV/media in India, but has spent the last 4 months at his son's place in the U.S. watch ZEE and B4U! More on this later.

Item #3: Gold Flake Cigs and Chai at 5:30 a.m in Mumbai with an old friend
Prasanna, a buddy from college, came to receive me in Mumbai. We got into his car and drove to the nearest potti kadai (roadside tea-shop), ordered by-2 chais (one chai, split in two) and a Gold Flake. Heavenly :)

Item #4: Bangalore, 23 deg celsius
As the flight landed in Bangalore, the pilot announced that it was a pleasant 23 deg outside. I stepped out and was instantly reminded of why, in spite of all the chaotic traffic conditions, Bangalore remains the best city in the country.

Item #5: The Plane
I didn't get much sleep on the plane, and given that the entertainment programming sucked, I ended up staring out the window quite a bit. At one point, cruising way above the clouds, all one could see was a brilliant full moon in a dazzling star-lit sky. And I couldn't help feeling that the plane I was in was the most incongrous object there...just didn't belong.

All this and more in the days to come. For now - happy to be at home in B'lore, mom's cooking, Internet access for ridiculously cheap rates, great FM radio, and a nice bookstore right next to where I live (for Meenu: I'm only browsing, I swear).

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rahman and his Fans

(link via Radha and Lazygeek)
Fans designed and presented this collage to A. R. Rahman during the 3-D concert in Bangalore. He was quite taken by it, fans say, and has promised to display the collage in his studio! For a number of wonderful pictures of the concert - the stage being prepared, ARR's keyboards, fans hanging around meeting folks in the ARR troupe, ARR with fans and the collage, etc., take a look at this.

I'm not sure how long it took to make this collage (only wish I'd lent a hand), but it is very intricate and includes images from all 94 of ARR's albums!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Only Parmesh could connect me to such key folks in the media sector in Bombay! Among others, he has put me in touch with Rajeev Masand who has written for most major Indian newspapers, served as the Entertainment Editor of Star News, and produced the hit show Masand ki Pasand. He now works for TV18.

And then there is Shashi Baliga, editor of Filmfare! I can't tell you how excited I am at the prospect of meeting the editor of Filmfare, and all the journalists who write for Filmfare. And, how cool would it be if I got to tag along with a filmfare journo when s/he goes out to interview a star, maybe Rani Mukherjee...i think i'd totally lose it, stand there, eyes glazed, much like Raghu Romeo when he managed to get near the sets of his favorite soap opera. Maybe I should keep a little gift handy in case I meet someone?! Suggestions?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Mis-reading Idle Conversation

I had a follow-up conversation with the CEO of Wahindia, and he wanted to know more about fan activity in online discussion groups. So I told him how it all began, the early days of newsgroups like rec.arts.movies.local.indian and and where things stand now with services like yahoogroups, fan-created websites, blogs, and so on. He also listened with interest to my descriptions of what goes on in these fan collectives, and then mentioned that he has been looking into some fan collectives in order to figure out how can tap into them as a potential revenue source. "Hardcore" fans, he went on to explain, are of particular interest to him as consumers who might be willing to pay for content. And I was nodding along, saying yes, that might indeed be worth looking into.

But then he also said that he wasn't particularly excited about what goes on in fan collectives. All they do is talk to each other, he exclaimed! Now I'm not sure what he was expecting, but on the whole, he sounded disappointed that fan activity, for the most part, involves talking and arguing at length about the star's life, his/her films or music, and so on. Of course, there is much else that happens, but he was saying this based on a couple of hours of browsing around.

Following this, he told me to go take a look at the revamped Wahindia website which is now more "interactive." One can now download clips, leave comments on the website, and even move the downloaded clips into a cellphone from where you can distribute it further. All very cool, and I could've probed him further for insights into how "interactivity" is thought through and how content is developed with this criterion in mind. But the fan in me just couldn't get past his casual dismissal of idle conversation that happens in fan collectives. The fan in me was miffed. Wtf do you mean idle, I wanted to yell. But I kept quiet, and he went on to tell me more about wahindia's expansion plans, and finally invited me to visit Ann Arbor, MI to take a look at their production process.

I am unsure at this point what to make of his assessment of fan activity. I understand his primary motive - to figure out how to get fans of major stars to migrate to Wahindia, and how to create content and a platform for participation which might make this happen. But what does he expect will happen if and when fans of, say Aishwarya Rai, migrate to Wahindia from a space like Yahoogroups? The central mistake here, imho, is in assuming that fans on yahoogroups are starved of content. Far from the truth. In the Rahman group, there are fans from all over the world, and each one of them has access to film, music, and television content that wahindia can never hope to rival. And, perhaps more important for strategy, fans revel in scouring different media for content and then bringing that into their discussions. So beginning with the goal of developing "loyal" fans isn't likely to work - fans will continue to go to different websites, TV channels, etc. and not be content with one source, no matter how good.

And, it doesn't matter that this content cannot be made available on yahoogroups for others to experience - multimedia content serves as a starting point for "idle conversation," and it is this "idle conversation" that is most pleasurable. The content that wahindia seeks to provide is merely a backdrop against which an "adda" comes into being.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Digital Voice Recorder

The misery of taping interviews and spending countless hours transcribing them is finally over! After much research, I settled on the Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. This nifty little device comes with 64MB memory for upto 27 hours of recording time (in Long Play mode), and most important, has a PC link capability which means I can plug the device into my laptop and download all the files! It also lets me store images and documents along with audio. All for $75!

I can't wait to get my hands on this and give Transana, an open source audio/video date analysis software, a whirl:
Transcribe it, identify analytically interesting clips, assign keywords to clips, arrange and rearrange clips, create complex collections of interrelated clips, explore relationships between applied keywords, and share your analysis with colleagues. The result is a new way to focus on your data, and a new way to manage large collections of video and audio files and clips.