Vantage point

Monday, November 10, 2003

India's cultural dominance over the subcontinent - A topic for discussion

What is common to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka? Besides being neighbours of India, these countries also live under the fear of Indian hegemony. And except for Pakistan, none of them have the Indian army in mind. It has more to do with Indian culture.

Now when I talk of the Indian "culture", I am using the Indian "entertainment products", i.e. Indian movies, soap operas and music albums as the tool of culture, even though some may disagree.

Indian movies are THE most popular movies in all these countries. Surprisingly, many of these countries have also imposed a ban on Indian movies. Pakistan and Bangladesh, taken together would total to about 1/3rd of India's population. The governments of these 2 countries have, under the influence of the mullahs, banned Indian movies. This has to be THE most ineffective ban of any kind ever in any part of the world. Ask any average Pakistani or Bangladeshi about the last movie he saw and it will be a Bollywood movie released within the past month. These two countries together form a huge market for Bollywood films, but alas they are banned.

How do they get to see these movies then? Simple, pirated videos and CDs. In fact this network of piracy is so efficient that even the pirated VCDs sold in India are 'Made in Pakistan', most of them manufactured by a company called "Sadaf Video". Now this is not some shady two-bit organisation with a handful of hacks peddling CDs. This is a legitimate (in Pakistan at least) company, which has posh showrooms in Lahore. It even sells its illegitimate wares online in its CD store. Most of the movies listed here have not been released on video/DVD by the filmmakers. Yet these pirates brazenly advertise their availability on the Internet.

In fact Sadaf manages to release pirated prints days before any movie's premiere. A friend of mine saw Lagaan one week before its release on a Sadaf VCD.

It is not surprising that such kind of piracy goes on even while Bollywood tries to stop it, in vain.

What should be noted is that the Pakistani government has banned these movies, and yet a company can sell pirated versions of these in proper showrooms and Internet sites.

Why have a ban at all then, one might ask?

I have no idea, maybe the Pakistani people and the Pakistani government can throw light on this. We can examine the reasons by listing exactly who loses out and who gains due to this prevailing system.

The Mumbai Film Industry is a big big loser, perhaps an even bigger loser than it realises. According to estimates by KPMG, the industry earns close to $800 million every year. It is also expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 20 percent over the next 5 years. Even after accounting for the lucrative NRI market in Europe and America, it is estimated that almost 80-90% of the revenues come from within India. Now let us just do some simple math. If a country of 1 billion earns the industry almost $700 million, the combined markets of Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a population of over 300 million with a similar per capita income would be at least 20% of that.

Bollywood is thus losing out on around $ 150 million every year. So who is gaining? Sadaf obviously gains. It pays nothing to the filmmakers. It may be paying a hefty amount to the people who actually steal these prints and copy them, but even that amount would not be too substantial. Buying a CD and burning a movie on it does not take more than 15 rupees (33 cents), a price that would drop drastically taking into account economies of scale. Yet, Sadaf sells these at $10 per CD, as the website itself claims. You can imagine what a killing they make.

One might be fooled into thinking that because of this ban, the 150 million dollars that would have gone to India stay in Pakistan thanks to Sadaf. However that is not so. By legitimising Indian movies, Pakistan would only make the pie bigger. So the piece of the big pie that Pakistanis get will be much bigger than the tiny pie the pirates currently devour. Imagine how great it would be if Pakistanis could have legitimate access to Indian movies. This would mean that more cinema halls and multiplexes could be opened in Pakistan. This would generate additional employment as well as revenue. There would be legitimate video shops, sans the Sadaf monopoly and the Pakistani government could earn big bucks through taxes.

And more importantly, the Pakistanis who so far are forced to watch those movies on substandard VCDs with jerky second hand camera work and massive editing (to fit the movie into 2 CDs instead of 3), will get to watch movies in cinema hall or on high quality VCDs.

Sounds like a win-win situation right?


The opposition to this comes from the Islamic extremists, and the mullahs in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Partition occurred on the basic premise that we are two (!!) nations merely on the basis of religion. The cultural roots of the subcontinent Muslims were largely ignored by this theory. The theory is perpetuated by the establishment in Pakistan, which tries to Arab-ise the country. So we have the MMA provincial governments banning celebration of 'Basant' a festival celebrated by the people of the subcontinent for thousands of years. The ban on the movies and Indian TV channels is similarly motivated.

The mullahs and the establishment are scared that if people watch Indian movies and soap operas, they will lose this feeling of separateness that they have worked so hard to create over the last 55 years. They fear a cultural "invasion" from India, an invasion that will break the back of the two-nation theory.

For what movies, like any work of art, essentially reflect the culture of the society they are made in. While the Hum Aapke Hain Kouns reflect family ties in the subcontinent, the Dil Chahta Hai's represent the changing youth and their changing values. Bollywood gives us a snapshot of present day middle class urban India, and what the mullahs fear is that once Pakistanis and Bangladeshis see this snapshot, they will realise it is not very different from their own urban middle class.

This is why they ban Indian entertainment. However these bans show how miserably they have failed to Arab-ise the subcontinent. People still prefer Indian movies and there are hardly any takers for Lollywood movies. There are voices within Pakistan asking the government to give a boost to create an indigenous Urdu film industry. They feel that by setting up their own private channels and their own film industry, they will be able to tackle this Indian invasion. However I think this will fail because of two main reasons. Firstly, it is not very easy to set up an entertainment infrastructure so easily, because it requires more than just physical infrastructure. It requires a social acceptance for the field of entertainment as a profession. So it will be decades before a parallel industry is set up in Pakistan.

Secondly, even if it is set up, I don't think its products, if they have to be popular, can be much different from what Bollywood churns out. If there is an attempt to make movies, which fully comply with the Shariah guidelines, I am afraid no one is going to watch those movies. An illustration of this is the comparative popularity of Zee TV (when it was shown) and PTV. This is what had led to Cable operators in Pakistan threatening a strike some weeks back if they were not allowed to show Hindi channels.

So Indian movies and soap operas are going to be more popular, no matter how loudly anyone invokes the Quran to stop this from happening. Indian culture, or rather the South Asian culture that India has embraced is a dynamic one, which combines traditional values with modern ideas inspired from the west. For the true meaning of culture is that which is continuously evolving. The opponents of this culture in Pakistan and Bangladesh are in denial of this very definition. They feel that the Quran and the Hadith are all it takes to lead a complete life. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, let me say that this is delusional and overly simplistic.

So, what is going to happen?

Nothing, I guess things will continue the way they are for a while. These people will keep making film-pirates richer by watching low grade VCDs. But when the WTO and the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) gets going again after the Cancun problems are sorted, Pakistan will have to grant India MFN status within 5 years or so. And after that, a smart Minister for External Affairs can start making noises asking Pakistan to take action against the Sadaf pirates, which will be mandatory under WIPO conditions.

Of course if Mush is around, he can tell us "There is no company called Sadaf in Pakistan" or "No Pakistanis are involved in piracy of Indian movies" or "No Pakistani watches Indian movies since they are banned here" very much the same breath that he says "Dawood Ibrahim is not in Pakistan".

Pakistanis should realise that Islam is not going to be threatened by Indian entertainment. And even if it going to be, then watching Aishwarya sizzle a big screen in a cinema hall is not much more threatening than watching her sizzle computer/TV screens through low quality VCDs. It is easier on the eyes and pockets though.