The most significant thing that PM Narendra Modi said last week came at the BJP National Executive in New Delhi when he cautioned party leaders to stop making unnecessarily controversial comments about movies. This is significant, coming just weeks after the Shah Rukh Khan-Deepika Padukone movie Pathaan has been pilloried by the party leaders and some ministers too.
What may have swung the mood is RRR song Natu Natu winning the Golden Globe award in London.
It’s an important course-correction to begin 2023 with, the year when India’s G20 leadership will showcase its Vishwaguru ambitions. And part of the Vishwaguru sprawl has always been culture – even when we were an economic weakling and a strategic non-player. Movies were an enduring part of India’s cultural diplomacy.
We now live in a world where content and culture connect to create a new internationalism. This organic internationalism is out of the reach of State actors who organise summits and bilateral conferences.
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Movies: India’s cultural ambassadors
Today, K-dramas, K-pop and Turkish serials rule the global mindscape just the way Raj Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan have. Young dancers around the world are creating viral reels with K-pop songs just as they are dancing to Kala Chashma. An Indonesian fan recreated Jhoome Re Pathaan last week. They are all influencers-diplomats of Indian popular culture.
And Indian movies have a first-mover advantage in this phenomenon already. Why kill — with silly #boycottBollywood calls — the spirit of an industry that has created such goodwill for India in the world for over half-a-century? Especially when we can no longer take our status for granted for long?
While we are busy dissing what many parts of the world love about us, there are others who are making quick inroads. Turkish dramas are huge in both Asian and European countries. Ertuğrul and Hayat are two of the biggest global hits, across generations. Watch how K-dramas like Winter Sonata, Autumn in My Heart and Descendants of the Sun have huge fan followings across the world today. Not unlike the popularity of films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
Our movies have organically become our cultural ambassadors over the years, without any push from the Indian State, when there was no Internet, social media or content virality. We did well even though we were up against the ubiquitous Hollywood behemoth. Today, Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube trends are boosting popularity for cultural products in ways that cannot be directed, shaped or controlled.
Now, as our biggest cultural export faces new competitors on the global field, we shouldn’t be trying to discredit them with silly controversies invented for political mobilisations.
The real Vishwaguru content
Traveling through Peru in 2006 and hearing Hindi movie songs coming out of homes of a village with streets built of ancient Incan stones—that’s my memory. One village woman said she related to our movies, they told me at a village on the foothills of Machu Pichu, because of ‘amour’. Just the power of one word and they were swaying to Raat ka Nasha Abhi from the film Aśoka (2001).
Germany is an obvious Bollywood bastion. Everyone knows that. But there are surprises too. Recently in Samarkand, many greeted me with Shah Rukh Khan movies and songs. The reason they gave was Indian movies show strong ‘family values’ that resonated with the people of Uzbekistan.
Of course, the other cultural import you see everywhere on their TV screens nowadays are Turkish dramas. And these are popular in many of the countries where Bollywood has ruled. The dizzying global rise of K-pop and Turkish series tells us one thing for sure — no cultural product is local anymore in the Google era. The multi-billion dollar K-pop industry is already huge in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, China, and the US. It’s now making headlines in India too. Just two months ago, Sriya Lenka became the first-ever Indian teen to be chosen as a member of the multinational K-pop band Blackswan.
The diverse band already has Brazilian, Senegalese-Belgian and South Korean members. South Korea’s biggest cultural export is no longer a one-way transaction.
“From the start, the goal of K-pop was globalisation,” said Lee Soo Man, a pioneer of the K-pop industry, at a Stanford University conference in May last year.
But globalisation almost sounds like a quaint word today. What we are seeing is a phenomenon on steroids, being driven by billions of finger-tips.
The future Vishwaguru isn’t the one with the strongest economy, military or PR machinery. It’s one who rules the content kingdom. It’s an important moment for Indian movies. Show them love. Not politics.
Rama Lakshmi is Editor, Opinion and Features at ThePrint. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)