Rajinder Dudrah on Indian Cinema

Can you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do? 

My name is Rajinder Dudrah. I’m Professor of Cultural Studies & Creative Industries at Birmingham City University in the UK.

One of the areas I specialize in is the study of Indian cinema. Why does India make films? What kind of films? Why do people watch them? What’s different but also similar about them compared to other cinemas such as, for instance, Hollywood or Chinese?

I had a love for Indian cinema as a child – alongside British TV, Hollywood comedies and melodrama. People really didn’t know about Bollywood or Indian cinema unless you were a British-Indian growing up watching it. And in the ’70s and ’80s it was derided or laughed at, even amongst British-Asian or British-Indian peers.

When I went to film study classes, it was nowhere to be seen or it was literally a footnote. People used to think, oh isn’t that the kind of melodrama, or three hour long films that we don’t get? It was almost derided.

I always stayed true to it as a fanboy. But also I knew there was something here in terms of the larger story. Why are millions of people, not just Indians, watching it around the world? There’s something at stake here.

What’s the Venn Diagram of Indian Cinema and Bollywood? 

Indian cinema is actually huge, the largest cinema in the world. It’s made up of several different regional cinemas, of which Bollywood – or popular Hindi cinema – is also one. Bollywood is perhaps the most known throughout the world and within India, but it’s not the only cinema in India.

Within India, in the southern states, some of their films within India are bigger and more well known than Bollywood films. But Bollywood films are more popular in the north, and around the world it’s Bollywood that stands in as the main representative of popular Indian cinema.

The regional, independent cinemas are lesser known and perhaps are more known within India, but outside the focus is definitely on Bollywood. This is both within the diaspora audiences and more recently Bollywood has been very well received in China.

A recent article in Variety had some fascinating numbers. China remains the single largest international market for Indian cinema – which I was surprised about. 

This is something that’s only recently been tracked in the last year or two years. A number of big budget Bollywood films have not only been hugely successful in India and in the conventional overseas market, but also Chinese audiences have taken to these as well.

A number of films like Secret Superstar, particularly starring Aamir Khan, have been very popular. And China is also a huge audience for Hollywood. This is to do with numbers, demographics, and also the number of cinemas in the country. So if Chinese audiences are also turning to Bollywood, those numbers become huge as revenue and a potential new audience.

Indian cinema is one of the most prolific and successful in the world. Can you walk us through the history, and why this country in particular performs so well?

The first commercial Indian film was Raja Harishchandra in 1913. There had been other films before that, but this is the one that survived and had mainstream or major commercial release. This was still under British colonial rule.

What’s interesting about this cinema is, even under its silent period, it spoke to those who were educated and literate – but it also spoke to people who didn’t have access to literacy. So in terms of its visual literacy, it really amplified the signs and codes of storytelling. And that dates back to the classic texts: Hindu mythological or religious texts, folk theater, other religious traditions, Islamic, Sufism, Christianity.

It’s a very plural, multicultural and rich way of telling stories. When it makes its way to cinema, these stories are amplified and come to life writ large. Even if audiences didn’t understand that film works in a particular way, because of its visual literacy, melodrama, the way that epic stories came to life through characters in the screen – this was cinema that readily and very easily spoke to a willing audience.

By the time we get to 1927 and sound arrives, partly because of the many different languages in India, it was a mixture of Hindi and Urdu which became the lingua franca for Indian cinema, which we now know as Bollywood.

Is the emphasis on music a response to the many different languages in India?

Yes, I think in part that explanation does hold. India is a very plural country. It has many traditions, rituals, and cultural practices – not least around music.

Sangita also goes back to theatrical traditions within India, where epics were performed through religious hymns, religious songs, and theatrical dance as well. When these moved to cinema, part of it was holding onto the spectacle of those elements of theater, which won audiences in touring companies. These became amalgamated with the cinematic form.

These songs were always central to the storytelling. If you went to the theater expecting to see these three hour Hindu mythological stories, you expected to see songs, because that’s the way the story was told – as well as dialogue. So when it came to the cinema, this was a way of just making it sharper through the editing suite, giving it more polish.

So this style of storytelling is really a continuation of folk or traditional methods? Whereas in the West it feels to me that early cinema draws on vaudeville and more recent forms. 

Absolutely, oral folk traditions, and rural theater as well. The song and dance tradition within Indian cinema literally goes back hundreds if not thousands of years, to the roots of storytelling within the Indian subcontinent. It had different cultures within it – Persian, Islamic, Hindu, Christian, and indigenous kind of folk cultures.

This was the meeting point of how all these different confluences came together in order to tell a story.

I wanted to talk about the Bollywood star system. The fate of movies seems to hinge on stars even more strongly than it does in Hollywood. 

Oh yes, although I’ll make a qualifier here. Up until lately, the star system has been the single biggest factor driving that nexus between commerce and art in Indian cinema.

When producers and directors have conversations about films, when filmmakers need financing, one of the first conversations invariably is “Who is the star? Who is the male leading star?”

The male leading star can have followers in the millions and billions. Bollywood stars on Twitter have more followers than comparable A-listers from Hollywood. For example, Amitabh Bachchan has over 36 million followers just on Twitter. Compare that to someone in his peer group, like Sylvester Stallone, in terms of that same age bracket and the action films they’ve done. His following on Twitter is nowhere near.

These are indicators of the popularity of these stars. Temples have been erected. Fans literally pray to some of these stars. They have literally become idols in temples. You know, I’m off to have my driving test, so I’ll pray to them.

They have huge followings. Some have entered into politics. They’re seen as a vote bag for some politicians. So the nexus of stars is not just big within cinema. It percolates entertainment, sports, and politics as well sometimes.

From the very poor to the uber-rich of society, this is a cinema watched by almost all of them to varying degrees.

These stars also often play roles that hark back to Hindu traditions, larger than life heroic figures. Stars could play Lord Ram or Krishna-esque figure. This almost literally deifies them on the screen as they’re overcoming trials and tribulations, beating up baddies, or overcoming ills in society on behalf of audiences. This is another reason people look to them as almost semi-divine figures.

You previously said in some parts of Indian cinema culture it was expected to clap, cheer, and sing along with the movie. Is this a working class thing, or is it across general cinemagoing audiences? 

This is now changing as some of the large urban centers move to the multiplex model, where obviously you have to be able to spend a bit of money to afford the ticket. Buy popcorn, have dinner before or after, meet some friends – so it’s almost like going to the mall in the west. This is for a middle class audience.

However, having said that, I myself have been in multiplexes in India. Whereas just last week I went to the cinema here in the UK, and the sign comes up: “Please turn your phones off. Enjoy the silence. Enjoy the individual experience.”

In India, it’s not like that in the multiplex. Families speak to each other. People speak dialogues to the screen. Yes there are moments of quiet, but when there is a moment of high action, a song, a dance, people speak to the screen.

And when you take it further out of the multiplex, to these different working class audiences, absolutely. People are still dancing in the aisles. People are still clapping, hooting, hollering, singing and dancing.

That sounds like a blast. Is it a similar atmosphere to pantomime, with people kind of yelling at the villain and so on?

Yeah, but whereas pantomime is very camp and tongue-in-cheek, this is serious. You’re at a disco and you’re letting yourself go and you don’t care who is around you. If a song comes on and you can dance with your hero, you really are out there giving it your all.

And yes, there is sometimes tongue-in-cheek, comedy. But it’s also being part of a fan culture, and an active, participatory film culture.

How is digital disruption impacting Indian cinema? Is it weathering the storm better or worse than other markets? 

India is one of the youngest and fastest-growing demographics. China and India are seen as more recently emerging economies and creative industries for that reason in particular.

What’s interesting is India always had a vibrant piracy culture. Whatever people have tried to do – whether it was in the analogue, the VHS age – people found ways of hacking into and getting out the film simultaneously as it went to cinema release, or even before that.

With the digital, the piracy culture is still there, and it’s become leaner and crisper. And it’s even more widely available. So it’s very much tapping into India’s rising status in terms of that rising demographic, where invariably that youth age has access to mobile phones, PCs, and tablets. India is really quickly developing that.

As a result, media content is needed. And what is perhaps the number one media content on those platforms? Bollywood. Whether it’s the films, the songs, product endorsement, stars helping to sell things. Or whether it’s Bollywood production houses like Red Chillies or Eros, they have digital portals for a quick fix, as well as old and new films. So hopefully people are not relying too much on digital piracy. And then of course there’s the Netflix revolution.

People absolutely want to watch Bollywood on the big screen. Cinema is still vibrant. But increasingly what we’re seeing is Bollywood-related products, entertainment, brand endorsements, star personas. These are also everywhere in the digital creative industries.

I’m glad you mentioned Netflix, which launched relatively recently in India, and Spotify even more recently. How would you describe the prospects for these large streaming companies moving into India? And what about Hollywood trying to penetrate the market? 

I think there is a market to be tapped here, but they’ve got to play this very carefully. When Hollywood films first entered in the pre-Netflix age, they started to offer dubbed films. Hindi cinema held its own. People were watching Hindi films and some were watching subtitled and dubbed English films, but they were a few grades down than the Hindi number 1 to 5.

Now they’ve got to carefully market these films, so the way the film as a product is merchandised and sold to new audiences. Why would Indian audiences turn to watch these Hollywood films over their Bollywood staple? They’ve got to think very carefully about trailers and how they’ve been modified for Indian audiences. Who is doing the dubbing? Should they get star names in? Is this another entry point?

It’s a very different part of the creative industries. I think we’re also going to see more co-production. Netflix is going to have to produce more Indian content, whether it’s Bollywood or Bollywood related, or not. It could have a darker tone or be a musical. But these have to speak to the registers people are used to in India.

The next three to five years, there’s going to be a lot of playing around with creative content, working with local producers, up and coming talent. If the likes of Netflix are able to co-produce or fund them adequately, that is perhaps how they will build an audience base in addition to and alongside the regular fare.

Do you see streaming companies being able to reach broad audiences? Or will the price model just mean it’s out of reach for so many people that it never becomes a popular phenomenon?

There’s two things that need to be factored into that equation. One is absolutely the price, which is realistically for middle or upper middle incomes upwards. Families, professionals, mobile and aspirational, who can afford that.

The second thing is the digital infrastructure, which is changing rapidly. The big urban centers like Mumbai, Bombay Delhi, Bangalore are able to connect. But in rural areas, how is the technology developing? And also, is Netflix the priority for these people? Piracy, cable, and satellite TV are so vibrant there. Why would they pay their money to Netflix?

There is a huge potential audience there for them, but right now this is why the numbers aren’t so impressive when you compare revenue to other parts of the world. It’s to do with the audience demographics that they’re able to reach in certain regional centers.

On the flipside, what about the prospects for streaming exporters from India to other markets? Obviously there’s the huge diaspora, but also beyond that. 

Absolutely. Especially in China over the last few years, with a lot of audience around Bollywood in China. Is this a form of soft power for better relationships between these two countries which have had at times a complex history over wars and borders.

Is this a bridge between the two countries?

There’s talk of potential co-productions in the future. India and China aren’t just looking to Hollywood for co-production, but also each other. That could be a game changer if that was able to be pursued by filmmakers across that ancient border.

New audiences and new markets are available. These become income streams for companies like Eros. They don’t just have to rely on the Hollywood dollars, or the pounds from Britain, the Euros from Europe. They can tap into other currencies, and this is another way to develop their market and grow their content further.

What is the Euro-Bollywood Research Network

It’s a group of 20+ international scholars, largely but not exclusively based across Europe.

Bollywood in Europe and vice versa, there’s been a long history from the early days. We’ve had filmmakers  in Europe, German filmmakers, editors and cameramen working in India. And Indian filmmakers have traveled around Europe as well.

There’s been a long, fascinating, complex, understudied and unknown history. The Euro-Bollywood Research Network is a number of us as scholars, arts creators, curators, at different centers in Europe. We’re interested in documenting, preserving, and uncovering this history.

It could be the non-resident Indian films which are shot in Switzerland, Rome, Paris or London. Why these centers? What are these representations about? Is it about India is good and the West is decadent? Or is it about hybridity, mutuality and living together?

That’s one example. Another is about tracking the histories of these filmmakers and these relationships. Who came over, when? Who worked with whom? On what films? What was the cultural worth of that? What came out as a result? Not just for Bollywood or Indian cinema, but for European cinema as well.

We’re very interested in these relationships, these exchanges, between Bollwood and Europe; Europe and Bollywood.

Perhaps we’ve just covered this, but what are your upcoming projects and where can people follow your work?

My next project is my next book, my third  on Bollywood. I’m lucky to have published two monographs before. That’s Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies and Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema.

My third book project is E-Bollywood. I’m looking at the developing notion of E-Bollywood, a new way of thinking about popular Hindi cinema, or Bollywood in particular. It’s about popular Bollywood cinema in the age of the digital. It’s precisely along some of the questions and answers today.

What happens when we move from analogue to digital? What happens when film moves outside the cinema, through portals such as YouTube, Netflix and Eros? What happens when stars are celebrities endorsing brands and products in all kinds of ways, through social media? What does this mean in that wider media ecosystem sense of film interacting and intersecting with other media and genres?

That’s the project which I’ve started, and I hope to be developing that over the coming months and years.

And people can follow me on Twitter.


Rajinder Dudrah is Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries with Birmingham City University, based in the School of Media in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media.

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