Screening community: Indian diaspora and cinema in Australia


Bollywood and Australia: worth making a song and dance about

by Shweta Kishore    17 September 2023

How do we understand contemporary forms of attachment between Indian diaspora audiences and Indian cinema in Australia?  Indian cinema was the second fastest growing film genre in Australia (behind only horror) in 2022, with 2.5 million admissions. Indian diaspora cinema audiences have not only soared but become demographically and motivationally heterogenous. In 2022, the top four Indian box office hits featured three different Indian languages (Hindi, Telugu, Kannada), even as Indian and South Asian film festivals featuring arthouse, regional and short films, besides the commercial juggernaut of Bollywood cinema, gain popularity.  Indian cinema is not consumed by Indian diaspora alone but focusing on Indian audiences reveals the diverse cultural practices that influence cinemagoing and consumption in Australia. Just as cinema audiences are heterogenous, the Australian location of Indian diaspora is crisscrossed by factors such as technology, media, mobility, people, values, and economics, configuring viewing practices and reception. The shifting diasporic cultural space produces more complex attachments to Indian cinema beyond basic explanations of nostalgia and homesickness that have dominated explanations for Indian audiences’ attachment to cinema.

Geography, diaspora, and cinema

The recent history of Indian film distribution is interconnected with the local patterns of Indian (and historically Fijian-Indian) occupation in Australian cities. Access to consumer media technology and cheap rental space helped Indian cinema to circulate in a variety of spaces outside mainstream exhibition circuits. For a community seeking an affordable means of entertainment and continuity with viewing habits back home, VHS tapes and DVD technology made home based playback the most common method to watch Indian films in the early 2000s. Absent from the local video store, pirated copies of Bollywood blockbusters were carried from India and circulated via the local Indian grocery store. Physical screenings were confined to one cinema hall in Fairfield in Sydney’s Southwest dominated by Bollywood staples but frequented by Indians and non-Indian migrant residents. In Melbourne, the Taj Cinema in Glen Iris ran from 2000-2003. Housed above a milk bar, proprietor Abdul Haroon had organised screenings in various locations including university campuses and the Chinatown Cinema in Bourke Street since 1997. At Taj, Haroon screened Bollywood and the occasional Tamil, Telugu, and Punjabi film for his predominantly international student audience. A subtitling machine was purchased to subtitle Indian films and attract a wider non-Indian audience. It was not until 2003 that the newly formed MG Distribution partnered with Hoyts to supply a small number of the ‘best Indian’ films for mainstream distribution.

Diaspora audiences make use of cinema and media to form multidimensional links and connections and thus create a sense of belonging. On the one hand, diaspora audiences feel a diminished physical link with their home and use cinema to invoke or re-connect with homeland. On the other, diasporas create imaginative and responsive milieus that are not only determined by memory but respond to day-to-day interactions in the resettled spaces of existence. Diasporas exist in a transnational space organised by movement of people, global media, capital, ideas, technologies, and where factors like values, social class, generation, interrelate to produce diverse identities and cultural affiliations. Diaspora are not homogenous and draw diverse pleasures from homeland cinemas while mobilising it for forming commonality and community shaped by multiple identities, values, interests, and lifestyles.

Beyond nostalgia and homesickness – virtual and physical communities 

In Australia, the rise of Bollywood entertainment forms (for example, Bollywood concerts, night clubs, dance shows and so on) indicates a process of localisation of Bollywood culture alongside the success of global blockbusters like Pathan, RRR, and Bahubali that undoubtedly evoke homeland memories of pleasurable cinemagoing. Localisation brings the cultural context of locality together with Indian cinema to define individual, and community consumption practices. In recent years, access to web-based technology including social media applications and the social isolation encountered by new arriving migrants and students in Australia depicts cinematic attachments that go beyond the re-creation of ‘home’. I will discuss two examples of how cinema is mobilised to create affiliations with common interest communities that exist virtually and within the diaspora itself.

The Australian fan club of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan boasts nearly 8000 Facebook members and is part of the global Shah Rukh Khan fan club ‘SRK Universe’ whose 3.2 million members are dispersed from Kolkata to Sierra Leone. 2023 is a busy year for SRK fans who after rejoicing in the success of Pathan are participating in the global celebration of Jawaan. In the second week of September, Jawaan swept the Australian box office collecting $2.1 million from 147 screens, second only to Warner Brother’s Nun II. The SRK Universe home page is brimming with photos and videos of Indian and non-Indian fans sharing acts of fandom – wearing SRK’s Jawaan costumes, posing with SRK cut outs, cutting cakes, rocking T-shirts, posters, banners, creating a transnational community of fans unrestricted by physical boundaries of nation, language, nationality, or ethnicity. Indian Australian fans are present here with selfies on Melbourne trams bearing posters of SRK, reinforcing Australia as an important node in the global Bollywood reception circuit. At the same time, the conversation online is not merely about reminiscing or homesickness but about performing and sharing fan behaviours. In conversation with other fans, approval is visibly secured in the form of comments, likes and shares on posts from users within the SRK Universe. This congregation and comingling of fans in which Australian fans of SRK participate depicts a transnational audience practice motivated by a shared interest and investment in specific aspects of the Bollywood phenomenon itself.

In 2017, the Bollywood Film Club at Melbourne University was formed with the purpose of providing a form of socially inclusive community entertainment for Indian international students and whoever else wished to join. Unlike the context of watching Bollywood cinema in India with family and friends, Australia provides a different cultural context with most students here on their own and often reluctant to watch films alone in multiplex theatres. Cinemagoing in India is a resolutely social experience and studies show that the average moviegoer mostly goes to the theatre to be entertained, and to pass the time with friends and family. Often the movie title itself or its content are secondary considerations.  On the contrary, in the peculiarly Australian context of international student life, the space of reception is organised around a different logic – the emphasis is not only on re-creating home but on finding new community with like-minded Indians and non-Indians, through the act of participation in cinema going and related popular cultures. The Film Club organises film screenings attended by students from Melbourne’s many universities who find friendship and even life-partners in their collective viewing of films. Rather than simply suspending spectators into longing for home, cinema is crucial to navigating new social realities and building new social networks. During the pandemic, as Australia shut its borders, many Indian students were left stranded, disconnected from university cohorts and immediate social networks. As the lockdown extended social isolation grew and mental health worsened for many. During this period, the Bollywood student club shifted its film screenings online. In this virtual space students watched films and chatted socially, each bound by shared experience of immobility in Australia. Cinema in this instance is mobilised for diverse functions; a familiar referent that speaks to both, old and new realities, potential connections, and desires.

The passion for cinema amongst the Indian diaspora audience is a dynamic and ever evolving phenomenon. While remaining connected with homeland, it is transformed and re-defined in response to diasporic relationships with new spaces and social milieus. Exploring these motivations and shifts will allow us to reconsider Indian diaspora audiences in more complex and meaningful ways.