Monday, April 24, 2006

Convergence Culture Symposium@MIT

"There Is No Box! In The Matrix, we learned that there is no spoon – only the idea of a spoon. Stuck in an old paradigm – shatter it. Let's stop talking about "thinking outside the box." There is no box! Let's rewrite the code of consumer relations and branded entertainment. What happens next is up to us."

The schedule for the the first symposium of the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) group at MIT (April 27-29) is now online. C3 is one of many experiments that the Comparative Media Studies program has developed as a way to figure out how a humanities-oriented media studies program can churn out critical thinkers and media professionals who can have an intelligent conversation without rolling their eyes and calling each other names. Thanks to Parmesh Shahani, friend and mentor, I've been involved with the group and will be giving a talk about Bollywood Inc. on April 28 (Session 6: I'm Getting Desi). This is the first time I'll be addressing (faffing to) an audience of media industry professionals, who will, needless to say, be interested less in the political economy of the dotcom sector and more in my opinion on untapped business opportunities.

So I'm off to Boston on Wednesday. Punjabi Dhaba at Inman Square, pizza at Emma's, mango tofu from a food truck, and of course, chai and addabaazi with Parmesh, Sajan and other good friends.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

ImaginAsian: Bollywood and the U.S. Market

For long, folks in Bollywood have struggled to figure out the best way to promote and distribute their films in overseas markets like the U.S. Until a few years back, producers would sell distribution rights to someone in the U.S., and that was it - they had little or nothing to do with the promotion or exhibition of the film after that. And this process itself was, like all things in Bollywood, poorly organized. With biggies like Kishore Lulla (Eros) entering the fray, this process has improvied considerably over the past decade or so. And Web-based promotions are one way for studios/producers to stay in touch with their NRI audiences and seek ways to go beyond the NRIs and attract non-Indians as well. Now, A new venture, ImaginAsian Entertainment, seeks to alter the way Asian films circulate in the U.S. ambitious ethnic brand that has expanded from a low-powered television channel to a vertically integrated media empire in less than three years. As chief executive, Mr. Hong oversaw January's opening of ImaginAsian Pictures, which announced the controversial Korean drama
"Green Chair" as its first acquisition. The film, which unsettled American film festival audiences with its intense story of a woman and her under-age lover, will open this summer on the Upper East Side at the ImaginAsian Theater before moving on to ImaginAsian Home Video and ImaginAsian TV, which reaches 4.4 million households in markets including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That rapid growth has drawn attention from India to Indonesia, with studios whose past dealings with American distributors have often ended with their movies re-edited, shelved indefinitely or quietly shuffled straight to video. In a business climate increasingly inhospitable to foreign films, ImaginAsian plans as many as 12 theatrical releases by the end of 2007. [NY Times]

So far, their success story where Bollywood is concerned is Rang De Basanti, which "grossed more than $18,000 in its opening weekend at the ImaginAsian last January, the second-highest per-screen take in the city behind
"Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." Read the whole story here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Who is Vikku Vinayakram?

Vikku Vinayakram is a master percussionist (ghatam) and can attract crowds even if he is the only performer on stage. But an accompanist getting such attention is a recent development in Carnatic music tradition.[image]

Lakshmi Subramaniam, author of From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India, has a short piece in EPW on the changing position of the accompanist in the Carnatic music tradition. Explaining how the accompanist was pushed to the margins as part of the construction of a performative ideal in which the vocalist and the audience came together in an "interiorised acoustic space," she argues this does not work any more given Carnatic music's "patrons" are no longer only the middle-classes of cities like Chennai and Bangalore, but also NRIs in Cleveland and Chicago.

...percussion has reinvented itself as a key instrument in fusion and has begun to enjoy an almost mythic status with western audiences...also because the modern classical performer has reinvented himself seeking not the nation or its middle class as his patron or deity as the case may be, but the global audience where the perception of the instrument as well as its player occupies a different register. Here the accompanist whose self-definition as an independent artist, whose music blends easily with world music and contributes to its range and repertoire, whose personality, projection and imagination are not trapped within the confines of prescriptive and even
arbitrary notions of “spiritualism”, “classicism” and “tradition” exercise a different agency and command a different rapport with the audience.

Friday, April 21, 2006

vicious spring season

A beautiful day, bright sunshine, the first leaves and flowers of the season...good reasons to open all the windows and shutters and let the gentle spring breeze waft through, thought the baristas at the coffee shop I frequent these days. Little do they know of my struggles with an unseen but paralyzing force known as pollen. A couple of minutes is all it takes - a sniffle and a cough and you know you're up against it. And when your eyes begin itching and watering, you know you're down.

So here I am, sipping my iced chai latte, wondering how unfair it is to expect "15 minutes of writing" when focusing on the screen for more than a minute makes one's eyes water. Very unfair, no? Maybe I should go read Amardeep's posts on theory, blogging, and Spivak. Might spark some ideas, you know (if some Spivak quote doesn't give me a headache).

Maya Bazaar

Says this piece in The Hindu about Maya Bazaar, a delightful film which hit the screens in 1957, and is still invoked as one of the best mythologicals ever made in India:

If any NRI asks you to suggest ways to teach Telugu culture just ask him or her to introduce them to Maya Bazaar first. Further, if they seek to know about their uncles, aunts and cousins back home, bring in their names, "look this is your Balarama..."

This film also has one of the most memorable songs ever - one in which a giant with magical powers gets into a kitchen, and polishes off all the food there while singing the praises of the different dishes on offer - kalyana samayal sadam, kaigarigalum pramadam, andha gaurava prasadam, idhuve enakku podhum...a ha ha ha ha ha, a ha ha ha ha, a ha ha ha ha, a ha ha ha...

Synopsis and other details here.

The Only Star of the Kannada Film Industry

In the Friday Review (The Hindu), Manu Chakravarthy takes a shot at analyzing Rajkumar's position as Kannada cinema's only star:
Rajkumar represents the consolidation of various cultural and political upheavals in the erstwhile Mysore State and the present day Karnataka. Rajkumar who begins his film career without a strong ideological consciousness gets drawn into crucial political and cultural debates because of historical exigencies and cannot escape becoming an icon. Because of these compulsions, the path of the actor branches out in several directions compelling him to play roles not quite matching his basic temperament. It also explains the loss of direction and the disappearance of an organic perspective as far as the Kannada Film Industry is concerned, which, trying to capitalise on the superstar's public image, gives up fundamental political and cultural questions. Interestingly enough, the story of Muthuraj becoming Dr. Rajkumar is also, in a broad sense, the history of mainstream Kannada films.

Rajkumar emerged as a product of the times, symbolising the aspirations of the people. That ethos was captured in Rajkumar's 100th film Bhagyada Bagilu where the superstar declared his omnipresence with the song "Naane Rajakumara... Kannada thaayiya premada kuvara" (I am Rajkumar, the lovable son of mother Kannada).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

"We mobilize ideas, not people"

Following up on my snarky post about the NPR story on Rajkumar fans going berserk in Bangalore...

What annoys me about the focus on violent fan behavior is the manner in which well-intentioned journalists and commentators continue to marginalize fan practices as a whole. And what is *really* irritating about online publications and blogs which have commented on the Rajkumar episode is their complete neglect of other modes of fan expression that are a click or two away. A couple of clicks is all it takes to encounter a vast networked realm of participatory culture surrounding various aspects of Indian cinema. But no, it is the rowdy fans who make easy targets. Nothing complicated about that - they're rowdies, they're working class youth with no jobs, they're auto drivers who are prone to drink and get into brawls, they're not educated and hence easily lured into violence by politicians with vested interests. Here is a brief take on why this isn't productive at all. More in the days to come...

"We would never venture into street battles, that's for sure. We mobilize ideas, not people." So said the moderator of an online fan group I was chatting with a few days back. Interestingly enough, this was when Rajkumar's rowdy-fans were burning buses, police vans, and disrupting everyday life in Bangalore. While Rajkumar wielded considerable political clout, he never entered politics. To get a sense of cinema's connections to the realm of politics proper, we need to shift our gaze eastwards, towards the state of Tamilnadu. And it is in relation/opposition to fan-politics in TN that we need to understand the emergence of the Internet as a vital new space of participatory culture surrounding Indian cinema.

On September 14, 2005, Tamil film star Vijaykanth announced his entry into politics by converting his fan association into a political party. The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK, National Progressive Dravidian Party) was launched at a conference organized by the Tamilnadu Vijaykant Fan Association, with the secretary of the fan association, S. Ramu Vasanthan assuming the role of general secretary of the DMDK. The fan association’s flag has been adopted as the party flag as well. For several months preceding this conference, members of the fan association worked tirelessly to publicize and raise funds for the conference. Pointing to the fan association’s preparedness for political activity, one news report noted, “what stood him in good stead was the organization and structure of his fans' association, which is built in the form of a political party with units at the village, panchayat, town, district and State levels” (Subramanian, 2005).[1]

Around the same time in 2005, fans of renowned music director A. R. Rahman were hard at work organizing a concert in Bangalore. These guys managed everything from promotions and ticket sales to stage construction and crowd control on the day of the concert (October 8, 2005). As part of their effort to gain recognition as the “official” Rahman fan group, they also decided to present Rahman with a gift—a montage, composed of thumbnail images of all his album covers, which formed the contours of his face. Faced with the prospect of buying expensive software, a group of fans (who run a design company called went on to develop their own software. After many sleepless nights of painstaking coding, they finally got to meet Rahman and present the gift. A few days later, they learned that Rahman liked the gift and planned to display it in his studio in Chennai. This is a story of fan activity that mainstream media completely ignored.

Acknowledging these fans’ perseverance, technical and marketing savvy, and global network established through online activities, Rahman and his team have decided to collaborate with them to promote and organize concerts in different cities worldwide, evolve new modes of music distribution, and work together to tackle piracy.

Violent conflicts between Vijaykanth fans and cadres of political parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), cinema halls being vandalized, and film stars contemplating a career in politics by mobilizing their fan associations certainly make more sensational copy compared to a group of highly educated, technically skilled fans who discuss film music on the Internet. To those familiar with the history of cinema’s links to politics in states like Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, Vijaykant emerging as a political candidate is no great surprise. Indeed, when one raises the question of fan activity in Indian film culture, the standard response, among journalists and academics, is to point to Tamil and Telugu film cultures where fan associations devoted to former stars like M. G. Ramachandran and N. T. Rama Rao have played pivotal roles in their political careers. As the editor of Filmfare explained to me, “you’ll find crowds outside Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan’s house. But never that level of passion as you’d find in the south. There is no organized fan activity around Bollywood. No one asks Shahrukh to float a political party or threatens to commit suicide just because his film flops!”

But continuing to frame fan activity in Indian film culture in terms of devotional excess or in relation to political mobilization in south India will only mean turning a blind eye to the many important transitions in the way cinema is experienced today, and the ways in which the new media industry is inviting and structuring participatory culture. And new forms of imagination, sociality, and production of locality that the Internet has enabled in the Indian context.

[1] In an earlier interview, Vasanthan had explained the fan association’s preparedness for political activity: “only nominally our movement works as a welfare organization. In fact, it functions like a political party. We have 35,000 units and each unit has at least 100 members” (Subramanian, 2004).

Friday, April 14, 2006

Brokeback Bharat: Queering Bolly/Hollywood

Alternative Law Forum (ALF) - a terrific space in Bangalore that focuses on queer activism among other things - has just released a video titled "Brokeback Bharat." Juxtaposing a series of clips from Hindi cinema - like Amitabh and Shashi Kapoor in the shower, Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor in a closet, Saif and SRK in Kal Ho Na Ho - the video asks us to consider joining the fight to "break the silence and join the campaign against Section 377, Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality." (via email from Parmesh)

If you're interested in in "
queering Bollywood," ALF has a terrific set of videos and articles here. Don't miss the Kal Ho Na Ho remix! image: from ALF's Queering Bollywood.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

NPR Baffled (film star, bandit, mob violence...)

On the way to the coffee shop this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to hear NPR’s morning edition carry a story about Bangalore – a story about Dr. Rajkumar. What can I say, they try.

The NPR correspondent in New Delhi (let's call him John) sounded genuinely baffled – he just could not understand why tens of thousands of (mostly) young men would leave work and school and pour out on the streets to catch a glimpse of a movie star in a transparent coffin. To the good folks at NPR, Dr. Rajkumar was just a movie star. As the newsreader (let's call her Mary) in Washington D. C. asked, and I paraphrase: “tell me John, he’s not a politician, he’s just a movie star. What is up with these crazy mobs of young men who’re attacking and burning buses, and fighting cops, and the cops are using tear gas and calling for reinforcements? This is so third world…”

John had little to add. “I don’t know Mary (pseudonym), I mean, a TV station here in Delhi is lighting candles. I really don’t know what the big deal is...these folks here are batty I tell ya...”

Mary continues: so John, tell us a little more about this film star. He is an icon there isn't he? He doesn't smoke, he led a good life...

[Yes, go ahead, this really is an ROTFL moment]

John: Yes Mary, he has acted in over 200 films and is a legend in Canada cinema.
[yes, he meant Kannada]

Mary: And wasn't he once kidnapped by a bandit?

John: Yes he was, by the notorious bandit Veerappan who had a moustache I greatly envy...anyways, he was held captive in a jungle for nearly 2 months.

Film stars, mob violence, a bandit kidnapping the star, a chief minister accused of flying in to meet the bandit to pay the ransom amount...its a bit too much for a foreign journalist, no? I mean which journalism program can possible train folks for something like this. I hope John gets a chance to experience cinema in spaces that are nothing like the comfy multiplexes of New Delhi. If you haven’t watched a Rajkumar or a Rajni or a Chiranjeevi film in a cinema hall in south India, you really won’t get it.

Much as I would like to dwell on the fan phenonmenon in south India, and my own experiences with fan activity in Madras and Bangalore, I'll just point you all to Srinivas' pathbreaking work on fan practices in south India. While you read up, I will go get my coffee, disable the wireless connection, and get to work...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Remembering Pudumaippithan (1906-1948)

In Frontline, the life and work of one of Tamil literature's most influential storyteller:
In Tamil literature, Pudumaippithan is to short story what Subramania Bharati is to poetry - an inspiring pioneer who scaled the peak with creations that have stood the test of time. Both continue to have their readerships decades after their death. Endowed with an analytical mind and a creative skill of outstanding merit, Pudumaippithan, in a creatively active period of less than 15 years (1934-46), wrote nearly 100 short stories and an equal number of essays on a variety of subjects, besides 15 poems, a few plays and scores of book reviews.

Kathavacaks & Feudal Remnants for the Info Age

While browsing through the "media" section of Indiatogether, I came across an interview with Arvind Rajagopal on the India Shining campaign, and more generally, on media's role in electoral politics. Most of what he has to say in the interview is now old news of course, but two little nuggets caught my attention:

To a question about differences b/w Engligh and Hindi language media, Rajagopal responds:

News reporters editorialize far more in Hindi television news, because they are usually better-educated recruits from the Hindi press. What is interesting is that they often echo the kathavacak tradition, where a story-teller is also engaged in moral exhortation, not simply reportage. As such their rhetorical range is greater, although when viewed from the perspective of English news it can seem didactic or opinionated.

And I would add that the figure of the sutradhar is an apt one if we consider how someone like Amitabh Bachchan does much more than just explain the rules of the game to contestants in Kaun Banega Crorepati. Btw, youtube has the KBC episode in which Sania Mirza and Lara Dutta teamed up to play for a charity :)

And about American-style news influencing the way news is done in India:

Fortunately or unfortunately, many people still do not rely on the media for their ideas even if they are exposed to it. This reflects a culture that is a blend of feudalism and state authoritarianism. Politics is an expression of power rather than of opinion in this context, and liberalism is mainly an aspiration. The result is that people distrust what leaders say. In India, few people believe speech is ever free. They also watch what they say. For example, when opinion polls are taken, people don't always tell the truth. This provides protections that should not be underestimated, as the recent elections showed.
It is ironic that the remnants of a feudal culture can serve as people's defenses in the information age, where everything is supposed to be known and regulated.

Karnataka's Dr. Raj ("annavaru") Dead

Karnataka's matinee idol, superstar Rajkumar, died of cardiac arrest in Bangalore a few hours back. He was 77. Born on April 24, 1929 in Gajanur, Karnataka, Rajkumar made his acting debut in 1954 in Bedara Kannappa, and went on to star in over 200 films over nearly half a century. Some of his popular films include Bangaaradha Manushya (The Golden Man), Kasturi Nivasa, Gandhadha Gudi (The Temple of Sandalwood) and Jeevana Chaitra. (CNN-IBN). Go here for more details.

Rajkumar was the only actor in Karnataka who had the kind of fan base and political clout that one sees in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. And while he often intervened in political matters (like the Cauvery water-sharing dispute b/w Karnataka and Tamilnadu), he did not decide to get into the electoral process and become Karnataka's NTR or MGR.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Bappi Lahiri and Apache Indian!

Bappi Lahiri, the music director who has rocked Bollywood with songs like You Are My Chicken Fry (Rock Dancer, 1995) and some genuinely melodious numbers like maanaa ho tum, behad hasii.n (Toote Khilone/Broken Toys, 1978), now plans to collaborate with the man who brought together bhangra, reggae, and Bollywood in a song called Arranged Marriage - Apache Indian. With help from a Viva Girl (Anushka), the item number will be called "Cabaret." Article here.

Now Bappi Lahiri's music has always had a global sensibility - remember, he is the baap of Bollywood music directors who derive "inspiration" from many musicians around the world. And if when he was bored of being "inspired," he went on to work with such stalwarts as Samantha Fox (for the film Rock Dancer) and Boy George (Love Story 98)! And Apache is no newbie in Bollywood - he's worked with none other than A. R. Rahman on a movie called Love Birds.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Update: Help from US for Rs.50 FM Station

From DNA (hat-tip to Ramya):
A private United States radio has offered help in restarting the one-man FM Radio Mansoorpur-1 that was run from a hutment in Bihar's Vaishali district for four years before it was shut down for not having a licence. Project director Stephan Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley said he would help Raghav Mahato restart 'Radio – Mansoorpur-1'.

The news about the raid and the subsequent shutting down of the FM station appeared in a portal on Bihar run by Sudhir Kumar, following which Free Radio Berkeley sent an email to Kumar seeking details of Mahato. The US-based radio said it was prepared to gift a 15-watt transmitter and antenna to Mahato to run the station.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The 2ft 5in hero

Tamil and Malayalam cinema now have a new hero. 2ft 5in tall, Ajay Kumar is making waves as the shortest man to become a hero in the filmi world. From the BBC:

In his debut feature, Atbhutha Dweep (Wonder Island), Kumar performs stunts, rides a horse at 45 kph and cavorts with a lover.

The film, with a cast of 360 dwarfs defending their kingdom, has been a box-office hit. "I think the image of hero has changed. I am not glamorous like other superstars but viewers like the talented, character artiste in me," says the shortest actor in Indian cinema.

Also known as "pakru," Kumar has been sought out by the Malayalam filmmakers, the TV industry (he is shooting for the popular series Five Star Thattukada), Bollywood (no surprise there), and, if the stars are aligned right, Atbhutha Dweep might find its way to Hollywood!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Writing (with breaks for koffee with karan)

I spent the last few weeks agonizing over interviews and notes I had scribbled while in bombay and delhi, trying hard to figure out what kinds of narratives I could develop about cinema's intersections with new media. I did manage to write up chapter outlines, half of which sound decent and might turn into interesting chapters. In the process, I confronted an anxiety that must be familiar to many a grad student - wondering why anyone should deem this little project of mine interesting, and how every other dissertator in the world seems to be tackling questions that are so much more interesting and worthwhile. And I'm happy to report that I now feel (with help from my good friend Ben) that this anxiety might not be a terrible one to live with.

Oh, and it helps that I can tune in to Koffee with Karan :) I discovered today that you tube has quite a few episodes of Karan chit-chatting with the stars and starlets of Bollywood. There's Abhishek and Preity, Abhishek and his dad, Shahrukh and Hrithik, Shahrukh and Hrithik's wives, and many more! As they say, "no one brews coffee and conversation like Karan can!"

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The life and times of an H-Bomb

I'm thrilled to hear that Jerry Pinto's book on the vamp/dancer/actress who defined Hindi cinema in many important ways has just been released. As I discovered a few months back when I sought him out for contacts in bombay, Jerry is an incredible storehouse of information on Hindi cinema, and is arguably the best person to have on your side if you intend doing fieldwork in Bombay.

Titled Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, the book grapples with quite a few interesting questions:

Why did a refugee of French-Burmese parentage succeed as wildly as she did in Bollywood? How could otherwise conservative families sit through, and even enjoy, her "cabarets"? What made Helen the desire that you need not be embarrassed about feeling� How did she manage the unimaginable: vamp three generations of men on screen?

And here's a 3-part interview where Jerry talks about how he went about making sense of Helen.