Aan to Lagaan: Bollywood in UK


Driven by diaspora communities, brand Bollywood has become a synonym for the world’s largest film industry, attracting newer audiences

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 15 Jul 2021, 9:53 PM

The University of Oxford is known for its history, education standards, alumni and pioneering achievements. It registered another first some time ago: the university’s Examination Schools building, where final-year students sit for exams, resounded with Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic dialogues and songs. The occasion was the Annual Distinguished Ford Lecture, delivered by senior academic Rachel Dwyer with the title ‘Amitabh Bachchan: Emotion and the Star in Hindi Film’, when Bachchan, who was visiting Oxford, was the respondent. According to Dwyer, his name does more for India abroad than other known symbols such as the Taj Mahal, curry, or yoga. Bachchan was visibly embarrassed by some of the high praise, but used the occasion to highlight the growing popularity of Indian films abroad.

The packed-to-capacity event had several sub-texts. The lecture was by a British academic specialising in Indian cinema — a genre that was once seen in the West as too kitschy and melodramatic to be considered worthy of mainstream academic attention; there were more non-Asian people in the audience; and a leading Indian actor was being feted in a university that does not have a dedicated department for media studies, unlike several other British universities. The event was also symbolic of the growing appeal of Indian cinema not only in Britain — driven initially by diaspora communities, now attracting others — but also across Europe and elsewhere, challenging influential themes of West-driven cultural imperialism in discourses of globalisation in recent years.

As Bachchan said at the event, “Every time a nation does well economically, many aspects such as its... music, food, culture suddenly become important. The West saw Indian cinema with cynicism, but now the very factors that were criticised earlier are seen as unique. There is a vast patronage to Indian cinema abroad.” He saw cinema halls fostering a kind of integration that was fast losing ground in other parts of the world: “When we sit, laugh, cry and enjoy the same songs, we don’t ask who is a Hindu or Muslim or Christian. There are very few such examples in the world where cinema halls bring about such integration.”

Bachchan, awarded a doctorate by the De Montfort University in Leicester in 2006, is one of the many critics of the word ‘Bollywood’. He prefers the use of ‘Indian film industry’, since the former resonates with Hollywood, and insists that calling it ‘Bollywood’ belittles Indian films that have a unique identity. There are different claims to the origin of the word, but despite opposition by Bachchan and others, its usage has become so common that many incorrectly use it to refer to the entire Indian film industry, while others insist it should be only used for Hindi films produced out of Mumbai (mostly after 1990). Its usage has been equally contested and commended by those inside and outside the world of Indian films.

From humble beginnings, to cool

The 3 million-strong south Asian diaspora in Britain invariably refers to Indian films as Bollywood which, for many among the second- and third-generation immigrants, is the only connection with their cultural homeland (as Deepak Kaushal, 24, from Coventry, says: “India is too complex, Bollywood is simpler”). Across the country, the word and its derivative ‘Bollywoodisation’ today reflect and influence a wide range of cultural symbols and activity in the public and private spheres: films, clothes, music, dance, stage performances by actors and singers from India, popular magazines, events (‘Bollywood nite’), wedding styles and fashion.

It is fair to say that for a minority genre that had its first film release in London’s Rialto in 1952 (the Dilip Kumar-starrer Aan, released as The Savage Princess), to actor Rajendra Kumar getting the iconic polymath Bertrand Russell to make a special appearance in his 1967 film Aman, to the almost crossover success of Lagaan in 2001, when it reached the Top 10 in Britain — Indian films have come a long way.

Says Dwyer, who interacted with leading lights of the Indian film industry over three decades while teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies: “In the UK, it was in the 1950s that Indian films began to be screened for Asian audiences. These were mostly on Sunday mornings and other ‘off-peak’ times at cinemas that mostly showed mainstream cinema. There were occasional events where the stars came over from India for ‘premieres’ and, though these attracted large audiences, they were few and far between and mostly ignored by the mainstream press. The 1960s saw the increasing presence of British Asians with major migrations from East Africa. These ‘twice migrants’ arrived already knowing how to develop infrastructures for maintaining their culture in alien environments and continued to watch Hindi films. In the 1980s, some Hindi films were screened on the BBC’s Network East, while Channel 4 showed programmes of song-and-dance numbers as well as full-length films. The explosion of new media changed the whole consumption pattern of Indian cinema from the early 1990s.”

As the size of the diaspora grew over the decades, so did the demand for Indian films and music. Cinemas began regularly screening Indian films in the 1960s, and, by the 1970s, dedicated cinemas showing only Indian films appeared in Asian areas such as Hounslow and Southall; the Himalaya Palace Cinema in Southall was a prominent centre of and socialisation. In parallel has been the exponential rise in students taking modules on Indian films and academics researching the field in UK universities, while actors such as Abhishek Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt campaigned for Labour’s Keith Vaz in Leicester during elections.

Asian radio stations, notably Sunrise Radio founded in 1989, played the latest film songs, while VCR and VHS technology made it possible for almost every corner shop to sell or hire out films in neighbourhoods and cities with large population of sub-continental origin, such as London, Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford. The arrival of new media and satellite television since the early 1990s made it easier, with all major entertainment television channels from the sub-continent beaming into homes of diaspora communities. Multiplexes such as Cineworld and Odeon woke up to the large demand and dedicated screens to Indian films. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, Cineworld branches — particularly in Feltham and Ilford in London — and elsewhere drew large numbers of diaspora cinegoers, with major films being released simultaneously in India and the UK.

Daya K Thussu, senior academic who taught at British universities for over 25 years and is now based in Hong Kong, says: “As home to one of the world’s largest south Asian diaspora, Britain has been a focal point for global distribution of Indian films. The diasporic dimension of Bollywood is therefore very important, as many Bollywood films have a diasporic theme — often set in London — while Bollywoodised content: music, fashion, celebrity culture — are a regular feature of British life. Though regularly screened in multiplex cinemas in selected British cities, Bollywood’s primary audience has remained staunchly diasporic. Yet, the influence of Bollywoodised cinema on mainstream British films — notably Bride and Prejudice and Slumdog Millionaire — is also clearly observable.”

The strength of the pound makes the UK territory one of the major sources of revenue for Indian films, whose text and context interact with London and Britain not only in terms of market, but also as themes in storylines, locations, actors and musicians performing in each other’s films, leading to the two countries signing an agreement in 2005, which includes a cash rebate of up to 25 per cent on UK qualifying expenditure (there are instances of the rebate being abused). Iconic and sylvan spaces in London and Britain have been one of the most popular shooting locations, regularly bringing droves of crews and actors. Besides, there is cutting-edge infrastructure available for post-production and VFX, studios, talent and capacity.

In 2007, the IIFA Awards were held in Yorkshire, bringing all the top stars to the county. Says Sally Joynson, chief executive at Screen Yorkshire, which supports film projects in the region: “Strong, creative relationships are central to our approach and we have a long association with Indian and Bollywood cinema, evolving from Screen Yorkshire’s work to attract and support the IIFA Awards in 2007. Screen Yorkshire has been invited to visit filmmaking hubs in India, where we have forged relationships with producers in cities like Mumbai and Chennai, strengthening our experience and understanding of the requirements and ambitions of Indian filmmakers. Our well-preserved country houses and historical architecture, combined with Yorkshire’s beautiful coastline and dramatic, sweeping landscapes have captivated many Indian filmmakers over the years, and we hope Yorkshire will continue to be a popular choice.”

Driving India’s ‘soft power’ abroad

There is recent acknowledgement in New Delhi that the lure of films abroad can be a powerful component of India’s ‘soft power’. The Indian film industry has long been recognised as the world’s largest by volume, if not value, producing over 1,000 films every year, reaching various parts of the world through legal and illegal means. One of the confidential cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that in 2007, US diplomats suggested that India send Bollywood stars to tour Afghanistan to aid international efforts to stabilise the country.

In 2008, Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister, told Indian Foreign Service probationers that India’s ‘soft power’, especially the film industry, can be put to use as an important instrument of foreign policy: “The ‘soft power’ of India in some ways can be a very important instrument of foreign policy. I find wherever I go in the Middle East, in Africa, people talk about Indian films. So, that (‘soft power’) is a new way of influencing the world about the growing importance of India.” Thussu adds that from a ‘soft power’ perspective, Bollywood is perhaps more effective among other countries of the global South: “The Bollywood brand, co-opted by India’s corporate and governmental elite and celebrated by members of its diaspora, has come to define a creative and confident India. Gone are the days when diasporic communities felt embarrassed about the cinema of their country of origin, perceived by many in host nations as glitzy and kitschy. Today, Hindi films are released simultaneously across the globe; its stars are recognised faces in international advertising and entertainment.”

Bulgaria-origin Dina Iordanova, a leading expert in transnational cinema at the University of St Andrews, believes that Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) has enjoyed more transnational success than any other film over a prolonged period of time: “Most film history books analysed other films and mentioned Awara only in passing, yet I cannot think of any other film from that period that would have enjoyed such popular success transnationally. During those key periods, songs from Indian films were huge hits in many other countries, the fascination with a film like Awara was everlasting; everybody knew Raj Kapoor’s ever-singing dancing persona. Even though repeat viewing is not typical for the cinema-going practices of Bulgarians, many admit that they have seen Awara numerous times. Why such fascination? It was the candid praise of love and affection in the Indian movies that was truly enchanting for us. It remains a truly enduring global hit, yet one that is understudied and under-researched.”

She says that while teaching a course on Indian cinema to students in Hong Kong and China earlier this year, it was clear that Indian films have made inroads into the mainland, with Aamir Khan the biggest star there: “This needs to be seen as an important testimony as China officially only imports 34 foreign films per annum and the way this is set up usually mainly favours American films. It is extremely competitive for a French or a Danish or an Indian film to be included in the quota. Essentially, what I am reporting here hints at a major breakthrough for Indian cinema into the Chinese market — and the Chinese market is the world’s largest market, of course, so it is greatly attractive.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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