India’s film industry, commonly referred to as Bollywood, is the most developed and globalised among the BRICS nations. The industry’s influence extends far beyond India’s borders, and both the Indian government and corporations are increasingly utilising the power of Bollywood in their international engagements. India has a long history of cultural and civilisational influence beyond its territorial boundaries, which has contributed to its soft power on the global stage.
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Contemporary India’s thriving Hindi film industry has become an increasingly important tool for promoting India’s public diplomacy. The globalisation of Bollywood, aided by the large Indian diaspora, has created opportunities for the industry to promote India’s image and culture worldwide. This article examines the global impact of Hindi cinema as an instrument of soft power, highlighting how it has become a powerful vehicle for disseminating India’s cultural and societal values to the rest of the world.
What is soft power?
The concept of soft power was first introduced by Joseph Nye, a renowned Harvard political scientist, in an article published in the journal Foreign Policy in 1990. Soft power refers to the ability of a country to attract and persuade others to its side without using coercion or force. Nye contrasted soft power with hard or command power, which involves ordering others to do what one wants.
Nye identified three sources of soft power: a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policies. When a country’s culture is attractive to others, its political values are upheld both domestically and abroad, and its foreign policies are seen as legitimate and morally authoritative. The country then has the ability to use all of these leverages as a strong form of soft power.
India is one such country that has effectively leveraged its soft power through its thriving Hindi film industry, popularly known as Bollywood. The globalisation of Bollywood has created possibilities for promoting India’s public diplomacy towards the world. Thus, the global imprint of Indian cinema has served as an instrument of soft power for India, making it a visible cultural presence across the world.
India’s historic use of soft power
India’s growing economic and political power is leading to a global appreciation of its soft power, which includes its mass media, celebratory religiosity (Yoga and Ayurveda), and popular culture. Despite being home to 40% of the world’s poorest people, India was the world’s third largest economy in 2015 on the basis of purchasing-power parity, behind the United States and China.
India’s soft power has a civilisational dimension, as the Indian civilisation has been a major cultural formation in the world for more than 5,000 years, encompassing religion, philosophy, arts, architecture, language, literature, trade, and travel. India is the origin of four of the world’s major religions and offers a unique and syncretised religious discourse, having coexisted with every major faith.
India’s soft power has a long and complex history, where its influence was directed towards Asia rather than the West. The spread of Hinduism and Buddhism across East and Southeast Asia during the early centuries of the Christian era was the primary means of India’s cultural influence in the region.
India has a long history of association with major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Some of the earliest Christian communities were established in South India, and India is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia. The Indo-Islamic culture in India is known for its classical music, poetry, and cuisine and has played a significant role in the development of Indian cinema. India’s diverse demographics provide it with valuable cultural capital to promote its soft power among Islamic populations too.
Bollywood: Engaging and influencing using movies
Bollywood has been successful in creating a global audience and helping to shape global perceptions of India. It has also helped break down cultural barriers and promote cross-cultural understanding. The Indian film industry has achieved this through the use of universal themes that are relatable to a global audience, such as romance, family, and friendship, combined with traditional Indian cultural elements.
However, the success of Bollywood has allowed India to leverage its soft power on the global stage. By promoting its culture and values through popular cinema, India has been able to shape global perceptions of the country and promote its interests abroad. The use of Bollywood as a tool of public diplomacy has allowed India to connect with audiences around the world and build bridges between cultures.
Digital revolution and soft power
India has undergone a significant transformation in the production and distribution of its cultural products due to the digital revolution. Unlike the West, the media in India are booming, with rising newspaper circulation and a large number of dedicated television news channels, and the world’s largest film industry.
India’s growing global status and its history of pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy have created an opportunity for it to participate in global governance structures previously dominated by the US-led Western alliance.
India has the potential to take up a more significant leadership role and has been effective in articulating a Southern perspective on global affairs through its presence in the Group of 77 developing nations and the G-20 leading economies of the world, where a significant influence of Indian movies are injected without any doubt.
From Hollywood to Bollywood
The United States’ soft power is closely linked to its hard power, which is manifested in its economic, political, and military might, including a large defense budget and numerous military bases worldwide. The country’s formidable soft power reserves, from Hollywood to the digital empires of the internet age, are legitimised by its hard power and impact many countries.
According to Nye, “the American way of life is promoted globally through its cultural and technological exports, and US culture has greater global reach than any other.” Now India, as another booming economy in the world, is proceeding to give competition to the US film industry in order to disseminate their own culture and put influences on other countries thereby.
Bollywood has become a significant example of global entertainment from outside the Western world, with a $3.5 billion industry and audiences in over 70 countries. Bollywood is now the world’s largest film factory in terms of production and viewership, with more people buying tickets for Indian movies than for Hollywood films. The explosion of television channels in India has given a massive boost to the movie industry, with the emergence of many dedicated film-based pay channels and increased coverage of the film industry itself.
Bollywood has invested heavily in the UK, making its presence felt there, and Britain accounts for a significant share of global revenue for Bollywood’s international releases. Bollywood has also gained a loyal audience in Muslim countries, where the promotion of family and community-oriented values appeals more than Western individualism. Indian media companies have launched Arabic channels, such as Zee Aflam, to cater to Arab audiences, which indicates that ‘Bollywoodised’ content is now specifically produced for Arab audiences.
Bollywood in Pakistan and China
Bollywood has been used to promote military hardware, as seen in a 2009 video produced by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems featuring Bollywood-style dance numbers. In Pakistan, Indian films were banned by the government for almost four decades but have since become popular, possibly due to Bollywood’s religious, gender, and family-oriented themes that appeal to Pakistani audiences.
Bollywood has a strong secular streak and has been used for diplomacy, as seen in the 2015 film Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which improved people-to-people relations with Pakistan. Indian films also remain popular in Afghanistan, with the potential to promote anti-extremism and peace in the region, as suggested in US government cables released by WikiLeaks.
Indian films were once popular in communist China as a cheap alternative to Hollywood productions, but they disappeared when China developed its own film industry. However, the success of Bollywood films like Lagaan and 3 Idiots in China, especially among the younger generation, has brought Bollywood back into Chinese popular consciousness. The 2009 comedy 3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan, was released in theatres across China in 2011, dubbed in Mandarin.
It changed the mindsets of some Chinese officials and convinced them that Indian entertainment had a market in China. Aamir Khan’s 2015 film, PK, was the most successful Indian film ever in China, earning nearly $17 million at the box office.