Bollywood as India’s ‘soft power’

Amit Ranjan has done his Ph D from South Asian Studies division, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at

Amit Ranjan

Book Review

The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad/ Edited by: Anjali Gera Roy/ Publisher: Sage Publications; New Delhi.

After Joseph S Nye coined the term “Soft Power” (culture, language etc), it became a fad and, for some, an academic necessity to use it to discuss notions of ‘power’ in international politics. Though accepted, still unmoved by this concept, many scholars, especially realists, believe that it is “Hard Power” (military capability, economy etc), which drives the soft power. After realising the fact that soft power does not move alone, Nye came out with a revised thesis and coined the term “Smart Power”, which is a combination of hard and soft powers.

Hollywood movies are one of the leading gross revenue earners and have presence in everyone’s life across the globe merely because the United States of America is the sole superpower. In a foreword, The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad, Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed writes that despite his opposition to the US aggression on Vietnam and its one-sided support to Israel, he was an ardent consumer of Hollywood films merely because they excelled in entertainment and that must be granted to them notwithstanding US international politics. He is correct, but there are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Iranian, Spanish and French movies with an equal or even a higher level of entertainment. Despite that due to respective country’s power status in the international order, their films have failed to generate even one-fourth of enthusiasm, as Hollywood films generate among the moviegoers.bolly

The contributors to this book have maintained that post-Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenga (DDLJ), Hindi movies have spread their wings and established their presence in almost every part of the world. DDLJ was released in 1996 and by that time, India had entered into the second phase of its successful economic reforms. Also, by that time, in global media debate had been started about India’s potential and its future role in international politics. At the same time, the western scholars were also debating about ‘China’s Peaceful Rise’ and ‘China Threat’. In both cases, India’s role was also emphasised upon. Those who believed in the former started predicting about the (im-) possibilities of the parallel rise of the two Asian giants, while for the latter, India could act as the ‘off-shore balancer’ to China. In 1998, after Pokhran-II, India became a nuclear power. Thus, after an economic boom and the possession of destructive, military weapons India had acquired all means to be an ‘effective’ hard power. This situation supported the Hindi movies to, what Henri Lefebvre said, produce wider (emphasis mine) social space. Prior to it, Hindi films had limited presence.

The contributors have written about the influence of Hindi movies in various parts and communities of the world. In Germany, Australia, United Kingdom, USA, Russia, Canada, South-East Asia etc Bollywood has marked its presence. Among communities, the Hausa tribe in Nigeria, Indophilles in Senegal and Javanese in Indonesia has been very much attracted towards Hindi films. Despite consistently projecting, with few exceptions, Pakistanis as ‘evil-doers’ Hindi films have a strong presence in Pakistan. Shahnaz Khan in her chapter, which is based on a field study, has talked about the reasons behind that. There is also a chapter talking about the identification of Pakistan and Pakistani in Hindi films.

On the basis of its global presence Hindi movies have acted as a soft power but in an opposite way. They have influenced the Indian spectators by presenting western values, institutions and landscapes. The picturesque locations of Europe and Australia have been presented in front via Hindi movies. Thanks to Bollywood, everyone, in India, knows what Harvard or Oxford means. Pre-marital sex is no more considered as a grave sin by the younger generation. So, it is the wes that has entered into the Indians’ life and not the opposite. Except the idea of joint family, no other a uniquely Indian thing or notion has Bollywood been able to leave in the minds of its global viewers. This they have promoted mainly to compete against movies from the western countries that focus upon individualism.

The best chapter of this book is Tawaif to Wife: Making Sense of Bollywood’s Courtesan. The author talks about the role of courtesan (tawaif) in Hindi cinema. She also talks about the definition of the role of women by stakeholders of patriarchical political values. This book also talks about the role of Indian Diasporas in popularising Hindi movies in country of their residence. It also talks about the rising gross revenue by this industry. The contributors have beautifully narrated the changes Bollywood have been through since India’s independence in 1947. With changes issues, norms and values have also changed. Emphasis now has been shifted from socialism to consumerism.

Finally, in 2012, Hindi film industry has celebrated its 100 years of existence. Therefore, this book is a timely presentation. It presents an angle or an approach to look at Hindi cinema. One may disagree with the approach but cannot ignore the erudite work by the editor and the contributors.