Bollywood to hardsell soft power in China

NEW DELHI: Come April, Bollywood's hit machine and his co-stars will start shooting for their new film, Chandni Chowk to China Town , partly on the Great Wall of China, the first time a Bollywood blockbuster would be shot in China.

To many observers, it's a strong signal to the growing influence of India's "soft" power — and a lot of Indian emphasis is on China.

Recently, India took a 10-member medical team to China to retrace the steps of Dr Kotnis. And after an understanding with the nodal Chinese agency, India will show Chinese films in India and Indian films will find a greater space in China.

Soon, MEA plans to set up a rotating chair in the University of Shenzhen and a film-co-production agreement has been freshly inked. The MEA is only starting to realise it but Bollywood is a very important calling card for India seeking to export its "soft power" overseas which is probably the reason why nobody blinked when India's Ambassador to China, Nirupama Rao, gave out the Best Actor Award in the critics' category at the recent Filmfare Awards function in Mumbai.

"We're not so stuffy any more," said a senior diplomat. In the MEA, where diplomats are routinely belting out romances, thrillers and memoirs, joint secretary Amit Dasgupta turned to Bollywood — he has compiled an enviable list of love songs from Hindi films down the ages.

And now that the Finance Minister has actually put a figure to the promotion of India's "soft power" in the budget, the ball has been set rolling to give India's cultural diplomacy some legitimacy. The amount is pittance, only Rs 75 crore, but it's a start, say diplomats.

While the idea of promoting India's "soft power" was ahead of its time in the 1950s when ICCR was started, the whole exercise of promoting Indian culture became ponderous, and, very boring. It was all about carting artistes to distant corners of the world, where their performances were seen by non-existent audiences.

In other words, India's cultural diplomacy had no imagination. Then some officials used ICCR as their patronage backyard and a senior official was accused of human trafficking in the guise of cultural troupes. But basically, India's "soft power" was a reflection of India's hard power — and that barely had any muscle until India started growing as an economic and military power. And nobody understands this better than the present head of ICCR, Pavan Varma. "The world is now beginning to ask, what makes Indians tick," he said. So whether its yoga, art, music, dance, Ayurveda or Bollywood, the world is interested. ICCR, Varma said, was setting up a string of "cultural centres" around the world — in Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Beijing, Kabul, Kathmandu, Dhaka, even Paris. Sri Lanka will see a centre soon.

The MEA is also setting up an "outreach" centre in Kolkata to cater to the immediate neighbourhood in Myanmar, Bangladesh, etc. India's centres teach dance, music and yoga besides promoting Indian literature and arts. They also hold exhibitions on treasures of India. These are India's cultural strengths and Indian diplomacy is now riding on them.

Of course, India's cultural centres are a far cry from China's Confucious Institutes which are peppered all over the globe and which are used to teach Chinese language to non-Chinese speaking people. These are far more efficient, unlike the Indian versions which have great ideas, but are sometimes iffy on design, presentation and implementation. But the MEA prides itself on the fact that India's culture is more inclusive, more attractive than merely learning an Indian language.

MEA is buzzing with plans for the largesse that has just been dropped in its lap. And who knows, MEA might really break the bureaucratic barrier and set up its first "virtual" cultural centre - on Second Life!

(The times of India)

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