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Bombay Awakes!

Immigration, global capitalism, and new media technologies are opening Western markets to Indian movies and music.

The music begins slowly. A few sad and faraway notes and then more instruments, and still more, until the piece climaxes with the cacophony of a city springing to life. I could be describing George Gershwins An American in Paris. But in fact, I am thinking of A.R. Rahmans Bombay Awakes, the haunting instrumental prelude to Andrew Lloyd Webers new Broadway musical, Bombay Dreams.

Different music, different cities, different times.

Gershwins jazz music evokes an era when Americans were embracing their own national culture and rethinking their relations with Europe. Rahmans music (a hybrid of Indian and American pop traditions) sounds the slow, still distant, but intensifying influence of India on the Western pop imagination.

As Bombay Dreams continues, the music becomes more sassy and in your face until we reach the show stopping number, Shakalaka Baby. Fountains spurt water high in the air and rain showers down on the writhing bodies of the chorus, each in a brightly colored and soaking wet sari.

Western critics have been confused by the shows abrupt shifts in tone and its broad performance style (characteristics it shares with many of the Hindi films that inspired it). The New York Times’ Ben Brantley notes that Bollywood, the object of its homage and parody, is little known to theatergoers who have nevereaten a papadum. But for many South Asians, the play has become a cause celebre.

I was lucky enough to see a preview of the play in London several years ago and get an early glimpse of the cultural phenomenon it would become there, despite (or perhaps because of) such critical dismissals. The theater was packed with the elite of Londons Indian diasporic community. They came wearing silk, gold, and velvet. They were there to support what was the first South Asian show to open in the West End. The play ran for more than two years.

Shortly after its debut, the Indian-born filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Four Feathers, The Bandit Queen), himself an investor in Bombay Dreams, startled readers of the London newspaper The Guardian, with a boastful prediction that Asian media might edge out U.S. dominance over the worlds media market in the coming decade. American medias market share is declining as media producers around the world are reasserting their control over local markets. There are now 60 countries in which 70 percent or more of television programs are produced domestically. That’s a dramatic reversal of the situation a decade ago, when the worlds television networks were dominated by Dallas and Bay Watch. Hollywoods global box office revenues are down 16 percent and other national cinemas, especially in Asia, are rebounding. Seeking to hold onto its economic empire, Hollywood (and American media makers more generally) are courting Asian consumers, while Asian media are entering the U.S. market in ways never before imagined.

The degree of Asian cultural penetration was brought home when I recently went to a Loews theater in Boston and saw a come-on for its Fandango ticket service. The promotion featured puppets speaking with Indian accents and dancing to the strains of Bhangra music. Bollywood had come to the multiplex!

Bollywoods influence had already been felt on Madonnas Ray of Light album and on Baz Luhrmanns Moulin Rouge. Last summer, Turner Classic Movies ran an extensive retrospective of the classics of Indian cinema. Pastiches of Hindi cinema have made their way onto cult television series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess. The next big wave will start as Miramax funds Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood-inflected version of Jane Austin that will be directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) for U.S. distribution.

Shakalaka Baby, indeed!

How did this happen? Four factorsglobal capitalism, South Asian emigration to the West, new media technologies, and American youth searching for cultural difference are adding up to a significant shift in the flow of media into the Western market. Critics had warned that new media would accelerate cultural homogenization, yet it can also insure the global production and circulation of cultural difference.

We can identify three different sets of economic interests behind the opening of the West to Asian media content. One is the national or regional media producers who see the global circulation of their products not simply as expanding their revenue stream but also a source of national pride. Secondly, there are the multinational conglomerates who no longer define their production or distribution decisions in national terms but seek to identify potentially valuable content wherever they can find it and push it into as many markets as possible. And finally, niche distributors are searching for distinctive content as a way to attract upscale, college-educated consumers.

As MIT media scholar Christina Klein notes, the U.S. entertainment industry has become more aggressive in recruiting or collaborating with overseas talent. Sony, Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers all have opened companies to produce films in Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, and other languages, aimed both at their domestic markets and at global export.

And this collaboration extends to other media sectors as well. For example, Marvel will release a series of Spiderman comics, timed to correspond with the release of Spiderman 2 in India and localized to South Asian tastes. Peter Parker becomes Pavitr Prabhaker and Green Goblin becomes Rakshasa, a traditional mythological demon. The graphics, which depict Spiderman leaping over scooters in Bombay streets and swinging past the Gateway of India, are being drawn by Indian comic book artist Jeevan J. Kang. Marvel calls it transcreation, one step beyond translation.

U.S. involvement helps Asian producers to skirt harsh trade restrictions designed to protect Hollywood from international competition. While their cultural power expands, Asian artists under such arrangements receive limited economic benefit from their entry into the Western market.

The westward flow of Indian media content also reflects successive generations of South Asian emigration to Britain and North America. Each wave of new media technologies has increased Asians’ ability to remain connected to the world they left behind. Initially, Indian merchants would book space on local campuses or at movie theaters to show 16-millimeter prints of recent Indian movies. The immigrant community would gather for these events, welcoming the chance to speak Hindi, catch a glimpse of home, eat traditional foods, even conduct business. The songs from the movies would be on sale in the lobby on cassette tapes.

With the introduction of newer media technologies, immigrant grocery stores in major urban centers began offering videos and DVDs for rentsometimes very shortly after the movie went into theatrical release in India. The rise of the Internet enabled immigrants to remain on top of new developments in Indian cinema and, in some communities, local access cable provided a space for public discussion of these works. The emergence of satellite television networks such as B4U (Bollywood For You) and Zee-USA made Hindi cinema accessible in homes around the clock. Many South Asian radio stations are available via the Web, allowing Indian students in the West to experience the buzz that surrounds a new release. Electronic mailing lists alert patrons when an Asian movie is showing in their market.

The United States and Britain now account for 55 percent of international Bollywood ticket sales. Many films are being produced to reflect the tastes and life experience of what the Indian government calls non-resident Indians, suggesting that Bollywood itself is shaped by global media interests. Historically, immigrants abandoned contact with their mother country as they entered into the new world, but now, they maintain virtualbut very realconnections with the world they left behind.

Aswin Punathambekar, a recent graduate of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, has interviewed Boston-area South Asian immigrants, documenting their engagement with Indian-produced media. Bollywood films have become central references as these immigrants talk about their childhood, their travels to America, their local communities, and their child-rearing practices. As one participant explained: Youve grown up watching the movies and you continue, thats all.It doesnt matter what the story is like. I like to see the dresses, the salwar designs, everyday life, even if it seems like a fantasy.” An Indian mother says: Its up to us to keep things Indian here, and the movies help. Indian parents watch the videos with their children, using them to inculcate core values and traditions as a bulwark against Americanization.

These efforts to preserve local traditions, ironically, also serve the needs of collegeeducated westerners, searching for exotic difference. Call them pop cosmopolitans. These are the folks who rush to the opening of the newest ethnic eatery, attend art movies, and listen to world music. But Asian media content is also entering American youth cultureand not just among Asian-American kids trying to reconnect with their roots. First, it was Hong Kong action flicks, then animated series from Japan. Soon, more and more American youth will listen to Indian music and watch Indian movies. Cosmopolitans seek to escape the gravitational pull of their local communities in order to enter a broader sphere of cultural experience. The first cosmopolitans thought beyond their villages; the modern cosmopolitans think globally.

As the immigrants have created a technological and cultural infrastructure that sustains their ties to India, the Internet, satellite television and DVD rentals enable the flow of those materials beyond their own communities. Perhaps the pop cosmopolitans stumbled into an immigrant grocery store in search of ingredients for a favorite curry and left with a few videos. Perhaps an Indian-born friend invited them to one of the culture shows where college students perform both classical Indian and modern Bollywood dance. Perhaps they happened onto a Bollywood website or flipped across an Indian-language cable station. At Netflix, the number of Indian titles available far outstrips the selection of European art films, reflecting the desire to tap the Indian market but also opening them to people to who would never venture into an ethnic grocery store.

 The immigrants are seeking nostalgic return, the pop cosmopolitans are seeking exotic escapismyet they depend on each other. The pop cosmopolitans increase the profitability of showing Indian media in the West. The infrastructure created by the immigrants supports the cosmopolitans need for new content. Suddenly, everyone is having Bombay dreams.

Warren Elliss Two-Step, a recent cyberpunk-themed comic book, takes this process to its logical extreme. It opens with a lavishly colored sequences as the residents of LondonSouth Asian and Anglo alikesing and dance around their neighborhoods, engaging in what he calls street Bollywood. Ellis exploits our familiarity with the iconography and references even as he spoofs our growing enthusiasm for cultural difference.

Goodbye, Gershwin. Hello, Rahman.

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