Friday, January 20, 2006

2 week break

I'll be traveling over the next two weeks to Chennai and Kolkata. While web access won't be a problem, I'll be busy with wedding-related work. Expect notes on all that and more early next month!

Monday, January 16, 2006

"I'm in the Internet"!

As I was writing about my interview with Onir, the person next to me in the cybercafe received a call. It was his boss.

"Hello, yes boss, i'm on lunch break"

I suppose the boss wanted to know how long his lunch breaks lasted.

"No boss, just 30 minutes. Then on the way to the client's office, I thought to quickly check email."

Boss didn't catch on.

"I'm in the Internet sir, in the Internet."

Man deserves a part in a desi rip-off of The Matrix, no?

Who can compete with Karwa Chauth?

Bombay cinema going global has helped low-budget “indie” filmmakers, is a common refrain these days. “Going global” points not only to production practices and marketing techniques that consciously address audience worldwide, but also the emergence of multiplexes in urban India. And if not for multiplexes, and the multiplex audience, a film like My Brother Nikhil (MBN) would never have done as well as it did. Even 6 or 7 years back, a film like MBN would not have stood any chance against big-budget tear-jerkers with lavish song-and-dance routines and the inevitable karwa chauth sequence.

But how much of this is industry myth/logic? I had an opportunity to interview Onir, the director who financed, made, and marketed MBN, and here are some things I learned from him.

To begin with, the “multiplex audience” is a catch-all term that explains little. Audiences that watch films in multiplexes are diverse – not only do they vary (taste, spending power, etc.) from one region of the country to another, they vary within the same city. In Mumbai, for instance, MBN did very well in Bandra but sunk without a trace in Ghatkopar.

Second, promos work only for the opening weekend and maybe a few days after the opening. Into the second week, a film’s fortunes depend pretty much on word-of-mouth advertising. And when a film like MBN isn’t running house-full by the second week, exhibitors immediately pull it out of prime evening slots and give it an afternoon spot. Who, as Onir asked, would skip work and watch a film like MBN in the middle of the afternoon? In other words, if you don’t have a big banner supporting you, you cannot hold on to the best spots and screens in a multiplex.

Third, films like MBN have always done well in the international cinema circuit. But over the last decade, with “Bollywood” entering this space aggressively, a film like MBN now has to compete with a Veer Zaara.

Fourth – NRI audiences. Again, a very diverse audience is often stereotyped as one that watches Indian cinema for nostalgia value and little else. So films like Tango Charlie get released in theatres in the US and UK, but MBN or Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi struggles to find an exhibitor.

And finally, NRI conservatism. After a screening in Chicago, one woman asked, “what kind of message is this U-certified film giving to Indian youngsters? And why did you make a film on homosexuality and AIDS when you know that AIDS affects more heterosexuals in India?” Onir went on a 11-city tour of the US, and says close to 80% of the audience was non-Indian. And the one screening that was held in a very desi venue – the Naz cinema hall in LA, only 30-odd people turned up.

AIDS and gay rights versus the karwa chauth genre. Right. That's fair.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Amitav Ghosh's latest

"It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written." These are lines from "The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi," an essay in Amitav Ghosh's latest book. A collection of essays that have been published in publications such as The Nation, The New Yorker, and Granta, every review I've come across so far has nothing but good things to say. Pico Iyer's review here and the LA Times here.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


I met a friend from Madison for lunch today, and we spoke about wasps. He studies them - he spends hours in an arboretum in Madison watching them go about their business. While I vaguely knew that wasps were social creatures (feeding the young is a collective job, for e.g.), I didn't know much else. Until today. By way of explaining his dissertation project, my friend went regaled me with many a wonderful wasp tale.

The one I found most interesting concerns reproduction. Apparently, wasps in Madison flutter their wings to create a vibration around the nest, which in turn influences the wasps in their larval state. Vibrations influence some hormonal changes, which then have an impact on the way the larva develops into a wasp. This is his hypothesis, by the way.

And what do wasps in other parts of the world do? Well, there is wasp colony at the Indian Institute of Science here in Bangalore. Wasps here bang their heads against the nest which also results in vibrations (of a different frequency). Fascinating, no?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Growing Old in Bangalore: a Snapshot

An uncle and aunty I know in Bangalore have a son who works in Glasgow, Scotland. He is their only child, and after nearly a decade, they are now used to their son being away and have also accepted the idea that he is not going to move back. They know they will grow old together, alone.

Uncle and aunty have a nice routine - wake up early, go for a walk (which includes visits to temples along the way), eat a light breakfast, read the newspaper and chat awhile, lunch, a nap, afternoon cup of coffee, uncle goes out to get groceries and veggies, dinner, news on TV, and to bed early. Except on Saturdays.

On Saturdays, uncle carries the telephone handset and keeps pacing around the house waiting for his son to call. Uncle and aunty both know that he will call around noon. But they will not put the handset down until have heard his voice.


I have a folder in the C:\ drive called "Interviews." This folder now occupies a large percentage of drive space - close to 40 interviews. But, *sob*, they're all sound files. I had resolved to spend weekends listening to the interviews and transcribing them. But tell me, when you're in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, is it really possible to lock yourself up in a room and listen-type-listen-rewind-listen-type and so on for hours on end? I have notes - i was good about that. After a long day of interviews, I'd sit and jot down some of the most interesting parts of the day's conversations. But *sigh*, transcribing the whole interview?

Monday, January 09, 2006

do women have to be rowdies to be fans?

I saw a wonderful clip from Sandakkozhi on SUN TV a few days back, a clip that spoke directly to how women’s fan desires and attachments are never taken seriously (or even acknowledged).

The scene unfolds in a cinema hall where a Rajnikanth film is being screened. Initially, we only hear a lot of noise – whistling, comments, yelling, dancing on the seats and in the aisles, and so on. All par for the course, with one exception: the voices sound feminine. Only when the camera moves in a little more do you see the young women behaving like “rowdies.” A group of college-going women have taken over the job that we tend to associate with men in the front rows.

The camera then pulls back and we see some reactions from others in the hall who are completely surprised and to an extent, pissed. A couple of guys in the back row (who happen to be one of the women’s brother and his friend) are horrified and whisper to each other: “look at her, she’s behaving like a rowdy…I don’t want to be seen here, it’ll be such a disgrace (Maaname poghudhu).” The others are simply too stunned to react. One man, sitting right behind these women, tells them to keep quiet and how un-womanly their behavior seemed – he gets shouted down, his wife tells him to shut up, and the fun continues!

Fan activity is a realm of film culture that scholarship on Indian cinema is yet to address in systematic fashion. The two notable exceptions are Srinivas’ pioneering work on the relationships between fan associations and major stars in the Telugu film industry and Sara Dickey’s analysis of fan associations in Tamilnadu (part of a book, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India).

Building on scholarship on Tamil cinema that has examined the relationship between the construction of stardom and the politics of mobilization, Dickey provides a very useful ethnographic account of this aspect of fan activity in Tamilnadu. She does, however, ignore the possibility of fan activity that might not necessarily be “public” in the sense of there being a neighborhood fan association that meets at street corners, at tea-shops, outside cinema halls or other such spaces. Indeed, her analysis circumscribes fan activity in Tamilnadu as that defined by working-class (often lower caste), male youth in visible, public spaces.

A significant problem with this notion of a fan association as constituting a “public” relates to the question of gender. For instance, Dickey uncritically accepts responses from women who claim that they are not members of fan associations because it would not be looked upon kindly by their family members and would make their reputations questionable in the neighborhood. Just because women aren’t out whistling and hooting in cinema halls or forming neighborhood associations doesn’t mean they aren’t fans, no?

In what terms would Dickey describe the desires and attachments of thousands of “respectable” middle-and upper-middle class women who constitute the primary readership for Tamil magazines like Kumudam and Snehidhi which include a lot of film-related content? How would Dickey read a scene like the one I describe above? Do women have to be "rowdy-like" to have their fan desires acknowledged and understood?
[Image from behindwoods, Meera Jasmine, heroine in Sandakkozhi]

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Indibloggies 2005: why I will vote

Bloggers’ efforts have been talked about (not always in postive vein) a lot over the past couple of years. Every respectable newspaper and magazine has reflected upon the influence that bloggers have had in re-shaping news/information flows and thereby, public opinion to some degree.

As someone who has benefited tremendously from the many wonderful bloggers working, as Amit Varma points out, "
just for the love of it," I believe their influence lies in the insistent, everyday-ness of their work. Success stories of mobilization around an issue abound – like the time Sepiamutiny played a key role in organizing protests against a racist DJ. But the larger significance of blogs might rest in the sheer range of voices that are in conversation with each other on a daily basis.

Terrorism & immigration, rural development & technology, outsourcing & globalization, music & race relations, cinema & cultural identity – complex issues that inspire heated and often jargon-filled discussions in academia. Blogs bring these down to earth, personalize them, and provide a space for us to talk. In the process, there are pointless shouting matches that make me throw my hands up in despair. But for most part, the conversations have forced me to rethink some strongest convictions about myself , those around me, and the many worlds I live in. And what’s more, it is immense fun! For all these reasons and more, I will pay my dues by logging on to this site, and cast my vote for those who have made the future of the Web that much brighter.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Film Promos: questions

Forget the movie. How was the promo? What new gimmicks did a promo introduce? And, is the promo a hit?

Yes, people these days actually talk about a movie promotion being a hit or a flop. Take Rang De Basanti, for example. Rahman’s music, esp the title track, is already a hit. Aamir sports a brat-pack college look. And the film’s promotions are all over the place, so much so, it is impossible to move around in a city like Bangalore without being reminded of the film sooner or later…the film, even before theatrical release, has enveloped the city like a skin (that will be shed in time for the next big film promo). [Note: Aamir’s contract for Rang De Basanti stipulates his participation in every promotion. He was part of the show at Mumbai’s Crossroads Mall where he walked the ramp in Provogue designed clothes, the film’s fashion tie-up, and obliged screaming fans with a little dance.Pics here].

Film publicity these days is no longer limited to print ads and theatrical trailers. While print and hoardings remain key advertising channels, most films these days have multiple “media partners” – comics, radio, TV, Internet, Cell phone networks, fashion labels. Most films, it would be fair to say, have a transmedia life much before they hit screens across the country and abroad. It is almost as if the promotion blitz generates a narrative that, in pre-convergence era, would only emerge after the theatrical release.

While much of it can be dismissed as hype, I wonder if this is a feature of post-celluloid cinema that is here to stay. At one level, the entire promotion package is nothing more than an attempt to get audiences to the theaters for at least one weekend (following which it is pretty much word-of-mouth advertising). Hype helps to an extent, yes. But is this only a new marketing mechanism that is struggling with an old problem – box-office returns – or is there more?

There is a certain mix of elements: a montage of song clips, scenes that intrigue, and dialogues that are striking (comedic, melodramatic, horrific, etc.). This is the basic package. Then there is the microsite, which gives you a little more: behind the scenes stills, detailed information about cast and crew, production notes, wallpapers for your computer, an A/V gallery of trailers and song-clips, and a link to a discussion forum. Further, a tie-up with a channel like MTV or [V] leads to popular shows on these channels re-worked with the film’s content. Like MTV’s “Naughty Hour” for the film Neal n Nikki. These shows generally include interviews with the main characters in the film, the director, producer, script and dialogue writers, and sometimes, the music director(s).

So in many ways, the film itself is only one component of a cinematic experience that is dispersed across many spaces. Different elements of films are re-packaged as brands or commodities that circulate across multiple media and thereby, enter different circuits of consumption as well. The question that all this raises is: if the film today is much more than the 2-3 hours that one sits through in the cinema hall, what kind of a narrative are we experiencing? What does such a dispersed narrative do to notions of the “film text”? What kinds of demands does this make of us, and how does the industry respond to the ways in which we now use new media technologies (cell phones, iPODs, etc.) at our disposal? Through such usage, what kinds of social networks are being created? What implications do interactions in filmic-social networks have for our understanding of relationships between cinema and public culture?

[image from]

Monday, January 02, 2006

Parallel Trajectories of the WWW: an Anecdote

Pleasure and entertainment, I claimed, were not a part of the vocabulary of ICT4D initiatives in rural India. Let me recount a story. I was in Madurai, visiting different kiosks with another academic (an American professor) and were accompanied by two people who had done wonderful and painstaking work to set up the kiosks and were responsible, in many ways, to ensure that the kiosks functioned well. One kiosk, we were told, was proving to be a problem because in the evenings, the PC there was being used to watch films and sometimes, porn. The professor I was with clicked his tongue and asked what was being done about this “problem.” And I recall being amused that no one anticipated something like this happening in a kiosk run by two young men!

I bring this up to point to how a certain mode of using the computer and the Web was construed as being a disciplinary issue and clearly outside the ambit of “development.” How could these boys watch films and porn when the kiosk was set up with the goal of helping the village and its denizens “leapfrog the industrial revolution?!”

I don’t mean to underplay the project leaders’ concern – a space that gets associated with a group of men watching porn isn’t one that women are inclined to visit on a regular basis, to consider one very obvious dimension of the problem. And I am not suggesting that ICT4D initiatives think creatively about using porn as a hook to getting rural India online! There are many serious problems to be addressed (English as the language of the Web, for instance) before the Web as a medium becomes a part of everyday life.

The question is, are there lessons to be learned from the way other “new media” are now as much a part of rural as urban India?

Parallel Trajectories of the WWW (Part I)

I spent last summer (2004) in rural Pondicherry talking to people in villages where the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation had set up information kiosks (thagaval maiyyam) with Internet connectivity. And the year before that, I spent a summer hanging out in the outskirts of Tiruppur (near Coimbatore, in Tamilnadu) trying to understand how people made sense of the Web. My own experiences with the Internet in India has been via cybercafés in Bangalore and now, through interviews with a number of media execs running dotcom companies. I am struck by the very different careers that one communications technology has had in India over the same period of time. It seems that India’s experiments and experiences with the Internet can be traced along two parallel trajectories. (It is also clear that a community of practitioners, funding agencies/venture capitalists, policy-makers, and academics has developed around each path. There are some very interesting points of intersection, but more on that later).

On the one hand is the emergence, over the last 6-7 years, of the dotcom sector in India. Spurred on by the development of the IT industry as a whole over the last 10-15 years, a number of India-specific websites and portals have established themselves as key spaces in the world wide web. Portals and sites such as Indiatimes, Rediff, Sulekha, Yahoo-India, and Indiafm are all established players in the Web business. Further, while PC penetration in India is still very low, there is little doubt that the Internet, as a new medium of communication, is firmly entrenched in the urban imagination. In a city like Bangalore, cybercafés are ubiquitous – so much so, I’d even claim that they rival the darshinis in terms of presence!

Much of the urban middle class is now conversant with cyber-terms such as email, chat, surf/browse, webcam, and so on. I’ve been using cybercafés in Bangalore for nearly 7 years now and can confidently say that the demographics of Internet usage, while dominated by the 14-30 age group, has gradually expanded to include middle-aged parents who correspond with their relatives in different parts of the world (if not within India). The Web now is as much a part of these folks’ media ecology as satellite TV and FM radio.

Now consider another life that the Internet has had in India. In rural India, the Internet has been enmeshed in the
discourse of
ICT4D – Information and Communication Technologies for Development.There have been a number of interesting and high-profile experiments carried out, with varying degrees of success, by a range of actors. Some of the well-know ones include MSSRF’s work in the Pondicherry region, n-Logue/Tenet/IIT-Chennai’s work in the Madurai region of Tamilnadu, the Akshaya project in Kerala, and Drishti’s project in Haryana. [for a more comprehensive listing, see this report]

In rural India, the Internet has largely been introduced as a wonderful new tool for “development.” Radio and television failed us, but the Internet, now this is going to be revolutionary, has been the general sentiment. It is another matter that we are yet to witness an ICT4D project that has succeeded either in terms of usage or financial sustainability. Again, please go here to read more about these and other problems.

So powerful has the rhetoric of “leapfrogging the industrial revolution” been that info-kiosks and telecenters in India are viewed exclusively in developmental terms. The burden of “leapfrogging,” it would seem, was placed squarely on rural Indian. Millions of dollars have been spent on ICT4D initiatives, vast rural tracts have been “integrated” into the new communications network, software programs have re-worked to suit different local languages, and hundreds of volunteers have painstakingly set up IT centers in hundreds of villages. Yet the question of pleasure and meaning is never asked. Pleasure and entertainment, it would seem, are the province of urban, English-speaking elites.