This article first appeared in DailO on 3rd August 2018.
In Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market unlike any other.
“The influence in India of films is greater than newspapers and books combined,” said Jawaharlal Nehru.
The 2018 BRICS summit concluded in July, with various themes of economic and political cooperation discussed. Unknown to many, however, a much smaller event was also held as a part of the summit — the 3rd BRICS film festival.
The festival saw numerous film submissions, in a multitude of genres, from all the five nations. And in the midst of all these, the winner of the best film award was a movie about a polling station in a Naxal stronghold of India. Newton, the film in question, represents the best of Indian cinema of 2017, and its win at the festival shows the immense potential that Indian films have with respect to BRICS nations, especially Brazil.
It’s a common saying that every country has stories to tell, about their past, their culture now, and views of what the future will look like through their eyes. As India’s cultural reach grows with every passing day, it is still Indian cinema that is its primary driving force, and acts as a catalyst for Indian soft power — that is, India’s ability to influence the actions of other states using non-coercive elements such as culture.
Cinema represents, in many ways, one of the most tangible forms of soft power, as it allows for people of various backgrounds to be exposes to experiences and stories that are truly representative of India, its culture and its people. And with this exposure comes a clearer understanding, and then an appreciation, of what India is.
This appreciation is seen distinctly in Brazil. In May 2014, the country came out with a unique way of paying tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, by releasing two postage stamps designed by two Indian graphic designers. The stamps were released to mark a nationwide film festival dedicated to contemporary Indian cinema.
However, to merely stop at appreciation is to limit the power of Indian film and TV. It is imperative that with this appreciation, there comes an aspiration among the people to be like the India that they see on the big screen.
And that aspiration is also seen clearly in Brazil, in the case of Caminho das Índias, or India: A Love Story, a Brazilian TV show in 2009 that followed the story of Maya and Bahuan, a call center employee in Rajasthan belonging to a Vaishya family and a student in America who hailed from a Dalit family, as they tried to navigate their love through the societal pressures of caste.
During its airing, Caminho was the most watched TV show in Brazil, reaching around 40 per centof all Brazilian households, consisting of around 40 million people — outdoing most other Brazilian prime-time telenovellas. The show served to be Brazil’s introduction into Indian culture on a large scale, with the film creators having both studied Indian cinema and TV, and shot the show in India.
And its success clearly shows the impact that Indian culture and society can have in a foreign land.
Despite being in Portuguese, the show incorporates numerous Hindi words, such as theek hai, achha, and bhagwan, which have now found themselves added to the roster of everyday slang used in Brazil. Furthermore, the show featured all the aspects of a typical desi saas bahu serial — lots of family drama, an unmistakably Indian setting, characters in kurtas and saris, and numerous item songs, from Kajra Re to Nagada, all of which have now become clearly recognisable by Brazilians throughout the country.
Caminho in fact did not limit itself to Brazil, but was picked up by Telefutura, a Spanish American network. The network boasts a broadcast range of over 60 million, representing a sizeable new audience for the show. And with an average viewership of around 900,000 people per episode, the show outperformed other competing Spanish TV shows.
This demonstrates that the show's resonance in Brazil is not a one-off thing, but rather indicative of the immense power that Indian Cinema, and indeed Indian culture, can have in capturing the imagination of a global audience.
This familiarity with Indian culture has manifested itself in other avenues, even permeating into Brazil's most iconic of celebrations, La Carnival, through street performances and parades such as Bloco Bollywood.
Despite the positive impact of a show like Camhino, it is important to note that there still remains a sense of distance between the two nations. The two BRICS countries often find themselves extolling the shared values of democracy and increasing growth as creating a unique bond between the two nations, but this has done little to bridge their gap.
Trade between the two regions did pick up in 2017, having increased by34.71 per cent. However, this only translated to a total of US $ 7.6 billion, with India still only Brazil's 10th largest trade partner. And while tourism between the two countries is slowly picking up, they still do not feature in each other’s top 10.
The creation of such a unique bond requires sustained action between the two nations, and one area where such action could take place is cinema.
India has often been a destination for various Brazilian actors looking to enter into the mainstream. One need only look at Giselli Monteiro and other such actors, who, on returning to Brazil as stars, create a sense of familiarity among the local people with India.
More importantly, in Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market for films unlike any other. Brazilian cinema, much like its Indian counterpart, has historically distinguished itself from both American and European film styles. And like many emerging Indian films, Brazilian cinema takes a much darker, gritty stance — with movies often exploring native themes of gang violence, extreme poverty and crime in an incredibly violent manner.
Here, independent Indian filmmakers, who wish to create films that deal with these subjects as opposed to a “masala” film, will find an additional market wherein their movies can be shown. A market that is both familiar with the Indian society, and one that is inclined to and appreciative of the rawness that such independent films would have. The seeds of this have already been sown by directors such as Anurag Kashyap, who partnered with Brazilian filmmaker Beatriz Seigner on a new film titled Los Silencios (The silence).
As such, shows such as Camhinos and other Indian movies would be complimented well by independent films, and in this manner, India could create a set of films that depict all aspects of Indian culture in a way that is accessible to the entirety of Brazil's population. And it is through this accessibility that India would ensure that through cimena, the words of our founding fathers do indeed ring true.
Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation's Centre for Soft Power Studies. Aman Nair is a Junior Research Fellow at India Foundation's Centre for Soft Power Studies.