The American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term soft power in the 1980s. The usage of this term was extended to explain the role of culture as well as political values in diplomacy. In a more comprehensive sense of the term, soft power means persuasion as opposed to coercion which alludes to the use of force. Literature, art, films are all lenses that help as an accessory to understand soft power.
Ever so often, India’s soft power is limited to its world-renowned film industry- Bollywood. While Bollywood is an excellent marker of India’s soft power influence across the globe, it is not the only marker. It is not a matter of oblivion that in terms of its global reach, the Hindi film industry occupies the second position after Hollywood. In 2012, Bollywood alone produced 1,206 films, allowing India to top the list of the number of films produced in a year. However, it would not be rational to use the terms of Indian cinema and Bollywood interchangeably. The under-representation of regional cinema challenges the multilingual nature of the world’s largest democracy. It may be argued that Hindi is the most widely used language in India which accounts for about 40 percent of the population. While this may be true, it is important to take note of the fact that regional cinema remains under-represented within the country. For instance, while Bollywood films are screened country-wide, regional cinema does not receive the same screening status. Films such as Sairat and Baahubali have been exceptions to this analogy and have broken various barriers across the country. While viewers living in metro cities prefer to watch the films of their own native languages, it is in the tier 2 cities that people tend to watch Hollywood films that would not be screened in their own cities.
The Indian Film Festival of Bhubaneswar is one of a kind to the effect that it is the only film festival in India that showcases new and contemporary Indian cinema. Films such as ‘Biryani’, ‘Aamis’, ‘Lihaaf’ were among the star attractions of the festival. Regional Indian cinema receives adequate representation internationally, for example, at the Berlin Film Festival. Marathi films such as Sairat and Vihir were selected at the Berlin Film Festival and the list also extends to other Indian language films such as Tamil, Bhojpuri, and Malayalam. At the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, three Indian feature films and one documentary were also showcased. This is proof of how strong Indian linguistic and cultural diversity is placing the Indian film industry on the world map.
Internationally, Bollywood films earn more than their regional counterparts and this was exemplified in 2017 with the film ‘Secret Superstar’ reaping nearly $120 million in China, thus standing as a testimony to the reach that the Hindi film industry holds. Another film that recorded the highest receipts in China was ‘Dangal’. The popularity and influence of the Hindi film industry also extend to other parts of the world such as West Asia, America, Australia as well as Europe. Dubai, for example, is a city where Hindi films have performed extraordinarily well, further extending India’s soft power prowess. The city has also been one of the prime locations where various films have been shot, thus allowing connections to grow across borders. A myriad of Indian actors has been closely associated with Hollywood which essentially points out India’s deepening relationships with the rest of the world in terms of soft power ties and exchanges.
The disparity between Bollywood and its regional counterparts may have become less evident with content overtaking and another aspect that would otherwise make films more pleasing to the audience. Today, viewers prefer to watch quality content and while this has increased the viewership of regional films, it does not necessarily mean more marketing and advertising for these films. While content may be worthy of increased viewership, the equal availability of all regional language films across the country may be difficult to achieve due to the fact that the budget allocated for these films varies. The Tamil and Telugu bilingual Baahubali: The Conclusion was an exception in terms of its budget.
India witnessed the release of movies that are truly Indian in content and are a matter of pride to the country regardless of the language. Movies such as ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’, ‘Raazi’, ‘Lagaan’ among others are all examples of films that not only portray Indian history but also its persuasive capabilities. From time to time, Bollywood has produced films that throw light on India’s colonial past, a rather integral portion of the nation’s lifespan as the world’s largest democracy. When looked at from this standpoint, Bollywood certainly does prove to be an excellent tool of India’s soft power while also keeping in mind the importance of its regional film industries and their contributions to the global market.
(Merin Suresh is a first year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2019-21 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.