Bollyspace

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!


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