Updated: Jul 26
We have come a long way since the medium of cinema began to get explored as a high-rolling sector of the Indian Cultural Industry. Today we live in a world of endless choices with TV, On-Demand Content & even Short Format Content. Which begs the questions: Where does the behemoth Bollywood fit into this hierarchy of content? Should we even call it "Bollywood" anymore? Is it at the apex simply because of the budgets spent on a single production & it's super aggressive Blitzkrieg Marketing? Or, does it rank lower than the Short Format Content that we saw on Tik-Tok until recently in India, and now on Reels, purely because of the sheer volume of consumption of the User Generated Content on these new platforms? But most importantly we must ask, is it correct for people, particularly from the Industry, to loathe the terminology "Bollywood" as the name for our industry? Let's break this down & dive deeper for a different perspective:
The Hierarchy of Content
This hierarchy of content when illustrated on an infographic begins to resemble a similar & very popular depiction known famously as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In the digital age, most people believe that everyone has the right to information & connectivity. This creates democratization of content, especially AVOD content not reserved behind Paywalls. The pricing for SVOD content differs mostly based on the level of Disposable Income of the Socio-Economic group being targeted by any given OTT platform. This indicates that the contempt towards Bollywood stems from a potential elitist bias. Desi Pop Culture cannot be looked at through a classist lens. People will consume a story where they find representation and they appreciate characters in whom they find surrogacy. Bollywood cannot be relegated to just one layer of the content hierarchy, it spans all across the board. As a Pop Culture industry it caters to the entire population irrespective of platforms, mediums or socio-economic backgrounds. No matter the level of sophistication we as Indians are hard wired to shake a leg when our favourite Bollywood song plays at a joyous occasion.
The argument hence can be made that the most expensive content behind paywalls & available in India, isn't Hindi content. It's imported western & mostly English content. The most critically acclaimed, culturally relevant, high value, high shelf life Hindi content ends up finding its way to these platforms too. What comes as no surprise, is that these top-tier platforms are both western in origin as well as ownership. Amitabh Bachchan has been quoted many times saying "Everywhere Hollywood has gone it has destroyed the local industry". Bollywood faces imminent doom if its key decision-makers don't heed this warning. Despite the growing population of Indians world over Desi Pop Culture media Intellectual Properties don't gross nearly as much as their international counterparts. Perhaps it's about time that this changes. Perhaps it's time we look past what names we call our content industry and focus on the quality of the content by using our voice on social media to show our appreciation for the domestic content that we truly love.
Influencer Marketing Warfare
There is already a preferential bias among the organic influencers who will lap up whatever they're fed on their favourite OTT platforms just to feel like they got their money's worth. There's also the fact that the funds that platforms with foreign investments can afford to spend on inorganic Influencer Marketing far surpass what domestic players may be able to afford. Considering that all platforms in 2020 use algorithms to decipher what content will work for their audience, they inevitably end up chasing after the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to acquiring or green-lighting new projects. This usually results in a perpetuation of what the elite refer to as Cringe Culture, something that they will admit to being a guilty pleasure of their own just as much. Some others, particularly platform representatives who view themselves mainly as intermediaries, would argue that cringe is subjective and is based on the level of cultural exposure that a particular group of audience has access to. However, with the likes of top OTT giants adding cringe content to their catalogues to grow their audience, we can only hope that it does not completely sour the top organic influencer's palette further towards Bollywood content.
What there is no argument about though, is that this disparity and contrast between the cultural significance and tone of foreign western content, and domestic desi content, creates an ugly social divide. It is a classist divide that permeates right into the heart of the Tier 1 content creators & consumers. Many of these celebrities are Bollywood stars who don't particularly like the term Bollywood. Many consider it a contrived term that they feel was derived from the desire to emulate Hollywood as an industry. Priyanka Chopra has gone on record several times to discourage the use of the term Bollywood. This toxic self-loathing is extremely detrimental to our industry. It discourages talent from entering into the industry, limiting growth and creating more mediocrity and facilitating a brain-drain. We need to focus on what quality of content we create rather than what we refer to the industry as.
Evolution never stops
Social Scientists will tell us that the one thing that we are most certain about is that culture is fluid and never a monolith. Times change, sensibilities change, social norms change and these changes are driven by multiple factors including but not limited to Economics, Technology, Politics, Legal frameworks etc. We can't look at the archives of Bollywood content with a 2020 lens we must look at them as a reflection of the times they came about. We must simultaneously work towards improving the discourse in our content and elevating it; especially when it comes to Desi Pop Culture. 2018 had a bunch of flicks that were very promising. That trend of progressive discourse needs to be permanent. Needless to say, if we don't evolve, we will surely die.
Even Hollywood Loves Bollywood
There are several A-list actors from Hollywood like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe, Jean Claude Van Dame, and even EGOT: Whoopi Goldberg who have not only expressed their appreciation for Bollywood but a few including Jackie Chan, have gone on to make Bollywood crossover movies. The most recent being Chris Hemsworth in Extraction. Will Smith went so far as to say that it was on his bucket list to be in a Bollywood Film. This led him to make a cameo in SOTY2. Some would even say that this perhaps paves the way for those from our industry who are quick to dismiss the terminology Bollywood for something they find more delectable to their now "refined" palates.
Naam mein kya rakha hai? (What's in a Name?)
A rose by any name will still smell as sweet. By that logic, we are compelled to consider that if the world calls it Bollywood then why can't we? Let's own it! There is nothing wrong with the terminology it's a phenomenon that, try as we like, we are not going to rebrand anytime soon.
Even if all of regional cinema is clubbed into this brand we should appreciate that by sheer numbers it elevates the industry from a mere brand to a content product category of it's own. It's like asking Duct Tape not to be called CelloTape, or like getting upset if people refer to printing photocopies as Xeroxing or even getting mad if Vloggers are called YouTubers. It's such a futile attack on Pop Culture by those who have outgrown the genre. Today we have a Comic-Con that takes a flavour of Hollywood across the world, building on the soft power for western civilization across the globe. At what point will we have a BollyCon doing the same thing at the same scale for Bollywood? Are we limiting our possibilities by bickering over silly issues like this? Or, will we be wiser and understand the concept of syncretism and become the masters of our own narrative by embracing our albeit flawed, Desi Pop Culture and make it better. Only time will tell.