Fred Fejes, in his assessment of media imperialism, emphasises the dependency theory such that it’s relevance is not lost in a globalising world. This perspective of thinking is solidified when Both Manjunath Pendakur and Robert McChesney provides an illustrative account of how capitalist forces shape and influence the production of media, within and across nations, not just in terms of the content that the media produces, but also in terms of the strengthening of an already hegemonic economy. With India emerging as the core of the periphery in the last two decade, there are also strong forces within the country that seek to nationalise and globalise culture, portray consumerism in a productive manner, and redefine social structures. A further complication is brought forth by Joseph Straubhaar and Leela Fernandes, which will form the crux of this essay.
While dependency theorists argue of a dependency being formed by the peripheral nations to the core nations who have the industry to produce large film and television production, Straubhaar argues that there may be implicit references to audience passivity in such a perspective (Fejes also writes about this). He writes about how the cultural capital and language preferences have caused dependency to be more like “asymmetrical interdependence”, where even though nations with high capital majorly produce and earn through media, there exists a thriving industry of regional and local programming. The illustrations he provides when he takes the examples of Dominican Republic and Mozambique (non-industrialised nations with unstable economies and politics) producing media, can be even more closely examined within India itself. In spite of the hegemonic influences of the heavily produced Bollywood films, the South Indian film industry (especially Tamil and Telugu cinema) has been increasing its revenues in a very short time with an expected growth of 18% per annum in 2011. Contrary to the perspective of dependency theorists, there is a thriving demand for local programming. Straubhaar addresses and attempts to explain such a phenomenon in the particular case of Brazilian television.
Straubhaar majorly divides his argument into two components:
- Language: Hindi Bollywood industry has evolved and achieved great success in India in spite of better produced English films from Hollywood. A clear distinction in such a scenario is language. While it may be easy to import action-adventures and slapstick comedies into an Indian audience, it is difficult to do so for other comedies, dramas and other such genres. Bollywood movies dubbed in Tamil or Telugu have proven to be only mildly successful in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This idea can also be used to explain why many Hollywood films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Reservoir Dogs, Kramer vs. Kramer and others have been remade into Bollywood films (Chachi 420, Kaante and Akele Hum Akele Tum). Such remakes are made in Bollywood (from Tamil or Telugu cinema – for example, Bhool Bhulaiya, Singham, Ghajini et al.), Tamil cinema, and Telugu cinema (from Bollywood films – for example, Gopala Gopala, Green Signal and Settai) and may even be very successful. However, simply dubbed films across regions may not always be successful. Therefore, even though language does divide the market, it is hardly the major reason, and definitely not the sole one.
- Cultural proximity: Cultural capital can simply be defined as the sources of knowledge for an individual. These may be structures like education, family, friends and networks, religion, professional engagements, and media consumption itself. Cultural proximity is the inclination of people to engage with media in a particular manner, and is driven by one’s cultural capital. Straubhaar analyses the effects of cultural capital across class in the Brazilian society, and how different classes prefer different kinds of programming. In fact, this would explain the phenomenon of remakes in the Indian film industry in more depth; a majority of the people in a developing nation like Brazil (and also in India) prefer local programming not only because of language, but because the content of the media is more in line with their cultural capital. While middle classes may be more nationalized in terms of their media (due to which they watch TV Globo), poorer sections of Brazil tend to watch more local programming which is similar to rural culture and folklore (like SBT). It is important here to flag what Theodor Adorno reiterates in Culture Industry Reconsidered, about how “low culture” is not an intellectual pursuit, but means of escapism and profit only (especially considering the programming on SBT, which is akin to the quality and content of the Jerry Springer show). In India, regional channels are paying increasingly high amounts to producers of regional serials with their own remakes of reality television and game shows like Bigg Boss, Minute to Win it, and Dancing with the stars, other than soap operas. Netflix (globalised, urban-centric media) has only 4.2 million subscribers (most of whom are probably upper middle class or upper class) in India owing to its high pricing. However, class divisions amongst Indian audiences have not been closely examined.
This argument may seem to depart from the core of dependency theory as in the work of McChesney & Schiller, Pendakur and Fejes, but in fact, it provides a base to understand the future of regional programming. Due to the success of local programming, production houses like UTV Motion Pictures are producing and distributing regional films like Irudhi Suttru, Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai and Yatchan. In Marathi television, Hindi channels may be losing out on news viewership due to Marathi channels, but Zee Marathi still has the highest share of the market, followed by Star TV’s Star Pravah. It opens way for capitalistic forces to monopolise even regional media, where production itself should be more regionally open. This also opens the discussion for hegemonic Indian production houses (akin to transnational corporations) and the perception of their products being shaped by regional identities, an idea that Fernandes discusses on a national and global scale.
Fernandes makes the argument that “the global” itself is defined by changing perceptions of national identity. The change in the discourse of what constituted national progress, from industrialisation and rural poverty alleviation to consumer goods as symbols of wealth and upward mobility of the middle classes, is testament to how globalisation was defined in India. This change occurred over a long period of time, starting from the post-independence perspective of thinking, to the late 1990s, post-liberalisation.
Fernandes flags several examples of “fetishization of hybridity”, which is when commodity fetishism evolves under a combination of global and national identity. When a corporation has to “Indianize” a product in order to create value for the market that exists in India, it leads to the creation of an image of the nation as well as how the global product fits in the context of India. This solidified the image that using an inherently Western product is not a threat to the Indian value system, in fact, the product fits perfectly well with Indian values, and this is what the transnational corporations used (and continue to use) in their advertising strategies. In the more recent times, the emergence of online shopping has become a site of such discussions. Take for instance the advertisement for Amazon “Garden ka sapna” produced for television. With online shopping (especially Amazon) gaining traction amongst middle class families, Amazon has also sought to portray the nuclear families as their ideal customers, while also keeping nostalgia as the main factor for dreams that such families might have and the idea that they can be fulfilled by buying more items from Amazon. In spite of the fact that the urban protagonists in the advertisement yearn for a garden in a high-rise building, Amazon can fulfill this need and aspiration of a home with a garden.
An argument that Fernandes makes is that the aspirations of the middle class were transformed under the effect of foreign capital flows. Take for instance, the recent advertisement of AMFI mutual funds. The risk-averse tendencies of the Indian market is sought to be placated in the ad, while also asserting that using these financial products is beneficial to the middle-class household economy, and may lead to great profits, enough for upward mobility. This is more apparent in the older advertisement for ICICI mutual funds. The idea that purchasing a house and a car is the ideal middle-class dream has itself defined who should identify as the middle class. There are also clear connections between the respectability of the middle class (and not the second-generation business persons) and the notion of the brand.
The most interesting aspect of Fernandes’ argument is drawn when she writes about gender becoming a symbolic site of the anxieties that plague the middle classes. With increasing foreign capital flows, there is always a fear of dependency on other countries, because the economic prosperity of both, the nation and the transnational, seems counter-intuitive. So while middle-class families may want to consume Western products (media or otherwise), there is also a need to protect women, who have generally been the bearers of value and honor in India. The notion that Indians should be buying Indian products is evidence of how internalized consumerism really is. For example, Patanjali, which has an advertising strategy built around using “herbal”, “natural” and inherently “safe” ingredients derived from tradition, released an advertisement advertising their range of beauty products. Simply put, the advertisement idealises a certain kind of woman; who respects tradition, and demonises the other; who is “bindass and a wannabe type” of girl. The success of Patanjali in the FMCG market shows us that the anxiety over using Western products is real, but more than that, the baggage that Westernization brings to the gender roles to Indian tradition, is also anxiety-inducing.
- Straubhaar, Joseph D. “Beyond media imperialism: Assymetrical interdependence and cultural proximity.” Critical Studies in media communication 8.1 (1991): 39-59.
- Fernandes, Leela. “Nationalizing the global’: media images, cultural politics and the middle class in India.” Media, Culture & Society 22.5 (2000): 611-628.