There is no denying the fact that India’s soft power transpires through its cultural and civilizational influence beyond its territorial boundaries. The Indian film industry is considered one of the biggest and most globalised industry in the world. It has a significant role in popularising Indian culture across the globe. But what does soft power mean? And how does the Indian film industry act as a cultural ambassador? What are the recent changes which further accelerate or reduce the pace of this very process?
During the cold war, Hollywood played a significant role in assisting the United States to win the ongoing ideological battle against Communism. Using the cinema, Hollywood spread U.S. values like liberalism and market capitalism in other nations.
Joseph Nye defined the concept of ‘Soft Power’ as the ability to obtain a preferred outcome by attraction rather than coercion or force. Thus, if a country aims to influence the choices of another country in contemporary times, it must take the route of co-option and seduction rather than threats and inducements. Although the concept of soft power was devised by considering the American influence over the world and its soft power resource, other countries also utilised it. During the cold war, Hollywood played a significant role in assisting the United States to win the ongoing ideological battle against Communism. Using the cinema, Hollywood spread U.S. values like liberalism and market capitalism in other nations. It is not the case only with the U.S. South Korea also invested millions in the music and film industry in the 1900s and we can clearly see the result in the form of K-pop. Parasite, a South Korean film, has recently won an Oscar award.
This concept, despite being vague, has become one of the most cited. Over time the concept has become richer and refined. In the book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Nye further suggested three sources of soft power – a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policy.
India’s cinema rightly fits in the first category as it reflects the culture and values of India. But whenever there is a mention of soft power and Indian cinema, the most cited references revolve around Bollywood movies. However, Bollywood movies have indeed been a significant source of cultural export. Starting early, a film called Dharti ke Lal was released in USSR and later, in 1952, Aan became the first globally released Indian film. Thus, one cannot deny the long and rich history of Bollywood releasing films overseas. Even in contemporary times, Bollywood movies came in top earners in terms of overseas income. A decade ago, movies like 3 Idiots featuring actor Aamir Khan were released in China. The film managed has brought Bollywood back into Chinese consciousness and become a huge hit there. Khan’s other iconic films, like P.K. and Dangal, also became massive hits in China. These movies earned more from China and other countries as compared to India.
Bollywood movies are popular not only in China but countries like Nigeria, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, U.S. etc. India’s former Prime minister Manmohan Singh also recognised the role of Bollywood in forging its soft power resource.
Bollywood movies are popular not only in China but countries like Nigeria, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, U.S. etc. India’s former Prime minister Manmohan Singh also recognised the role of Bollywood in forging its soft power resource. While giving a speech, he stated, “Soft power of India in some ways can be a vital instrument of foreign policy. Cultural relations, India’s film industry – Bollywood – I find wherever I go in Middle East, in Africa – people talk about Indian films. So that is a new way of influencing the world about the growing importance of India. Soft power is equally important in the new world of diplomacy.” This statement was made in 2008, and since then, the film-making scene in India has undergone several changes. The introduction of O.T.T. platforms in India is a major change which further opens the scope of creativity in film making. However, we must not forget the emerging success of South Indian films in the recent years. Films like R.R.R., Vikram, Bahubali 2, K.G.F: Chapter 2, Kabali have made a huge box office both domestically and internationally.
R.R.R. movie released this year became a sensational hit not only in India but in countries like North America and Japan. R.R.R. is based on fiction, showcasing the fight of two individuals fighting against British imperialism. R.R.R. successfully managed to showcase India’s cultural and religious values. It has earned far more from the overseas in comparison to India. The total box office collection of R.R.R. in India was INR 9.9 billion while the worldwide collection was INR 11.1 billion. During a trip to Japan, the team of R.R.R. also received a huge response from fans. Thus, leveraging South Indian films in America and Japan could be an important soft power for New Delhi and its dealing with Washington and Tokyo. A country like India which produces the largest number of movies in the world every year. And the box office income of Indian films is also very high. As most of the world prefers to watch non-native cinema, there is no reason why Indian cinema cannot have more influence in the world.
Regional cinema can represent India’s culture far more nuancedly than a typical Bollywood movie. As we have seen in the latest Kannada film Kantara which shows the worship ritual called Bhoota Kola in the film
But more attention must be paid to making India’s cinema diplomacy prosper in the coming years. First, there is a need to look beyond Bollywood. Regional cinema can represent India’s culture far more nuancedly than a typical Bollywood movie. As we have seen in the latest Kannada film Kantara which shows the worship ritual called Bhoota Kola in the film. Despite being regional, the film became a huge hit throughout India. Secondly, Indian government could also take a step to incentivise the production of those movies which portray Indian culture and values. Promoting the production of such kinds of films domestically can help spread culture overseas. Thirdly, with the creation of O.T.T. platforms, movie options have become diverse. Only those films survive which are best in their segment. Hence, filmmakers in India face a serious challenge from movies produced in other countries. Thus, Indian filmmakers need to raise the quality of film making to compete with rising global competition and technical and creative challenges in the field.
Aman Kumar is Research Intern at CSPS