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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

New Media, Old Fears?


This is what Screen had to say about the filmi world on March 8, 1991.

- Yes, that is Mohanlal sporting a hoosiers sweatshirt!
- S. P. Balasubramaniam, we are told, recorded 8 songs in a single day for B. B. Films Combine’s I Love You (music by Raam-Laxman)
- Maniratnam’s Anjali has been adjudged best film in the Cinema Express Awards for 1990...

...and so on. I could spend days delighting over such trivia. But the reason this issue of Screen caught my attention is the headline in the right-top corner which reads, “Fight for total ban on Cable TV.” T. Shankar and Ayyappa Prasad write, “In a massive show of solidarity, the meeting of all sectors of the film industry held at the South Indian film chamber auditorium here on March 1 ratified the earlier decision to close down indefinitely. Accordingly, all film activity will come to a halt from March 11.” They go on to report, “Nothing less than a total ban on the operations of the cable TV network in the state will satisfy the industry.”

It is also instructive to note that just a week before this call for a “total ban” on cable TV, a thousand-strong delegation of film industry personnel (including actors Kamalhassan and Rajnikant) had marched along Mount Road in Madras (now Chennai) to the State Guest House and presented a “memorandum demanding the ban of cable TV operations” to Mr. Karthikeyan, advisor to the Governor of Tamilnadu (T. Shankar, Screen, March 1, 1991).

Shankar goes on to report, and it is worth quoting him at length:

“Unlike the pirated movie cassettes, which have to move from hand to hand, cable TV can spread like wildfire enveloping entire residential complexes at a time. The resulting loss to the film industry, in the bargain, cannot be recouped. The safety of the film industry, thus, can no longer be assured unless drastic measures and immediate steps are taken to arrest this pernicious and illegal practice.”

In an issue of Screen dated March 15, 1991, we learn that the Tamilnadu (TN) High Court acted swiftly and ruled, on March 7, that “running a cable TV network is a violation of the TN Exhibition of Films on Television Screens through VCR (Regulation) Act, 1984” (T. Shankar). Essentially, film industry representatives across the country (there are stories of similar protests in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Bombay), were arguing that screening films at video parlours and via cable TV was leading to immense losses at cinema halls where exhibitors were paying a fee and obtaining a license to screen the films.

A few days later, on March 22, 1991, Screen reported that a meeting in Bombay (held on March 14th) and attended by representatives of producers, distributors, exhibitors, and video rights holders “ended on a promising note with an agreement to release the video cassettes in India and abroad after 15 days of the theatrical release” (V. Verma). In Karnataka, chief minister Bangarappa announced, “cable TVs, video parlours, and dish antennae will not be given licenses to operate in the state since it had adversely affected the growth of the film industry apart from it being a bad influence on the younger generation” (no politician can resist commenting on wayward youth). And in Tamilnadu, it was decided that video and cable TV rights will be granted by producers only via distributors’ associations and that too, after 5 years of the film’s theatrical release!

Let us remember that 1991 is when homes across urban India encountered a new entrepreneur: the cablewallah. Enterprising young men were assembling dish antennae on rooftops and stringing wires to hundreds of homes in a neighborhood, charging a monthly fee of about 75-100 rupees. Back in 1991, all we saw on cable TV was Star TV, BBC World Service, MTV, Star Sports, and a “video” channel on which the local cablewallah would screen the latest films (two shows a day – one in the afternoon and one at night!). This is what scared the film industry, and exhibitors and distributors in particular.

I am interested in this moment of convergence (antagonistic, as it may be) between the film industry and the “new” medium of cable and satellite TV because it adds further evidence to what media historians know: contexts change but the arguments remain consistent. Entrenched media systems will do all they can to protect their turf.

I’m not sure, however, that this scenario played out when the film industry(ies) in India encountered the Internet. While many in the industry are very concerned about DVD piracy (and music piracy via the Web) and are struggling to combat it, on the whole, the film industry did not panic when the Internet became the hot new medium of the late 90s and early 2000s. One easy explanation is the number of homes/eyeballs: when compared with cable TV, PC and Internet penetration in India is quite insignificant. But I wonder if the manner in which the film industry reacted to the Internet has more to do with the new medium being a “diasporic” one. This moment of convergence between film and the Web coincided with the growing importance of the NRI figure to cinema, and the gradual institutionalization of diasporic audiences as a “market.” The Internet, as a new medium, was less a threat to established markets and more an opportunity to understand, target, and monetise the diasporic market.

I’ll return to this theme over the next few weeks as I work on an outline of the first chapter of my dissertation – an industrial/institutional analysis of the convergence between cinema and “new” media in the Indian context.

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3 Comments:

  • The film industry has survived inspite of such problems in the past and it will always do so. This is because no medium can really substitute the experience of watching a good film in a good theatre.

    By Anonymous Paresh, at 3/08/2006 9:46 AM  

  • “Unlike the pirated movie cassettes, which have to move from hand to hand, cable TV can spread like wildfire enveloping entire residential complexes at a time. The resulting loss to the film industry, in the bargain, cannot be recouped. The safety of the film industry, thus, can no longer be assured unless drastic measures and immediate steps are taken to arrest this pernicious and illegal practice.”

    Hmmm. I'm skeptical. I doubt if anyone has crunched the numbers, since so much of the accounting in the Indian film industry is under the table. But I suspect that a big chunk of income comes from the sales of soundtracks. And it's in the industry's benefit to maximize those sales by encouraging piracy to those who would then be encouraged to obtain the tapes and CDs.

    Of course, if the tapes and CDs are also piratted....

    By Blogger Raywat Deonandan, at 3/08/2006 9:47 AM  

  • Paresh - yes, I agree with your observation. What I wanted to explore here, however, is the manner in which the film industries in India react to "new" media, all the way from radio in the 1930s to TV and cassette tapes in the 80s, to satellite & cable TV in the 90s, and now with the Web and cell phone technologies. Doing this might help us rethink our understanding of cinema's public-ness.

    Raywat - yes, it is very difficult to find reliable data on this. But your idea of encouraging some kind of piracy to push sales isn't one that finds favor in India. To get a better sense of how piracy is framed by the industry and the state/other legal institutions, take a look at some of Lawrence Liang's work (www.altlawforum.org)

    By Blogger Aswin, at 3/09/2006 7:41 AM  

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