2ndlook

Bollywood in Russia

Posted in America, Business, Feminist Issues, Film Reviews, India, Media by Anuraag Sanghi on January 29, 2012

Bollywood, as the Indian film industry has come to be known, leads the world in viewer numbers as well as production volumes. Soviet Russia was a key part of that story.

A Soviet film promotion poster featuring Raj Kapoor for Shree 420 | Image source & courtesy - timeoutmumbai.net | Click for image.

A Soviet film promotion poster featuring Raj Kapoor for Shree 420 | Image source & courtesy – timeoutmumbai.net | Click for image.

Baby steps to Big Daddy

For 2009, tickets sales for Hollywood films were numbered at 2.6 billion viewers. For Bollywood, the number was 3.6 billion.

A good 1 billion more.

More than the film-going population of USA, EU and Latin America put together. Against some 400 films that Hollywood releases each year, Bollywood releases 1200 odd films.

But it was not always like that.

Bollywood was post-colonial India’s first major export. In the 1950s, it had a huge following in the Soviet Union, India’s major ally. When leading man Raj Kapoor, a Charlie Chaplinesque tramp, and his heroine Nargis went to Moscow, they were mobbed by fans who shouted lines of songs from their movies, without understanding a word.

“Some years ago, when we started showing Bollywood movies in Toronto,” says Madeline Ziniak, vice-president of Omni-TV, “we were pleasantly surprised to find audiences in the Canadian Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech and Central Asian communities. We couldn’t believe it.” (via How Bollywood conquered the world… – Toronto.com).

Look back with surprise

Way back in 1954, when nearly a million Russian turned up at the Indian film festival in USSR, it seemed more like a flash in the pan.

Although Indian films caught on only after Stalin’s death in 1953, small steps to distribute them in the USSR were already being taken in the mid-1940s. Sovexportfil’m set up an office in Mumbai in 1946 to import films from India and ensure that Russian movies were shown here. The early preference was for socialist-themed movies: K Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal was shown in Russian cinemas in 1949 and Chinnamul in 1951.

The watershed occurred in 1954, when a festival of Indian films, including Awara, was held in Soviet cities. Nearly a million people saw Indian movies within the first four days of the festival. From then, Indian movies, mostly in Hindi, were regularly distributed through theatres in the USSR. In all, 210 Indian films were shown in the USSR until 1991, of which about 190 were commercial Hindi movies.

Indian movies were embraced for a cluster of reasons. The “melodramatic genre’s explicit juxtaposition of exaggerated good and evil personages found a sympathetic audience”, she writes. The colourful characters, costumes, songs, dances and locations that typify the average Hindi film allowed viewers to indulge in “cinematic tourism”. Indian movies were “skazkas”, or fairy tales; they epitomised “byt” or personal space. Rajagopalan writes, “Byt was the realm of everyday life that remained untouched by ideology and was removed from if not opposed to the glorified realm of Soviet society.” An affinity seemed to exist between the Indian and the Soviet “dusha”, or inner world. Viewers felt that the situations depicted in Indian cinema were far closer to their own than those depicted in other foreign movies.

Over the years, Indian movies raked in the roubles. Love in Simla was the third biggest box-office hit in the USSR in 1963. In 1984, Disco Dancer had the highest audience turnout. Even as debates raged between fans and critics on the worthiness of Indian cinema, Soviet distributors knew that commercial films would guarantee financial returns.

Some explanations for this behaviour can be found in Sudha Rajagopalan’s engrossing book Leave Disco Dancer Alone! Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-going After Stalin. Through research, interviews and questionnaires, Rajagopalan reveals the impact that Indian cinema had on the cultural life of (Soviet Russia). The book maps the period between 1954, the year after dictator Josef Stalin died, and 1991, the year the Soviet Union was disbanded.

“What inspired the book was really the fact that historians who have studied the former Soviet Union have looked at Hollywood and its reception among Soviet audiences, but it was news to many in my field that Indian films were an important feature of cultural life in the Soviet Union,” said the 37 year old historian. “So it was clearly a lacuna in historiography that needed to be filled.” (via Byt the bullet – Time Out Mumbai – parts excised for brevity. Supplied text underlined).

Most accounts of Bollywood in USSR seem to imply that Bollywood gained access to USSR because of political patronage. The official attention paid to India by the Soviet Bloc, aroused a mix of concern and envy from the West.

In fact, commercial success was the main reason. While the success of Awaara has had many tellings, Bollywood’s other successes are not known – at least in India.

After Awaara,

came the Indian saga about twin sisters, Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), a marvelous reminiscence of distant childhood. Children in Moscow courtyards tried to repeat the circus tricks of the brave heroine, Hema Malini. They copied her tightrope act and her daring manner of behaviour and speech. Indian cinema fans here still remember how one of the twins taught her wicked aunt a lesson. Songs from Indian movies were especially popular in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The fashion for disco dancing forced young Russians to view Indian cinema differently after the appearance of Disco Dancer (1982). The rags-to-riches story of an ordinary young Indian boy who manages to become a famous singer once again staggered the imagination of Soviet moviegoers. Mithun Chakraborty, the film’s star, replaced Raj Kapoor in the eyes of the new generation. Disco Dancer earned close to 60 mn roubles at a time when movie tickets cost 20-50 kopecks. The dance halls at Soviet summer resorts in the `80s resounded with the sounds of “I Am a Disco Dancer”. Some fanatics were capable of requesting the song ten times over. (via Bollywood returns to Russian screens | Russia Beyond The Headlines).

Problems in ‘paradise’

Financed and controlled by party bureaucrats of Soviet Russia, Soviet film production was seriously limited. But the demand for filmed entertainment from the paying Soviet public was greater than the domestic film production in Russia.

Unable to deal with commercial uncertainty, Soviet government resorted to imports of ready-made products. Imported films accounted for about 35% of ticket sales at the height of Brezhnev regime in 1970s.

Masha Salazkina, a writer who has covered Indo-Soviet film trade lists many co-productions with

Mithun Chakraborty and Shabana Azmi present for Mrinal Sen's film "Mrigayaa" - exhibited at the X Moscow International Film Festival.  Event date - 07/01/1977  |  Source & Credit: RIA Novosti  |  Click for source image.

Mithun Chakraborty and Shabana Azmi present for Mrinal Sen’s film “Mrigayaa” – exhibited at the X Moscow International Film Festival. Event date – 07/01/1977 | Source & Credit: RIA Novosti | Click for source image.

equal representation from each county in all functions, even up to the point of having two directors, one from each country. These coproductions were “meant to create films that would hybridize each culture’s favored motifs and narrative structures, in the hopes of creating truly popular films.” Here are all the Soviet-Indian coproductions she lists: Pardesi (Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray, 1957); Black Mountain (Chernaya Gora, 1971); Rikki Tikki Tavi (1975); Eastward, Beyond the Ganges (Voshod Nad Gangom, 1975); Alibaba and the 40 Thieves (1980); Sohni Mahiwal (Legenda O Lyubvi, 1984); Shikari (Po Zakonu Dzhunglei, 1991); and Ajooba (Chernyj Prints Adzhuba, 1991). Mere Naam Joker (1970) and Mother India (1957) are not listed because they were not full coproductions like the above films (via Minai’s Cinema Nritya Gharana: Indian Dances in Western Films about India: Part 4 (Coproductions).

Instead of large capital outlays that Hollywood and Russian films needed, Indian films earned profits for the Soviets.

Russians have been enjoying popular Indian melodrama and musicals since the first festival of Indian films in Moscow in 1954. In fact, box office statistics suggest that Indian movies were more popular than any other foreign films shown in the Soviet Union. In the period between 1954 and 1989, for example, while forty-one American and thirty-eight French movies attained “blockbuster” status (defined as selling more than 20 million tickets) in the Soviet Union, fifty Indian movies did the same. (via INDIAN FILMS IN SOVIET CINEMAS reviewed in Slavic Review).

For India, cultural exports were an unexpected feather in the cap. Even recently, till a few years ago, exports to Soviet region accounted for between 10%-15% of Bollywood’s overseas revenues.

Significantly, this was the largest source of revenues from non-Indian viewers.

Till around early the 1980s, the USSR accounted for export of up to 150-odd movies each year.

“However, after the disintegration of the country, Hollywood movies took over our market. We now send just four or five movies each year to these countries,” says a Mumbai-based distributor. With increase in interest in Indian movies in Russia in recent months, Parmeshwaran is confident of doubling exports to that country over the next one year. A major delegation of film-makers and producers from Russia is expected to visit the country in November this year. (via Entertainment industry targets new shores – Economic Times).

Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood's growth is based on attracting viewers with a mix of values and vision, a huge talent pool, savvy business minds. Not imperial military might or overwhelming 'special effects', powered by raw money power  |  Image source & courtesy - tribune.com.pk  |  Click for larger source image.

Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood’s growth is based on attracting viewers with a mix of values and vision, a huge talent pool, savvy business minds. Not imperial military might or overwhelming ‘special effects’, powered by raw money power | Image source & courtesy – tribune.com.pk | Click for larger source image.

With success comes envy … and imitation

After the break up of Soviet Russia, Bollywood remains a big draw in the Central Asia. All this success has also drawn its own share of backlash – like in Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.

The Express Tribune (from Pakistan) reports

Indian movies are shipped to Uzbekistan from India and are translated into local languages. These movies are not just being showcased in cinemas but are also taking up airtime on local TV channels. “We watch Indian movies at home on TV and listen to Indian songs on the radio all the time,” he says.

Uzbeks are still drawn to the choreography and bright cinematography of Indian cinema. The proliferation of this infectious Bollywood glitz and glamour that continues to embed itself in the hearts of Uzbek women, men and youth is not going unnoticed by the government.

The government strictly controls the entertainment industry and has take measures to try and protect the industry.

President Karimov’s government is currently chalking out strategies to promote Uzbek movies at home over Indian movies. The government has written scripts and engaged the entertainment industry in its effort to reintroduce Uzbek youth to the country’s indigenous culture.

Today there are more than 50 private film studios in Uzbekistan that produce about 50 films a year.

The personality that seems to be embedded in the minds of most of today’s Uzbeks is that of Indian actor Mithun Chakraborty, who came to the country in 1980 to shoot Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. The movie, shot by an Uzbek film studio in collaboration with India, was one of the biggest international projects filmed in Uzbekistan during the Soviet era.

Obid Karimov, a local in Tashkent, says the ‘great movie’ also starred legendary Uzbek comedian Asomov and was one of the best-selling movies of all times in the Soviet Union in the 80s, and was watched by millions of viewers in USSR alone.

Although the country always embodied aspects of different cultures, what seems to be gaining popularity today are Bollywood hits.

“Bollywood is fantasy, and we love being a part of the journey, even if it’s just for a few hours,” says Obid. The Uzbek film industry, in an attempt to keep its audiences’ interest, has in fact started to elements of Indian films in their own productions. “The characters [in some recent Uzbek films] are larger than life just like in an Indian movie, but the ending is usually sad like a Russian drama,”adds Obid.

An official from the Pakistan Embassy in Uzbekistan says that the influence of Bollywood is “huge” (via Bollywood calling: The fall of Uzbekistani cinema – The Express Tribune).

In Russia (like in Pakistan), there are indications that families and women are more loyal to Bollywood films. With Bollywood busy promoting itself at Cannes, Canada and USA, stronger markets have been ignored by Bollywood.

In Brazil, a Bollywood style tele-novela, Caminho das Índias (Road to India), a TV soap opera based on Indian themes became a huge success – and stirred some controversy. Similarly in Russia, too, a prominent media group, Red Media has launched a Bollywood channel, which will air Bollywood-style content that the Russian studio will produce on its own.

President Dimitry Medvedev, , Yash Chopra, Shahrukh Khan at press conference.

President Dimitry Medvedev, , Yash Chopra, Shahrukh Khan at press conference.

Russia continues to love Indian cinema classics from the 1960s and 1970s.

These are the films most talked about on Internet forums, where fans lovingly collect photographs and stories of their idols. They constitute a retrospective of Indian cinema that is regularly shown on Russian television, especially the Domashny channel, which is aimed at women and promotes family values. For Russian fans of Indian films, there is even a special satellite channel called India TV. Russia’s love of Indian films has now spilled over into a mass passion for Indian dance. Every self-respecting sports club in Moscow teaches yoga and the art of Indian dance. Russian girls array themselves in saris for these lessons, which are more popular even than traditional European fitness classes. (via Bollywood returns to Russian screens | Russia Beyond The Headlines).

And Russian leaders too

President Dmitry Medvedev, on his visit to India, made time to meet up with some Bollywood biggies – and tried to re-ignite the old Indo-Russian fires.

Soviet directors like Bondarchuk, Tarkovsky moved to Hollywood. This move, assuming endless financing for their creative output, did not quite turn out like that. The studio system worked pretty much like Soviet bureaucracy to limit their production – as evidenced by their limited output in the West.

Within the Soviet film industry itself, there was much admiration for Hollywood and Western film genres and styles. Interestingly, Indian critics have seen Bollywood films as sub-standard – much like Bollywood sees itself, also.

But the viewers aren’t paying attention to carping critics and ‘superior’ art-film ideologues.


Nollywood – New Kid on The Global Filmi Block

Posted in America, Business, Film Reviews, Media, Religion by Anuraag Sanghi on January 18, 2012
Ulzee, a Nollywood pioneer maker of big Nollywood hit “Osuofia in London,”  |  Image source & courtesy - techcrunch.com

Ulzee, a Nollywood pioneer maker of big Nollywood hit “Osuofia in London,” | Image source & courtesy - techcrunch.com

A Story From Nigeria

In 2003, an unknown Nigerian Azuka Odunukwe, landed in London, with a ‘venture’ in his mind.

His investment in the ‘venture’ was less than US$10,000. In this venture, with him, was his lawyer wife. Over the next few months, this ‘venture’ succeeded – and with his ‘partners’, he netted more than US$500,000.

This was not the usual Nigerian banking scam,  that is now so famous across the world. Popularly known as

Ulzee, a Nollywood pioneer who decided to make movies after getting a science degree. His wife, trained as a lawyer, joined him along the seemingly crazy journey. His biggest hit was “Osuofia in London,” one of the first Nollywood films to get international attention. He shot it on location in London and it cost about $6,500 to make– a jaw-dropping investment for a Nollywood picture back in 2003. But it grossed more than $650,000. (via You Think Hollywood Is Rough? Welcome to the Chaos, Excitement and Danger of Nollywood | TechCrunch).

Together, director Kingsley Ogoro, and ‘marketeer’ Azuka Odunukwe ‘Ulzee’, made the world sit up and take note of Nollywood.

Miracle’ in Nigeria

Nigerian film-makers (collectively, Nollywood) have done what Germans, French, British, Japanese, even the Chinese, have not been able to do.

Challenge – and leave Hollywood behind.

Without support from the Nigerian Government. Even with State-support, the Chinese have difficulty in sustaining a film industry. Chinese film production, across 4 production centres (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, or mainland China), cannot match Nigerian production. The entire Islamic world produces negligible footage. Based on revenues, a 2007-report, notes that,

Still from the Nollywood movie - Osuofia in London|  Image source & courtesy - ImageShack  |  Click for source image.

Still from the Nollywood movie - Osuofia in London| Image source & courtesy - ImageShack | Click for source image.

The Nigerian film industry is the third largest in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood. Outside its native continent, Nollywood remains relatively unknown. Yet millions of African fans can’t get enough of its movies.

Unlike their international counterparts, the films coming out of Nollywood aren’t intended for the big screen. Nigerian filmmakers use a mix of quick-and-dirty digital technology, shooting their movies entirely on digital video, editing them on home computers and delivering them to the market on VHS, DVD and video compact discs, or VCDs.

Since its inception in the 1990s, the burgeoning Nigerian movie scene has bloomed into a $286 million business annually, despite the fact that films have minimal budgets (ranging from $10,000 to $25,000) and sell for just a few dollars apiece. What this industry does have is volume, with some 300 directors churning out an average of 2400 films annually. (via Nigerian Film Industry Mixes Digital Tech, Homegrown Scripts).

For media,

It is hard to avoid Nigerian films in Africa. Public buses show them, as do many restaurants and hotels. Nollywood churns out about 50 full-length features a week, making it the world’s second most prolific film industry after India’s Bollywood. The Nigerian business capital, Lagos, is said by locals to have produced more films than there are stars in the sky. The streets are flooded with camera crews shooting on location. Only the government employs more people.

Nigerian films are as popular abroad as they are at home. Ivorian rebels in the bush stop fighting when a shipment of DVDs arrives from Lagos. Zambian mothers say their children talk with accents learnt from Nigerian television. When the president of Sierra Leone asked Genevieve Nnaji, a Lagosian screen goddess, to join him on the campaign trail he attracted record crowds at rallies. Millions of Africans watch Nigerian films every day, many more than see American fare. (via Nollywood: Lights, camera, Africa | The Economist).

All this, in less than 20 years.

Nigerian film posters seen at Idumota market in Lagos, Nigeria.  |  Image source & courtesy - cbc.ca  |  Click for larger image.

Nigerian film posters seen at Idumota market in Lagos, Nigeria. | Image source & courtesy - cbc.ca | Click for larger image.

The secret ‘chutni’

Some in Western media, quick to deny credit, think that Nollywood’s success is probably linked to that ‘most of the movies are in English, allowing for the widest possible crossover appeal.’ But English language, may not be the biggest reason for Nollywood’s success. As the UN report confirms,

The survey also revealed that about 56 per cent of Nollywood films are made in local languages, while English remains a prominent language, accounting for 44 per cent, which may contribute to Nigeria’s success in exporting its films. (via Nigeria surpasses Hollywood as world’s second largest film producer – UN).

However, actors in Igbo and English Nollywood films do seem to be paid more than the Yoruba language films.

For most, especially in the Yoruba movie sector, the wages are lower. Their names are considerably bigger than their bank statements.

There are Yoruba movie actors with more than 50 lead roles who remain anything but wealthy. Yemi Solade, a big name in the sector, once told this magazine that many of his colleagues may die in poverty. “The industry is not organised and there are few professionals. Everybody wants to produce, direct, and at the same time, act. As a result of this, they do what I call man-know-man, a system whereby when I work for you, you won’t pay me and vice versa. It is absolute rubbish and the industry and individuals will never grow with that. Also, I detest the idea that everybody must produce films. It is only in the Yoruba sector that you will see a generator man claiming to be a producer because he managed to get some coins from a marketer in Idumota,” he said.

According to Solade, an actor, who co-starred with Yinka Quadri in the award-winning film 150 Million, got only N15,000 for his role in the two-part flick. (via Nollywood: Sex Glamour And Fake Life | The News Nigeria).

Probably, since English films have larger markets outside Nigeria, the returns are better. Even then, there are large number of films made in Yoruba.

Why?

Nollywood viewers seem to see African stories, told differently.

Shooting past Hollywood without the world noticing, Nollywood has made it to second place with films about family, love and honor, about AIDS, prostitution and oil, and about ghosts and cannibals.

In other words, films about Africa.

Nollywood movies with limited budgets use locations instead. |  Image source & courtesy - esquire.com  |  Read more: http://www.esquire.com/the-side/NOLLYWOOD/nollywood-part-3#ixzz1jqJhGB3y

Nollywood movies with limited budgets use locations instead. | Image source & courtesy - esquire.com | Read more: http://www.esquire.com/the-side/NOLLYWOOD/nollywood-part-3#ixzz1jqJhGB3y

The ‘Bigness’ of Nollywood

Nollywood is the apparent African iceberg, much of which is hidden out of sight. Post-colonial Africa, emerging from the shadows of its population and cultural destruction, films are the new narrative form.

But Africa’s most populous country Nigeria 18 years ago burst into production with affordable movies now shot with digital cameras that shun the more expensive classical 35mm format.

Nollywood has in recent years galloped ahead of Hollywood to be ranked second in the world in production terms after India’s Bollywood.

Nollywood “has taken over completely” from Hollywood, said Nigeria’s film producer and director Teco Benson, saying it is the latest “superpower” in the movie industry.

“It’s Africa’s new rebranding tool”.

One reason for Nollywood’s popularity lies with South Africa-based pay television MultiChoice. It has four 24-hour channels dedicated to African content, predominantly Nigeria productions. Two of the channels run movies in two of Nigeria’s main languages, Yoruba and Hausa.

But in poor neighbourhoods, shacks with old TV screens placed on dusty alleys or verandas pass for video viewing centres. Bootleg copies sell for a couple of dollars across the continent.

In central Africa, Nollywood movies are the only ones sold by market vendors as “African movies”, with the Nigerian productions dubbed into French in such countries as Cameroon and Gabon.

In Kenya, Nigerian films are also a hit – many of them broadcast on terrestrial networks – but face competition from Bollywood due to a historic large Indian population in the eastern African country.

Nollywood films are also immensely popular in Sierra Leone, to the extent of choking the growth of the country’s own movie industry, said Thomas Jones, a radio play scriptwriter.

“Nollywood has hampered the growth of the local film market because my contemporaries have just resigned themselves to watching these films from Nigeria,” he said.

More affluent South Africa on the other hand has seen a growth in its movie sector since the end of apartheid, and Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction “District 9″ was this year nominated for an Oscar.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nollywood is “very popular on television” after being dubbed into the local Lingala dialect,

even in the tiniest of African countries such as Gambia, “Nollywood is ahead of Hollywood”, said Nigerian businessman Barnabas Eset, who since 2000 has been renting out both Nollywood and Hollywood movies. (via Nigeria’s Nollywood eclipsing Hollywood in Africa – Films – Arts & Entertainment – The Independent).

Nollywood – the birth and growth

If the market was so big, and the need was so great, why were other film makers unable to exploit this opportunity. Behind Nollywood were seemingly random events and coincidences, that triggered this seminal rise.

The Nigerian film industry emerged in the late 1970s, as the nation’s economy collapsed. Public funding of movies and original television programming vanished, and crime made cinemas too dangerous to visit. European and American shows soon dominated national television. But, disturbed by the absence of black faces on Nigerian television, the country’s fledgling filmmakers began spinning vibrant tribal plays onto the screen. By the early 1990s, filming on celluloid had become too expensive and production shifted to video.

Unlike African art films, which appear on the global film circuit and are commonly financed by European investors, Nollywood films are backed by African merchants. For instance, a merchant-investor could pay a director $10,000, covering the production costs and procuring the film’s distribution rights. About two weeks later, the merchant-investor gets the film’s master tape, then sends it to one of many mass-dubbing centers in Nigeria. The movie is copied onto a Video Compact Disc, known as a VCD and widely used across the developing world. VCDs cost $1.50 to make and are usually sold to consumers at outdoor markets in Nigeria for $3, or less.

Borrowing the style and structure of American soap operas and Bollywood films, Nigerian movies had gained popularity across sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1990s, even in French-speaking countries. Soon, Nigerian expatriates were stuffing their suitcases with videotapes and VCDs on trips back to Britain and, eventually, the United States. Some of the films were passed on to relatives. Others, however, wound up in the hands of distributors, who have copied an unknown number of DVDs and sold them to stores or over the Internet. (via Nigeria On-Screen – washingtonpost.com).

The Case of The Missing State

While Australia, Europe, Japan, China subsidize domestic film-making, Nollywood success is without the support of Nigerian State.

Government film subsidies are almost nonexistent in Nigeria, and if there are any subsidies, most people assume that the money never leaves the pockets of those at the top echelons of industry unions.

Using basic filming technology,

The (Nigerian film) industry is in dire need of investment, however; presently, it self-finances through cable deals and street sales of DVDs. Churches often finance films to spread their message and many production companies are happy to take their money, particularly as competition is getting stiffer from countries like Ghana. (via Welcome to Nollywood: Nigeria’s Film Industry Is More Prolific than Hollywood — and Faces Even More Piracy – TIME).

If piracy, funding are Hollywood’s problems, these are bigger problems for Nollywood. State supported academia and critics ignore or pan Nollywood – even as

The brash populism of such Nollywood fare sits in sharp contrast with movies from Francophone Africa. The latter, frequently backed by French funding, often secure critical success, and get an outing at Fespaco, the continent’s premier film festival held every two years in Ouagadougou.

Nollywood films rarely secure Fespaco praise. But nor is this an industry reliant on subsidies: although plagued by piracy, it remains popular, independent and accessible. In a continent with few cinemas, an ever-changing selection of video CDs are sold for a few dollars a pop on street corners. (via Nollywood comes of age – FT.com).

Story-telling is worth big money and Nollywood made the world sit-up and note that

Africa is a gigantic market, with 150 million people living in Nigeria alone. Nigerian films are exported to other African countries, like Ghana, Sierra Leone and South Africa, but also to the United States and England, and to Germany, where they are sold in African shops — in other words, to places where they can capitalize on the nostalgia of a large African Diaspora.

Lagos from the Okada backseat - the Nigerian motorcycle taxi.  |  Image source & courtesy - esquire.com  |  Click for larger image.

Lagos from the Okada backseat - the Nigerian motorcycle taxi. | Image source & courtesy - esquire.com | Click for larger image.

Let numbers do the talking

More than entertainment, Nollywood has given Africa reasons for satisfaction.

For post-colonial Nigeria particularly ‘next to the oil industry, Nollywood is the second-largest employer in Nigeria.’

It has its own stars and its own red carpets, even its own version of the Oscars: the African Movie Academy Awards. Hundreds of thousands of the home videos it produces are displayed on dealers’ shelves, in the form of VCDs and DVDs, and the films are also broadcast on television channels like Africa Magic. Hollywood films play almost no role at all in this country. (via Nigeria’s Silver Screen: Nollywood’s Film Industry Second only to Bollywood in Scale – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.

By 2009, the UN noted that the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) was the second largest in the world – based on number of films released.

The three cinema heavyweights were followed by eight countries that produced more than 100 films: Japan (417), China (330), France (203), Germany (174), Spain (150), Italy (116), South Korea (110) and the United Kingdom (104). (via Nigeria surpasses Hollywood as world’s second largest film producer – UN).

Ahead of Hollywood, behind only after Bollywood, as the Indian film industry has become known.

In 2006 Nigeria made 872 films (in video format, with about half of them in English), about 200 less than Bollywood and roughly 400 more than Hollywood.

Nigerian films took off in the early 1990s, helped by the availability of cheap video technology. Already massive in Africa, Nollywood is now gaining a reputation elsewhere. (via Nollywood comes of age – FT.com)

Rather surprising, when the larger Chinese market is having difficulties. Hong Kong, which led Chinese film-making from front is in trouble.

In the mid-90s, the Hong Kong film industry ate itself alive. In 1993, it had produced a record 238 films and its doyen director, John Woo, was about to dive, twin guns aflame, through Hollywood’s doors. Six years later, production had crashed to just 40 films a year and not even the local triad gangs could prevent their own films from being pirated: there were bootlegs VCDs on sale everywhere of Casino, a gangster pic about and financed by the notorious Macau hoodlum, “Broken Tooth” Koi. (via Back in action: the fall and rise of Hong Kong film | Film | guardian.co.uk).

German publication, Der Spiegel wrote of

Nollywood is the massive, pulsating film industry in Nigeria, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the world’s second-largest film industry, after India’s Bollywood, based on the number of films produced.

Mysterious puzzle

How did Nollywood leave Hollywood behind?

Without the benefit of funding or technology, that Hollywood has? Nollywood has achieved, what ‘advanced’ economies like the British, German, French, have failed at.

Sustain a viable, domestic film industry.

Even the oil-rich Islamic world, equally, has little to show. For instance, the film industry in Iran, Turkey, Egypt has sputtered for decades – without success. Pakistani film industry has been slowly asphyxiated as the ruling elites deny their Indic roots.

As have the Japanese and the Chinese.

The surprising growth of the Nigerian industry, without State support, direction or promotion, seems to be rooted in a deeper cultural streams than the apparent coincidences. Africans want to hear different stories, told differently and Nollywood directors

make films with plotlines that reflect the rapidly changing political and cultural climate, often weaving in aspects of current events. Whether revolving around corruption, prostitution, folkloric legends, HIV/AIDS, cautionary tales, romantic comedies or even epic period pieces about slavery and civil wars, the films present an unfiltered view of African culture, intended for an African audience.

As Peace Anyiam-Fiberesima, founder of the Africa Movie Academy Awards, puts it in This Is Nollywood, “It’s not about quality at the moment.… Africa still has people living on $1 a day, and these are the people that really watch these films.” (via Nigerian Film Industry Mixes Digital Tech, Homegrown Scripts).

Drawing deeply from the well-springs of their civilization, film industries seem to die out, when cut from their inspiration.

And what are Nollywood’s inspiration?

A typical story line went something like this: poor boy meets rich girl; they fall in love; rich girl’s parents strongly disapprove of union; boy and girl fight all obstacles and true love prevails in the end. Other typical story lines included voodoo tales, historical epics, religious conflicts and economic hardship.

The average flick sold over 50,000 copies. Some even sold as many as several hundred thousand, while a few hit a million. And at $1.50 per disc, they were affordable for most Nigerians and generated astounding returns for the producers. (via Hollywood, Meet Nollywood – Forbes).

Adding to this melee is the Christian Church, saving Nigerian souls from getting corrupted

Fire-and-brimstone evangelical preachers set up keyboards and microphones in the middle of the street to save souls, only adding to the chaos.

Bollywood & Nollywood

Thoughly vastly different in form, and substance, there are some who think that Bollywood and Nollywood may have similarities. Some Nollywood viewers from West Indies, now living in America are

struck by the similar good-versus-evil themes often found in the Indian Bollywood film genre she became fond of growing up.

Borrowing the style and structure of American soap operas and Bollywood films, Nigerian movies had gained popularity across sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1990s, even in French-speaking countries.

Many African intellectuals dismiss the movies for playing up witchcraft, which they argue perpetuates negative Western stereotypes of Africans, said Onookome Okome, an English professor at the University of Alberta and author of the forthcoming book, “Anxiety of the Local: From Traveling Theatre to Popular Video Films in Nigeria.”

Some film experts remain skeptical that the Nigerian movies will penetrate the broader U.S. market. Jonathan Haynes, a Long Island University professor and author of the book, “Nigerian Video Films,” noted the films’ heavy emphasis on the supernatural and said, “Culturally, they’re from someplace else.” (via Nigeria On-Screen – washingtonpost.com).

“That can seem weird to Americans, especially if it’s not being cast as part of some traditional African past,” Haynes said. “It’s an acquired taste.”(via Nigeria On-Screen – washingtonpost.com).

Even Hollywood is an acquired taste, sir. Distaste comes from too much of this acquired taste. Ask me.

Looking for Nollywood roots, outside from ancient African culture, one is stuck by Nigeria’s post-colonial literary success.

Nigeria has perhaps the most distinguished literary tradition in Africa; Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Ken Saro-Wiwa are the best-known writers, but it is clear that Nigeria’s home video industry has no pretensions to high art. (via Welcome to Nollywood | Film | guardian.co.uk).

Looking for threads of narratives and the dominant themes, Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood occupy different spaces altogether.

If Hollywood’s forte is jaw-dropping spectacle and Bollywood’s is heart-warming musical slush, then Nollywood’s special draw is a genre that might be described as the voodoo horror flick: films that revolve around witchcraft and demonic possession. (via Welcome to Nollywood | Film | guardian.co.uk).

After years of consuming foreign fare, Nigerian film-makers have finely chiselled their theme – away from other global narratives of Hollywood and Bollywood.

Ultimately, it’s the way the films are crafted, rather than their juicy content that gives them universal appeal, says Fry. “The storytelling is so good. Nigerian filmmakers really know how to entertain their audiences. They’ve studied the populist genres from other countries – Bollywood musicals, low-budget horror and Brazilian soap operas, for example – and reworked these to appeal to anyone with a love of drama.”

The process is tried and tested, and the main reason Nollywood is currently in such rude health, but how long can it stay that way? It’s hard to see how an industry that prides itself on producing so much in so little time won’t start to lose its momentum in the coming years. (via Hooray for Nollywood! | Film | guardian.co.uk).

How does Nollywood do so much, in so little time – and so little money.

Necessity – The mother of invention

Film production in Nigeria, is a different story.

The market traders control Nollywood to this day. They make films for home consumption rather than for the cinema—a place few can afford, or reach easily. DVD discs sell for a dollar. Print runs can reach a million. Studios, both in the physical and the corporate sense of the term, are unknown. There are no lots, no sound stages and no trailers for the stars. There are no studios and no film lots. Market traders double as financiers

“Films are made on the run, sometimes literally,” says Emem Isong, one of Nigeria’s few female producers, during a shoot. “Some of the guys are hiding from the police.”

All scenes are shot on location and with a shoestring budget of no more than $100,000. Most of the financiers are based in a vast, chaotic market called Idumota. It is a maze within a labyrinth. Crowds push through narrow, covered alleys. The sound of honking motorbikes is drowned out by blaring television sets showing film trailers. The flickering screens light up dim stalls lined with thousands of DVDs on narrow wooden shelves. (via Nollywood: Lights, camera, Africa | The Economist).

The Alaba market for Nollywood DVDs. |  Image source & courtesy - techcrunch.com  |  Click for larger source image.

The Alaba market for Nollywood DVDs. | Image source & courtesy - techcrunch.com | Click for larger source image.

The rise and rise of Nollywood

As Nollywood nailed its formula of TV screens, direct retail to the audiences, Africa-themed stories, acceptance and growth has been phenomenal.

Nigeria is home to one of the world’s youngest film industries, but it’s booming. In just 13 years it has gone from nothing to estimated earnings of US$200m (£114m) a year – making it the world’s third biggest film industry after that of America and India. The films are made on the cheap, but they are big box office.

Except that there is no box office, of course. In Nollywood, as it has inevitably been dubbed, movies are shot on video and copied straight on to tapes or DVDs and then sold on from thousands of street stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops, not just in Nigeria but across the continent, as well to the African diaspora via markets in the west.

“They sell a lot of our films in Peckham and in Dalston market [in London],” says Paul Obazele, the veteran producer.

Empty claim? How global is Nollywood.

an entrepreneur named Jason Njoku (whose) parents are Nigerian, but he grew up in the United Kingdom. Entranced with Nollywood a few years ago and bored with London, he moved here, stunning his family and friends. He started Iroko Partners to catalog this vast Nollywood inventory and give it a new global distribution life on the Web. It sounds like a recipe for a city boy to get fleeced, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

Njoku spent weeks trolling the Alaba markets introducing himself to producers and trying to explain to them how a YouTube channel could be an answer for revenues, not simply another channel for the pirates to steal their intellectual property. Once he sold a few of the bigger ones like Ulzee, word spread and more producers piled in. Just four months in to his business, Njoku has bought the online rights to 500 movies from 100 different one-man production houses. Last month his YouTube channel had 1.1 million uniques, 8 million streams, and is on pace to do more than $1 million in revenues this year from YouTube ads. (via You Think Hollywood Is Rough? Welcome to the Chaos, Excitement and Danger of Nollywood | TechCrunch).

What are Nollywood themes? How different are these stories?

So, what did I glean from titles such as Sharon Stone in Abuja, Beyonce: The President’s Daughter, Good Mother and Blood Billionaires 1 and 2? (Most titles have at least one sequel). A lot.

Good girls can lose their way in Lagos, village values trump city truths, corruption is rife, witchcraft is everywhere, and stepmothers are bad news. And every man in Lagos, as one character told his wife, has a mistress. These films were peopled by poor village women, business men in Mercedes and hardy entrepreneurs.

These were tales of love, money and betrayal. Buried within these at times fantastic stories were, I thought as the passengers around me laughed and groaned in recognition, African realities. (via Nollywood comes of age – FT.com).

What do viewers make of these films?

The movies can be read as fantasies; they allow the powerless to feel vicariously powerful. The stories tell of poor men getting rich, of errant husbands who find their penises shrinking, of love rivals who go blind or crazy and end up running naked and shrieking into the streets.

Not all Nollywood movies are about the occult, of course. Nigeria is a country of startling inequality; in Lagos, skinny fishermen in pirogues skim past the skyscrapers of Victoria Island, the palm-studded local equivalent of Manhattan, and slums sprawl under flyovers. But as is true of Bollywood, Nollywood likes to eschew the grit of everyday life for a more upbeat vision.

As well as occult movies, and gangster movies, another popular genre involves straightforwardly aspirational tales. American Dream is typical. it’s the story of a driven advertising executive who falls in love with an American woman and then jeopardises his high-flying career with increasingly desperate attempts to get a visa for America.

Nigeria’s home video industry has no pretensions to high art. What it’s all about is money. Nollywood movies were originally financed by importers of blank video tapes as a way of promoting sales of their product – and commerce remains king.

The heart of the story

Getting to know Nollywood, the usual and

first point of call in Surulere is the home of one of the most prolific and successful Nollywood directors, Lancelot ‘the Governor’ Imasuen, whose unbroken record of blockbusters includes such titles as Last Burial, August Meeting, Games Men Play, Games Women Play, Games Men Play 2, and Games Women Play 2.

‘I recently had the pleasure of shooting a film in Hollywood,’ Imasuen tells me. ‘And I told them, “I want you to know that 75 per cent of your budget and timing is wasted! Sixty days to shoot a film!”‘ He looks shocked, bemused. ‘How many working hours are actually in those 60 days? It’s all razzmatazz. You see endless trucks and trailers parked on their locations. How much of this equipment is actually used in the process of making films? You see, in Nollywood, what we’ve done is to do away with all that excess; what we’ve done is to simplify the process of making films.’

With its potholed roads teeming with industrious street vendors, feral urchins, and extraordinarily brave commuters – perched calmly on the back seats of the motorbike taxis nicknamed, with morbid irony, ‘Okada’ after a now defunct airline – Surulere is the birthplace and headquarters of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. A far cry from Beverly Hills, Surulere is home to the Nollywood elite – the top producers, directors, marketers, distributors and some of the stars of an industry that has been blazingly successful where successive administrations, guided by the expert and combined wisdom of the IMF and the World Bank, have failed: not only is it a viable industry, it is the second biggest employer in Nigeria.

Although this is hotly contested, Nollywood saw its inauspicious beginnings in Living in Bondage: a tawdry, ineptly shot, earnestly didactic ‘home video’ that unleashed itself on the world in 1992. Many commentators believe Nollywood was born after the television industry stopped making popular dramas, which were infinitely better than the first several hundred Nollywood films.

Living in Bondage, filmed in Igbo, one of Nigeria’s languages, with English subtitles, had just the right mix of all the ingredients of a great soap opera

My first point of call in Surulere is the home of one of the most prolific and successful Nollywood directors, Lancelot ‘the Governor’ Imasuen, whose unbroken record of blockbusters includes such titles as Last Burial, August Meeting, Games Men Play, Games Women Play, Games Men Play 2, and Games Women Play 2.

‘I recently had the pleasure of shooting a film in Hollywood,’ Imasuen tells me. ‘And I told them, “I want you to know that 75 per cent of your budget and timing is wasted! Sixty days to shoot a film!”‘ He looks shocked, bemused. ‘How many working hours are actually in those 60 days? It’s all razzmatazz. You see endless trucks and trailers parked on their locations. How much of this equipment is actually used in the process of making films? You see, in Nollywood, what we’ve done is to do away with all that excess; what we’ve done is to simplify the process of making films.’

Imasuen, a theatre arts graduate, is shooting from the hip. Behind the braggadocio, though, lurk the aspirations of a filmmaker and a lover of film whose aspirations are embodied in what he had just pooh-poohed. ‘I had an experience in America recently,’ he says. ‘I went to Paramount Studios and was taken on a tour. I almost fainted at the sheer scale of it, the size of the place, the sound stages, the backlots. And I thought, Is this what they’re comparing us to? But we’ll get there, I promise you. We’ll get there.’

In a career spanning 12 years, the 36-year-old director has helmed more than 150 films – an average of one a month. (And there I was thinking Woody Allen was prolific.)

With its potholed roads teeming with industrious street vendors, feral urchins, and extraordinarily brave commuters – perched calmly on the back seats of the motorbike taxis nicknamed, with morbid irony, ‘Okada’ after a now defunct airline – Surulere is the birthplace and headquarters of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. A far cry from Beverly Hills, Surulere is home to the Nollywood elite – the top producers, directors, marketers, distributors and some of the stars of an industry that has been blazingly successful where successive administrations, guided by the expert and combined wisdom of the IMF and the World Bank, have failed: not only is it a viable industry, it is the second biggest employer in Nigeria. (via Welcome to Nollywood | Film | guardian.co.uk).

About 30 new titles arrive weekly at Lagos’s giant open-air markets, where canvas banners with gaudy portraits of movie stars flap above the mediaeval hubbub. A new movie costs the equivalent of £1.80 to buy, and only about 27p to rent from a video club.

For the most part, Nigerians are proud of their movie industry and other African nations are envious. “I think there’s a lot of things that converge to make this possible in Nigeria,” says Femi Odugbemi, president of the Independent Television Producers’ Association. “By tradition, we’re a storytelling people. We have more than 230 languages, different cultures, all unique in themselves.”

Nigeria is an African giant – it is the continent’s most populous nation, with 133 million people. But it’s also a country that appears to be constantly on the verge of a breakdown. (via Welcome to Nollywood | Film | The Guardian).

Nollywood has travelled far in its 15 years of existence. Its revenues are estimated to be over $250m a year and its films – all digitally shot – have a captive audience of 600 million Africans and millions more in the diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean and even here in the UK. There are few places in south-east London, the heart of the Nigerian community in Britain, where there isn’t a Nollywood DVD stall. The cable channel BEN shows several of these films every night.

After Hollywood and Bollywood, Nollywood is the world’s third-biggest film-producing industry. It has achieved this impressive feat without subsidy or investment and – fortunately perhaps – without attracting the faintest glimmer of interest from the Nigerian government or any NGO. It has a long way to go to achieve its dream of catching up with Mumbai or Los Angeles, but it is perfectly capable of doing so. The will is there. And at the rate it’s going, soon, so will be the means. (via Welcome to Nollywood | Film | guardian.co.uk).

Indian fake currency trail gets hotter

Posted in British Raj, Business, India, Indo Pak Relations, Islamic Demonization by Anuraag Sanghi on January 17, 2012

A Rs.100 Pakistani Haj Note - for use in Saudi Arabia only.  |  Image source State Bank of Pakistan - sbp.gov.pk  |  Click for larger image.

A Rs.100 Pakistani Haj Note - for use in Saudi Arabia only. | Image source State Bank of Pakistan - sbp.gov.pk | Click for larger image.

When India counterfeited Pakistani currency

For a few years after Partition, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was the common authority for India and Pakistan until 30th September 1948.

‘Pakistan (Monetary System and Reserve Bank) Order, 1947′ allowed for Indian Notes to be modified for use in Pakistan and to be placed into circulation from 1st April 1948. The modification to the Indian Notes consists of two inscriptions on the front of the Notes “Government of Pakistan” in English at top, while “Hakumat-e-Pakistan” at bottom of the white area reserved for viewing the watermark were inscribed. The inscribed Notes were in the denomination of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 100 Rupee. It is important to note that these inscriptions are due to modifications to the printing plates and they are not ‘overprints’.

From 1948-1956, Pakistan independently issued different currencies of varying denominations. In 1956, came news from the Pakistani Joint Secretary Cabinet to the Pakistani Cabinet

that according to some reliable source, there was an offically (sic) sponsored organization in Calcutta which were forging Pakistani currency notes on a big scale, that were in circulation in India.

In this connection it was suggested that the new series of Pakistani Bank Notes with a portrait of Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah should introduced. In this regard the 100 Rupee Note was issued on 24th December, 1957. It was predominantly green in color, a portrait of Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, watermark of Mr. Jinnah and a security thread on front and the illustration of the Badshahi Mosque on back of the Note were introduced. (via State Bank of Pakistan – Museum & Art Gallery; Pakistani Currency).

Soon afterwards, to print Pakistani currency independently of India, Pakistan contracted with British companies – mainly, Thomas De La Rue & Company.

This name,  De La Rue, rings a bell. A loud bell.

History repeats

Now De La Rue is the same company that supplies currency paper to RBI also for Indian currency notes. Curiously, the specific paper that RBI uniquely specified also landed up in the hands of Pakistani counterfeiters, who have released fake currency worth hundreds of crores.

Cut back to 1956 Pakistan.

Remember that 1956 was also the year when Pakistan became a republic – and the first constitution of Pakistan was adopted. Governor General Sahibzada Sayyid Iskander Ali Mirza (a Shia Muslim from Bengal, direct descendant of Mir Jaffer) became the first President of the Pakistani Republic. Two years later, came Ayub Khan’s coup that started the tradition of Army rule in Pakistan.

To an emerging Pakistan in 1956, after a 9 year struggle to write a constitution, when confronted with news that its economy was threatened by fake currency from its estranged neighbour, India, was confirmation of its worst fears. After the 1949 British devaluation of the pound, the Pakistani rupee (like the Indian rupee), was overvalued. To overcome the hawala and smuggling threats to the Pakistani economy, Pakistan introduced a special currency – the Haj Notes. The counterfeit currency problem (reportedly centered in Kolkatta) added to Pakistani woes.

Some 50 years later, India, an emerging economy, making its mark on the world in the 2000-2010, discovered that Pakistan was counterfeiting Indian currency.

Something fishy here.

A man in Zimbabwe goes shopping. Hyper-inflation has made things difficult for Zimbabwe.  |  Image source - smh.com.au  |  Click for source image.

A man in Zimbabwe goes shopping. Hyper-inflation has made things difficult for Zimbabwe. | Image source - smh.com.au | Click for source image.

Parallels & Patterns

The common factor between the 1956 Pakistani problem of counterfeit currency – and in India now, is the De La Rue company.

Currency paper technology is not available off-the-shelf – or the kind of paper that any one can buy from the corner stationery shop or the local paper mill. India did not have the paper technology in 1956, and Pakistan does not have the technology today to make counterfeit currency.

There are roughly about 12 companies, mostly European, in the world that dominate the security printing business – and these are monopoly businesses. These companies work closely with their respective parent governments – and clients governments.

Gaddafi’s regime was starved of currency notes, before his downfall. He could not pay his soldiers. Robert Mugabe’s regime has been without a national currency, due to sanctions imposed by the German government on the German company, Giesecke & Devrient. When the German company resisted sanctions against Mugabe, the Anglo-Saxon press, started a smear campaign against the German company. There have been thin reports about Jura JSP, an Austrian company, replacing the German company, which may help Zimbabwe to tide over the currency crisis.

All the while, some British companies are keep a hold over some critical Zimbabwe assets..

The De La Rue scandal

In 2010-2011, RBI which imports 95% of its security paper requirements, did not invite De La Rue for negotiations.

Why? RBI is not saying anything.

RBI in most years was a huge chunk of De La Rue’s business – and in most years, about 25% of De La Rue’s profits.

What is De La Rue saying about loss of RBI business?

Nothing except, that it has sacked its CEO – John Hussey, a De La Rue veteran of 27 years. De La Rue’s French rival, François-Charles Oberthur Fiduciaire, or simply Oberthur Technologies, promptly picked up Hussey as an ‘advisor.’

Shortly after that, De La Rue also confirmed that the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had been called in – and two other senior executives, Mark Jeffery (Director – Manufacturing) and Jonathan Garside (Director –Sales), also resigned.

So, what happened?

The paper that RBI specified is not the paper that De La Rue supplied. De La Rue wrongly self-certified this inappropriate quality paper, to be as per RBI specs.

Coming to brass-tacks

The British press, hinted much and said little. De la Rue, RBI’s biggest supplier of many decades, was shut out from recent tenders. And later denied security clearance, also. So much for the story and intrigue.

All this still does not answer an important question.

This was not an accident – or an aberration? 1956 in Pakistan; and in 2006, in India. John Hussey, the previous CEO of De La Rue, instead of hiding his face in disgrace, has joined  French company as a valuable ‘advisor.’

Obviously De La Rue is protected.

Who is protecting De La Rue?


2ndlook blogs have written extensively and covered this subject in the past. For more click at previous posts below

Getting the China story right

Posted in America, China, Current Affairs, Environment, politics by Anuraag Sanghi on January 7, 2012

Once, China could do no wrong. Now, China is going bust. Modern China has become a set of caricatures in mass media and public imagination.

Does China have an alternative to the US consumer?  |  Cartoonist - Joe Heller, from Green Bay Press-Gazette  on 12/1/2011 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy - caglecartoons.com  |  Click for a larger source image.

Does China have an alternative to the US consumer? | Cartoonist - Joe Heller, from Green Bay Press-Gazette on 12/1/2011 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy - caglecartoons.com | Click for a larger source image.

Caricatures all

Indian government and media has long promoted the image of an aggressive, expansionist China – which is strictly not based on facts. Piecing together the Chinese jigsaw becomes a time-consuming and intricate exercise in history and politics.

While global media was busy with the Euro-currency crisis, some interesting data from China government has received little attention.

Especially, in India – China biggest and near neighbour.

Velvet fist inside an iron glove

Belief that the Chinese Communist Party has an iron grip over China, ruling over a cowering populace is misplaced. China’s occupation of Tibet keeps Tibetans on the boil. Xinjiang erupts periodically. Capital Beijing went through a Tiananmen bloodletting a little over two decades ago in 1989.

Not surprisingly,

This year, the (Chinese) government plans to spend 624.4 billion yuan on public security, a 13.8 percent increase from 2010, and 601.2 billion yuan on defense, a 12.7 percent increase, according to the Finance Ministry. The announcement comes days after hundreds of police deployed in cities across the country following an online call for rallies inspired by uprisings in the Middle East.

Like national defense, China spends less on its police than the U.S. Federal, state and local governments spent a combined $213.7 billion on police, prisons and the judicial system in 2005, the last year figures are available, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice.

U.S. spending on the justice system in 2005 was 1.7 percent of that year’s gross domestic product. China’s announced 2010 spending on public safety was 1.4 percent of 2010 GDP. (via China’s Spending on Internal Policing Outstrips Defense Budget – Businessweek).

Reuters confirms these figures and the source.

* To spend $95 bln on public security, $92 bln on military

* Security spend includes police, jails, state security

China’s spending on police and domestic surveillance will hit new heights this year, with “public security” outlays unveiled on Saturday outstripping the defence budget for the first time as Beijing cracks down on protest calls.

The 13.8 percent jump in China’s planned budget for police, state security, armed civil militia, courts and jails was unveiled at the start of the annual parliamentary session, and brought planned spending on law and order items to 624.4 billion yuan ($95.0 billion).

By contrast, China’s People’s Liberation Army budget is set to rise 12.7 percent to 601.1 billion yuan ($91.5 billion).

“This would be the first time that the openly announced domestic security budget has surpassed military spending”, said Xie Yue, a political scientist at Tongji University in Shanghai.

He called the figure a gauge of China’s spending on what officials call “stability protection.”

“This shows the rising costs of maintaining internal control,” said Xie, who studies China’s domestic security policies and spending. “This system is very sensitive to any instability or contention.” Many foreign experts believe China’s real military budget is much bigger. Xie, the Shanghai professor, said spending on “stability maintenance” was also far higher than official data. (via UPDATE 2-China internal security spending jumps past army budget | Reuters).

If China was indeed so much in command over its provinces, why do they have such a large ‘internal security’ budget.

If China was indeed so much in command over its provinces, why do they have such a large 'internal security' budget. |  Cartoonist - Riber Hansson, Sweden  -  2/18/2010 12:00:00 AM; source and courtesy - caglecartoons.com  |  Click for larger source image.

If China was indeed so much in command over its provinces, why do they have such a large 'internal security' budget. | Cartoonist - Riber Hansson, Sweden - 2/18/2010 12:00:00 AM; source and courtesy - caglecartoons.com | Click for larger source image.

Submissive Chinese?

The expenditure on policing and imprisonment is in itself proof of a disturbed populace.

Chinese population is not a cowering lot – and Chinese reports suggest that, indeed there is a significant protests volume.

The surge in public security spending comes as so-called mass incidents, everything from strikes to riots and demonstrations, are on the rise. There were at least 180,000 such incidents in 2010, twice as many as in 2006, Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said in a Feb. 25 article in the Economic Observer. (via China’s Spending on Internal Policing Outstrips Defense Budget – Businessweek).

Widely cited, sometimes quoted wrongly (probably based on a typo), this figure gives a window into Chinese administration and its acceptance. However, this figure of 180,000 mass incidents while a Chinese figure, may not give the complete picture.

Readers of the international press could be forgiven for thinking that China is a cauldron of social unrest on the brink of boiling over. Reports of riots or protests invariably cite the growing number of official “mass incidents” to emphasise the point.

But the accuracy of these numbers – which refer to anything from small, peaceful protests to the murderous ethnic riots that engulfed Xinjiang in 2009 – is questionable at best. Moreover, there is no evidence that social unrest poses an imminent threat to the Communist party’s grip on power.

Foreign reports typically cite a figure of 80,000-100,000 “mass incidents” in China per year. Yet the definition of a mass incident is so broad and the official reporting so inconsistent that these numbers have little clear meaning.

In practice, there is no agreement on the definition of a “mass incident”. Police generally use a wider definition which enables them to document how effective their enforcement is; government officials tend to use a narrower definition to minimise the apparent scale of the problem.

National statistics published by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) show slow growth in mass incidents from 1993 to 1997 followed by a period of much faster growth through 2004. MPS only considered these data points “estimates” – numbers were rounded to the nearest hundred or thousand – and stopped publishing the data in 2005.

Journalists often cite a figure of 87,000 for 2005, which was published on the MPS website in early 2006. But this number refers to an even broader category of “public order disturbances”, that cover anything from riots and protests to participation in cults or organised crime, hacking, orgies, gambling, even insulting the national flag.

In early 2007, Liu Jingguo, the vice-minister of public security, told a press conference that mass incidents fell 16.5 per cent year on year in 2006. But there were no further statements on mass incident numbers until after the Olympics in August 2008.

After the Olympics passed and the media spotlight dimmed, the number of mass incidents mysteriously rose once again. Estimates by the China Academy of Social Sciences give a figure of “over 90,000” mass incidents in 2006 and further unspecified increases in 2007 and 2008.

Most analysts agree that anecdotal evidence, such as a steady rise in the number of petitions submitted to the central government protesting about local government misbehaviour, supports this trend.

The central government is adapting to the challenge, to some extent. Since most complaints are against local officials or businesses, the central government argues that the chief problem is petty corruption stemming from bad eggs at the local level rather than systemic flaws that would undermine the legitimacy of the regime.

Indeed, the sharp rise in petitions to Beijing about local abuses testifies to a widespread belief that the central government is more a potential solution to the problem, not its ultimate source.

But this belief may be changing. Anecdotal evidence over the last five years suggests a rise in “anger-venting” mass incidents – large scale, often violent, riots that erupt from seemingly minor incidents and reflect general discontent rather than specific rights violations. (via The accuracy of China’s ‘mass incidents’ – FT.com).

So, what makes the Chinese see red?

USA allowed Europe, Japan, Asian Tigers - and now China to use currency depreciation tool to export and grow their economies.  |  Cartoonist - Paresh Nath, from The Khaleej Times, UAE  on 3/26/2010 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy -  caglecartoons.com  |  Click for larger source image.

USA allowed Europe, Japan, Asian Tigers - and now China to use currency depreciation tool to export and grow their economies. | Cartoonist - Paresh Nath, from The Khaleej Times, UAE on 3/26/2010 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy - caglecartoons.com | Click for larger source image.

Land grab by the State

A big reason for these protests – land grabbing by the State.

Most recently, was a ‘mass-incident’ at Wukan, Guangdong, that started after the death of a protestor and the arrest of three in September.

Land grabs and local corruption are serious challenges for China’s leaders, but Wukan demonstrates well why they are unlikely to prompt a revolution: the government is often ready to give protesters what they want. The villains in such stories are almost always local officials – low-level functionaries who have long since been passed over promotion and learned to spend their time selling favors to provide for their retirements. (via What Wukan Really Meant | The Diplomat).

Is Wukan an aberration, or a feature of Chinese administration?

a common scourge plaguing Chinese farmers: the theft of their land by local officials. Although farmers in China have, nominally at least, 30-year leases on their state-owned land, local officials often sell leases, for a huge profit, to commercial developers without bothering to consult the affected farmers. The lion’s share of proceeds from such illegal transactions go into the coffers of local governments and the pockets of corrupt officials, with the farmers, now landless and without income, receiving a pittance.

Estimates by Chinese scholars suggest they account for roughly 60 percent of the so-called “mass incidents” recorded by Chinese authorities. Majority of farmers whose land was stolen have received little help from the government.

In the short term, China is most likely entering another period of high social unrest. Indeed, the most senior party leader in charge of domestic security recently sounded a dark warning about rising social instability. The specific cause he cited was the expected economic slowdown in China, which faces falling export demands, a deteriorating real estate market, and mounting bad loans in the financial system. While it’s true that poor economic performance will dent the legitimacy of the party and rising unemployment will swell the ranks of the disaffected, the causes of social protest in China aren’t cyclical, but structural. In other words, ordinary Chinese citizens revolt against local authorities not because of temporary economic hardships, but because of systemic and pervasive abuse of power and petty despotism perpetrated by the agents of the one-party state.

To see why this is the case, one simply needs to plot the growth of the Chinese economy alongside the increase of reported mass protest incidents. The number of mass protest rises irrespective of China’s growth performance. In fact, the rate of growth in mass protest exceeds the rate of China’s GDP growth. What’s notable about this set of numbers is that, if anything, economic growth fuels social discontent in China. The size of the Chinese economy has more than doubled in the last decade. The number of mass incidents rose roughly four times in the same period.

This observation brings us to another question: why is economic growth making an increasing number of ordinary Chinese people upset? Three answers come to mind.

First, the benefits of economic growth in China aren’t being equitably shared, with the economic and political elites gaining the most. As in the West, inequality in China has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. Today, income disparity in China is approaching Latin American levels. More important, because political connections and corruption are critical to economic success in China’s crony-capitalist autocracy, most ordinary people view wealth amassed by the elites as illegitimate. This creates a social environment in which resentment against the rich and the powerful can readily find expression in protests and riots.

Second, China’s economic growth, impressive in number, is actually low in quality. Expansion of the economy is achieved by undercutting social services (such as healthcare, poverty reduction, and education) and neglecting the environment. Deteriorating social services can stoke discontent among ordinary people, who rely on them much more than the elites. Worse still, environmental degradation, a direct result of Beijing’s blind focus on GDP growth, has now become a major cause of social protest. The Ministry of Environmental Protection admits publicly that mass incidents triggered by environmental pollution have been growing at double-digit each year (although it has withheld the actual numbers).

Third, social protest is an inevitable response by ordinary people to systemic corruption, repression and petty despotism that defines a one-party regime. In such a system, the agents of the regime wield enormous power but are subject to little accountability. Their use of coercion and violence against defenseless citizens is routine and habitual. In the case of the Wukan protest, the spark that ignited the mass incident was the death of a representative sent by the villagers to negotiate with local authorities. He was believed to have been tortured by the police. Because this system produces innocent victims daily, it should at least expect its victims to rise up in self-defense.

It’s therefore clear that mass social protest has become a permanent feature of the Chinese political system. Although such protest, by itself, won’t dethrone the Communist Party, it does weaken the party’s rule in subtle ways. Trying to maintain control over a restive population is forcing the party to expend ever-more resources on domestic security. Letting such routine protest – amplified by the Internet and microblogs – occur makes the party look weak and incompetent. Having tens of millions of disgruntled citizens also means that potential opposition movement can find political allies among China’s down-trodden masses. Worst of all, in a political crisis, these enemies of the regime could all rise in revolt spontaneously.

Perhaps Chinese domestic security officials should be even more worried. Today it’s Wukan. Could Beijing be next? (via Occupy Beijing? | The Diplomat).

Interestingly, the ‘free’ West does not have the kind of data and statistics that the Chinese are releasing about China.

Popular image of China is a set of caricatures drawn by the State and media.  |  Cartoonist - Nate Beeler, from The Washington Examiner  on 12/7/2009 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy - caglecartoons.com  |  Click for larger source image.

Popular image of China is a set of caricatures drawn by the State and media. | Cartoonist - Nate Beeler, from The Washington Examiner on 12/7/2009 12:00:00 AM; source & courtesy - caglecartoons.com | Click for larger source image.

Story so far

There are many other elements to the Chinese puzzle.

Earlier posts examined the Chinese economy without the support of a cheap yuan that boosted exports for the last nearly twenty years. Will China go the Japan way? The mysterious manner in which the Buddhist monk has disappeared from Chinese movies is an ominous feature. Especially when the Buddhist monk has been replaced by gangsters.

Tibetan protests in the form of self-immolation by priests and nuns have unnerved the Chinese administration. Even in the past, in the 1965 and the 1971 India Pakistan Wars, China had maintained a distant attitude towards Pakistan. Indian Navy in the South China Sea, in alliance with Vietnam, is a significant counter-measure to posturing in the Indian North East by China.

Catching on and catching up on the emerging China picture.

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