Bollywoodized! Human Data, Authenticity, and Indian Cinema.

By Arundati Dandapani

I had a great time guest lecturing the students of York University’s Dr. Tyrone Hall’s Global Media and Local Communications class, in a COVID-19 world. Packed with attendance, careful listening and thoughtful discussions, the class time progressed quickly.

If physical distancing led to closer, more reflective conversations, then maybe it wasn’t a bad general practice for every season, noted many. The convenience of “Zoom”ing into virtually any conference or meetup without commuting made classes, events, and programs in an afflicted world way more accessible.

Our discussions centred on global film markets, profits and identity, and the class was specifically keen on understanding how film industries like Bollywood had been impacted by (or were shaping) globalization. We talked about pluralities, how regional differences fulfilled internal diversity needs among some populations, leaving no room for Western influences, and yet with the Dotcom boom of the nineties and skilled diaspora moving away around the world rapidly, how the idea of “Westernization” had begun changing. In a post-colonial world as films and media managed to break away from old templates to tap into the treasure trove of local storytelling even when rooted in history, globalization or even global-mindedness had impacted how more recent global social movements were being adapted in the local film narratives to serve a distinctly local but also larger culturally specific audience, for example.

“An intrinsic diversity can coexist with a low degree of openness to other non-national cultures. In other terms, the internal diversity creates an absence of interest for what we can call extrinsic diversity.” 

The Unesco Institute for Statistics, Benhamou, FrançoisePeltier, Stéphanie 

Some of these waves of movement and identity shifts were captured well by a range of cinema under the “Hindi-speaking” Bollywood’s umbrella, quickly lionizing Indian cinema (now accounting for close to half of all of Indian films’ box-office profits) and growing its niche on the global map. As the film industry that produces the largest number of films each year than any other country’s film industry, followed by Nigeria’s Nollywood, how Bollywood maintained its identity and made tradeoffs between profitability and social messaging in a globalized and post-globalized world were other questions we explored in the class. We discussed the measures of diversity in cinema (e.g. variety, balance, disparity) and metrics (e.g., awards, ticket sales) that separated the good films from the rest in how this grew the collective value of work in a thriving (US$ 2.4 billion) industry.

“Human data accounts for data that defines us a person, but also data that contextualizes our relationships with other people, organizations and society at large.”

Citizen Me, Ryan Garner

The role of human data in painting a more authentic picture of societies and their relationships was agreed to be one that will assume a more important role as culture shifts and moves in new directions and at a faster rate continually, locally and also globally. It is this glocal connection/dynamic, in fact, that will pave the way forward for the successful integration of cultural capital in diverse markets, noted the students. The group was intrigued by the changing role of communicators and strategists in being able to draw from more than one data source to arrive at the belief systems, values, dreams and motivations of a people with greater understanding through films, and how these would impact their decisions, risks and opportunities in the times ahead.

“Diversity is not “naturally” desired as some may assume. As many studies show (Benhamou, 2002), consumers can exhibit reluctance when faced with diversity (Schooler, Ohlsson et Brooks, 1993). The diversity of cultural consumption depends on many factors – especially on long-term experience. A strong effort in favour of consumption is never immediately efficient – learning and access are also crucial elements. “

Disney resonates across time and culture, noted the students, when compared to other local or global brand influences.

In asking about how or whether cultural belonging in films translated well to a country’s (or region’s) brands, Disney in the US and Anne of Green Gables in Canada stood out as distinct cultural brands that had strengthened and faded over time respectively, in their minds. They recognized how current forces were shaping new and old industries in Canada and observed that every category faced its share of brand-skeptics, suggesting that today’s Canada (unlike the US) strove for something beyond brand-nationalism, in a climate where culture seemed to hold more than just material value for diverse and disparate Canadians.

It was a great opportunity to engage with a range of global and local opinions, ideas and values, bringing together our love for market insights, stories and evidence-based messaging to a discerning audience via a guest lecture at the University; big thank you to Dr. Tyrone Hall and his class for a memorable time.

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