Yeh Patloon Englishtani Sar Pe Laal Topi Roosi
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani
My shoes are Japanese
These trousers are English
The red hat on my head is Russian
But my heart remains Indian.
- “Mera Joota Hai Japani” from Sree 420
The last few weeks have seen a lot of discussion around my parts of the Internet on one particular topic - Ra.One.* From the mega-hype that preceded the film release to harshly divided opinion on the film itself to the shape of Shahrukh Khan’s career, there hasn’t been another film this year that has drawn so much fascinating conversation. Though I overdosed on the hype-explosion and couldn’t bring myself to actually see the film, I have been eagerly devouring all discussion on what the film means in a broader context for Bollywood.
Since I can’t offer anything really insightful on the specifics of Ra.One at the moment, I’m going to put my thoughts on it on hold for a few months until I get a chance to review it for Box Office Poison.** Instead, I’m going to bring up some of the other thoughts that Ra.One and the recent American debut of Japanese idol 赤西 仁 (aka Jin Akanishi) have stirred up. Specifically, I’ve been thinking hard about why Ra.One earned such positive accolades from the Western press but met with indifference from Indian audiences. While Shahrukh Khan has been doing victory laps in the Los Angeles Times and damage control at home, Jin has put out a fairly well-received American debut single while doing his own damage control for fans at home. This cross-cultural disconnect made me think - what does it mean for foreign artists to “make it” in America?
Americans assume that we are the global media market, that our Hollywood blockbusters are global blockbusters and that our rock stars are everybody’s rock stars. To some extent this is true. Two recent examples are Michael Jackson, whose death was mourned on a global scale and the 2009 film Avatar, which was number one at the box office in almost every market. And yet, for every Michael Jackson who makes waves worldwide, there are thousands of regional superstars who have greater importance in their own markets than anybody coming out of America.***
A good example of our inflated sense of importance in the global conversation is Taylor Swift. For the non-Americans reading this, Taylor Swift is a singer-songwriter who crossed out of the Country Music market into the mainstream charts. With her slender frame, youthful wardrobe, pale skin, and curly blond hair, Swift has carefully cultivated an image as America’s younger sister. An incident at the MTV Music Awards in which R&B singer Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech caused national outrage and Kanye was forced to apologize in the media. In America, Taylor’s best selling single to date, Today Was A Fairytale reached number 2 and it did well in Canada and Australia. To contrast, the song only climbed to number 63 in the Japanese charts and 57 in the British charts. Taylor Swift may do well on the charts in the US but that does not mean that her music is automatically sent to the top of the charts in other places.
What this example highlights is the real secret of the American myth of cultural dominance - distribution. That a Taylor Swift gets sent on tour to places in Europe and East Asia is a function of the globalized nature of Taylor Swift’s record company, who have the mechanics in place to push out and promote her record, than in any genuine interest coming from regional markets themselves. What you find, if you look at music charts worldwide, is a sort of carpet bombing by American record companies. American artists like Taylor Swift sell a lot of songs globally because their product is released in so many markets. Though she might not crack even the Top 40 in a particular market, but she can sell some records in that market. In other words, it’s supply not demand that drives the American cultural dominance. And when American artist after American artist manages to sell some records or when the Hollywood films dubbed into the local language take up half of the screens in the multiplexes, even if the American product never really enters the mainstream cultural debate, that sense of “American culture” is still there lurking in the background. So, American exported popular culture does play a role in cultural conversations around the globe but I would argue that the idea America actually outweighs the influence of specific cultural properties in local markets (i.e. the format of rap music rather than a specific rapper.)
Interestingly, specific American cultural properties that do get adopted in foreign markets are rarely those that have a huge popularity at home market. To take an example from close to home, my father, who is extremely well traveled, has an anecdote about going on a business trip to Finland and having his hosts quiz him on this popular American show they all loved. Contrary to our first instincts, that show wasn’t something critically acclaimed in America like The West Wing or even something that hits the top of the Neilson ratings charts like CSI. No, the show, the number one program on Finnish channel MTV3 was the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, which has very little cultural capital in the United States. My father had no idea what his hosts were talking about. The shorthand for this cultural phenomenon is the phrase “big in Japan”, which is used pejoratively to describe art or artists that are popular in regional markets but not at home in America, strongly implying that the regional markets are as discerning nor do they have as much taste as the American market.
This sentiment is played out in other ways. When regional product influenced by American cultural forms makes it back to America, it is seen as “wrong” and therefore humorous. For example, Sudanese rapper Bangs (a refugee of the war in Sudan who ended up in Australia) earned viral video fame in America for doing hip-hop “wrong” in his song “Take U To Da Movies.” Although the video racked up lots of hits, his earnest rhymes about wanting to take a girl to the movies ended up as fodder for websites like Funny or Die (voted “funny”) instead of launching a career on MTV. Bangs is reflecting American hiphop back out to us but filtered through the worldview of a Sudanese refugee in Australia and, apparently, we find in the West find this to be hilarious because he’s doing it “wrong” by a) rapping about going to the movies instead of something we would consider “authentic” and b) being earnest about it instead of “cool.” Other examples would include viral videos of songs and dances from commercial Indian film (because singing and dancing in film are “wrong”), viral videos of melodramatic acting in Latin American telenovelas (because melodramatic acting is “wrong”), or viral videos of idol bands from East Asia (because being in a band without playing an instrument or writing songs is “wrong.”)
So, you can see that while the myth of the global market that hinges on figures like Michael Jackson would have us believe that Hollywood and the US have some sort of monopoly on global culture, the American cultural conversation is actually very different from what goes on in other places around the world. Serious American culture tends to suffer from the tired fiction of “authenticity” and has a crippling obsession with “coolness.” According to the fallout of the cultural battles of the 1960s, creative types must only create from a desire to “express themselves” and therefore the works of art that result must have a personal meaning. Creative work must be “original” and can’t ever appear to be trying too hard to please or to entertain - because that would be “uncool.” Because of these strict cultural rules, it only makes sense that much of what goes out globally is what we Americans consider disposable pop culture and not subject to the twin demons of “authenticity” and “coolness” - dance songs with lyrics easy to understand by people with only fundamental English skills, soap operas, and big-budget action films.
We, as Americans, have a collective inability to process other ways of looking at the artistic impulse - art is either “authentic” (i.e. personal) or it’s trash. The idea that artists can operate from a desire to entertain and that we can take pleasure in being entertained is one that is foreign to us. After all, there is a reason that the word usually preceding “pleasure” is “guilty.”
(Frankly, with small exception, I find the current American cultural landscape supremely depressing. We have also lost our ability to view the world from a mythic perspective but that is a topic for another time.)
This brings me to Shahrukh and Jin, two Asian stars hoping to build on their Asian popularity and conquer the West - specifically, America.
There are a few problems that any foreign star will have trying to break into the American mass market and a few more specific to Asian stars. The biggest problem is the language barrier. Americans have a difficult time understanding accents and are very unforgiving of syntax that does not sound native. Songs in foreign languages - except maybe Spanish - will flop. Dubbed and subtitled films have a very small market, even among film buffs. Most foreign stars who are successful in the American marketplace are from Anglophone countries - UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland - and can do a passable American accent, stars like Hugh Jackman.
Those foreign stars who pass the language barrier will then have to negotiate the complicated rules of American celebrity culture. What are appropriate clothes to be seen in? (Trendy but not too flashy.) What is an appropriate body type to have? (Stick thin for women; buff for men.) What topics of conversation will be successful in interviews? (Nothing that would require historical context or general world knowledge.) How much should one reveal about one’s personal life? (Everything.) What projects does one select? (Cool ones.)
Asian celebrities have a few additional barriers to crack, the biggest of which, for male stars, is the idea that Asian men are feminine. It doesn’t help that many Asian stars are known in their home markets for singing, dancing, and melodramatic acting - all three of which are considered feminine in American culture. So, any Asian star looking to cross over has to combat the double whammy of an already feminine image combined with the feminine image of his talents. A dancing, lip-syncing, melodramatic actor like Salman Khan is admired and imitated by male fans in India while the exact same act would get him called “gay” (pejoratively) by men in the United States.****
Our first test subject, Japanese singer Jin Akanishi, has done some smart things on the business side. Besides aiming to release in the only really big mainstream genre in the US - dance/pop music - Jin has partnered with a American label (Warner Brothers) and reached out to a fairly popular mainstream American dance/pop artist (Jason DeRulo) to collaborate on his debut song. So far, so good. And if distribution and content were the only hurdles, I would say Jin is in the clear. Unfortunately, Jin has either received some terrible advice on appealing to the American market or is ignoring all advice on how to appeal to the American market.
The first of Jin’s major problems is his overall image. Jin has decided to work around the traditional resistance to non-American artists by pretending that he is not from Japan at all and did not formally have a career in an idol band - specifically KAT-TUN, one of the many male idol bands from Japan’s own premiere male idol talent agency, Johnny’s Entertainment. As part of KAT-TUN, Jin sang pop songs, danced, wore sparkly outfits, did embarrassing things on variety shows, pretended to dry-hump bandmates for fans’ amusement, and did all manner of other things required of an idol. The Jin that has come to America would like us to forget that all of that happened. He now wears sunglasses at all times (perhaps to hide his Japanese features), appears extremely grumpy instead of goofy, and puts out promotional videos of himself engaging in America’s conspicuous consumer culture by purchasing a car (a terrible promotional idea in this terrible economic climate.) Jin would also like the audience to think that he is fluent in English and refuses to use a translator, even when he appears to be struggling with his English.
Unfortunately, his media team has not gotten the memo to ix-nay the Apan-Jay and almost all the news items and press releases circulating are popping up on news sites that follow Japanese or Asian entertainment news. As far as the mainstream American entertainment media is concerned, Jin Akanishi doesn’t exist. There are no news point on Entertainment Weekly, no snarky bulletin point on Gawker, no analysis from The Onion Av Club, nothing in Rolling Stone, and Jin is not booked (as far as I know) on any of the American late night talk shows that host music acts. So, the only people who are purchasing Jin’s single right now are his existing fanbase. The ones he doesn’t want to acknowledge.
So, His current behavior is not at all endearing him to his old fanbase, who rightly feel somewhat slighted that their idol is no longer willing to acknowledge the past. but it’s also not going to win him any American fans because if there one thing Americans hate, it’s a poseur(5). Because America has no taste for artifice, Jin can’t have a career in the US while wearing sparkly outfits but because America will reject any artist pretending to be something he is not Jin also can’t have a career in the US pretending that he didn’t used to wear sparkly outfits. The only way out of this Catch-22 is to be as crazy talented and charming as Justin Timberlake, whose self-mocking attitude towards his N*Sync and Mickey Mouse Club days has mostly diffused any barbs that would have been thrown at him by cultural gatekeepers. As of yet, Jin’s “cool” image does auger good things for managing the transition from the Asian to American market. Even if his English improves, all it will take is one talk show show host to whip out some video footage of Jin dancing up against one of his KAT-TUN bandmates and his “cool” image will be punctured. He will be exposed as a poseur and rejected, sent to the Funny or Die website next to Bangs and “Indian Superman.”
Can a Japanese star working against such different set of cultural attitudes really make it in America? Unless I have seriously misread the situation, things don’t look good. There is a large barrier for Americans accepting a Japanese star, especially one who sings with an accent, and the Japanese star will never be American, no matter how many collaborations with Jason Derulo he does. Jin’s first single seems to be doing okay on the iTunes dance charts but a large portion of that is driven by his already existing fan base - fans of his Japanese image. Will they stick around if he continues to separate himself from his past? And, if not, will he able to build up American fans to replace them before they jump ship? Only time will tell but I plan on following this story to find out.
Now to the other piece of the cultural puzzle - Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One. Ra.One is a science-fiction film about a nerdy father who builds a video game with an beatable villain in order to impress his teenaged son. The villain, the titular Ra.One, escapes the game and hero G.One, who appears identical to the nerdy father, except cooler, is dispatched to stop him. The film’s release during Diwali 2011 was preceded by a solid years worth of promotional material that swamped the Hindi language market in both India and in the global Indian diaspora. Ra.One was made on blockbuster budget; Ra.One was going to compete with Hollywood in terms of special effects; Ra.One had international superstar Akon singing two songs; Ra.One was made to go global.
In spite of the build-up, the response to Ra.One from the traditional markets for Bollywood films was lackluster. The film did okay business the first weekend but the word of mouth was negative and the critics were ever crueler. The film deflated with a whimper as Ra.One jokes spread across the Internet. Normally for a flop film audience rejection would be the end of the story but this one has a twist ending - American critics loved the film as did Americans who are not part of the traditional diaspora market for Bollywood films. The contrast in reactions between the two markets is striking.
At Rediff.com respected youngistani critic Raja Sen wrote: The film's narrative, as a result, is disjointed and sluggish, with a mere handful of good scenes. The rest is not just filler, but lengthy, exhausting, filmi filler -- the kind of kitsch a film like this should really have left behind.
Meanwhile, at The Hollywood Reporter veteran critic Kirk Honeycutt wrote: The film, directed by Anubhav Sinha, is gloriously silly, with stunts, CG animation and music numbers bursting out all over yet its beating heart lies in a commonplace story of a family and most especially a father and son who don’t understand one another.
The desi critic finds the film tiresome and emotionally dead while the American finds it refreshing and emotionally fulfilling.
Respected desi film blogger Great Bong wrote: I knew it would be a great commercial product. I was not disappointed. “Ra One”‘s primary target audience is eight to fifteen year olds. And it packs in plenty of “gaming stuff”, very well executed special effects and “condom” tee-hees and other juvenile “adult” gags that eight to fifteen year olds find insanely funny (I did when I was that age). In this, it does perfectly what it set out to do.
But meanwhile over at Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir wrote: Hollywood has entirely abandoned that quest to embrace all comers in its single-minded focus on the young, male-dominated blockbuster audience, and not a single American film released this year at this budget level has made me laugh out loud and stomp my feet and yearn to leap from my seat and shake it quite the way this admittedly idiotic Indian movie did.
The desi critic thinks the film is targeted at young males while the American critic thinks the film is targeted at the entire family.
In full disclosure, I have not seen the film and can’t comment to the specifics of these charges until I do but what I see happening in the reactions is that Shahrukh did the opposite of Jin and played up the idea of the Bollywood-ness of his film to the American market. Instead of figuratively wearing sunglasses to hide his Bollywood - a mistake made by Shahrukh in his previous release aimed at the American market, My Name is Khan, as well as Rakesh Roshan’s Kites - Shahrukh hung a light on it. The problem in this case for Shahrukh was that the kitchy outward markers of “Bollywood” that charmed American critics were unimpressive to desi audiences used to seeing the stylistic conventions used in a more natural way; the Spielberg-ian storyline of father and son that rang true to American critics felt hollow to desi audiences used to a more melodramatic and holistic style of narrative; and the humor that felt cheeky to Americans was just too raunchy for the desi audience.
I would argue that while Ra.One as a Bollywood film was a failure, as a Bollywood film made for American audiences Ra.One was a success. Unfortunately, in aiming at that American audience, Shahrukh miscalculated the universal appeal of the content and lost his desi audience, which he needed in order to make a hit film.
Was it worth it for Shahrukh? Despite it’s flop status in India, if Ra.One generated enough interest in Bollywood beyond the typical markets to open the door for other films, then maybe it was. Only time will tell. Certainly, Ra.One has shown that commercial Indian film (as opposed to arthouse “poverty porn”) does have an audience in the United States. Whether or not that audience is big enough to justify creating content tailored to it’s needs is a question I’m sure we’ll be finding the answer to over the coming years as more and more Bollywood studios take aim and fire in our direction.
In many ways, the American adventures of Jin and Shahrukh are mirror images but there is one thing they have in common - the desire for recognition in America. As I discussed earlier, the hurdles they face are steep, including, but not limited to, complete market saturation by our homegrown entertainment industries. So, why do stars like Jin and Shahrukh continue to fight against the huge tide of American content in America? One possibility is that they want access to the American distribution machine. If Taylor Swift can be sent around the world, then if Jin Akanishi makes it in America, he, too, can be sent around the world. The other possibility ties back to the myth of American cultural dominance. This reasoning says that If Shahrukh can win the heart of America, then he has won the heart of the world.
Personally, I think both Jin and Shahrukh are on a fool’s errand. America is extremely resistant to outside entertainment and even if Jin and Shahurkh manage to win over mainstream America, it will come at the expense of their respective Asian fanbases. The myth of American cultural dominance is just that, a myth. For Asian stars that would like to really go global, they need to look at the American distribution model instead of at America itself. Bollywood long neglected its traditional markets in places like Africa, Middle East and Russia, and has not fully taken advantage of the slowing growing markets for Indian content in East Asia. On top of those avenues, films like Ra.One dubbed into local languages like German and French might also do well in Europe, where people are used to watching foreign content and appreciate of kitch. (6) On the music side, Korean pop music has also slowly been penetrating non-traditional markets through improved distribution. Idol bands like Super Junior have been gaining notice here in the United States while maintaining a healthy fanbase in Korea. The difference between Jin and Super Junior is that Super Junior has never lost sight of their strengths as entertainers nor have they forgotten who their main audience is.
So, where do they go from here? My advice to Jin, if he really wants to make it in America, would be to take a page from Shahrukh’s playbook and hang a light on his Japanese idolness. Jin! Wear flashy clothes, have your people book you on some talk shows so you can dance, have your media people package some compelling stories for cultural gatekeepers like The Onion AV Club and Entertainment Weekly, and, above all else, take off the sunglasses. You will find that people may be more forgiving of poor English comprehension if you play up the stereotype a bit. It may not be “cool” but you will be seen as “authentic” - and that is more important to Americans than anything else at the end of the day.
As for Shahrukh and Bollywood, honestly, I don’t think there is a Bollywood film that will work with mainstream America and with traditional Bollywood audiences. America produces a huge amount of media and the segment of the population who is willing to step beyond that to experience foreign film is very small. No matter good the film is, no matter how big the budget is in comparison to other Indian films, most Americans will always chose to watch something in American English starring actors that they know. If Bollywood does want to gain a toe-hold in America, really the only way to do so is to find a niche in the art house circuit. A well-produced middlebrow film like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara would probably do quite well with the same American audiences who go to see French and German and Korean films. If foreign-film going audiences don’t get a chance to explore Indian film, the only other way that Bollywood films will gain recognition in America is if they are fetishized by a vocal subculture within the film community - like Japanese anime or Hong Kong action films.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has thought of itself as not just a superpower but the superpower. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan used the imagery of a “shining city upon a hill” to describe our role in the world. This shining city is easily viewed by others but the flood lights we set up drown out the stars and moon, as well as the lights from any other country...
(1) Yes, it hurts to type that but I’m being all formal today.
(2) Shanti shanti! I don’t mean it in a haterade way; just that it’s a film that failed to perform to (ludicrously high) expectations (in India). To my mind, when you hype that your film is going to do 3 Idiots business but it doesn’t quite do as well as Ready - though a perfectly respectable number - it’s going to be considered a “flop,” even if it does make some serious cash.
(3) There are also superstars who are famous worldwide except for America, though these are usually sportsmen. Mention somebody like Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo or Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to a non-American and you’ll find a level of recognition on par with that of American basketball player Michael Jordan.
(4) Oddly enough, the only American men who get away with singing and dancing and being flashy these days are from the African-American community - e.g. Usher. So, perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the recording industry, it’s African American artists like Michael Jackson who do better on the global market.
(5) A poseur is somebody who is seen as using the mantles of authenticity and cool as an artifice. For example, a rap artist who acts like he is from the streets but is really from a nice middle class neighborhood would be a poseur.
(6) Just see the excitement over Eurovision every year!