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Hindi Cinema and Soft Power: a Review of Literature

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With the tag of nuclear power and one of the fastest growing economies, India has emerged as one of the key actors in the international order. In the age of globalization, where the event in one part of the world can affect other part also, it is very difficult to use hard power. Although India is one of the largest importers of arms in the world, political scientists believes that hard power alone is not sufficient in the contemporary world order. In 1990, Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard University professor and a political scientist introduced the concept of “Soft Power”. According to him, Soft Power is the ability of a country to achieve its foreign policy objective through positive attraction and persuasion. He identified three tools of Soft Power – Culture, Political Values and Foreign Policy. But he stressed more on culture. India has an ancient and distinct cultural heritage. According to Shashi Tharoor, India can play a great role in international arena if it works on its soft powers such as Yoga, Spirituality, Cinema etc. He advocated the utilization of Bollywood expanding reach and popularity in disseminating Indian culture across the globe. For that he vehemently supported the need to promote the Indian cinema especially Bollywood cinema.

Cinema has always been an effective mass communication medium. It is a visual art form of storytelling. Cinema is the creative combination of art, culture and science. It is said that cinema is the mirror of society because it reflects our hope, fantasies and the reality of a society. It has strong power to influence the opinion of masses as it evokes emotion. The commercial journey of the world cinema started on 28 December 1895, when the film made by two French brothers- Louis and Auguste Lumiere was screened at the Grand Café in Paris. This film was a series of short scenes from the day-to-day happening of French life. In order to show their work and earn money, Lumiere brothers opened theater and sent their crew around the world to screen their films and shoot new footage. In India, the Lumiere brothers organized the show on July 7, 1896 at Watson Hotel, Bombay. Their short films like ‘The arrival of a train’, ‘The sea bath’ and ‘Ladies soldier on wheels’ were screened at the event. The Times of India reported this as “Magic of the Century”. The show attracted and motivated many Indian art lovers to make film. Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar was so much influenced by the Lumiere brothers that he acquired a camera from London and a projector. He recorded a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Mumbai. It was screened in 1899 with title ‘The Wrestlers’. In 1907, Jamshedji Madan established Elphinstone Picture Palace in Kolkata. The first Indian movie released in India was ‘Shree Pundalik’ in 1912. In 1913, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke produced and directed the first full-length Indian feature film ‘Raja Harish Chandra’. It was a silent film. The first talkie film ‘Alam Ara’, directed by Ardeshir Irani was screened in 1931. It had seven songs. Song and dance is an integral part of Indian cinema. In fact, song and dance makes Bollywood cinema distinct from the cinema of other part of the world.

The initial growth of Hindi cinema was not very swift. Even acting in cinema was equated to prostitution. In a survey conducted by Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927-28, Mahatma Gandhi criticized the cinema as “bad and evil”. However leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru saw it as a powerful engine to revive India’s glorious past and as a medium to promote its vast pool of cultural asset. By the 1930s, vibrant Indian film industry started flourishing and attracting the world towards itself. Mary Evans, an Australian stunt woman joined the Bombay cinema and was affectionately known by the audience as Fearless Nadia. In 1940, another foreigner Florence Esekiel from Baghdad with screen name Nadira shared the screen with Indian actors. Gradually Indian cinema started moving on its own feet and was shaping itself to transform into one of the important cultural ambassador of Indian society. The social issue based Bollywood Hindi cinema became available throughout the USSR in the 1950s as an alternative to western cinema. It is the soft power of Bollywood cinema that in Russia and in many central Asian countries, people still remembers Rajkapoor and Mithun Chakraborty films and their songs. Bollywood has definitely created a positive image of India abroad. The fact that closed societies such as Pakistan refuses to allow Indian cinema is a proof of influential nature of Bollywood Hindi cinema. Bollywood, which produces Hindi cinema, got the legal status of industry in 2001. This paved the way for the global expansion of Bollywood. Today Bollywood Hindi cinema has a wide global presence. It has a great potential to play a very effective role in India’s foreign policy and achieve India’s goals making the country truly an “influential” leader in the 21st century.

The credit to popularize the ‘Soft Power’ term in international politics goes to Joseph Nye. Nye J. (1990) in his book “Bound to lead: The changing nature of American Power” pointed that soft power is as important as hard power in international politics. He visualized soft power as supplement and extension of traditional hard power ideology. In his latter papers such as “The Soft Power- the success secret of international politics”, he explains how the combination of US hard power i.e. its military power and soft power such as culture and sense of value helped US to establish a set of rules and systems that helped US to dominate international political affairs. According to him the soft power of a country primarily depends on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).

Indian civilization is unique in the world in the sense that despite being one of the oldest civilizations, the culture of the region still remains largely unchanged. Art, music and dance is an integral part of Indian culture from the ancient time. This can be witnessed at various historical sites in Indian subcontinent. In the book written by acclaimed historian Basham A.L. (1954), The Wonder That Was India: A survey of the culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the coming of the Muslims. He writes “According to the 11th century poet Firdausi, who collected many legends and traditions of pre-Muslim Persia in his Shahnamah, the 5th century AD Sasanian king Baharam Gur invited 10,000 Indian musicians to his realm and gave them cattle, corn and asses, so that they might settle in the land to entertain his poorer subject, who had been complaining that the pleasures of music and dance were reserved for the rich”.

Thussu D.K. (2013), in his book Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood has inspected India’s growing soft power and increasing global presence. He has identified various factors and cultural assets of India which is contributing to the growth of India’s soft power. He tried to trace the spiritual and historical roots of India’s soft power such as Buddhism, Yoga, Gandhian principle of non-violence to the contemporary software and Bollywood. In this journey, he not only takes a tour of India’s historical cultural presence and influence outside India but also try to find out where it fits in near future. He mention in the chapter Culture as soft power –Bollywood and beyond that Bollywood with its transnational reach plays a prominent role in exporting India’s great and diverse culture abroad. Bollywood, with its reach to 70 countries, forms the primary cultural factor and attracts audiences beyond traditional constituency.

In an article ‘Why is India’s soft power still untapped?’ on a news portal, filmmaker, lyricist and writer Khanna A. (2017) has mentioned his personal experiences of Bollywood Hindi cinema’s soft power at various instances. He described Bollywood cinema as India’s global brand. He writes that both government and India’s film industry has done little to leverage Bollywood cinema globally. Shahrukh khan’s popularity can be seen in even countries like Germany and similarly Amir Khan has become a known name in China. Jianlong H. (2017) in South China Morning Post article ‘Bollywood offers China lessons on soft power’ writes that it is very surprising how without any government funding Bollywood film ‘Dangal’ has not only generated forceful soft power but also billions of income in China. He has given credit to the openness and freedom of speech in India for success of Bollywood Hindi cinema. A creative art work requires openness and tolerance which China lacks.

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Hindi Cinema And Soft Power: A Review Of Literature. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from
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