Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My Blog Post in the Mumbai Mirror!

Mumbai Mirror runs a section called "Bloggers Park" which features snippets from blogs on hot topics. I've been reading the Mirror here not 'cos I particularly like the paper, but because it comes bundled with the Times of India which is what my relatives get at home. So I was reading the entertainment pages this morning, poring over the details of Amitabh's illness and surgery when I spotted the bloggers park section. And much to my surprise, my post from yesterday was right there! And what's more, I was in the Mumbai Mirror office yesterday interviewing their entertainment editor! Heh.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Amitabh Bachchan's Illness & Fan Moments

Every media outlet here is going to town with the Amitabh Bachchan story. For those who don't follow Bollywood on a regular basis - Amitabh Bachchan was hospitalised two days back ("severe stomach ache"). Doctors did the needful, tests were conducted, and the superstar's condition was declared to be normal. Now Amitabh falling ill worries the nation. And the media, saturated as they are with Bollywood coverage, have done their bit in reminding everyone of how close India came to losing Hindi cinema's greatest hero. Again, for Bollywood non-observers, Bachchan took a near fatal punch on the sets of Coolie back in 1982. As everyone loves to recall, Indira Gandhi (prime minister back then) visited him in the hospital. It was that big a deal.

What is interesting to me here is the public expression of fandom. Fans, in the Hindi film context, have never been organized like they are in Tamil and Telugu film cultures. And when you talk to film journalists, publicists, producers, critics, and so on, you realize that where Hindi cinema is concerned, the notion of being a "fan" is very diffuse. But everyone will agree that the word "fan" is tied to the activities of the front-benchers in cinema halls around the country (the gandhi class, as it were).

The Bachchan moments, however, are interesting because fandom, for a few days, becomes a defining element of public culture. Stories of excess, naturally, are recounted with much glee. There is one story I've heard, of a fan who ran backwords for more than 500 kilometers as a devotional gesture for Bachchan's speedy recovery in 1982. Such acts of devotion aside, looking at media coverage during these moments says much about how fandom is less a subcultural realm and more an integral part of Indian film culture.

Let me recount what Jerry Pinto told me a few weeks back when I explained what my project dealt with. After the Coolie accident, when Amitabh was recovering from surgery, Mid-Day used to publish his breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. Everyday, for almost a month. And when some "discerning" readers complained about this, Mid-Day put out an editorial saying sorry, but we're doing this simply because our reading public wants to know and be assured that their superstar is recovering and will soon be back in action. And remember, Mid-Day's readers aren't front-benchers (discounting college students without money). The closet is thrown open ever so often.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Post-it Notes

The last week or so has been incredibly hectic, but in a good way where work is concerned. I leave home around 9:00 in the morning and get back around 9:00, discovering new parts of Mumbai each day, simultaneously admiring and cursing the way this city moves! Here are some post-it notes...

#1: The Morning Commute: We've all heard stories about how incredible the morning train commute in Mumbai can be. Well, this is one aspect of Mumbai life that lives up to all the hyperbole. I now know the best spots to wait on the platform, and how to deftly avoid the mass of people rushing out of the train while getting a toe-hold. Yes, there is only space for toes, and on some occasions, I've found myself walking on others' feet. And I now know how to shove the person in front of me without pissing him off.

#2: Meeting Channel [V] Folks: Anyone remember "Quick Gun Murugan" and "Aunty 303"? Well, I met the folks who wrote those brilliant promos and even got to talk to the woman who played Aunty 303! While talking about those promos was exciting enough, my conversations with those involved with programming during the early years of [V] has given my project a very important dimension. It is impossible to understand contemporary Bollywood's intersections with the Web and the mobile phone without going back to the early years of [V], and the manner in which [V]'s programming of Bollywood content led to the emergence of a "Hinglish public." More on this later, but I now have a chapter title :)

"We Are Like This Only": Bollywood, New Media, and the Emergence of a Hinglish Public.

#3: Waiting for Jackie Chan: I'm usually a patient bloke, willing to wait 30-45 minutes for an interview that may or may not be worthwhile. But I lost it a few days back. I was to tag-along with a film journalist who was on his way to the Jackie Chan press conf at the Marriott in Juhu. So I got there, and parked myself in a plush seat in the lobby, looking around at all the stars and starlets walking around. But I ended up waiting for more than an hour, only tobe told by this journo that I'd have to wait longer. Apparently, there were so many folks from the press waiting to talk to Jackie Chan, things were getting delayed a lot. The only nice part of it all was, I did get to see Jackie and his tour-guide Mallika Sherawat.

#4: How Bollywood Music Became Cool: Play 6 film songs one after the other, and it does nothing to change the way film music is perceived. It is not "cool." Think Doordarshan's Chitrahaar and you know what I mean. Now consider [V]. You have a Bryan Adams number, followed by a Bally Sagoo remix of Chura Liya, followed by a song from a film. And this is not once a week, but every day, wall to wall. Suddenly film music is juxtaposed with "cool" remixes and pop music from around the world. This programming shift is one of the key elements that lends film music a "coolness" in the mid-90s that wasn't the case previously.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Celeb Sighting & a Brief Encounter with Akshay Kumar!

I was at the Marriott in Juhu this afternoon to meet with a film publicist who has done a lot of work with "new" media - from Channel [V] to microsites to ringtones. She works with production houses, but her main work these days is with stars. Every star and aspiring actor needs and has a publicist today, no two ways about that. Anyways, so there I am, in the lobby of this fancy hotel, chatting about my project and listening to her answers. Picture this ok? Me, in jeans, shirt, and shoes (I don't think they would've let me in had I worn chappals), and in walks Sanjay Kapoor. I gawk a little bit, and tell the person I'm interviewing how much I hated his acting in Raja (which also starred the one and only Madhuri Dixit). Sanjay waltzed by and I turned my attention back to the interview. [My interviwee, of course, was used to being around stars]

I try to focus on the interview and not let my eyes wander around to spot other Bollywood celebs, but no. It was not going to happen. In walks Akshay Kumar and what's more, he comes right up to where we're seated. My eyes grew wider as he neared the couch, and I nearly fell off the couch when he came up, smiled, and said hello! At this point I didn't know that Akshay was, until a few months back, my interviewee's client! So I sat there while they made small talk, wondering all the time what I would have done had Mallika Sherawat come by (who is currently my interviewee's client). Probably been in jail by now for behaving inappropriately...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Harry Potter films are "Bollywoodian"?

This is quite something folks (thanks to Durga for the tip). Yesterday's Wall Street Journal carried a story about the latest Harry Potter film, the Goblet of Fire, and quotes Mike Newell:
"We set out to make a kind of Bollywood entertainment, a great big
fountain of variety," says Mr. Newell. "It's a great big basket of goodies.

Mike Newell is known for films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, which could also qualify as Bollywoodian I supose. I was considering watching only desi flicks while in India and saving Harry Potter for February when I'll be back in the U.S. But this seals it - I have to watch this movie now and check out what exactly leads Newell to claim Bollywood status for the film.

Does Harry sing a song to serenade Cho Chang who, like many a Bollywood heroine, rejects his proposal? Does Hermioine lurk around corners overhearing Harry's conversations with Chang? Does she poison Harry's mind against Chang? Does Dumbledore lead the entire school in a group dance? Does Hermione help Harry in his battles with the dark forces much like Basanti in Sholay? Ah, the possibilities :)

UPDATE: I was at the rediff office yesterday to meet a guy who is a key part of their Movies desk. While waiting in the lobby, I picked up a copy of India Abroad and what do you know, there was a story about Mike Newell and his aspirations to Bollywood-ness. I don't have quotes, but I'll paraphrase. This man was introduced to Bollywood by Ismail Merchant and he apparently likes the way Bollywood blurs genres. Ho hum, boring notion from someone who doesn't get it, I know. But what irritated me was another quote later in the article - Newell says that Bollywoodian films can have a spine, but that you have to hang a basket of flowers on the spine to make it a Bollywood flick. Anyone feel like ranting against such uninformed crap?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In the Filmfare Office!

At around noon today, I stepped into the Filmfare office in Mumbai. For a good minute or so, I gaped around and just couldn't bring myself to ask someone where the Editor sat! "So this is where stars are made," I thought, looking at filmi journos in their cubicles, typing up stories for millions of star-struck readers around the world!

I snapped out of it, of course, and reflected for a moment on how academics are beset by the curse of having to explain experience. For much as I try, the experience of stepping into the office of India's oldest film magazine (Filmfare was first published in 1952) is ineffable. How do I explain how delighted I would be to lock myself up in a room filled with rows and rows of back issues of Filmfare? What currently fashionable academic parlance do I bring to bear on the thrill of speaking to the Editor of the magazine that gives me wonderful little details on the lives of stars I've idolized? But perhaps it is this sense of excitement that will keep me going in spite of the everyday frustrations of fieldwork. Patience, I tell myself each morning. Patience, and eventually things will begin to make sense.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Creating India 2.0 (and “faffing” about it)

This is’s vision statement. They aspire to redefine digital life and culture in India in the coming years. India 2.0. I spent yesterday at Indiatimes’ swank office in Gurgaon, mostly hanging out with folks who work in the Corporate Group (a team of people who are responsible for “strategy”). Indiatimes is a portal, but a glance at the left sidebar of the homepage indicates otherwise. A portal is quite the understatement – these guys have a finger in pretty much anything cyber-India related. And as several people in the office said, no one quite knows how the elephant manages to move, but it does. And successfully at that.

Where my interests were concerned, it became clear that the entertainment-related action was all based in Mumbai. There are a few key people based in Delhi, however, and I plan to meet them sometime this week. I am particularly looking forward to meeting with a couple of dudes who work on mobile gaming. In terms of Bollywood’s intersections with new media, there is no way I can ignore the centrality of cell phones. While ringtones and wallpapers continue to generate much revenue, much energy is being expended on developing cooler games. The
Mangal Pandey game, for instance, was quite a hit.

An interesting piece of info: the urban youth segment is not the biggest downloader of ringtones and wallpapers. It is the auto driver segment. Given that the cell phone is by far the coolest gadget this class strata owns, it appears that an auto driver is more likely to “extend his experience” of the cell phone than a 20-something urban middle/upper middle class guy. The youth segment is bored and wants better games.

And “faffing”? The art of talking about new concepts/product innovations in very impressive fashion and then doing nothing about it. Faffing. When Shashank (my insider friend at Indiatimes) explained this, I wasted no time in informing him that PhD students are naturals at faffing. In seminars, at conferences, during one-on-one meetings with our advisors, over booze with fellow faffers, when we teach hapless undergrads who have no clue they’re being faffed at (esp when we’ve spent 10 minutes preparing for the day’s lecture) and so on. This is not to say that I didn’t learn anything yesterday! But more on that once I’ve done a few more interviews.

The one other thing I have to mention: the monstrous mile of malls in Gurgaon! It is quite a sight – vast stretches of undeveloped land pockmarked by high-rise apartments and malls. What are the apartments called? Beverley Hills, Belvidere, Princeton – folks who can afford to buy a 1 crore apt like the angrezi names (and clearly like living right next to a mall). As for the malls, they don’t compare in size to amriki ones – at the end of the day, a single Sears store is larger than 2 or 3 desi malls put together. I didn’t have time to shop or anything, but did get to eat a McAloo Tikki for lunch!

While there is much to be said about how malls are gradually redefining the idea of the bazaar in urban India, there is one quick observation I want to make. The mall is the only place I’ve seen where handicapped people are at ease. Needless to say, there is much more that these malls can do in terms of handicapped access. But when one considers the fact that policy – at whatever level – doesn’t take into consideration handicap access at all, this seems one small step. I’ll google this, talk to some people, and come back with some more information over the next few days. But if you’ve come across any
writing on this, pl pass it along.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

mumbai, travel, research...tentative steps

I'm now in Mumbai, getting used to taking the train in this impossibly big city. I'm staying with relatives in a place called Chembur, and the train station is a short walk from home. I've taken the trains twice now, and haven't had a problem getting in or far. I'm yet to experience peak hour train journeys here! Over the last two days, I've slowly ventured beyond the train routes. This afternoon, after a meeting with a veteran journo, I took a cab to Crossword, picked up a copy of Time Out, and took another cab back to V.T., awed by the beach and the skyline.

On the research front, the last couple of days have been quite productive. I've spoken with a few film critics, the editor of Filmfare, and met an Economic Times journalist who seems to know pretty much everyone there is to know in Mumbai! Parmesh's friend, he had all sorts of interesting stuff to say about the transitions the film industry has gone through over the last few years - the changes in promotions/marketing, the influence of multiplexes and film clubs, malls, and so on. And most important, towards the end of our conversation, not only did he give me a few phone numbers, he also jotted down a list of folks I would want to meet and promised to send me an email later today. Good stuff!

I'm off to New Delhi for week starting tomorrow. Out there, in addition to doing some family stuff over the weekend, I'll be spending a few days at the Indiatimes office in Gurgaon, some time at Sarai, and meeting film critics at major newspapers and magazines (and perhaps look into what NDTV has been doing on the film front).