Indian Cinema: Growing footprint of soft power diplomacy
With RRR becoming a huge success among Indian and non-Indian audiences in the US, Canada, and Europe, there is now gung-ho for the Telugu movie in Japan and South Korea, creating an opportunity for the country to further deepen its influence across the world
In the last week of February, the New Delhi-based South Korean embassy posted a video clip showing Ambassador Chang Jae-bok and embassy staff members grooving over SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus, RRR’s ‘Naatu-Naatu’ song, which has won a Golden Globe award for being the best original song. Composed by M M Keeravani, ‘Naatu-Naatu,’ has garnered millions of views on YouTube across all channels.
And, the craze for it among the people is far from dying. On March 12, it will be performed at the Oscars where it will be rather American dancers and not the RRR stars—Ram Charan and N T Rama Rao Jr— who will groove over the exuberant musical song.
Like the song, the film which tells the story of two real-life Indian revolutionaries fighting against the torturous British rule, is also drawing audiences from across the world. Nominated for the Oscars, RRR has so far earned more than $147 globally. While generating a wave in the US earlier, it is now breaking box-office records in Japan.
It has been included in several prestigious lists of best films, including that of the British Film Institute and the US-based National Board of Review. On February 25, it bagged four awards for Best International Film, Best Action Film, Best Stunts and Best Original Song at the Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) awards.
RRR captures global attention
A Telugu-language epic action-drama film, RRR is based on a fictional version of the two real life Indian freedom fighters, Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, who fought against British colonial rule in the 1920s. These two characters—Bheem and Raju exhibit superhuman abilities—from fighting Britishers and taming tigers to conducting spontaneous dance-offs.
For national and international viewers, RRR film story comes across as an exuberant anti-colonial tale. This has been packed with maximalist action, imaginative sets, “many of which are built around dynamic special effects and choreography,” The New York Times said in its review of the film.
Made with a budget of $72 million, RRR is the most expensive Indian film to date, which has kicked off sort of euphoria because of highly spirited musical numbers, exceptional direction, script, performances, soundtrack, action sequences, cinematography, editing and visual effects, said some film critics.
Recognition of Indian cinema worldwide
Although, films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalkrishnan gave Indian cinema worldwide recognition because of aesthetics, form, content, and narrative style. They produced films sharply different from popular films of today. But these were the period of parallel films of the 1970s and the 1980s.
In the current scenario when streaming of a movie through ‘Over the Top’ (OTT) platform is in demand as it helps in maximizing the reach of a content to consumers through the internet, movies like RRR have thoroughly enjoyed the technology to become a global hit. For several weeks the SS Rajamouli directed film was number one non-English film on the global list.
The most distinguishing characteristics of popular Indian movies are their having elaborate song-and-dance sequences, and emotionally-charged storylines resonating with audiences. This is where RRR fits the bill. It has further helped the Indian film industry which produces more than 1,500 movies annually in over 20 languages in getting its worldwide acknowledgement.
Economic aspects of Indian cinema
India’s film industry, as per FICCI, earned over $2.7 billion in 2019. During FY2020, the industry was valued at Rs 183 billion ($2.2 billion at today's exchange rate.
Although the coronavirus made a substantial dent in the revenue, the world's largest producer of films bounced back strongly, with the industry recording Rs 182 billion in revenue as of October 2022. The industry has more room for growth.
According to a FICCI report, the film industry would grow at a CAGR of 10.5% from 2019 to 2024, reaching Rs 26,200 crores. Most of the growth will come on the back of growth in domestic theatrical revenues and both rates and volume of digital/ OTT rights sold.
The success of Indian films overseas has also contributed significantly to the industry's revenue. Overseas box office collections have grown at a CAGR of 9.2% from 2014 to 2019, said a report by KPMG.
The report estimates that the overseas box office collections will reach INR 5,800 crores by 2024, up from INR 3,600 crores in 2019.
The film industry has helped the media and entertainment sector to raise its stake in the country's GDP. According to a CII and Boston Consulting Group report, the film and TV industries were valued at Rs 450,000 crore in 2022, accounting for 2.8% of the country's GDP.
The growth is remarkable, noting that this share was a measly 0.5% barely ten years ago. Most importantly, the industry employs many people, both directly and indirectly – from actors and filmmakers to technicians and support staff.
As more growth opportunities open for the industry, opportunities for parallel expansion for ancillary sectors like tourism and hospitality multiply.
Soft power diplomacy
In general, cinema is a potent geopolitical tool. It can shape public perception and influence cultural values and beliefs. As such, it has become an important soft power tool in geopolitics. This means countries can use cinema to achieve their international goals through non-military means.
Countries can deploy this tool with various objectives in mind. For example, cinema can be used to promote a country's culture and values. The films can showcase a country's culture and traditions to a global audience, helping create a positive image of the country and promote its uniqueness abroad. Secondly, films can shape public opinion. For instance, Hollywood movies have played a significant role in shaping American popular culture and spreading the country's values and beliefs around the world.
Thirdly, films build bridges between nations. They can foster cultural exchanges, creating an enabling environment for different cultures to settle differences amicably. Film festivals and international collaborations offer an apt illustration. They bring together filmmakers from different countries and promote cross-cultural understanding.
Additionally, cinema often helps in softening geopolitical tensions. Through cultural exchanges and joint film productions, people from different geopolitical regions can interact and learn things that can help mellow strains and promote diplomacy.
Many countries, including the United States and China, leverage this tool to advance their causes in far-off regions. In the same vein, India is looking to its filmmakers and actors to help project its power beyond its neighborhood, and it is working.
As explained previously, Indian cinema has been gaining increasing influence and recognition globally. Over the years, the country's films have gained a massive following worldwide.
The growing influence is evident in its expanding global reach. Indian films are being released in more and more countries and are gaining critical acclaim and recognition. Besides RRR, other pictures, such as Gully Boy in 2019 and The White Tiger, have been released in foreign countries during film festivals.
In addition, the films have an impact on other cultures. The clearest evidence of this is other cultures making movies using a majority of Indian cast and mimicking Indian-style choreography and dance. For example, the 2008 film "Slumdog Millionaire," directed by British filmmaker Danny Boyle and featuring Indian actors, was a massive global hit and won several Academy Awards.
Furthermore, the growing influence has seen greater cultural exchange and collaboration between India and other countries. As a result, many Indian filmmakers are collaborating with international studios and artists to produce films that appeal to a global audience. For instance, in 2019, RRR's director SS Rajamouli's “Baahubali” franchise was acquired by Netflix, making it the first Indian film franchise to be streamed globally.
India has grown to become a significant cultural and economic powerhouse. The industry tops the world as the largest producer of films which reflect the country's diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
By continuously learning and improving, Indian filmmakers are now making movies that earn prestigious global awards. RRR is the latest in a series of success stories from Indian cinema.