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Reimagining Bollywood As India’s Soft Power

In 1955, Raj Kapoor famously got Indians hooked on these lyrics:

Mera joota hai Japani,

yeh patloon Englistani,

sar par lal topi Roosi,

phir bhi dil hai Hindustani.

Interestingly, the piece won international praise, particularly from the erstwhile Soviet Union, and later proved such an earworm for director Miller that his superhero film Deadpool opened and finished with the hit track. Not only music, but Bollywood has given birth to cult classics like Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge that wowed audiences worldwide. Yet, despite its vast influence, India has been unable to tap into the potential of an industry that produces the highest number of films in the world to push the great Indian dream forward.

Wielding Soft Power

When Joseph Nye first invented the concept of soft power, he argued that if harnessed properly, it could produce the desired outcomes through attraction and appeal. Instead of using force via hard power tools, a nation could mold others’ preferences and achieve its foreign policy goals through co-option (instead of coercion). One of its manifestations is in the form of culture - take American franchises DC and Marvel with their billion-plus revenues for instance. When viewers constantly watch cheeseburger-loving American superheroes clad in colors representing the American flag (looking at you Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman) save the planet in NYC, they begin to fancy the country and the culture it proudly projects.

In terms of soft power, the US is regarded as the ultimate mogul. In fact, if you change the lyrics of Mera Joota Hai Japani to reflect all things American such as steak, Starbucks, and sporting Harvard merch, you would have a different, 2023 version of the track. The craze for the American dream due to their soft power has made Indians, especially the youngsters, desire western, idealistic lifestyles more and more. The US’s soft power has established the nation as the sole harbinger of freedom and democracy and made international students race to get their visas. For most, visiting the ‘land of the free’ at least once in their lifetime is a mandatory bucket list item. Much of this is precisely due to how Hollywood presents the US to the rest of the world.

Bollywood Knows No Boundaries

As the powerhouse of creativity in India, Bollywood can be utilized to narrate the story of India in the best manner. Second only to Hollywood in terms of its reach, Indian cinema has left its mark everywhere. Central Asia’s affair with Bollywood is well-established; so much so that local markets are overflowing with Bollywood CDs year-round and locals are seen humming old Bollywood tunes. Similarly, not even large-scale bans have prevented Pakistani cinephiles from relishing Indian films. Nigeria’s obsession with Bollywood and Zee World (a popular Bollywood entertainment channel) even drove them to make a movie titled Zee World Madness! Our timeless movies are also supported by actors whose charm certainly helps. Moreover, a paper reported how Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his admiration for Aamir Khan’s work to Prime Minister Modi at a summit back in 2017. Dazzled by Bollywood’s magic, the locals have fondly nicknamed the actor ‘Uncle Mi’ in China (although the actor’s comments have been marked as controversial at times by many Indians).

While yoga, food, cricket, and hockey are used for advancing the Indian agenda, Bollywood’s soft power is unique; it transcends boundaries despite being made by private players and involving little to no marketing. Used suitably, it can help in creating an aspirational perception soon with foreigners beginning to recognize archaic Indian languages, homegrown brands, premier universities, festivals, local sports teams, etc. How impressive would it be to see children abroad rifling through the pages of our beloved Tinkle and Panchatantra along with Tintin and Dennis the Menace?

Why then is India still primarily seen by the world as the former ‘sone ki chidiya’ that continues to be characterized by poverty, broken English, crowded and dirty roads bustling with cows, unusual scams, and black magic? Despite being a tool for improving India’s standing on the international stage, Bollywood is hardly ever seen in that light. Most films operate based on the entertainment factor, compulsorily featuring a peppy song performed by a big star. They are rarely linked with contemporary geopolitics (unlike Hollywood films) and in their mission of uniting the lead male hero with his love interest, the real mission is lost. To bring about change, more films reflecting the true spirit of India need to be made. India’s undying zeal to break traditional barriers, the great experiment with democracy that remains perennial, its efforts at celebrating festivals and diversity of all kinds, its staunch faith in ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’, and its aim to innovate technology constantly to better lives while churning out global leaders and CEOs are just a few of the zillion elements that can be portrayed. Not only does Bollywood build the Indian image, but it also has direct positive economic consequences in terms of overseas box office revenues and indirect ones (such as a rise in tourism and the ability to penetrate foreign markets), adding to its prowess. For an instrument that can be used to establish authority, counter negative sentiments, collaborate with nations, and build power, this industry has been far too neglected by the government.

“Picture Abhi Baaki Hai Mere Dost!”

If Bollywood films can unintentionally capture foreign markets without any governmental funding, imagine what could be achieved with clear planning. As a soft power tool, it needs to be adjusted to fit each target country. For instance, regarding the US, it is known that stories of independence, entrepreneurship, and self-made people are an instant hit; as are the NRI movies showing love for one’s homeland. Contrarily, China’s movie buffs are more interested in socially-driven cinema with a focus on family, society, struggles of today’s youth, and gender stereotypes. Further, to promote the essence of Incredible India, restrictions need to be relaxed to increase production. More films as a means of soft power should be produced by offering incentives and released online on OTT platforms too, with region-specific subtitles.

Notably, as Nye rightly proposed, soft power needs to be combined with hard power (making up smart power) to be fully effective. India needs to focus on its economy, border disputes, boosting its military strengths, and maintaining the power of the currency. With Bollywood, the idea is to show a modern India - a novel model that differs from the usual Western notion of advancement. The socio-economic issues are not to be hidden away but rather realistically explored along with the achievements. Obstructions never deterred India from becoming the first nation to offer miscarriage leaves or from reaching Mars orbit in its maiden attempt. Glory against all odds was achieved making it the perfect basis for the promotion of the great Indian dream, with a hint of that Bollywood ‘masala’.

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