YBCA Exhibition: New Contemporary Art In India

The Asian Art Museum's Maharaja exhibit in San Francisco isn't the only Indian exhibit in town. Running through Jan 29th, 2012, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also has Matter Within - New Contemporary Art of India. Owing to Shari's stint at YBCA in the earlier part of this millennium, we still get the occasional invite and felt we couldn't pass this one up. I am hardly an art critic, but took advantage of YBCA's liberal attitude towards photography in the gallery (all ok as long as no flash). Here are the results.

Outside YBCA

And inside

The Roster

Virj looks up at the Matka installation. It moves!

Photograph by Nikhil Chopra

From a series of photos by Pushpamala N whereby she literally recreates various film and other stills

A set of installations on the main gallery floor

From Mumbai's Project 88

Also running continuously at the exhibit are several films including one from the Otolith Group ("Otolith III") that looked particularly fascinating. I didn't get a chance to catch all of it but it looked to derive inspiration from Satyajit Ray's failed attempts to make a film out of his The Alien script in Hollywood.

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- December 30, 2011 1:43 AM // Bay Area , India

East Indians in American Media

Cross posted on sharidelic.

Over the past few years we certainly have seen more South Asians in the American media though the term “South Asian” is becoming obsolete. I see more ads looking for “East Indians” than anything else. Not quite sure why but my guess is because India is becoming more prominent amongst the South Asian countries and hence taking over the identity. Anyway, though the numbers have risen, the roles in Hollywood still fall prey to stereotypes. As filmmakers, Soam and I have watched this evolution closely and have had long discussions on what the requirements might be for Indian actors in Hollywood. About 10 years ago, it would definitely be the short, dark, simple looking Indian guy who was non-threatening and could be a cab driver or, if he got lucky, a doctor. 9/11 opened up the floodgates for Indian actors to play terrorists. However, the cabbie, the doctor and the New York street vendor continue to appear.

The few actors who have been able to make a breakthrough in recent times are Naveen Andrews (Lost), Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes), Mindy Kaling (Office), Rekha Sharma (Battlestar Galactica) and Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation). Though Andrews was typecast as an Iraqi soldier (falling into the “terrorist category”), it was good to see Kumar’s character break away from the stereotype. That being said, Kal Penn played a doctor and a terrorist subsequently in House and 24….poor guy has to make his living after all! Ramamurthy plays a nerdy scientist in Heroes who drones on with profound insights….oh come on, can there be no normal Indian guy ever? I know his character has evolved from the first few episodes I saw but I haven’t re-visited Heroes since then, so pardon me if I’m blatantly wrong. As for Kaling, she created her role herself being the co-executive producer and writer of Office! The role of Sharma in Battlestar Galactica is probably the most experimental out of the lot, though she doesn’t quite play an East Indian. I haven’t seen Parks and Recreation yet but from what I’ve read Ansari’s character is pretty interesting. He is called Tom Haverford, again not an East Indian name. Color blind casting at work?

Apart from these few successes there seems to be very few opportunities for the majority of East Indian actors in Hollywood. I’d say it’s worse for the desi sistas – they have to make do with the occasional demand for a brown face in a “diverse” crowd or a bit role as an exotic girl friend/coworker.

Being an actor/model myself, I’ve been noticing the trend over the last few years. Though I’ve been cast as a doctor and as part of an East Indian family, most of my gigs were for ethnically ambiguous roles where they needed a non-Caucasian. For example, for one of my auditions from a few weeks ago, I was supposed to play an East Indian doctor for a well-known Pharmaceutical company. My agent hadn’t briefed me on the details but the moment I arrived at the casting, I was quite certain that I would not make a good fit. I was a little too glamorously dressed for the occasion. And here I was thinking in terms of Scrubs and House while choosing my wardrobe. Go figure! I guess the same rules don’t quite apply to East Indian actors! You would think all the talk of Bollywood and seeing Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya Rai and Freida Pinto in the media would change perspectives a bit? I guess it will take longer for the casting directors here to realize that East Indian actors/models can be “versatile” too! However, my experience is limited to San Francisco and doing this as a side profession, which means I don’t go to that many auditions. So, I welcome my desi brothers and sisters to fill me in on this, if I’m wrong.

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Shari Acharya - April 25, 2010 5:49 PM // Diaspora , Film , India , TV

Buddha Casting Call

From the author of this posting on Deadline Hollywood:

"dunno. I’m sure these projects sound great on the celebrity Buddhist circuit, when you’re saying “namaste” to Richard Gere or Uma Thurman, but I just don’t know how much appeal they have in Des Moines."

What do you think? While Buddha won't play like Passion of the Christ in Des Moines, isn't it still worthwhile to get these kinds of projects off the ground and into the western media mainstream?

Here's the link.

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Biraj Lala - April 22, 2010 8:24 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , DishumDishum , Film , India

Crocs Fail

Here is a snapshot of the Crocs store in South City mall in Kolkata.

In this picture, we have two salespeople inside the store. They are idle.

We have one salesperson stepping outside the store. He is not idle.

He is rushing to prevent us from taking a picture of the store.

Why? Fear of terrorists reccing the target? Copycats stealing storefront designs? Paranoia? Irrational camera hatred? All we know is we've seen this before - it is very difficult to publicly take images of any kind in a Kolkata mall (you can always sneak the pictures, nothing stopping you from doing that!). In Croc's case though, you think they'd make an exception:

Reports about the company's future look bleak -- it lost $185.1 million last year, shed 2,000 jobs, and revenue in the first quarter of 2009 declined by 32 percent. And yes, you read that right -- they had grown so big so quickly that they laid off 2,000 people. Just three years ago, Crocs went public in a splashy stock offering, raising $200 million; now it trades at about three bucks a share, down from a high of nearly $70 in October 2007.

Come on fellas, you need all the viral love you can get.

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- January 2, 2010 7:41 PM // India

Fair's Unfair

The obsession with white skin in India is probably one of the most insidious and persistent legacies of colonialism. Anyone recalling Doordarshan programming prior to the heady days of oodles of satellite channels, will also remember the plethora of fairness creams ads at that time. Marriage classifieds have forever been littered with ads with various euphemisms desirous of that whiter shade of pale for women. Any middle class Indian growing up can tell you about that cousin or sister who is very attractive but sadly, not "fair" and hence probably doomed to a life of spinsterhood. Certainly, a doctor or IAS officer or NRI is out of reach in the bridegroom sweepstakes!

Given that skin whitening treatments in India are rather in the same league as teeth whitening here, I suppose it was only a matter of time before companies began targeting men as well. Biraj forwarded this CNN story making the rounds regarding companies marketing "fairness" creams for men:

Now there's no need to sneak into your sister's Fair & Lovely cream stash. Or rub talcom powder on your face (it doesn't work unless your goal is to look like Bozo the Clown). Simply walk to your nearest paanwaala's shop and apply away. Then proceed to walk, no, zoom up the corporate and social ladders.

Perhaps Bollywood can make a social issue out of all this - brown skin pride and all that? It would seem to be a tailor made subject, no? Sadly, what's happened instead is quite the opposite: masala dance numbers now prominently feature white chicks grabbed fresh from the Mumbai Airport. Home grown lovelies are no longer bleached enough. Aspirational trophy wallpaper, here we come!

I should probably add that this phenomenon is not limited to India - it's quite common in many post colonial countries. And no rant would be complete without pointing out the reverse irony in the West: the paler folks want to get tans and look darker. So it goes.


I was asked whether there could be other reasons for this phenomenon as well. Religion, perhaps? Caste? Well, I have no doubt my discussion above is way too simplistic. Regardless, if you look across:

  • religions - skin color preference in India is not limited to Hindus by any stretch of the imagination.
  • countries - many countries, typically ex-colonies, experience the same issue.
  • races - skin bleach for African Americans, anyone?

To me, there seemed to be the one predominant factor stretching across all, hence the focus.

Also, here's a nice article on how the issue affects the South Asian diaspora. A quote:

The mother of all fairness creams on the subcontinent, Fair & Lovely, was developed and launched by consumer goods giant Hindustan Lever in 1976. Fair & Lovely's reach has extended beyond India. Today it is marketed in over 38 countries and has become the largest-selling skin lightening cream in the world, but its biggest customer concentration remains in South Asia itself.


Rahman argues that the politics and implications of skin color in Indian community and among black Americans are extraordinarily similar, and the strict juxtaposition of black and white works well in understanding the implications of skin color and the definition of beauty among black Americans, Indians in India, and Indians living in the U.S.


As another informant, Sultana, says: “Well, in [South] Asian communities, because there are so many shades, most everyone prefers light skin. And if they are dark, they have to at least be charming and pleasant looking. If they are not, then they are in big trouble. And it is much, much worse here than in India and Pakistan because over there if you are ugly . . . if you have any kind of deficiency than at least you can make it up with money. “O.K. my daughter’s not beautiful, but I can give you a house.” But here no one needs money. They all have money and so they can’t compensate deficiency with money. See, we parents are afraid [of our children marrying dark skinned mates] because, if not for this generation, then the next generation, our grandchildren. Because dark color is dominant over light color . . . and the children will carry the dark color [because it] is a dominating feature . . . and it stays over the generations.”

Twenty three year old Asma, expresses her frustration: “I know people see me as dark, and I know people don’t ask me [for marriage] because of that. And I want to marry a professional person, so it’s hard.”

Twenty-one- year-old Zainab feels discriminated against because she is Indian American: “Everyone thinks Pakistanis are light and Indians are dark. For instance, I had a [doctor-suitor] once and he actually said to me, “Pakistani women are more beautiful than Indian women.” I was like, “You jack-ass, I’m Indian.”. . . Some people only propose to me because I’m light. Once someone asked me if I bleached [my skin] because how could I be so light naturally, being Indian.”

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- September 11, 2009 10:06 PM // India

(Belated) Happy New Year

Reprinting, by permission, a vignette from Athena Kashyap on her return to Mumbai in the aftermath of the latest attacks:

Shortly after the year turned, we walked up a narrow promontory of land, cradled on three sides by huge swathes of the Arabian Sea, up to the Ban Ganga water tank.

Gazing down at the brown sands of Chowpatty beach, looking demure under coconut trees, the colonial pillars of Wilson College visible right across from the beach, across from the sleepy roadway on which the morning’s traffic had yet to wake up, we could have been taking our walk a hundred years ago, expecting at any time to see a Victorian horse drawn buggy clip-clopping into the distance, disappearing into the foggy lights of the Queen’s Necklace.

But as we continued our walk, different eras of Mumbai’s past began to emerge. Here and there, we still spied a building from the British past—the chief minister’s bungalow, a Rajasthani palace built out of red stone—looking incongruous, even a little absurd, next to the concrete apartment buildings of our times, sitting squat and ugly, hugging the road so closely that not even Bombay’s tenacious trees could take root next to them.

Then, as we neared the tank, Mumbai’s ethnic identity from several hundred years ago began to assert itself. We found ourselves walking on narrow cobbled lanes built not horses nor cars but for pedestrians, lined on either side by temples, small houses with upturned roofs, entrances engraved with carvings, and stalls selling vegetables, sweets, and flowers. Here and there, a priest bustled around, barefoot, washing the steps of the temple, performing their God’s morning ablutions to get ready for the day. Pedestrians also hurried along, going about their daily routines, taking the children to school, setting out to work.

And there in the center lay the tank. It looked to be in poor shape, the steps leading to the water broken and strewn with plastics and remnants of food. People lay sleeping on its steps, nuzzled by geese hoping to find a morsel or two in the folds of the their blankets. A child defecated on the steps and his mother washed his bottom, and then washed his stool down a few steps below, a little beyond her vision’s periphery. A man cleared away some of the garbage from the rim of the tank, enough to let him collect a cup of water with which he brushed his teeth, spitting it back into the water’s dirty foam after he was done.

Despite the filth and squalor, the tank still maintained a quiet dignity as it lay shaded by the umbrella of ancient trees, lent no doubt by the story of its origin inscribed on a plaque at one end. As we read about its past we stepped back even further back in history, the tanks’ renovation in the sixteenth century, and its construction in the eight century, and then back into mythological time, when the Lord Ram pierced the earth with his arrow on this very spot to release a spring of fresh water, hiding underground.

Stories are told and retold to remember memorable events, and mythologies are built around miraculous happenings. Looking at this fresh water tank, it is easy to see why the spring, why this spot would be deified. Having a fresh water spring that survives on this tiny sliver of earth surrounded by the Goliath salty ocean seems nothing short of miraculous but finding this underground spring seems even more incredible. It is a testament to human kind’s intelligence and ingenuity, the godlike ability in us.

Today, with the wounds from the past year still not healed, the blood not yet washed away, we must remember that this land of Mumbai is a special land, and a sliver of hope runs through it. And, more importantly, that its inhabitants have within themselves the ability to make manifest an intelligence that will lead us from darkness to light.

Wishing you all a New Year filled with fresh hope to bring about positive change in our lives and the world. May the intelligence within each of you shine forth dispelling fear and insecurity, and may you live this year with courage and wisdom.

What she said. Thanks Athena for expressing it so well.

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- January 12, 2009 8:49 PM // India

Benny Lava And Globalization

In this day and age of easy multimedia dissemination, there's no real place to hide. On the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's Thriller, I went hunting for evidence of its influence on desi dance and Bollywood on YouTube. If anything, I found the South Indian film industry to be far more overt in their "homage." But globalization is a two way street and one particularly egregious copy of Michael's moves, once intended for a regional Indian film audience, is now available for all and sundry. In fact it was a huge viral video hit. By now you must have seen it already but here goes anyway:

Now, here's the part about the two way street: after it gained in popularity, YouTube users began taking the video and adding their own twist. Like farts. Or splicing in the original Thriller video such that you can now see the desi version with Jackson warbling on the soundtrack juxtaposed against Michael dancing with the audio from the Tamil soundtrack. The latter actually works better, IMHO:

The best remix, however, was done by popular YouTube prankster, buffalax. He added subtitles, not intentionally bad translations a la Wayne's World, but vaguely phonetically accurate transliterations with hilarious results:

This was a big hit by itself, garnering over 2 million views. Interested, I dug into buffalax's back catalog. He's done Punjabi bhangra as well (Daler Mehndi's video for Tunak Tunak but his greatest hit was for a dance sequence from South Indian star Prabhu Deva. It's a scene from the movie Pennin Manathai Thottu. Entitled Crazy Indian Video .. Buffalaxed, this clip was a monster YouTube hit, garnering around 3.7 million impressions:

As you see in the opening credits, Buffalaxed has no idea about the context of the original video, nor does he care. His is a strictly phonetic deconstruction of the Tamil lyrics and it's brilliant. Blogger Pramodh writes:

Mike Sutton is a 24 year old dude from Ohio. His hobby is to find some foreign videos in YouTube and make up the lyrics just the way they might sound in English. The twist is that he makes the lyrics hilarious. And he calls himself Buffalax in YouTube. On August 18 2007 he relased a video and called it a "Crazy Indian Video Buffalaxed!" And in a few months its popularity in the internet went up so much that Urban Dictionary decided to add the term Benny Lava in their Lingo. So far it had 2+ Million views and still going strong.

Searching for views on Benny Lava, I found an interesting trend: bloggers (by and large non South Asian) and YouTube commentators found it to be hilarious. But some also noted their enjoyment of the actual dancing in the video itself. An interesting way of crossing over: come for the humor, stay for the moves. Pramodh adds:

Prabhu Deva the actor in the video is now known as Benny Lava all over the internet. Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend who studies in Ohio. She said that some of the students performed the Benny Lava dance in her school.

This subtitling approach by buffalax has inspired others but by and large, it seems to be a one trick pony. Buffalax's recent efforts in other languages haven't really garnered anywhere near as many hits. Still, it's another example of the ebb and flow across cultural divides that a megabazaar like YouTube can produce.

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- February 15, 2008 1:45 PM // Bollywood , Dance , Diaspora , Humour , India

Foreign Films In India: 2007

"Arr mateys, prepare to be boarded!". Hollywood is having a banner year in India for 2007. Variety reports:

Boosted by other hits including "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," Hollywood's market share is tracking at around 8%-10% this year. That's whammo in a country with an all-powerful tradition of watching Bollywood and other local-language movies. And it compares well with a short while back when 3%-4% for Hollywood would have been considered good.

And why?

What's making the difference is India's hurtle toward economic modernity and the willingness of distribs to mix it up and experiment with such things as multiple-language dubbed versions.

The multiplexing of India is making more screens available, and an increasingly world-wise Indian population doesn't want to wait for entertainment that is available elsewhere.

As five or six screeners replace single theaters, there is much more choice for cinemagoers and room for programming diversity.

I wrote about relatively low budget desi multiplex films benefiting from this trend but it looks like Hollywood is starting to make inroads as well. And they're not the only beneficiaries:

Korean record-breaker "The Host" grossed a solid Rupees8.39 million ($208,000) in its maiden week in Indian cinemas.

Release, thought to be a first for a Korean movie in India, was handled by indie Indo-Overseas Films.

Interestingly enough, I wonder if the low budget horror films by Ram Gopal Verma ("Bhoot", "Darna Mana Hai") intended for multiplexes actually opened up the audience to fare of this type. In any case, competition is good for the consumer - the resulting pressure will hopefully force Bollywood to raise their own game.

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- August 11, 2007 10:33 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

Brown Power or Kung Fu? - Hollywood Tries To Pick

Variety writes about the ongoing debate in Hollywood regarding where to invest next. India or China?

Nearly a decade ago, Sony opened a Chinese-language production office in Hong Kong. But the unit has had trouble finding success on the scale of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In fact, it hasn't made a movie in the past two years.

By contrast, India has proven bountiful for Sony Entertainment Television, which has become an established TV player in the country and is now expanding from movie buyer into local production.

Kaiju Shakedown elaborates more on the difficulties facing Hollywood in China:

China is the world’s biggest movie market but with four times the population of the United States it only has 2,396 movie screens, one fifteenth of America’s 38,000. Hollywood is eager to sell movies to what it views as an underserved market, but China only allows 20 foreign movies to be imported each year. Hollywood wants to increase the screen count by building multiplex chains across rural China, but China won’t allow foreign companies to own more than 49% of cinemas outside of the seven major cities. Hollywood is desperate to stamp out piracy, but China’s efforts to cooperate are sporadic at best. And so China is the beautiful, unattainable market that drives Hollywood crazy.

China does its best to flummox its suitor. Their State Administration of Radio, Film and Television is a massive Mao-era bureaucracy that operates like an eccentric uncle.

They recently baffled the world by banning all foreign movies that mix live action and animation, such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Space Jams”. Then they ruffled feathers further by yanking “The Da Vinci Code” from theaters at the peak of its successful run, with no explanations given.

In addition to being more open, India offers a number of additional advantages. From Variety:

  • Due to a wave of multiplex construction, the theatrical market is expanding. That's allowing the first steps toward nationwide (rather than state by state) releasing.
  • The pay TV market may boom if mandatory set-top decoders allow subscription revenues to flow to rights owners, rather than mom-and-pop cable pirates. The country is expected to have five DTH satellite platforms by the end of 2007.
  • The development of an organized retail sector of chain stores and supermarkets is driving growth of home entertainment, even as it looks wobbly in the rest of the world.
  • With cell phone numbers growing at more than 5 million per month, mobile entertainment is delivering real gaming and music returns. Because TV penetration is low compared with other, more developed countries, including China, some analysts expect mobile ownership to even outstrip TV.

Other distribution channels like Madhouse and SeventyMM are also emerging. Both adopt the Netflix model with one crucial difference - DVDs are not delivered by mail (the public mail service is utterly unreliable) but via private courier services.

However, as Variety notes, all is not peachykeen in the Indian market. Roadblocks remain:

India's big drawback has been that the level of overall economic development is significantly behind China and its entertainment industry is largely isolated from the rest of the world. Local-language movies account for 95% of the box office, and the soundtracks of Bollywood dominate the music industry.


Indian regulators are just as capable of infuriating congloms. Barely a month had passed after a new policy was put in place for mandatory conditional access systems, or set-top boxes, in order to curb cable TV theft by mom-and-pop pirates. But then regulators decreed that pay channels should not be allowed to charge more than 1 rupee (2 cents) per month, in order that the poor also can afford their shows.

Appeals are ongoing, but the notion that either country will enact reforms for the benefit of foreign interests is somewhat ridiculous.

In the big picture, however, the Indian film industry still lags behind that of China in the global sweepstakes:

Although Bollywood is bigger in absolute terms, the Chinese industry has been more successful on a world scale.

"The Chinese films generally have had larger success outside of China than the Indian pictures have had outside of India," says Sony's Michael Lynton. "The market outside India is largely people who are part of the Indian diaspora."

True enough. That's why, while all the cine buffs keep track of Zhang Yimou's latest release (Curse of the Golden Flower), events like Dhoom 2 racking up close to a million bucks in the USA over Thanksgiving weekend while playing in just a handful of screens, continue to surprise. I'm not saying the film is any good mind you - but it just goes to show the power of the brown dollar (and rupee for that matter) cannot be underestimated.

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- February 10, 2007 11:46 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film , India , TV

Blast Links

Some links on the Mumbai blasts:

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this senseless carnage.

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- July 12, 2006 7:49 PM // India

India At The Oscars Part II

In a previous entry, I looked at Indian presence at the Oscars over the past fifteen years or so. Slim pickings, as you can imagine. The famine continued this year, cool self aggrandizing ad from M. Night Shyamalan notwithstanding. "Why should Indians care about winning at the Oscars?," I hear you ask. Reasons about national pride and filmmakers' lifelong dreams aside, I would simply suggest it is good for business. Succeeding on such a global stage opens more doors and confers more visibility for the industry as a whole. Result? Beaucoup bucks and more smiles for Bollywood financiers than the entire back catalog of Govinda, Johnny Walker and Johnny Lever put togther. Hence, every year, the Indian newspapers flagellate themselves into a frenzy over this issue. A typical article from Rediff reads:

The Oscar nominations announcement for the 78th Academy Awards was certainly bad news for Bollywood film lovers and the Indian media.

After the announcement, a Google search of the word Paheli generated the following news headlines -- Paheli fails to get Oscar nomination (The Times of India), Paheli misses race for Oscars (The Hindu), Brokeback in, Paheli Out (Rediff) and even Paheli, Morning Raga out of the race for Oscars (Webindia 123).

Apparently, the expecation was that after Lagaan's nomination, the floodgates would open. Alas, that didn't turn out to be the case. The reactions for Devdas, India's entry the following year:

One committee member later said the following to this reporter: "We just didn't like it," he said referring to Devdas. "The girls were beautiful, but the story was out of whack. At least last year's one (Lagaan) had great humour. But (in Devdas) everybody was shouting and screaming. They weren't pleasant people."

Perhaps they had seen far too many tedious foreign language films that week, but nearly half of the 250 to 300 committee members reportedly walked out of Devdas' official screening during the intermission. That pretty much sealed the fate of Bansali's film.

And for Paheli:

A member of the Academy's foreign language film committee, contacted by this reporter after the January 31 Oscar nominations were announced, failed to recall details about Paheli.

"It didn't go down very well with the group," he said, on the condition that he would remain anonymous. "I can't remember why though."

The article tries to blame a lot of this on bad luck. Voters were, unfortunately, unable to remember much about Paheli after they had seen it. Similarly, Devdas wasn't handled as well as Lagaan which was shown on a Sunday afternoon and included a lunch intermission that mitigated its three and a half hour running time. Devdas was screened in the middle of the week - so poor Devdas continued to be denied even after his death.

Hogwash. Lagaan is a far superior film and one of the few gems to come out of Bollywood over the past couple of years. It fully deserved its success. As for the rest, here are some candid remarks from a member of the Academy's foreign language committee:

"We look at the films from the American point of view," the Academy's foreign language film committee member said. "What happens (in Bollywood films) is that in the middle of the scene suddenly (the actors) start jumping up and dancing and singing, which, to us, is ridiculous. When we see an Indian film and that happens, we don't know how to react to it. That's the problem."

He added that he was not suggesting that Bollywood filmmakers should change their filmmaking style. "Obviously, they are making the films for the Indian market and not for the American market."

From an Indian standpoint, film critic Raja Sen ("Why can't we win an Oscar?") opines:

ki : Is Indian cinema truly global in terms of standards? I mean, look at the production overseas and you see the difference

Raja Sen : No, we have a long way to go. It's not just budgets and production values, but we work on a very limited creative canvas as well. We need to explore different kinds of cinema, not typical box office-friendly fare.. but I think things are beginning to slowly change.. now if only we had some original stories.

As any follower of Indian films will tell you there is hope, however. Raja Sen, again:

NYSocial : Where do we think Indian Cinema is going ? Our producers just follow trends...comedy movies...shooting abroad..and all that. The basic creativity is missing. What do you think ?

Raja Sen : I know, but there is fast emerging the newly-branded culture of 'multiplex films'. Which means it is actually possible to make a tiny-budget film the way you want to, and keep it profitable. There are creative people in the industry, and they just need avenues to express themselves. I think things are getting better (despite the fact that mainstream films are getting worse and worse, like you said), and I'd like to be optimistic about Indian cinema's future.

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- March 15, 2006 7:43 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

Bush Worship

Yes, I know many folks in India have every reason to like Bush what with outsourcing and all but isn't this going a little too far? Praise him all you want but at least have the gumption to carry a real picture of the man (as opposed to a heartthrob from downunder). Have a look at the screenshot below to see what I'm getting at:


I doubt Russell Crowe will be too pleased either.

Update: If, on the other hand, you want a satire poster of Bush pretending to be Mr. Crowe, go here.

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- February 24, 2006 11:39 AM // India , Politics

Hollywood India Box Office

Something we observed in our visit to the snazzier INOX multiplexes while visiting India in early 2005:

... purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees!

For example, there was a huge publicity campaign underway for The Incrediblesat the time. Dubbed in Hindi, featuring the voice of Shahrukh Khan and entitled Hum Hain Lajawab (We Are Fabulous) it didn't really cause any stir - nothing that we could see anyway. Rediff has an article confirming our observation - India resisted Hollywood's advances last year.

According to market estimates, the box office share of Hollywood movies in India has declined from a high of about 9 per cent, to around 4 per cent last year (about Rs 150 crore in all).

Hollywood representatives are tightlipped on individual takings. But they do accept a reversal. "What is noteworthy is that 2005 was really big for Bollywood," concedes Vikramjit Roy, head, publicity and acquisitions, Sony Pictures Releasing of India (SPRI), "and that newer multiplex screens have been added."

Not that Hindi cinema ever lost its charm. But, for a while, it looked as if Hollywood's domination was inevitable, as its dubbed blockbusters began to do almost as well as Hindi cinema's biggest hits. That fear has now abated. Says Pooja Shetty, director, Adlabs Films, "There were some good movies from Hollywood studios. Yet, last year clearly belonged to Bollywood, especially the new-genre of crossover films. Hollywood could not match its performance of previous years."

Despite this reversal, India remains too big a market to ignore. An alternate strategy seems to be emerging:

That might end once Hollywood studios enter domestic film production, having already managed a foot through the door in distribution. Sony, for example, has announced that it will co-produce Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest venture Saawariya. This will be a first. And an experiment to be watched closely.

Lastly, Ibosnetwork has a list of the top non-Bollywood grossers in India for 2005:

Top non-Bollywood hits for India
*Collections where available*

Tamil - Chandramukhi (Rs. 60 crore Gross)
Telugu - Chatrapati (Rs. 25 crore gross)
Kannada - Jogi
Malyalam - Rajamanikkam (Rs. 8 crore)
Bhojpuri - Sasura Bada Paisewala (Rs. 17 crore)
Bengali - Juddha (Rs. 5 crore)

The domestic collection for Chandramukhi, the Tamil hit, is easily at par, if not better, with the biggest Bollywood hits of 2005 (Black, Bunty Aur Babli). Just a reminder that Bollywood is not the be all and end all of Indian cinema - as if we needed one!

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- January 28, 2006 5:39 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

Rick Steve's India

Rick Steve, everybody's favorite Euro-travel author, has his own favorite destination - India. He puts a different spin on my India-is-mindfunk line though. In an interview (Rick Steves: His top sites, pet peeves, best advice) with the San Jose Mercury News, he says:

India rearranges all your cultural furniture. I thought I knew what music was, I thought I knew what pain and love and faith were, but India changes everything. Everything is different. It was great travel, but it's very frustrating to talk about it. You can't explain India to people. I can explain Ireland, Norway, the Alps, but I can't explain India. It's like travel squared.

Nicely put. However, there are a couple of things I observed in my last trip. Double standards do exist. White tourists are the real sacred cows over there - most locals know this and accordingly will be amazingly hospitable. Unfortunately, they tend to view NRIs as cash cows. I don't exactly know where this comes from - it seems to be a mixture of resentment, annoyance and envy. Just consider the moneyed, boorish NRI stereotype that used to pop up in Bollywood films. Anyway, you have to be on your guard constantly as a consequence.

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- November 6, 2005 7:00 PM // India , Travel

Happy Diwali!

We just returned from Vancouver and the desi presence there is decidedly stronger than in the USA. I can't imagine official government Diwali posters in a public space anywhere around here, at least not in a major city. So here goes a picture of Shari posing next to a Vancouver bus stop and Happy Diwali to all of you!

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- November 4, 2005 7:43 PM // Diaspora , India

The Diaspora Strikes Back

In The Lost Subcontinent William Dalyrmple summarizes the state of Indian and Indian diaspora writing. As he notes, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things heralded the commercial viability of Indian litertature:

.. Roy's international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy's book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement: it won the Booker and sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months: by the end of 1997 it had sold no less than four million copies in two dozen languages.

The results were predictable:

There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several other writers had of course prepared the ground for this success. Roy could not have happened without VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: in particular Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece Midnight's Children liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. It won the Booker, as did Naipaul's Bend in the River. Then, in 1993, Seth produced his massive - and magnificent - A Suitable Boy. Rushdie's prediction that "Indians were in a position to conquer English literature" seemed about to be vindicated.

Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out..

The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.


As far as prizes are concerned, since Roy, we have had Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Monica Ali on the Booker shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer; while off the prize-piste there have been two exceptionally brilliant novels by Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist and Transmission) and a fine book each from Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers

Many of the folks on this list are diaspora writers. Could they be coming into their own?

The big uncertainty in the years to come, however, is whether it will continue to be Indians in India mediating this country in the future - or will this increasingly come to be the preserve of the diaspora. Here a big and daily growing question mark remains. In Britain during the last four or five years, the waves have been made less by authors from south Asia, or even from the immediate south Asian diaspora, as much as British-born Asian writers such as Nadeem Aslam or Meera Syal, and particularly what Rushdie might call "chutnified" authors of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, in Zadie Smith's famous formulation, "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks".

The diaspora, however don't quite see themselves carrying the torch:

When he was in Delhi last summer launching Transmission, Kunzru surprised many Indian interviewers by emphasising that he was a British author, not an Indian one, and that he was very happy living in London with his British identity: to one interviewer, he remarked that although his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings, he is not "one of those expatriate Indian writers who scours the Indian landscape looking for my roots", adding that he "abhors the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all." For him, he said, India was a place where his cousins lived and where he came for weddings and winter holidays.

In Hong Kong, he confirmed this: "I am very careful never to describe myself as an Indian writer," he said. "I am a British-born, British-resident author. I have connections to India and I feel they inform what I do to some extent, but more than this I cannot claim. What I and Zadie are doing is British writing about British hybridity. It is a completely separate story to that strand of writing which is about Indian-born writers going somewhere else. People should not confuse the two."

I could sense the politics of this when reading Transmission. There were three plotlines within the book: one dealt with a desi computer nerd finding his way from Gurgaon to Silicon Valley, the second was about a really put-upon Bollywood starlet on location in the UK and the third described the shenanigans of a high class British man. Somehow, I felt the third thread was somewhat superfluous to the overall narrative. The first two narratives came together quite nicely in the end but the third seemed to be more about Mr. Kunzru saying to the readers, Look - I can do non-brown too! Given that his first book, The Impressionist, dealt, once again, with an Anglo-Indian desi during the times of the British Raj, I found Mr. Kunzru's statements interesting. Unlike Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, both of whom dealt with Bangladeshi first and second generation UK immigrants in their debuts, I don't quite see the second generation hybridity in his work. If that's not there and he is disavowing any serious connections with the subcontinent, then there's the faintest whiff of opportunism about the whole thing. Writing about India is "in" - use it's exoticism while you still can. Move on when the masala runs out. Hopefully that's not the case.

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- August 15, 2005 9:41 PM // Books , Diaspora , India

Mike's World Tour

The best way I've heard India described...is that it is "an assault on all the senses" - ubiquitous poverty, odors of the garbage heaps, noise of traffic, the crowded streets, random cows, the heat, etc. One the other hand, the food is amazing and the landscape beautiful. It's taken sometime but India is beginning to grow on me. It's a country of contradictions - it's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid.

So writes Mike Novak, a comrade from my grad school days, in his excellent photolog. Mike quit his job recently, sold his house in DC and, prior to focusing on his passion for filmmaking in NYC, is undertaking a world tour - Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Australia. Seems fairly comprehensive, doesn't it? The only thing that seems to be missing from the itinery is Shangri La and, given that getting there involves a plane crash, perhaps it's best avoided...

One thing though - Mike describes India as "an assault on all the senses." I don't know if I can claim credit for instilling that line in Mike, but I do have a pithier description now - "India is a mindfunk." 'nuff said and best of luck to Mike! I'm suitably envious.

Finally, let me share Mike's advice on the one essential thing to pack before you leave the USA for a trip of this type: at least 3 "I Love Canada" t-shirts!

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- July 5, 2005 5:23 PM // India , Travel

$145 Million Film Deal In India?

Mid-Day is reporting that a Mumbai based production house, Percept Picture Company, is all set to announce Tree of Life, a $145 Million dollar project:

The film is a drama and will star Hollywood bigwigs Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell, and will be directed by Oscar-winner Terence Malik (Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands).


Fifteen per cent of Tree of Life will be shot in India, while the rest will be shot on locations abroad. A source from Percept, who does not wish to be named, says, This film will take India places in the Hollywood circles.

Not confirming the news, Shailendra Singh, managing director, Percept Picture Company says, I cannot comment on this right now. When I have something to say, we will announce it officially.

If true, it's safe to say it'll be unlike any other Indian production. Frankly, I find it a little hard to believe myself. Firstly, the most expensive Indian films have had budgets in the tens of millions. This is an order of magnitude higher. Also, the most recent films produced by Percept (Makdee, Phir Milenge) have been relatively low cost affairs, even by Indian standards. Secondly, the star power - again next level stuff. Thirdly, the director, Terrence Malick, is one of the most reclusive and slow working auteurs out there. All I can say is, grab your popcorn as sparks are sure to fly!

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- June 17, 2005 12:06 AM // Bollywood , Film , India

The INOX Factor

On our last trip to India, we checked out several of the new state of the art multiplexes (by INOX) in Kolkata. We were blown away, particularly by the City Center INOX in Salt Lake. The seats, the screen, the air conditioning and the sounds were all top notch, easily comparable to the better theaters in the Bay Area (AMC Van Ness comes to mind). As a matter of fact, I wish our local Bollywood multiplex, Naz8, would hurry up and actually go through with their long awaited remodeling. Their current digs are really rather threadbare - AC ducts are visible through holes in the ceiling, the carpets cling to the shoes, and the seats just don't provide the posterior support necessary for staying awake and alert for three hours. INOX, in our mind, had another big plus - in India movie theater seating is not first come first served. Tickets come with seat numbers printed on them and ushers guide you to your spot in the theater. This to me is much more preferable, particularly in INOX where you can see the theater seating plan on screen in the box office and pick out what you like.

musafir.jpgAnyway, the very first film we went to see at an INOX theater after getting into Kolkata was Musafir. Supposedly a loose copy of U-Turn, the film was an excellent advertisement of Bollywood's technical proficiency. It really put the theater through its paces - techno music pulsed in the background while explosions and gunshots rattled the main speakers. On screen, we had fast-forwards, splitscreen shots, rewinds, jumpcuts, hooded bad guys striding in slo-mo through dark, rain drenched streets and forty-something heroes accessorized in the latest Italian leather and the latest young-enough-to-be-their-daughter starlets. The combined assault was as good a cure for jetlag as any and let us know emphatically that the days of getting bitten by mosquitoes while sitting on hard wooden seats was over. Alas, the hi-fidelity nature of our experience also revealed some inherent visual flaws in the source material - as one of the starlets (Sameera Reddy) leaned over suggestively, it was possible to see the stretch marks on her back. Similarly, in a slow motion shot of Anil Kapoor whirling around after getting punched, we could discern the laws of inertia - his fat was moving in one direction while he rolled in another.

When emerging from the theater, I finally understood Bollywood's cunning plan for holding on to its audience. First part of the plan consisted of filling the pictures with as much ear and eye candy as possible. The second part was to actually find some worthwhile content - but only if the first part didn't work. After all, who wants to pay writers? Judging by the pictures we saw, they have the first part down pat. And is it working? Well, purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees! I guess most Bollywood films will remain content-free for a while longer then.

So, the theaters were excellent. How about the patrons? In his Reelthoughts for May 2005, internet movie critic James Berardinelli writes about the pain of going to a multiplex in the USA:

The Living Room Factor

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding movie theaters: poor audio & video quality, out-of-frame pictures, sticky floors, indifferent employees, uncomfortable seats, an endless stream of ads before the start of the feature, and so on... But the biggest complaint concerns other patrons, especially those who aren't yet old enough to drink alcohol. They walk in late, don't turn their cell phones off, munch loudly on popcorn and slurp their sodas, and chatter incessantly. (My apologies to those of you in this age group who are not guilty - and I know you're out there. Tarring you with the same brush is unfair. Unfortunately, you are the exception.)

Yesterday, I got a first-hand look at another example of movie-theater rudeness. It happened while I was watching an afternoon showing of Unleashed. Shortly before the commercials were about to start, a couple walked in and seated themselves across the aisle from me. They were both around 18 or 19. The guy settled into his seat and dug into his popcorn. The girl removed her shoes and propped up her bare feet on the back of the seat in front of her. I momentarily gawked, scarcely believing what I was seeing. Appropriate behavior for a living room? Yes. Appropriate behavior for a movie theater? Not in my opinion.

One thing became glaringly apparent when we were in the INOX theaters: the prevalence of cell phones in modern Indian life and their potential for irritation. During the course of a film, it wasn't uncommon for folks, particularly the teens and twenty-somethings, to hold up their camera phones to record what's occuring onscreen. Additionally, many simply never turned their cellphones off. I could hear people holding conversations during the movie. If the film in question was of the masala variety, there's enough continual background noise to drown out the neighbors' yakking on the phone, but if it's a more thought provoking effort, then it was a tougher ask. Still, a small price to pay for such gorgeous visual and aural splendor. At least that's what I'll tell myself the next time someone tucks into their bag of chips in the next aisle. Or starts a conversation with their long lost aunty.

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- June 1, 2005 12:10 AM // Bollywood , Film , India , Select , Travel