A Push to Support Language Diversity in India

By Hadley Robinson, for PRI’s The World (class of 2012)

Latu Rutia, 80, speaks Rathwee, the language of the Rathwa people.

GUJARAT, India, July 5, 2012—In western India, in the state of Gujarat, lies the small town of Chhota Udaipur. Many people from the Rathwa tribe live here. Down a narrow dirt road, past cotton plants and piles of harvested corn husks, 80-year-old Latu Rutia rises from the cot on his back porch. Rutia wears just a loincloth and an earring. He speaks in his native language of Ratwee. Rutia says in the schools his grandchildren attend they are taught in the state language, Gujarati. “They are forced to speak differently,” he says.

Rutia worries that elements of the Rathwee language are trickling away, even though it’s believed there are nearly a million speakers. However, the number of speakers may be less important than how and where the language is spoken.

Dr. Ganesh Devy initiated the People's Linguistic Survey of India and came up with its unique format, which includes the grammar of the language, the folklore and how the language explains time and color.

That’s where the People’s Linguistic Survey of India comes in. They have field workers spread across the country documenting Rathwee and hundreds of Indian languages.

Researchers are documenting each language’s characteristics and recording its folk stories and songs. They also note how the languages describe time and color. For example, the Rathwee language labels various stages of dawn — when the cock crows as one part, and when the birds start moving, another.

A model for India: HIV/AIDS education

By Patty Espinosa (class of 2012)

KOLHAPUR, India, April 2012—India is a conservative country. Talking about sex is taboo, and in remote areas of the country, so is talking about HIV and AIDS. The number of HIV infections in India is comparatively low to other developing countries, but the number of people dealing with discrimination is increasing.

But a group of young social work students from SIBER College decided to take a stand, and eliminate HIV discrimination in a nearby town. The town is a success story, but it’s still unclear if the students’ work will be a model for all of India.

Patty’s final story is a video.

Defenseless to defenders

By Ashley Hopkinson (class of 2012)

Angela Cardoz

DELHI, India, April 2010—India’s growing ranks of millionaires want a new kind of security and status symbol—a female bodyguard. That desire is allowing a small group of women to work alongside men and live their dreams.

Even under the blazing heat of the midday sun in the far, northwestern Delhi suburb of Dwarka, Angela Cardoz looks relaxed in an all-black outfit, a collared shirt, pants and a light sweater, wrapped around her waist and loosely tied in a knot around the front. She looks like a ninja, standing out among the swirling colors of traditional Indian clothing — beautiful saris colored in pale yellows, bright greens and dazzling hues of red.

Cardoz, 37, is used to standing out, used to be being stared at.

Here in Dwarka, she has just stepped out of a large, black SUV. With her are three other women. Two are slim and tall enough to be models, their long, black hair pulled back from their faces. Another is short and muscular with shoulder-length hair. The fourth is Cardoz, the Indian ninja, not particularly tall, but muscular, her dark, black hair cut short and layered, the longest layer barely touching the top of her ears.

Cardoz walks with confident strides to the main office of her employer, Secura Security, an orange, four-storey building in the center of the city. Even in her office, they stare at her.

Cardoz and her three colleagues are female bodyguards, part of a new India, where women try to assert their rights, live their dreams and venture into positions and jobs that were once the exclusive domain of men.

Cardoz is from Goa, one of India’s smallest states, known for its beaches, Roman Catholic churches and enduring cultural influence—in song, dance and architecture—of its former colonial masters, the Portuguese. Goa is as different from New Delhi, Cardoz’s home for the last two years, as Maine is from Mexico.

It didn’t take long for Cardoz to realize that Delhi, where she lives with an aunt, was the best place to pursue her dream of being a bodyguard. Even with data suggesting that the crime rate in Goa has increased 59 percent over the last five years, India’s capital still snags top spot for being one of the most dangerous states in the country, especially for women.

Two of every three women have faced sexual harassment last year in Delhi, a city of 16 million, according to a United Nations and government backed survey, which included results found by Jagori, a grassroots organization that aims to raise awareness about women safety and gender equality. The local media often call Delhi the rape capital of India.

“It’s unfair that people think ‘oh she’s a woman she’s weak and she can’t defend herself so I can just come and try to touch her and trouble her,’” said Cardoz, one of 20 women at Secura’s Dwarka office. “I’m very happy to be in this job, my dream has come true.”

Cardoz is one of a few hundred women opting for careers as female bodyguards in leading security companies like Secura Security in Delhi and Tops Security in Goregaon, Mumbai. Tops Grup oversees 14 security companies under its brand including TOPS Security Limited, one of the largest security companies in the country. The division Tops Grup has more than 200 female bodyguards on staff from areas of the country including Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The women are usually from lower-middle-class class families, officials said, sometimes driven by economic need.

Management officials said they began training women because of the demand to hire women in a country where the status of women in general is low, though that is changing. India is one of six countries with female only train cars. They started, in part, because of instances of eve teasing—a colloquial term used in India to describe public sexual harassment of women, which is commonplace in most public areas including, toilets, streets and crowded metro commuter trains. Cities in Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Japan have women-only commuters cars for similar reasons. It may seem like a mild example of why someone would need a bodyguard, but Cardoz said pervasive sexual harassment of women is one reason their job has become increasingly necessary.

Sitting in a corner office of the Secura Security headquarters, Cardoz recounted the events of her first day of work, two years ago.

Cardoz was nervous, though her first task was simple: accompany the new boss to the mall while she shopped. Her boss was a wealthy, middle-aged woman from Delhi, whose name and occupation Cardoz said she could not reveal. That day, she kept her eyes on her boss, but she also focused some of her attention on a group of 20-something-year old young men, who had made of a game of harassing women as they entered the mall, she said. As her boss approached the mall entrance, Cardoz said the harassment from the men intensified. And she realized then that her client had become the young men’s new center of interest.

“Hey listen, it’s better you don’t do this,” Cardoz recalled saying as she stood face to face with the most belligerent young man in the group, “One day you will have a family and if someone does this to your family, how would you feel?”

In that particular situation, talking to the young men was enough to get them to stop, Cardoz said. If they had continued to act hostile, “I would have used more force,” she added. Like many female bodyguards Cardoz is trained for confrontation. Whether her response is verbal or physical depends on the level of threat, she said.

Cardoz’s client, whose identity she cannot reveal, is a part of India’s fast-growing rich, who can afford 20,000 ($ 377) to 50,000 ($ 943) rupees a month for protection. It is impractical for the majority of the population in a country where the average annual income, in 2011, was 82,000 rupees ($ 1,547).

The amounts vary based on the skills and experience of the guards. Those who are former police officers or army soldiers rank highest on the salary scale. Those like Cardoz, who came in with no such experience, rank lower on the salary scale.

Most industry spokespersons acknowledged that the relatively new business is trending toward being a status symbol for the wealthy rather than a means of crime prevention. The average client is a celebrity or business tycoon who wants female bodyguards for his wife and college-age daughters.

In some cases, the client is a wealthy female executive who would request the service for business trips out of town. The world’s second-fastest growing economy after China, India has spawned at least 50 of the world’s wealthiest U.S. dollar billionaires over the last ten years, according to Forbes Magazine. India is ranked number 19 on a separate Forbes global ranking of millionaires.

Womens’ rights organizations said that while female bodyguards are a novel idea that upholds their ideals of women empowerment, it is not something accessible to the masses.

Morever, female bodyguards may not address even one percent of the issue of gender insensitivity and violence against women, said activists of women’s organizations like Jagori and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

“Yes, they (female bodyguards) might ensure your safety. But again it is an exclusive service and it is not a service that is commonly accessible to all,” said Prabhleen, a women’s rights advocate with Jagori in Delhi.

Prableen, who asked that her last name not be used, said it takes a long time for things to become common in India and bodyguarding is not a likely exception.

Sudha Sundararaman, the general secretary of AIDWA, said they have done little or no investigation into the increase of women into that field of work, but support women being in a position equal to their male counterparts.

“However, the whole concept of personal bodyguards is something that should not be necessary here,” said Sundararaman. “There needs to be a situation set up where the direction is not toward more females hiring bodyguards, but should be toward a general social atmosphere where people are safe.”

What women in India need is support, Prableen said. And that may include hiring a bodyguard, but for the general population, there needs to be an atmosphere that encourages women to speak up. Prableen said it’s not as much about Indian women being assertive as about that assertiveness being resented.

“The picture of a woman is seen good or bad,” Prableen said. “We need to accept that women in Delhi and women in India have that burden of preserving themselves as good women.”

Part of that preservation includes knowing one’s place, she said.

“In India it is this idea that you have to be good so you don’t speak up,” Prableen said. “Young girls are told by their mothers, fathers and even friends that if you speak against violence, you are calling for more attention and more violence.”

In 2004, Jagori, in existence for 24 years, began its Safe Delhi campaign, hoping it would encourage more women to take self-defense classes and publicly share their stories about violence. They organized mass protests, programs and candle light marches for their cause.

Prableen said it’s difficult for women to ask for help because they risk being blamed.

Prableen said consciously or unconsciously many victims of violence “take the guilt on themselves,” by feeding into the claim that they were dressed inappropriately or were sending body signals that teased their attacker.

Following a gang rape incident the in the Indian city Gurgaon, located about 18 miles south of New Delhi, local administration instituted an 8 p.m. curfew for female employees. Women across India created a firestorm on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Similar policies were suggested for women working in call centers across the country. Those positions require that employees work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to make up the time difference and field calls from places as far away as the United Sates.

That’s where bodyguard agency directors say they play an integral role—not in changing the way society views women being mistreated, but by giving women a chance to defend other women, who now have the chance to hire them in order to feel safe.

In general, women are seen as a vulnerable part of the population, Cardoz said, and being able to protect them is one reason she loves her job. She is able to empower women to speak up, while also protecting them, she said.

Secura Security Director AK Singh said like any other business they work based on client demand.  About three years ago more clients began to inquire about female bodyguards to protect their wives and children, and Singh said they seized the opportunity.

“We have some clients who are celebrities and they need some safety for their women, kids and young college girls,” he said. “ When clients started to approach us we started our women commander services,” Singh said, using the internal company term used to refer to female agents.

They responded by starting a training class that lasts six to eight weeks to prepare women who are eager to fight violence, he said, adding that, the demand for female bodyguards started to pick up in the latter part of 2011. Singh said his best guess about the sudden interest in female bodyguards is that people are beginning to see the value in having someone protect their wives and children, who can also blend in well with the structure of the family, without attracting excess attention.

“See, the woman has got some sense of responsibility, and she can handle the situation in a better manner than a man because women have to face some (of the same) problems clients (face),” Singh said. “This is a man’s arena, but still they are performing and doing their duties on the same level as the men.”

Tops Grup in Mumbai has had a similar service, except on a considerably larger scale. It’s been three years and the operation of a female bodyguard unit known as “Tops Angels,” is successful.

Brigadier M. I. Jaisinghani, a former army officer, is the director of training at Tops Grup Training Academy, located in 20 places across India, staffed by 100 instructors.

Jaisinghani said that they train their female bodyguards in martial arts and combat for 21 days before they are assigned to clients. They also have mandatory academic security training classes.

“We toughen them up by making them do these things every day,” Jaisinghani said. “We train them in such a manner that they are motivated to give their life for the client.”

The typical female bodyguard in India has to be physically fit and keep herself that way, graduate at least 10 th standard pass, the equivalent of 10th grade education, be between 20 to 35 years old and willing to be on call for work 24 hours, seven days a week. Exceptions are rare, he said.

Most bodyguards at Tops Grup are hired on yearly renewable contracts. The minimum contract is for a month. Secura Security allows clients to hire bodyguards by the hour, day or year. The company also absorbs the cost of training but Tops Grup security either have to pay a 6000 rupee ($ 113) training fee upfront or have it deducted from their salaries.

The typical female security guard earns roughly 7000 rupees ($ 132) a month and female bodyguards make an average of 40,000 rupees ($ 754) a month, 5,000 ($ 94) more than the average male bodyguard in the company.

But a safe India for the modern-day Indian woman seems like an ideal that is far off, said Mahuwa Tyagi, a bodyguard for two years. Tyagi is tall and slim, her long, black hair neatly pulled into a low ponytail as she talked at the Secura office in Dwarka.

The difference between the two women is that Tyagi was used to confrontation and combat at her former job as an officer with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary unit that is deployed to trouble-spots across India. Trained by the CRPF and Secura Security, her services do not come cheap, by Indian standards. She can earn anywhere from 40,000 ($ 754) to 50,000 rupees ($ 943) a month.

Tyagi lives in a guest home on the property of her client, a non-resident Indian, protecting his family, primarily a college-age daughter, while caring for her own— a win-win situation, she said. Tyagi is married and can now spend time with her four-year old daughter, something she could not do in her previous job.

Like Cardoz, Tyagi said her family is pleased with her job, especially when she explains that she is protecting a family in the same way she used to protect people as a paramilitary officer.

“It’s the same,” she said. “With the police I was protecting the country. Here, I’m protecting a family.”

Tyagi said although everyone does not agree with her career choice the general response is often encouraging.

“Obviously we will give a sense of empowerment (…) in India everybody thinks that there is specific work for women only, but also, if you say you’re doing this kind of thing they feel proud,” she said. “They actually are, like wow, that kind of reaction is what we get.”


Renting Wombs: Gay couples seek surrogate mothers in India

By Lisette Mejia (class of 2012)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—In the past few years, gay men from the U.S. have increasingly traveled to India to have children through surrogacy. This process usually involves two Indian women: an egg donor and a surrogate. Currently, a bill sits in the Indian law ministry that could ban the process for same-sex couples – but in the mean time, they continue on with their hopes of having kids of their own and grappling with the complexity of the situation

Out in the open

By Marta Franco (class of 2013)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—After more than a century in the shadows, India’s homosexuals emerge from the closet.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mumbai’s western suburb of Bandra, home to mostly observant middle-class Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim families, is packed with people. Visitors and residents stroll the seaside promenades. The shop-strewn main streets are abuzz with vendors selling cheap shoes and colorful scarves. On the quieter, tree-lined lanes, customers visit little specialty boutiques and stores.

Down the 16th Road, a rainbow flag welcomes you to one such store: D’kloset. Outside, there is a mural of a man pulling another out of a closet. “No, no,” he says. “I’m not coming out.”

D’kloset owner Inder Vhatwar will tell you that is time for gay people in India to step out of the closet that locked them in for more than a century.

Marta’s final story is a print piece. 

Return of the White Death

By Octavio Raygoza (class of 2012)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—As a virulent, new drug-resistant tuberculosis strain surfaces in India, the world fears a resurgence of its oldest disease.

Instead of helping her mother with household chores, Sonam S. Yambhare lay quietly on a rusted bed. She was one among dozens of women in Ward 8, a silent room with unpainted concrete walls in Mumbai’s 103-year-old government-run Sewri Tuberculosis Hospital.

There was no medical equipment in sight. Records were filed in rusted metal cabinets. Sometimes, orderlies, or “ward boys” as they are called, carried away the infected mattresses of dead patients. “Everyone is depressed here,” said Mokshada Chandge, a young doctor on her rounds, explaining the silence, a sharp contrast with the ceaseless bedlam of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Octavio’s final story is a print piece. 

Indian mangoes: Where tradition, industry and U.S. nuclear policy collide

By Richard Parks, for Salon (class of 2011)

MUMBAI, India, June 4, 2010—India’s Alphonso mango is a fruit with an aura. It’s flavorful, aromatic, small-pitted and as smooth as silk (with none of the fibrousness of Mexican mangoes sold in the U.S.). The Vedic texts praise mangoes as the “fruit of the gods,” and the Alphonso has deservedly been dubbed the “king of fruits” for its royal taste. It can be found in Mumbai’s markets and in the Konkan Coast of southern Maharashtra, where generations of farmers have been growing the rare mango cultivar for hundreds of years.

The year 2006 might have been the turning point, though, for this divine fruit. As a carrot for India’s accepting U.S. nuclear technology and policy, George W. Bush opened the U.S. market to Alphonsos. The Indian government, anxious to brand the Konkan Coast as “India’s California,” offered subsidies for farmers who would cultivate the mangoes for export. Since then, in Ratnagiri district, production has been up more than 200 percent.

Watch the video:

[iframe_loader width=”100%” height=”400″ src=’http://player.vimeo.com/video/11444761′]

See the rest of the story published on Salon.com

Teach for India

By Lillian R. Mongeau, for GOOD.is (class of 2011)

MUMBAI, Maharashtra, April 2010—Skinny arms stretched high, 59 eager hands rose above 60 equally eager faces. Even as one hand seemed about to be clipped by a fan circling overhead, students covered their mouths to remind themselves not to shout out the answer before being called upon.

Save the whir of the fans, silence prevailed, but this did not prevent Umer Gauss Khan from jumping a bit or Afrin Akram from standing on the very tips of her toes, adding a few extra inches to her petite frame.

So far, this second grade class in the Govandi neighborhood, a slum near Mumbai, India had correctly placed three numbers-1, 11, and 21-in ascending order.

The question they were all so eager to answer: Which number comes next-111, 101, or 99?

The students sat three to an old-fashioned bench desk and each wore a dusty, white uniform and brown tie bearing the initials of their private English school: Shri Geeta Vikas Mandal, where tuition is about $4 per child per month. Most of the families who send their children here cannot afford even the meager fees and the school depends on charitable support to cover the difference. The lack of funds, however, has clearly not dampened these students’ appetite for learning and may be in large part due to the man standing at the front of the room and the woman giving extra attention to a boy in the back.

This is the classroom of Rahul Ranjan and Iffat Khan, two of the first to heed the call of Teach For India, a new program that trains and places recent college graduates and young professionals in slum-area schools in Mumbai and Pune. Last July, the non-profit began operating in low-income private and government-run schools. The program received 2,000 applications for its first round of 87 spots. For 2010, 3,800 applicants competed for 150 openings.

TFI bases its teacher training on the Teach for America model and is a member of the Teach For All network, which connects them with similar programs around the world. Despite these international connections, the program is the lone option in India for high-achieving young people who want to teach for two years.

Read the rest of the story on GOOD.is

Lillian R. Mongeau travelled to Mumbai to report on the brand new Teach For India program, one of several such programs modeled on Teach For America to spring up in recent years across the globe. She has written a short story for GOOD.is and hopes to sell a longer piece in advance of TFI’s late-May visit to New York City.

Bollywood Meets Hollywood?

By Melanie Mason (class of 2010)

MUMBAI, India, April, 2010For Shankar, it was a whopper of a first day in class.  The 18 year-old, with floppy hair and a bewildered expression, was called to stand among 35 seated classmates. Shankar did not appear to relish being the center of attention.  He fixed his gaze firmly at the floor in front of him, mumbled his name and his age when asked.  The communication problems did him no favors; his instructor Rob Reece is American and speaks no Hindi and–despite attending an English-instruction school–Shankar’s English was shaky at best.  Using Reece’s fellow instructor, Jameel Khan, as a translator, Reece asked Shankar why he seemed so tentative.  “He says he’s shy,” Khan said. Reece laughed, looking distinctly like a shark that has just smelled blood in the water.

The exercise was about humiliation.  Shankar had to mimic his classmates’ gestures and sounds, and as more students jumped up, the embarrassment magnified—the gestures became lewd, the noises became shouted expletives, and in one homage to Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura movies, one student bent at the waist, grabbed his own behind and pretended to talk from it, imploring Shankar to do likewise.

This, according to Reece, is how you build a better Bollywood actor.

Reece, a member of the famed Actor’s Studio, has until recently been teaching a small Method acting workshop in Los Angeles.  But now he is in Mumbai, India, attempting to bring his Method approach to students at Whistling Woods International.  Whistling Woods is at the epicenter of Bollywood—its campus is located in Film City, Mumbai’s sprawling studio complex where many Bollywood pictures are filmed.  Its chairman is Subhash Ghai, a well-known director who is often called the “showman” of Bollywood.  After a trial run last fall, Reece moved to Mumbai in January to begin a three-year stint as head of the acting department for Whistling Woods, revamping the school’s curriculum in the Method approach.

“It’s an in-depth and specific perspective on how actors can train,” Reece says.  “The actor’s task is to express the human condition in a truthful, real, organic way.”

For beginners like Shankar, that training begins with the humiliation exercises.  “That breaks the ice,” Reece says.  “Because if you can do those things—those silly things, those outrageous things—then it’s easier just to stand there and be yourself.  If I can do these things, what have I got to hide now?”

Beyond the butt-talking, there are other exercises in Reece’s repertoire.  He introduces them in pithy shorthand—”now it’s time for sense memory,” “let’s do an imaginary monologue.”  In each exercise, Reece lobs probing questions about the students’ own lives, asking them about times that they felt vulnerable or sexy or hateful.  Students can exaggerate or imagine circumstances that would provoke an emotional response, but much of it is tied to their own experiences, making the class feel exhaustingly intimate.

“Rob is really helping us in opening us up,” said Ambuj Dixit, a 21 year-old Whistling Woods acting student from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.  “When we started our classes here, we were very stiff.  It was very difficult for us to express our emotions.”

Reece sees his work as an entry point for revamping the entire Bollywood industry, an industry that critics say produces mostly escapist, melodramatic fare.  “As acting changes, the directing can change and writing can change,” Reece says.

But wait a minute.  Isn’t this Bollywood we’re talking about—the industry that, until quite recently, shied away from showing the romantic leads kiss on the lips?  Reece is training actors to portray sexuality and humanity’s grittier emotions with a frank directness, instead of Bollywood’s more typical wink.  How can this possibly work?

An approach like Reece’s would have probably been dismissed by Bollywood insiders a few years ago.  But lately, the industry has ndergone key changes that have impacted both the business of making movies and the types of films that are being made.  Most significantly, the flirtation between Bollywood and its sister industry, Hollywood, has blossomed into a full-fledged courtship, and the growing relationship has substantial implications for both the business and art of film in India.

It is no surprise that Hollywood has its sights set on India.  It’s got the makings of an ideal market: a democratic country with an economy growing 8% each year.  As many as 4 billion tickets were sold in the country last year, and the emerging middle class has grown to about 250 million people, not far off from entire population of the United States.  But historically, Hollywood films have constituted only a tiny fraction of India’s box office—around 5%.  Indian audiences were and continue to be receptive to Hollywood blockbusters; in less than two months, Avatar grossed over $24 million in India.  But for American studios seeking to capture a bigger slice of the market, they had to change their approach.

“Here was a huge industry, a huge market and they were not able to capture it by imposing their products,” said Ravi Gupta, CEO of Mukta Arts, a studio run by Whistling Woods’s chairman Subhash Ghai.  “Because this market’s requirements of entertainment were significantly different than those of Hollywood.  The format in which stories are told, the way that stories are told, the star system that exists over here — these are issues that are very significantly different.”

Instead of simply exporting films produced in the United States, American studios are now producing films in India aimed at a local audience.  Starting in 2007, Sony, Disney and Warner Brothers have all produced Bollywood-style, Hindi-language films.  Gupta said Hollywood’s involvement with local production is reminiscent of the soft drink market in India—when Coca-Cola had trouble ousting local cola Thums Up as the country’s most popular soft drink, it instead went about acquiring the brand in 1993.  “You have to think globally, but act locally,” Gupta said.

Perhaps the best example of that approach is by Disney India, which announced plans to target the South Indian market and is producing an animation film scheduled for release in 2011, partnering with K. Raghavendra Rao, one of the best-known directors of Telugu-language films.  It’s a keen move on Disney’s part; Hindi-language Bollywood is only one of a number of India’s thriving regional film industries.  South Indian cinema—consisting of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada language films—was named India’s most prolific film-producing region in a report last year by Ernst and Young.  And the focus on regional cinema could help Disney push its product beyond India’s largest cities; in a report released in March, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry said demand for regional products was growing significantly, particularly in smaller population hubs classified as “B & C cities” by the Indian government.

The fervor of American studios to stake a place in the Indian market is coupled with a similar desire for Indian studios to expand their reach abroad.  Last year saw the finalization of at $825 million deal between India’s Reliance Big Entertainment and the American studio DreamWorks.  This year, Reliance will also be releasing two versions of the movie Kites, starring Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan—an original Hindi version and an English version, re-edited with a shorter run time and less song sequences in order to appeal to a Western audience.  Earlier this year, many industry watchers were following the overseas performance of My Name is Khan, the latest from superstar Shah Rukh Khan, after Fox secured the distribution rights to the film.  As of April 11, the film had grossed a little over $4 million in the United States.  Gupta said it is likely much of that came from Indian nationals living abroad or Indian-Americans, with little indication that it is reaching beyond that core audience.

“I think we shouldn’t get overexcited thinking about the movie has gone international,” Gupta said.  “For us to be able to reach international markets, we have to be able to make films that address the sensibilities of the West.  Our films and the format in which we make them, they don’t achieve that at all.”

In the desire to expand to a global audience, Indian filmmakers and studios have a very fine balance to walk.  Try too hard to draw in new audiences—by cutting down on Bollywood’s beloved song and dance sequences, for example—and you run the risk of alienating a loyal domestic audience.

“If you lose your own specific storytelling style, it’s not worth it,” said Nasreen Munni Kabir, a London-based author, documentary filmmaker and expert on Indian cinema.  “You have to be accepted on your own terms.  Because if you change your style, you’ll lose your own audience.”

Since the 1990s, however, there has been another dominant trend in Indian cinema: the multiplex.  The introduction and proliferation of multiplexes in India have transformed the types of movies that are now being made and are ushering in a new era of experimentation in Indian cinema.

In a country that has over 10,000 movie houses, multiplexes are still relatively rare: about 250 exist in the entire country as of December 2009.  But their impact has been considerable.  For air-conditioned theaters, cushioned seats and concessions, multiplexes can charge as much as five dollars for a ticket, as opposed to the one dollar it costs to see a movie in the traditional single-screen theaters.  Filling a 400-seat multiplex theater at the higher price becomes just as economically viable as selling out a 1,500-seat single-screen theater—but no longer do you have to make a film that would attract 1,500 individuals for a showing.  The introduction of multiplexes in the market has fragmented the Indian audiences, which means filmmakers can tailor movies to the tastes of a narrower audience.

In years past, “the movies were basically boy meets girl, they dance around — happy stories with happy endings,” says student Ambuj Dixit.  “What happens now is they’re really experimenting with more topics.”

The success of the 2009 film Kaminey (Scoundrels) is telling.  The film plays on many classic Bollywood tropes—lead actor Shahid Kapoor plays dual roles as twin brothers suffering from mistaken identities—but there is only one major song-and-dance number (about the importance of safe sex) and the no-lip-kissing rule of traditional Bollywood is violated.  Newsweek pronounced it to be a “competent, realistic, story-driven film” and named director Vishal Bhardwaj among those who are “reinventing Bollywood.”

“The multiplex is an expensive medium now,” said Meghna Ghai-Puri, president of Whistling Woods and daughter of chairman Subhash Ghai.  “Indians like to bring their entire families, so the film has to be really worth it.  You have to have some sensibility to be able to spend that kind of money. …People are now expecting Indian films to get as good as Hollywood films.”

This is the crux of Reece’s Whistling Woods experiment.  Reece says he sees his work in India as embarking on a new frontier, evangelizing the power of Method acting with the zeal of a missionary.  “The thing I know to be true is this: human beings are human beings wherever you go,” he says.  “Art remains the same.”

Reece tells his students to operate organically and  disregard stage directions that are meant to reveal emotion or mood. But the reality of that approach is not so easy.  In class one day, a student gingerly asks how to reconcile the desire to be organic with the demands of a pushy director.  “When we actually work on a film,” he says, “what happens invariably is that we are always ordered to do a particular thing.”

This clearly touches a nerve with Reece.  “A director who is asking you to be a puppet or a robot — they are by-the-numbers going to tell you to smile here and laugh here — that director doesn’t know what the f— they’re doing,” he says, his voice escalating.  “They don’t know how to f—-g direct.  It’s one of the reasons there’s so many f—-g horrible films.”

Clashes between the creative types are not uncommon in Hollywood.  But Reece’s student raises a legitimate concern.  In an industry that has not, up until now, been exposed to the DeNiro-esque approach to acting, will directors have the patience or desire to indulge an actor and this type of performance?  One of Bollywood’s biggest stars Aamir Khan, is not trained in the Method but is known for his meticulous, some would say perfectionist, preparation for roles; his work style has earned him a reputation for being high-maintenance.  So while Whistling Woods is quick to trumpet Reece as a member of the Actor’s Studio, the school is less likely to rely on the Method as a selling point to those in the Indian film industry.

“If you say Method acting, the Bollywood people would say, ‘what? Are the actors not going to be flexible anymore?’” said Ghai-Puri.  “‘Are they not going to listen to the director anymore?  Are they going to analyze things too much?’”

And of course, there is the question of whether audiences will respond.  Nasreen Munni Kabir says she’s skeptical that Method acting, as seen in American theater, will translate to Indian films.

“How will that work here?” she asked.  “Some things you just can’t import.”

So which is it: Reece’s view that art is art, no matter where it is, or Kabir’s theory that this cultural transplant just will not take?  Audiences will have their first chance to weigh in next year, when Mukta Arts releases a film produced by Subhash Ghai and starring Whistling Wood-trained actors, all training with Reece for the film.

But it is also possible that Reece’s students might find a break outside of the Indian market.  Ghai-Puri says she sees the school serving that kind of role.  “If we invest today in talent, we’ll train them to do well in the Indian film industry,” she says, “but also to be prepared, if they get an opportunity, to do well in any part of the world.”

In spite of of Indian studios to lay claim to part of the American market, perhaps it is this idea—a cross-over of talent—that is more likely the immediate future for the two industries.  “I see the big change happening is that Indian talent will work in Hollywood films,” Kabir says.  “And Hollywood talent will work in Indian cinema.”  She added that Indian choreographers, costumers and musicians, like Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, will likely find success in the United States, while American editors, cinematographers and scriptwriters will have ample opportunity in India.  Ironically, it was this type of global cross-pollination that gave rise to the “first lady” of Indian cinema, Devika Rani, who founded the studio Bombay Talkies with husband Himanshu Rai.  Back in the 1930s, Rani spent time in Germany with Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich while working on post-production of Indian films.  Even in this age of globalization, in some respects, it is the same plot Indian cinema has followed before.

Only time will tell where Reece and his students will fit into the industry’s current landscape.  Just as the Indian industry as a whole must strike a fine balance in seeking a new global audience and keeping its domestic audience happy, so too are schools like Whistling Woods walking a tightrope—Reece’s classes in the afternoon follow morning classes in dance and acrobatics.  Reece’s students practice handsprings in the courtyard at lunch and rehearse dance steps outside class while they wait for Reece to arrive—one foot in the old ways of Bollywood, one in its idealized future.

Gay Rights in India

By Abbie Swanson, for Making Contact (class of 2009)

DELHI, India, January 2009—”Gay Rights in India” looked at a group of gay men and women trying to overturn a British colonial law in India called Section 377. The law, which has since been overturned, made being gay illegal. Abbie interviewed people in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai for the story.



Abbie’s project is an 18-minute radio documentary. The piece aired in June of 2009 on Making Contact and in July of ’09 on KALW.