The Lure of Bollywood – Another Celebrity Front

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The global reach of Bollywood is increasing apparent. As just one illustration, Toronto Canada has been full of buzz this week due to the visit of Slumdog Millionaire star Anil Kapoor and the announcement that the City will host the International Indian Film Academy conference and awards this upcoming June.

The question is whether or not the power of Bollywood could (or even should) be mobilized as a component of celebrity diplomacy.

When I visited India in early 2008 after my book on Celebrity Diplomacy came out I considered this a good idea and wrote about it at the time.

Struck by the “soft power potential” of the Indian film industry across South Asia, West Asia and Africa, I suggested, “If [film stars] can go through some training by the government, they can be a huge asset for the country.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in June 2008 publically endorsed such an approach, noting India’s ‘soft power’, especially the film industry, can be put to use as “a very important instrument of foreign policy”.

Yet, what has been revealed by WikiLeaks is not a concerted effort by India to mobilize the influence of Bollywood star power. Rather the push came from the US as part of a wider campaign of public diplomacy with regard to two sensitive and interconnected domains.

On one front the US attempted to mobilize Bollywood film directors to fight militancy within the UK’s Muslim community. According to the reports from WikiLeaks the US sent two senior diplomats to London in October 2007 amid growing concern about the rise of radicalism among Muslim youths in Britain. The diplomats met Foreign Office officials, the International Development minister (the UK’s first Muslim MP), and a number of leading British Asian film-makers. The US diplomats reported that “Bollywood actors and executives agreed to work with the USG to promote anti-extremist messages through third party actors and were excited about the idea of possibly partnering with Hollywood as well.”

On another front WikiLeaks cables reveal that US diplomats made a proposal to India that it send Bollywood stars to tour Afghanistan to help international efforts to stabilize the country. In a confidential March 2007 cable a request was apparently made from Washington for “specific, concrete ideas for opportunities for India to use soft power in helping Afghanistan’s reconstruction”.

Although there is no apparent sign that either of these proposals were acted upon in a concerted fashion, such strategic thinking is indicative that state-based diplomats have an appreciation of the power of popular culture. At the same time, however, initiatives along these lines also showcase the need to debate not only the composition of the actors who animate celebrity diplomacy but the motivations for, and the focus of, those activities.

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