Sunday, January 28, 2007

india killed the video star

A while ago, Omar put up this post arguing that the ban on Indian movies in Pakistan will inhibit the Pakistani film industry from improving itself. He said that the lack of competition would allow the Pakistani industry to become complacent and settle for mediocrity.

Dog considers himself a die-hard 'liberal', so when he did this, I had to explain to him that it was, in fact, a fiscally conservative argument. A liberal would have wanted to protect the Pakistani film industry until it became good enough to compete in the global marketplace.

In general, my stand on this has veered tentatively on the side of protectionism. But that's not what this post is about. After all, loyal readers will know that tentativeness doesn't form the basis of too many posts here on billu.net.

What I would like to do, however, is draw some comparisons to television. A similar ban was placed some 3-4 years ago on Indian TV stations. Prior to this ban, there were only 2-3 Pakistani channels worth mentioning, and the only real attempt to go global was by broadcasting PTV to the UK and US and calling it “PTV World.” Other than that, the status quo had existed unchanged for a good 10-12 years. Meanwhile, Indian television was pouring into every middle-class Pakistani home.

Since the ban, no less than 62 privately-owned stations have emerged in Pakistan, with plans for another 9 by the end of the year. Coincidence? I think not.

There are, in fact, two reasons for this boom. The first is that the government has become a lot more tolerant of free speech than it once was. The second is that the prominence of Indian TV stations had made Pakistanis accustomed to cable television as a source of entertainment. Once these stations were removed, a concerted effort was made to replace them with local alternatives.

So protectionism, in a sense, led to the current media boom in Pakistan. But not exactly. It was not the banning of Indian stations per se that caused the change. Instead, it was the application of the ban after having grown used to the high quality product that generally accompanies global competition.

So the question is, could the same idea work for the Pakistani film industry? Possibly, but there are two very important differences. First, film and television are two very different products. A movie in the theater needs to capture the viewer's attention for a sustained period of time. Thus, Pakistani films would have to be of a very high caliber in order to compete with Bollywood's high budget extravaganzas. Television, on the other hand, succeeds in part because it is consumed in bulk. Because there are so many stations, it is possible to keep oneself entertained by switching between them. The quality of each station need not be particularly high, as long as it is mildly entertaining for short periods of time.

Second, despite the ban on Indian movies, there is a strong, and quite open, black market that deals in them. This makes it possible for the banned product to make it to Pakistani homes anyway, and neutralizes whatever protectionist effect the ban may have had.

In other words, the black market has made it so that the market is essentially already open. So, just like television a few years ago, Pakistan has grown accustomed to Indian movies as a source of entertainment. Point being, if the black market is shut down, then the dearth of quality films will force the Pakistani film industry to offer an alternative. Movies may be harder to make than TV shows, but if the growing professionalism of the media in Pakistan is any indicator, there should be no dearth of high quality, creative, and talented individuals to fill the void.

Of course, nobody is likely to take any sort of initiative on moving any of this forward. That’s the kind of thing that only happens in movies.

5 comments:

henhen2004 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
omar said...

Hey,

Should there be a time limit on this argument? "A liberal would have wanted to protect the Pakistani film industry until it became good enough to compete in the global marketplace."

The reason I am asking is, because this movie ban has been in place for 30 years now....

Yet you compare it to a 3-4 year ban on Indian cable. Agreed, they are different industries, but it's firstly, obvious that protectionism has not worked for Pakistani movies and they've been given 30 years.

Another argument which may not hold enough force is that Indian cable television though banned, was way more widespread, than Indian movies. Ofocurse you could get both whenever you wanted, but most homes had Indian cable, regardless of the ban. You never had cinemas playing Indian movies illegally.

Thus in essence, Pakistani television did get a lot more competition from Indian TV, than Pakistani movies got from their indian counterparts.

umm. I don't know if I was clear?

anoop said...

I'd like to offer another point of view.

I think making Films and really good ones is possible in a conductive and vibrant atmosphere generated by the Society as a whole.

Society in India is very free,pluralistic(all the top slots in the Indian Hindi Film Industry is occupied by the Minority community members despite India being 80% Hindu is a good indicator) and art-loving society which loves and embraces many forms of art. Be it dances(there are more than 10 dance forms in a single country),Music(again many forms) or theatre(same).

This is indicative of a society which loves the arts.

I am from Bangalore and there is a Kannada Film Industry which, I daresay, is better than the Urdu Film Industry by a big margin. I look at the neighbouring states and there is the Tamil Film Industry(By the way is way better than even Hindi Film Industry),Telugu Film Industry and Malayalam Film Industry. Trust me they are all thriving and the majority watch the Films from the local Film Industry and not the Hindi ones. This is just south India and many more are there in other parts of India.

What does the above say about India and its Film Industry? Its success in producing good films is due to fact that it is a open society and encourages free thought and expression. Can we say the same thing about Pakistan? Can a non-Muslim even become a top-5 actor in Pakistan?? I am afraid Pakistani society is too narrow-minded for Films to grow here.

Lets look at it from another perspective.

US is not the only rich,democratic country in the world. Apart from Britain and occasionally France not many people (India excluded) have been able to produce Films with such massive following. Why hasn't Canada which is very similar to the US not able to establish even a decent Film Industry? Because this needs the right ingredients which are absent in Canada. Canada may be rich and democratic and encourages free speech but when it comes to vibrancy it is not at all comparable to Soft Powers like USA, India,etc.

Pakistan just doesn't have that "it" thing to produce quality films. Its just not vibrant enough. But, you can always watch our movies. All 18 languages of them.

billu said...

Dear Anoop, thanks for your comment. First of all, I think it is unfortunate that your felt the need to resort to jingoism. It derails your argument a little. Note that my article was not a jibe at India by any means, nor an attempt at promoting Pakistan, but merely a reflection on markets and how supply and demand might work in such a system.

From your comment, it would appear that you are very familiar with both Pakistani society and the Urdu film industry, since you claim to know a lot about both. Or perhaps you are just making a lot of assumptions. Note that I did not make any claims about Indian society, but just stated my views on the regional economics of moviemaking.

It appears you either did not read the post properly, or that I did not write it properly. If the latter, I apologize. My point was that given the recent (i.e. since the ban on Indian TV) upsurge in television programming coming out of Pakistan (which I assume you are also familiar with?), it seems as if Pakistan does have what it takes to produce high quality media, or at least media that is considered high quality by its own population. Using this as starting point, it is interesting to ponder why this capacity has not managed to work its way into the Pakistani film industry. Please note that I am not talking about big budget films that are watched around the world, since very few countries are able to capture the global market in that way, but merely local films that are watched by the people of the country themselves.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons why an industry may work in one country but not in another. Some countries may be more inclined toward music, or manufacturing, or religion, or dealing with issues such as famines or earthquakes. History, politics, and sociology are important factors here. To some extent, this is the same argument you made in your comment (sans the jingoistic jabs). My point, however, was to control for these factors by noting that: (1) in many ways, Pakistanis are just as art-loving as India appears to be, given their love of Indian (and other) cinema (i.e. there is a demand for movies); and (2) Pakistanis do appear to be capable of producing and consuming their own art and media when there are no other outlets available (i.e. there is a potential supply).

(continued...)

billu said...

(...continued)

To your point about pluralism, of course India is a more pluralistic society. It is a larger country, with far more ethnicities and languages, and a much larger proportion of religious minorities. Indeed, expecting a country with 20% religious minorities to have the same demographics in the film industry as a country with 2% religious minorities is silly. However, these are merely correlations, and this does not prove that ethnic, linguistic, and/or religious diversity is a prerequisite for a thriving film industry, especially when there are so many counter-examples.

For one, Pakistan is still a lot more ethnically and linguistically diverse than a lot of countries with pretty good film industries. For another, whatever I know about India (through Indian friends, Indian grandparents, and Indian media) leads me to believe there are plenty of other countries (say, New Zealand) with more open societies than India's which have less dynamic film industries. As you yourself state, many other pluralistic art-loving societies have not been able to make high-quality films. The concept of "vibrancy" that you mention to fill this gap in your argument were not very clearly defined. But as for your example of Canada, I would argue that the exact point I made in my post applies. Canada either does not need, or cannot develop, a thriving film industry because its demand for films is met (and hence supply crowded out) by its culturally similar neighbor to the south. The same process can be seen at work in the larger film industries in Latin America (Mexico, Argentina).

Building capacity in any industry (movies, cotton, rubber, steel, or oil) takes time, and countries with a comparative advantage are likely to benefit from their achievements (why would anyone invest in a well-written Polish film when they could invest in a Hollywood blockbuster). Since all industries are primarily driven by supply and demand, surely the laws of economics are interesting to study in this regard.