Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Off to Vancouver: Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference

Yes, folks who make a career out of watching film and TV (and lately, those who spend way too much time with their playstations and x-boxes) have a society of their own. And every year, they get together in wonderful cities worldwide (London, in 2005), present papers with a lot of impressive jargon, and persuade themselves that media studies is where the action is and to hell with the snooty Ivy League schools who don't consider media studies a discipline in its own right. I decided to join the fun this year, and will be presenting a paper titled "Filmi Addas: Indian Cinema, New Media, and Participatory Culture."

I'm part of a panel on Indian cinema. Does a paper on new media and fandom fit in with papers that deal with "Nishant/Night's End" (Jyotika Virdi on Shyam Benegal's film), "Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani" (Neepa Majumdar), or "Genre, Masculinity and the Hindi Crime-melodrama" (Meheli Sen)? Tsk...tsk...only conference newbies would ask such a question. Unless you submit a panel proposal, you are at the mercy of the conference organizers and given they deal with a large volume of submissions, what could be easier than putting papers on Indian cinema into one panel? Is it frustrating to be tagged as the "bollywood guy"? Sure. But as my good friend Ben says, hey, I'll ride that wagon if it gets me a job!

I'm excited though! Vancovuer is a fun city and an absolute treat if you're a foodie: so far, Ben and I have identified a sushi joint, a south Indian fusion restaurant, and a bakery that makes 30-40 different kinds of cupcakes! And, Jyotika and I have planned an outing to the desi part of Vancouver to hunt for cheap DVDs! I'm hoping the conference venue has free wi-fi, and if so, I'll certainly blog as the conference unfolds. If you've been to Vancouver and have ideas on where to go and what to do, pl let me know.

Bollywood Women in ASCII

For those of you who did not experience in the Internet in the pre-browser, pre-broadband days, this is how Bollywood fans kept themselves amused - creating ASCII images of their favorite heroines (male geeks dominated the early days of the Web). Go here for quite a collection of Bollywood babes in ASCII. Predictably enough, TMBWITW gets three attempts. The geek that I am, I ended up trying to match ASCII images to a photographic ones - fun was had, try it! And oh, the guy who maintains this site takes requests too!
(thanks Arvind).

Monday, February 27, 2006

Chamki, Aancho, Googly, and Boombah!

These are names of Sesame Street characters when they debut on Indian television screens. Called Gali Gali Sim Sim, the show won't feature the Cookie Monster or Rosita. What we have instead is an inquisitive 5-year old (Chamki), Chamki's best friend who loves to read (Googly), a storyteller who takes you places (Aanchoo), and a friendly, cuddly lion who loves to dance (Boombah, from Boombagarh!).

As Asha Singh, director of education and research at Sesame Workshop, explains, the cast will include the local Muppets Chamki, Aanchoo, Googly and Boombah, as well as several human characters representing different regions and religions."

This latest instance of Indianizing a television show is a collaborative effort between Turner International and Miditech. Turner has bragging rights when it comes to TV for kids in India - Cartooon Network India and POGO are a staple of every kid who lives in a cable TV household. And Miditech, run by the Alva brothers (who did some cutting edge stuff on DD, a show called Living on the Edge comes to mind right away), are today production unit with immense credibility and a reputation for innovation.
(via and CNN.IBN)

Friday, February 24, 2006

MTV-Desi: Time to Think Beyond the Hyphen

Here is a commentary piece I wrote for the Convergence Culture Consortium (Comparative Media Studies program) at MIT.

In a recent white paper detailing the centrality of fan communities to media ecologies around the world, Sam Ford and other C3 advisors use the phrase “pop cosmopolitanism” to refer to youth integrating media properties from other cultures into their own everyday lives. They also write that international fan communities play a crucial role in expanding interest and the audience base for media properties, especially in the Asian case. I want to explore this idea here, and argue that examining such fan communities teaches us two important lessons:

  • We can no longer think of culture industries like Bollywood solely in terms of “national” identity – Bollywood is no longer a film industry tethered to India and “Indianness,” and
  • Companies like MTV-Desi would do well to think outside and beyond the paradigm of hyphenated identities where Bollywood is concerned.

Let me begin with my own experiences in fan communities that cohere around Bollywood. The day after I arrived in Athens, Georgia, to begin graduate studies (august, 1999), I walked to a computer lab on campus, logged on, and discovered rec.arts.movies.local.Indian (r.a.m.l.i). Over the next few months, I spent many happy hours talking about the heroes, heroines, and villains of Indian cinema with other fans (many who were immigrants like myself).

In this community, I was pleasantly surprised to see second-generation Indian-American fans, participating from their position as ethnic minorities taking to Bollywood as a resource to fashion a hybrid cultural space that was both Indian and American. What really took me by surprise, however, was the presence of non-Indians in the group. How did they learn about Bollywood? Some had watched a film at an international film festival in their city, some were fans of Hong Kong cinema and had learned about Bollwood from other film buffs, and Indian friends in college or their neighborhood introduced some to the cinema. These non-Indian fans of Bollywood watched films, reviewed them for others in the group, asked questions about the films and aspects of Indian culture they did not understand, became devoted fans of some stars, and some even went on to learn Hindi!

Today, r.a.m.l.i is not where the action is. There are countless multimedia websites, discussion forums, and blogs devoted to every imaginable aspect of Indian film culture; subtitled DVDs are available not only in Indian grocery stores, but also at your local Blockbuster and via Netflix; dance clubs regularly include Bollywood numbers; major cities in the U.S. now have cinema halls that regularly screen Bollywood films; Bollywood, in short, has more than a foothold in American public culture. This story of Bollywood’s early days in America is one that hasn’t been told, and there are some important lessons it holds for both academic and corporate worlds.

#1. Fan Studies and the Question of Global Media

Academics studying fandom often ask how fan studies can “go global.” And media companies ask how they can cash in on the current interest in Bollywood. What we need to recognize is, historically, the cultural geography of Bollywood fandom has always been global. Instead of asking how to study fandom in different media/cultural contexts, we need to recognize that a focus on such transnational fan communities will help us better understand how media circulate and get hinged to varied aspirations around the world. And crucially, how a “non-Western” culture industry like Bollywood becomes a part of the mediascape in countries such as the U.S.

#2: Beyond the National

Fan communities that cohere around the films, music, and stars of Bollywood also tell us that we need to think beyond the “national” as the most important scale of imagination and identity-construction. Over the last decade, it has become clear that the creation of Bollywood properties – films, music, apparel, web portals, mobile games, etc. – is an enterprise that takes place in many locations around the world, and involves people with different affiliations and stakes that criss-cross regional, national, and diasporic boundaries. Bollywood, in other words, cannot be understood in terms of a “national” cinema industry limited to the boundaries of the Indian nation-state or restricted in its imagination by rigid definitions of “Indianness.”

#3: Fan Communities as Archives

The collective intelligence of fan communities can also be conceived in terms of an archive. Not only did early Bollywood fans gather and share trade and press coverage relating to films and stars, many discussions that took place in forums such as r.a.m.l.i grappled with what it meant for non-Indians to begin engaging with Bollywood. These discussions provide a very useful starting point for understanding how new cultural forms enter, circulate, and gradually become part of a wider public culture. For corporations and ethnographers alike, these conversations can provide clues into what it is about a new cultural form that fans find intriguing, what attracted non-Indians to Bollywood in the first place, what was the learning process like, and crucially, how these early adopters became opinion leaders in their homes and communities.

#4: Moving Beyond the Hyphen

At a time when Bollywood is re-imagining itself as a global culture industry, how do we understand experiments such as MTV-Desi? It is no doubt a safe strategy to tap into an identified niche market of South Asian-American youth and count on them to bring other consumers into the fold. But what the story of Bollywood fandom in the U.S. suggests is this: focusing on an ethnic market comes with the risk of neglecting attachments to Bollywood that do not follow lines of ethnicity or nationality. MTV-Desi needs to look outside the world of hyphenated identities and start paying attention to fans like Muffy Saint Bernard – r.a.m.l.i regular, author of Planet BollyBob, drag queen who has performed her Bollywood song-and-dance routine at an L.A. screening of Kaante (Thorns)), and has written about why she rejected Coronation Street and took to Bollywood instead!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Early Bollywood Fandom

I was scouring the web for archives of groups like rec.arts.movies.local.indian and and came across this wonderful, wonderful compilation of humorous dialogues from Hindi films, Ajeet jokes(some made up, but equally funny), and even transliterations of some memorable adverts that made Doordarshan such a riot!

Here's one of my favourites (unfortunately, translations don't always work):

The scene: Pran is looking through a telescope at a safe from afar. He turns to his henchman and says (in the famous Pran style):
Wo safe Johnson & Johnson ka hai. Iss duniya mein sirf teen log use khol sakte hain.
(That is a Johnson & Johnson safe, only three people in this world can crack it open)
Kaun boss, kaun? (Who boss, who?)
Johnson, Johnson, aur main (Johnson, Johnson, and me!)

I wish I'd been part of such early Usenet fun! By the time I got on to r.a.m.l.i, a couple of trolls had all but destroyed what must have surely been a nice group. In fact, it was through r.a.m.l.i that I got to know of folks like David Chute, one of the earliest film critics in the U.S. to write knowledgeably about Indian cinema.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As English as daffodils or chicken tikka masala!

In a recent article on the "Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism," Amartya Sen recounts a description of "unquestionable Englishness of an Englishwoman in a London paper: She is as English as daffodils or chicken tikka masala." After this and many other delightful anecdotes, Sen writes:

Yet the weight of British public opinion has been moving, at least until recently, quite strongly in the direction of tolerating--and even celebrating--cultural diversity. All this, and the inclusionary role of voting rights and non-discriminatory public services, have contributed to an interracial calm of a kind that France in particular has not enjoyed recently. Still, it leaves some of the central issues of multiculturalism entirely unresolved, and I want to take them up now.

One of the issues that he takes up speaks to the recent cartoon controversy. Sen writes:

while religion or ethnicity may be an important identity for people (especially if they have the freedom to choose between celebrating or rejecting inherited or attributed traditions), there are other affiliations and associations that people also have reason to value.

At the cost of sounding a tad frivolous, I would suggest that fan communities that cohere around popular culture artifacts that circulate globally (think anime, Bollywood) are one such space where affiliations and stakes criss-cross regional, linguistic, national, and religious boundaries. Article is in The New Republic (free registration).

(via 3Quarks Daily)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Work and Surf!

Finally, I think I have found a coffee shop in Buffalo where I can work and surf! I tried a few places last summer when studying for prelims - a Starbucks (too cramped), Aroma (on Elmwood, too small), and Spot on Elmwood (a bit too noisy) - and ended up spending most of my time at a library on the UB campus. And last week, a friend suggested taking a look at the Spot coffee shop at the intersection of Delaware and Chippewa. Perfect! Large place, great house brew, enough outlets for every customer with a laptop, and, free wi-fi! This might well be where I write my dissertation in "15 minutes a day!"

Friday, February 17, 2006

Arrival Stories

I’ve read a number of ethnographies that begin with “arrival stories” – about one’s early days in the field, interesting encounters with informants that shape one’s project in important ways, and sometimes, reflections on one’s position in relation to informants/questions/community, etc. And returning “home” to do “fieldwork” makes arrival stories all the more interesting. I was ready for arrival stories of my own. I wasn’t at all prepared, however, for arrival in the U.S. at the end of one phase of fieldwork.

After a long time spent in the field, isn’t returning home also an arrival story? Customs. The friendly immigration officer. Winter. Cold cereal for breakfast. Calling cards to hear mum’s voice. The silence – after 4 months spent in busy neighborhoods in cities like Bangalore, Bombay, and Delhi, a quiet neighborhood in a town in upstate NY, in the middle of winter, is quite a jolt. It has taken me nearly two weeks to get back into the rhythms of life in the U.S., two slow and long weeks.

Have I thought about blogging these past few weeks? Yes. Did nothing blogworthy happen the last few weeks? Sure, plenty. So, why the silence?

Arriving at the end of fieldwork simply means entering another site, one where you are alone with your interviews and archival materials. You have to come to terms with why you left in the first place. Dissertation. The space between fieldwork/research and writing is most certainly not easily divided – research means going back and forth, letting the fieldwork shape the writing and in turn, allowing the writing process to shape further inquiry. But the first time you cross over and are confronted with having to write is one that is very, very anxiety inducing.

Was the fieldwork any good? The interviews sounded good, but how in god’s name are they going to lead to inferences and arguments in a dissertation? Do I have to do more archival research? Maybe I should plan another trip…

Such thoughts and more defined my arrival.

As I gradually move out of this liminal space of arrival and begin dealing with the pains and pleasures (?) of dissertation writing, I will rethink and revive Bollyspace. Stay tuned.