Spielberg’s Lincoln a Hindi film?” laughs Nitin Govil,
associate professor at the University of Southern California, at one point
during our conversation. Govil is, of course, revelling in a rhetorical
question, but his line of inquiry is deeper. In 2009, Anil Ambani’s Reliance
Entertainment loaned $325 million to Spielberg’s production house, DreamWorks
(besides investing the same amount a year after and $200 million three years
later); it was a significant event in the entertainment industry story, as it
meant Bollywood no longer remained Hollywood’s debtor. The money from Mumbai
was helping keep afloat one of the biggest production companies in Hollywood.
In the last decade or so, ties between Bollywood and Hollywood have got stronger. In 2007, Sony Pictures Entertainment entered film production in India with Saawariya; Warner Bros followed by co-producing Chandni Chowk to China next year. In 2010, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought My Name is Khan’s global rights for ₹100 crore. In 2011, Disney acquired a 93 per cent stake in UTV Software Communications.
The last decade has also seen Bollywood actors playing prominent roles in Hollywood films: Irrfan Khan has acted in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), and the recently released Jurassic World. Anil Kapoor was seen in Slumdog Millionaire (2008, technically a British film, but distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Warner Bros. around the world, and swept the Oscars) and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011). Freida Pinto, besides playing the lead in Slumdog Millionaire, acted in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
There have been technical collaborations too. A. R. Rahman composed for Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours (2010); Anurag Kashyap’s last release, Bombay Velvet, was co-edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s long-standing editor; Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Broken Horses, a thinly veiled remake of Parinda (1989) that released this year in April, was shot in the US and featured an all-American cast and crew.
But according to Govil’s new book, Orienting Hollywood: A Century of Film Culture between Los Angeles and Bombay, these exchanges are not new. The relationship between Bollywood and Hollywood has not only spanned more than 100 years, but also taken different forms—ranging from cultural, economic to political.
Govil, who lives in Los Angeles, chatted with me over Skype for this interview. For the first 15 minutes, I can’t see Govil, only hear him; and then he appears on screen, wearing a smile, blue jacket, and collared t-shirt. For the next two hours, we chat about the stories shared by Bollywood and Hollywood.
In the 1900s, Hollywood was intrigued by Hinduism, which resulted in such films as The Hindoo Fakir (1902) and The Hindoo Dagger (1909). Yet a 1909 Federal Immigration Commission inquiry into Indian labourers settled along the Pacific Coast noted that ‘Hindus are regarded as the least desirable of all the eastern Asiatic races that have come to share our soil’. What explains this contradiction?
There were so many ways in which India was primarily understood as Hindu, both in popular culture and, more broadly, by white American audiences. This had a lot to do with America’s long-standing fascination with Hinduism. By the late 19th and early 20th century, we saw the first writings on ‘Hindoos’; in the early 19th century, American interest in the Hindu reform movements grew.
Around the 1840s, the American Oriental Society and transcendentalism came into being. These influences also found their ways into the writings of (Ralph Waldo) Emerson and (Henry David) Thoreau, who were writing about an essential return to some kind of deep sense of culture. So I think those factors were critical, as were theosophy and the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
At the same time, there were touring swamis in the 1890s: Vivekananda, most prominently, and (the teachers of) Vedanta in San Francisco. Hindu temples were also being set up in the early 20th century, so Indian culture was in the air.
But there was, at the same time, intense political turmoil about the status of Indian immigrants working in California, and they were seen as separate from the exotic travellers from India.
The travellers were seen as more authentic, but no necessary vernacular connection was being made between the Indians working, struggling and being harshly discriminated against and these much higher profile celebrities from overseas. It was this disconnect that helps explain the contradiction most fully.
In the same period,
Hollywood wanted to bring India to its audience, and they did so by ‘imagining’
India in such productions as Dramatic Scenes in Delhi (1912), Curious
Scenes in India (1913), and Life in India (1913)—films
that portrayed the country as the land of exotic and ‘other’. What explains
Hollywood’s fascination with Indology in that period?
It had a lot to do with formula and genre. ‘Hindoo’—a vernacular engagement with Hinduism—was, in a sense, a generic marker of exoticism for early Hollywood. So it became a shorthand—a shortcut—that helped represent a distant land with a turban, a tiger, a tree placed in the background, and the (American) scenarists started adopting that easy production culture.
This fascination with Indology, however, had to do with capitalism as well. It had a lot to do with imagining new markets, the reach of Hollywood: the belief that American culture could travel far. It was also the period when Hollywood was working very hard to imagine its international reach, and that found its way into that Indological representation.
In the 1910s, India was the last stop on Hollywood’s global tour. After Hollywood movies made profits in the domestic and European markets, India received worn and discarded prints. However, in the early 1920s, Hollywood, making use of an established European distribution infrastructure, rose to prominence in India. What made Hollywood studio executives wake up to the market potential?
As I said earlier, beginning in the late teens but especially in the early 1920s, Hollywood was really trying to solidify its international distribution infrastructure, and it had various points of call. Stardom played a very important role. So United Artists (the studio that produced films of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks) was—due to the popularity of its stars—waking up to the overseas potential of its films. But it was also the spatial organisation of the distribution infrastructure itself. Hollywood established its East Asia offices in Tokyo and Bombay, cities that were six weeks by boat. So Hollywood stitched in these ports of call within its broader Asian distribution infrastructure.
Piracy was another important factor. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood and its operatives made extensive legal efforts in the Bombay High Court to control the piracy of Fairbanks’s films. We are not talking about an enormous amount of money, but we get the sense that Hollywood sees that it is going to have to control its revenue stream. And it realises very early on that intellectual property is going to be key to securing rational profit infrastructures and financial flows between East and West.
really capture the Indian market. With the emergence of talkies in Hindi as
well as other regional languages, Hollywood films nearly ceased to exist in
India. In fact, Bollywood was one of the few film industries in the world that
failed to ‘colonise’.
The colonial metaphor has been used to explain Hollywood’s domination in other markets—be it Europe, South America, or Central America—and Hollywood often made very close relationships with governments (and film infrastructure) and was responsible for the eradication of many national film industries. But India had no national film industry. So Hollywood couldn’t come in and capitalise on a state investment the way it was able to do elsewhere. So the relative absence of the state, the very regional terrain of film production in India, is part of the answer.
It’s also important to
realise that we are dealing with industries that don’t necessarily understand
each other in a way that would allow a collaborative relationship to flourish.
As Hollywood was trying to understand exactly what was going on in India, each
of India’s production centres—Bombay, Calcutta, Madras—was called the Hollywood
of India. So it came up against a very different filmmaking culture and a very
different interregional set of contact points, which thwarted its growth
I don’t want to suggest that this was resistance—like a subaltern hegemony resistance model. I think Hollywood tried. There were all sorts of small-scale efforts. The sound technicians came in to advise on Alam Ara (1931), and with the advent of colour, Hollywood technicians came and tried to create an entry point, but Indian film production was too domestic, too localised. So I don’t think Hollywood ever dominated in the first place, and hence there was not much resistance to offer.
Possibly the most interesting phase of the relationship between Bollywood and Hollywood emerged in the 1960s, when the Indian government, facing a foreign exchange crisis, ‘blocked’ Hollywood’s funds by placing stringent restrictions on its earnings in India, so its filmmakers and producers spent money on building and refurbishing Indian theatres, and financing location shoots of their films in India. Do you think the government—or its aide, Bollywood—got the most out of this deal?
In terms of who won?
In a way, yes.
I think Hollywood lost. In the 1960s and 1970s, India became a microcosm for Hollywood’s business in Asia. There was a sense of insularity in its Asian markets that was challenging its dominance in the area. And Hollywood was looking at that insularity and seeing its bottom-line hurt. Its lobby leaned harder on the Indian state to lift import quotas, duties, etc, and the Indian state took precisely that opportunity to create the U.S.-India film pacts and double the import quota in 1960.
The trade pact expired in 1963, and then there was another quota: Hollywood majors launched a boycott; in the meantime, Hollywood film prints were circulating throughout India. How much did the boycott hurt? It didn’t hurt a lot, because these prints were circulating through A-markets, B-markets, etc, and we are talking about a very small amount of money. In the mid-1960s, Hollywood was repatriating about $400,000-$500,000 from a million dollar gross in India. This was not a lot of money, but it was tremendously symbolic, because India had been for Hollywood, from the very beginning, not a place to make huge amounts of money, but to articulate a global vision that had been continually thwarted and challenged.
There were other developments around this period as well. Chester Bowles (US ambassador to India and Nepal), for instance, in 1952, asked Frank Capra to attend the International Film Festival in India to gauge the Soviet and Chinese impact on India in the early years of non-alignment. Were there any other instances of contact between the two industries that were this overtly political?
There are a lot of similar stories. I do like the Capra story. The other one I like is the one where, a few years later, John Kenneth Galbraith is (John F.) Kennedy’s appointed ambassador to India, and there’s a crisis in Kennedy’s reputation as a lady killer in Washington’s circles—particularly drawn to Hollywood celebrities. I read about this in a CIA case office’s memoir, and he had talked about the actress Angie Dickinson being too closely linked to Kennedy during that period, and there was furore in the state department that what should we do?
They wanted to get Angie out of the US, because there was some worry that Kennedy’s purported affair with her would be revealed, and one of the places she went to was the ambassador’s residence in Delhi. And Galbraith invited Nehru to either his house or the embassy for a screening of Rio Bravo (1959) that he got from the Warner Bros.’s agents and invited Angie as well, because he obviously knew of Nehru’s interest.
So I think these kinds of stories do permeate, but I think there has always been a very, very close tie between Hollywood and Washington. It’s the idea that trade follows film, articulated in the early 1920s and achieved a common sense that American commerce overseas would be dictated by Hollywood’s success. That is why it is very important for Hollywood to leverage Americanism and to speak for Americanism around the world. So there’s always been that broader political, economic and financial arrangement.
The people who have stood at the helm of Hollywood’s lobbying arm—members of the Motion Pictures Association of America—have been very prominent Washington politicians prior to taking over Hollywood, so I think the connection between Hollywood and Washington has been very tight. The current head of the Motion Picture Association of America (Chris Dodd) was a former senator, and he’s been brought in to leverage his political contacts in Washington and around the world. So it has always been political.
The relationship between Bollywood and Hollywood for much of the 1980s and 1990s revolved around piracy. (By the end of the ’80s, Hollywood claimed that it had lost $10-$15 million in annual revenue to Indian video piracy.) How successful was this association?
I think it was completely unsuccessful, and I believe Hollywood recognised it had to live with piracy in a particular way, mainly in terms of building a culture of anticipation for Hollywood releases down the line, once the legitimate theatrical circuits were established. But I think in terms of, let’s say, curbing piracy, or creating greater revenue streams, I don’t think these high-profile collaborations were anything other than publicity stunts.
But I will also say, at the same time, that I find these tabulations of losses to be one of Hollywood’s greatest fictional coups. It’s not completely possible to enumerate losses to piracy; however, Hollywood has become very good at the numbers game, and Bombay is following this line of thought, too. If you look at the recent FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry)-KPMG entertainment industry reports, it will say something on the lines that the Indian media industry has lost 9.71 lakh jobs because of piracy.
Now there’s no possible way to know that. But it creates a number that gets referred to over and over again—‘almost a million jobs’. And although I understand their effectiveness in sparking a popular discourse, I don’t think there’s a definite way to know (these numbers)—because, obviously, piracy builds revenue as well. It may build it in different ways; people are buying televisions, people are buying VCRs; they are buying videotapes. So who can really say how much is subtracted from the overall media economy by piracy? I think piracy contributes extensively to these kinds of economies as well.
For a long time, Hollywood films didn’t fare well at the Indian box office. That changed with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), but it took Hollywood more than a few years to arrive at the Indian box office in a big way again. What was the main cause?
There was a broader structural crisis in the 1970s and the 1980s that had to do with the VCRs, which were pulling people out of theatres in any case, and it took a film like Jurassic Park—a remarkable spectacle—to entice them back. Watching this film on television would have degraded the impact dramatically. I believe the lifting of dubbing restrictions, thus making it cheap, was also a major factor, something that immensely benefited Jurassic Park.
The cost to dub it was
nominal: around $11,000-$12,000. So return on investment was enormous, but I
don’t think we had a big film like that for quite some time. A few years
after Jurassic Park, we had Titanic (1997),
followed by the Harry Potter and various
The Matrix series also.
Absolutely. So what connects these films together? We are talking about franchise logic at the core—Titanic being an exception—special effects, spectacles, the melodramatic mainstream. And it was not just about science fiction or superheroes; something Titanic was able to negotiate.
But movies like Jurassic Park and the Harry Potter, Matrix, Mission Impossible series and, now, Marvel franchises—these films are built on buzz; there is an investment in broad distribution; and they are dubbed extensively. We are also talking about post liberalisation of the economy, so dubbing infrastructure was liberalised, because there were all sorts of soft restrictions designed to restrict Hollywood exports. And then there was the emergence of multiplex culture. We are talking about the late 1990s, so we are also talking about a transforming exhibition infrastructure that is creating a logic of upgraded screens.
In the early 1990s, Warner Bros. attempted to build a multiplex chain in Maharashtra (before multiplexes came into being), but the deal fell through. However, it’s been interested in acquiring Indian theatres for decades. In the early 1920s, Universal Pictures tried to acquire Madras’s Madan Theatres; in 1978, the Kinematograph Renters Society gave the Indian Film Finance Corporation an interest-free loan of ₹10 million on condition that the funds go to construct new theatres. Besides exhibition of American films, were there any other reasons for Hollywood’s sustained interest in acquiring Indian theatres?
One of the overall stories that Orienting Hollywood tells is that there has been, over the century, a proliferation of not necessarily connected points of involvement and investment. If we look at exhibition investment, sometimes these forays into the ‘local market’ are not necessarily connected to a broad long history. There are resonances, but one shouldn’t draw a through-line between Universal Pictures trying to acquire Madan Theatres, Warner Bros.’s attempts to build a multiplex chain and Reliance Entertainment’s investment in DreamWorks.
Of course, capitalism is one through-line between them (laughs)—money is the significant through-line, but I think that Hollywood, particularly in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, was just trying to find all sorts of points of contact. It also had to do with it thinking, ‘How do we find our way into this market? We don’t make money; we are dealing with tremendously well-ingratiated film production practices. What do we do? Well, let’s do what we can—let’s spend money here, spend money there. Let’s do this; do that‘, so that there is constant publicity around Hollywood but not necessarily about making a lot of money.
The exchange of labour has been another point of cultural contact between the two industries, beginning from the late ’90s, when Hollywood began enlisting the help of graphic studios in Mumbai and Chennai, and information technology (IT) labs in Bengaluru and Hyderabad for post-production work. But a lot of these jobs are labour-intensive and repetitive, devoid of creative involvement. Do you see the nature of these jobs changing?
I think we will always have high profile stories of Indian artists collaborating much more visibly.
Yes, as there have been in music and sound design.
Exactly, I am thinking of the sound design example as well—Resul Pookutty. I don’t see the nature of things changing, and to answer your question a little differently, I don’t think it is just about creativity versus execution; it also has to do with the precarious nature of labour protection in India. We are talking about places that are almost run like sweat shops, and a lot of people have started talking about this, as Rhythm & Hues Studios and Digital Domain are declaring bankruptcy because in some ways the outsourcing and off-shoring model has come home to bite itself at the source.
We are dealing with an environment of minimal worker protection and rights. We are still dealing with a reserve pool of labour overseas that is not only underpaid but sometimes not paid at all. We are talking about an extraordinary lack of care for workers in these studios—the hire and fire policy, discriminatory contracts, and impoverished condition of employment.
And it’s this nature of contract work and discriminatory labour policies that makes the reserve pool of labour so attractive to Hollywood. It is a very dirty story, the sort of dirty undercurrent, dirty underbelly of a long-standing practice of global Hollywood that goes back decades, if not its entire history, especially in the animation sector.
So we see the story (of precarious outsourced labour) being continually retold as we move from animation to rotoscoping to now 3-D conversion—of repetitive grunt work pushed aside and being sent to the reserve pool of labour. I don’t see that changing in the near future, because the underbelly of all technological advancement is this idea that human labour has disappeared from the machinery. But the truth is, it’s just been suppressed.
Bollywood filmmakers, for long, have lifted scripts, songs from Hollywood without crediting the original makers. But that’s begun to change; now Bollywood makes more official remakes than ever—We are Family (2010) was an official adaptation of Stepmom (1987); Players (2012) was an official remake of The Italian Job (2003); Bang Bang! (2014) was an official remake of Knight and Day (2010). What explains this change in attitude?
There’s definitely been an increase in investment in legal apparatus to prosecute what Hollywood sees as unauthorised appropriation—although, of course, Hollywood was built on this kind of appropriation. Any student of film history is going to know that and, even now, it’s very difficult to trace and track where influence comes from.
I disagree fundamentally with how intellectual property law is articulated in the first place, but when we are taking about songs we are dealing with a highly refined legal infrastructure, where a lot of money changes hands. We have seen less money change hands in the remake circuit. For many years, Hollywood claimed that it had lost billions in royalties to Bombay filmmakers since the 1950s and, again, I find that number remarkable.
But I do think there has been a change. However, the idea of an official remake has been sanctioned as a presold property, because Knight and Day was seen in multiplexes, Tom Cruise used the popularity of Knight and Day to launch Ghost Protocol a few years later. So the idea of the official remake allows Mumbai producers to use Hollywood as a presold idea—something seen widely and can be referred to build anticipation for their film.
Then there’s also so much cross investment in these financial arrangements now that the Mumbai producers want to be seen as good corporate citizens. They want investment by the big media conglomerates who aren’t going to be very forgiving of even minor infractions of intellectual property as that’s the core of their business.
One of the first Bollywood-Hollywood co-productions was the Dharmendra starrer Shalimar (1978). It almost took three decades for another set of co-productions to come along—Saawariya (2007), Chandni Chowk to China (2008), My Name is Khan (2010), Ekk Deewana Tha (2012). Why did it take so long?
Saawariya’s producer, Sony Pictures Entertainment, had tremendous investment in television up to that point, and this film was its attempt to see if it can move into film production. In Chandni Chowk to China, we have Warner Bros.; what’s remarkable about these relatively early true co-productions is their failure. There was a deliberate attempt to create crossover cinema, and I find coincidental success to be more meaningful than some kind of a coordinated model.
After these films flopped, you had these remarkable assertions about an Indian audience. As if some of these guys had never seen a Hindi film, who were making this assumption that, ‘This would happen, that would happen.’ But, again, I attest it to a kind of struggle.
Hollywood is still thinking on the lines of ‘What do we do?’ We missed the multiplex boat; Village Roadshow came in (and in association with Priya Exhibitors Private Limited, ushered in the multiplex era with PVR pictures); other theatres have come in; other exhibition infrastructures have come in. So let’s give co-production a try.’ This is constant reinvention of the wheel. And you don’t think of Hollywood in this way. You think of Hollywood as monolithic, as dominating but, instead, if you look at its story in India, it’s a constant series of reinvention and struggles and a kind of Keystone Cops caper, where it’s slipping on bananas, falling on its face, and it brings to light a different story.
In recent years, the most obvious form of contact between these two industries has been creative: Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto have acted in prominent Hollywood films; American technicians have crossed over to Bollywood and vice versa; Vidhu Vinod Chopra enlisted the help of an American cast and crew to make Broken Horses. What has triggered these creative collaborations—an association that was sporadic before the 2000s?
We can add a few more names to the list: Aishwarya Rai, Anupam Kher, Mallika Sherawat. Anil Kapoor is the exemplar of this mode, because some Bollywood stars have always resisted being cast in Hollywood films.
And they have been very vocal about it also.
Yes, definitely. You have Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan saying, ‘Why should we play bit roles as ethnic stereotypes in these films?’ And when there’s a bit role, it’s more of a cameo—like Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby (2013). But in Anil Kapoor’s case, there’s been a deliberate strategy of building a Hollywood profile. Anil signed with Hollywood’s talent agents and was very deliberate about appearing prominently in the West: from being on the award stage for Slumdog Millionaire to a starring role in Ghost Protocol to remaking 24.
All these things are around Indian stars wanting to globalise. But what’s triggering these creative collaborations? I think in Anil’s case, it is about exposure; it is about getting yourself known, getting to be the face of an Indian character in as many different places as possible. And there’s obviously a danger with being typecast. There’s a danger with being ‘here he’s again’. But Hollywood has never had that problem to use the same actors over and over again to portray different types of non-Caucasian ethnicities, and I think that’s what Anil and stars like him are interested in doing. At the same time, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir, etc., have no interest in playing such parts.
The other relationship has been commercial: now many big budget Hollywood films release in India which are often dubbed in Indian languages (some, such as The Avengers, release a week before they hit American screens). Reliance Entertainment has bought a huge chunk of DreamWorks; Disney’s nearly acquired UTV Software Communications. What kind of mercantile relationship do you see Bollywood and Hollywood sharing in future?
I think that mobile technology is going to be one of the significant areas. There’s this new venture called Hooq, a video-on-demand service. It’s got significant investments from Singtel, Sony Pictures Television, and Warner Bros., and it’s a way for Hollywood to leverage its agreements with Indian content rights holders to distribute content across new mobile platforms. I think this is where we are going to see more investment, because there are huge opportunities available in that sector given the prolific proliferation of mobile telephony in India.
Services such as video-on-demand and streaming are going to see significant investment in years to come. So technological infrastructure is going to be the place where these stories are going to be told. But are we going to have the same kind of wonderful conflicts we had in the pre-multiplex era, before the 1990s? I am not so sure, but I hope so, because it is great stuff for us to write about.