2010: it’s a cold March afternoon and a group of secondary school students is gathered to watch My Name is Khan (Karan Johar, 2010). The atmosphere is electric: the film has been advertised for a good part of a year and there is a lot of anticipation, not only because Shahrukh Khan and Kajol make up one of the most-loved screen couples of Indian cinema, but also because of Karan Johar, who has directed some of the most successful Bollywood blockbusters of the previous decade, two of them – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) – starring the same couple. The first cheers erupt as Shahrukh Khan is seen on screen, at the very beginning of the film, but it is when Kajol’s voice is heard off-camera that there is an uproar of cheers and whistles and, as the camera focuses on her, the noise – cheers, applause, laughter – fills the room. I can see a boy barely able to contain his excitement, sitting at the edge of his seat, which he holds on to firmly with his hands, while cheering at the screen. This joyful scene did not take place in India, nor in other places such as Canada, the UK or the US, where Bollywood films would have been screened in cinemas, or would have been available to rent in most video rental stores, but in a small town located around 100 kilometres north of Bologna, in Italy. At the time, Indian films were not screened in Italian cinemas (and still hardly ever are), they were very rarely shown on TV – and streaming platforms obviously did not exist then – and rental shops rarely had any Indian title available. As a consequence, Indian film lovers had to rely on an informal network of DVD rentals, more often than not dispensing pirate copies of original films.

Indian Cinema and the World

With all the difficulties of finding Indian films at the time, it is not surprising that such film screenings would take place in Italy: Bollywood1 is a global cultural industry and its popularity extends well beyond the subcontinent. The global visibility of Bollywood has decisively increased in the past twenty to thirty years: “Bollywood goes global”, declared the title of a Newsweek International article published on 27 February 2000, which explained how the economic reforms brought about by the liberalisation of the 1990s had attracted foreign investors and facilitated the export of films and cultural products around the world. But rather than being a recent phenomenon brought about by globalisation, Indian films have entertained audiences around the world for decades, their popularity extending as far as Nigeria, Tanzania, Morocco, Zanzibar, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Greece, the Philippines and many more countries2. Not relying on an organised distribution system, the global circulation of Indian films has for many years been (and still is) part of an informal economy, with pirate VHS video cassettes, DVDs, and eventually films illegally downloaded from the internet, being regularly sold and/or rented in markets and shops. In Italy for example, up until ten years ago the easiest way to get hold of Bollywood films would have been to buy or rent them from a shop. Of course, you would have needed to know in advance where to go, as shopkeepers would have not advertised this illicit activity openly. 

These informal networks of film distribution have characterised the circulation of Indian films also within diasporic territories, as the Indian diaspora, and the South Asian diaspora more generally, represent a very important segment of Indian film viewership. Since the liberalisation of the economy in India, the film industry has been looking especially at the diasporic market, which counts about 25 million potential viewers, in the attempt to organise a more formal distribution system, with important distribution companies such as Yash Raj Films, for example, setting up offices in the countries with large numbers of Indian diasporic communities, such as the UK, the US and the Middle East3. Production and distribution companies have invested in particular in Britain and the US, where since the mid-1990s many Bollywood blockbusters have been set, with stories focused on the lives of Non-Resident Indians precisely to appeal to diasporic viewers – think for example of the 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra), starring Kajol and Shahrukh Khan, which is partially set in London, or Tarun Mansukhani’s 2008 film Dostana, set in Miami. Many Europeans countries have also increasingly sought to attract Bollywood productions to boost tourism: a case in point is the success of Zoya Akhtar’s 2011 film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which led to an increase of 65% tourism in Spain in the year following its release. Indeed, the global viewership of Bollywood means that film locations will be spotted not only by Indian viewers, and by the Indian diaspora, but also by non-Indian viewers in Europe, Asia and Africa, making it a potentially significant driver for tourism4.  

The popularity of Bollywood, and historically of Indian films, beyond the subcontinent, has been often discussed in relation (or juxtaposition) to Hollywood: discussing the popularity of Indian films amongst Hausa viewers in Nigeria for example, Brian Larkin explained how, apart from its melodramatic character and emphasis on love stories, which tap onto a culture with a strong traditional love literature, part of the pleasure derived from these films lies in their mediation between tradition and modernity and the fact that they propose a “parallel modernity, a way of engaging with the changing social basis of contemporary life that is alternative to the pervasive influence of a secular West”5. Unlike mainstream Hollywood films, Indian films also offer alternative representations which are not dominated by white ethnocentric concerns: in this respect Rajinder Dudrah’s study of South Asian diasporic engagement with Bollywood films highlighted “an issue of representation at stake in seeing Indian film stars relating to a South Asian imaginary that conveyed on-screen pleasures for South Asian audiences in complex and varied ways across different film genres and played out by different actors and actresses”6.

Bollywood and the Diaspora

The question of representation and of viewers’ engagement with film narratives is at the centre of many studies on the circulation and reception of Bollywood films in the diaspora. Most of these studies adopt an interdisciplinary framework grounded in cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and cultural sociology to explore how people relate to film narratives and to understand how the consumption of Indian films in the diaspora intervenes in the negotiation of diasporic identities7. This scholarship highlights in particular the significance of Bollywood as a cultural referent which, while widening up possibilities of representations for people of South Asian heritage, is not interpreted at face value by its viewers, but offers them the possibility to question specific cultural issues and concerns so that, as Meeta Rani Jha observes, “though powerful discourses of religion, tradition and modernity are translated into people’s lives through this medium, there is space for the negotiation of meaning and interpretation”8. In this respect, Ziauddin Sardar’s autobiographical recollections of his (and his own family’s) relation to Indian cinemas in the UK emphasise how, for them, films represented a cultural resource which allowed them to keep in touch with the subcontinent, while at the same time they operated as a means of opening up discussions over the state of Indian and British societies:

“They brought a little bit of ‘home’, of what my parents had left behind in Pakistan, to us here in Britain and thus provided a sense of belonging not offered by British society. But more than that, they also conveyed the problems of the society we had left behind. Problems that my parents were convinced would not be repeated here, would have no place in the emerging Asian community of Britain. By her constant, undaunted retelling of film stories, my mother made the deep social inequalities of subcontinental society – the inferior position of women, the conflict between tradition and modernity – topics of everyday discussion.”9

Significantly, Sardar also highlights how the experience of going to the cinema provided the opportunity to forge relationships and experience a sense of belonging that British society did not offer British Asians in the ‘60s. Indeed, research into Indian film audiences in the UK has also emphasised the importance of the social aspect of cinema going in the diaspora and locates Indian films in relation to broader politics of identity which are entangled with local dynamics of inclusion and/or exclusion10

My Name Is Khan

Similar issues are those faced by Indian immigrants in Italy. When I conducted my study on the cultural politics of consumption of Indian films and transnational TV channels in the Italian context in 2010, most of the people I spoke with confirmed that part of the pleasure they derived from Indian films (Bollywood and Punjabi films alike) resided in the fact that they offered a space of representation (in line with Dudrah’s aforementioned comments) which they did not find in Italian media11. Indeed, even though Italy has been a destination country for many immigrants since the 1970s-1980s, making Italy a multicultural country, these were still largely absent from the Italian media in 201012, featuring mostly in news item about immigration which usually tended to frame it as a social and political source of concern13. Even when the Italian state channel RAI, in 2008 and 2009 (and later on again) attempted to diversify its offer by screening two series of Bollywood films in prime time in the summer, they were received with mixed feelings by the people I spoke with. That was because, probably with the aim of making these films more appealing to a “traditional Italian audience”, the broadcaster decided to cut all songs and dance sequences from films, thus effectively eliminating what makes these films so distinctive. This way, even though the series was welcomed as a first attempt to broaden the scope of Italian media, it still ended up as a sort of “containment” of the difference that Indian films represent in in the Italian context. Being largely marginalised by mainstream media, most young Sikhs in Novellara preferred watching Bollywood films or transnational TV channels such as B4U, for example, which explicitly target the British Asian diaspora, looking for inclusive sources of representation. As a consequence, Bollywood cinema comes to acquire, in the Italian diasporic context, the symbolic value of a counterculture, offering a space of resistance to a mediascape which instead tries to minimise, and somehow tame the difference that Indian films represent.  

But of course, the area of Novellara being populated by a large Sikh community, not only do they watch Bollywood films, but they also watch Punjabi films. In this respect, the consumption of films in the diaspora is intimately connected with the relationship between Indian Sikhs and the Indian central government, and it somehow reflects existing tensions between the two. Even though Bollywood represents a valid alternative to Italian media, one which offered a space of representation that was not available in the Italian media landscape, when compared to Punjabi cinema it was described to me as a film industry which promotes a “homogenising Indian identity”, in contrast with Punjabi films which were instead seen as truly portraying Sikh cultural values and traditions. The consumption of Punjabi films in the diasporic context becomes thus a cultural practice which contributes to the negotiation of a Sikh identity in the Italian context, being a sort of “cultural archive” which (especially young) Sikhs could draw upon to understand “their culture”. Again, it is important to keep in mind that film narratives are not taken at face value, but rather meanings are negotiated in an intricate web of connections that link India, the Punjab and Italy. To complicate the picture further, most of these films and TV programmes at the time were consumed via the satellite Astra, which targets the South Asian diaspora in the UK. The constant consumption of media programmes aimed at the British Asian diaspora, not to mention the numerous Bollywood and Punjabi films set in the UK (and which offer an imaginative take on the diaspora14), contribute to the reinforcement a feeling of belonging to a wider diasporic community, one which is transnational in nature15 as it encompasses the Punjab, Italy and the UK.

The popularity of Bollywood on the global scale thus goes beyond it being a successful form of entertainment. The consumption of films in the diaspora is deeply interwoven with broader discourses of (trans)national and cultural identities and it is also influenced by dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that characterise people’s experiences in the diasporic space, but also in relation to India. Any study of Bollywood films, and of Indian cinemas more generally, cannot evade a reflection on their relationship with the diaspora because, as Vijay Mishra observed, “this cinema is now global in a specifically diasporic sense”16.


  1. Even though Bollywood is often used as a synonym for “Indian cinema”, or “Bombay cinema”, there are important differences between these three definitions. First of all, while “Indian cinema” comprises Bollywood productions, it includes all film productions based in India, which are organised on a regional basis (for example Bengali cinema, Tamil cinema, Punjabi cinema and so on). Similarly, even though “Bombay cinema” and “Bollywood” both reference the Indian film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and whose films are in Hindi, with a mixture of Urdu and English words, “Bombay cinema” is used to refer to films produced in Bombay since the early days of cinema in India, while “Bollywood” is rather used to indicate the films produced since the mid-1990s, when the Bombay-based film industry acquired a more transnational character (in terms of production, distribution, funding and narratives). The term is also used to reference the transnational culture industry that has emerged around films, and which includes music, advertising, food, fashion, etc. In this article, the term Bollywood will reference films produced since the second half of the 1990s. For a more detailed discussion of terminology see Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian cinema: cultural nationalism in a global arena”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 4:1, (2003); Rajinder Dudrah, Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema, London/New York: Routledge (2012); Rosie Thomas, Bombay before Bollywood: Film City fantasies,  New Delhi: Orient Blackswan (2013).
  2. For a broad overview of the success of Indian cinema outside of South Asia, check the special issue of South Asian Popular Culture edited by Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Dina Iordanova entirely dedicated to Indian cinema’s global popularity: South Asian Popular Culture, Volume 4 Issue 2 (2006), “Indian Cinema Abroad: Historiography of Transnational Cinematic Exchanges”. See also Brian Larkin, “Indian films and Nigerian lovers: media and the creation of parallel modernities”, Africa, Volume 3 Issue 63, (1997), pp. 404-440; Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian cinema: cultural nationalism in a global arena”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 4 Issue 1, (2003), p. 29.
  3. Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 57-58. See also Daya Thussu, “The Globalization of ‘Bollywood’: The Hype and Hope”, in Global Bollywood, Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar, eds. (London and New York: New York University Press, 2008), pp.  97-113.
  4. See for example David Martin-Jones’ discussion of the potential offered by Bollywood films to boost tourism in Scotland. David Martin-Jones, “Kabhi India, Kabhie Scotland”, South Asian Popular Culture, Volume 4 Issue 1 (2006), pp. 49-60.
  5. Brian Larkin, “Indian films and Nigerian lovers”, p. 439.
  6. Rajinder Dudrah, Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies (London: Sage, 2006), p. 35.
  7. See for example: Rajinder Dudrah, “Vilayati Bollywood: Popular Hindi Cinema-Going and Diasporic South Asian Identity in Birmingham (UK)”, The Public, Volume 9 issue 1 (2002) pp. 19-36, and Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies, Meeta Rani Jha, “The Politics of Emotion in British Asian Experiences of Bombay Cinema”, Journal of Creative Communications, Volume 2 Issue 1 (2007), pp. 101–121, and Nirmal Puwar, “Social Cinema Scenes”, Space and Culture, Volume 10 Issue 2 (2007), pp. 253-270, in the UK; Aswin Punathambekar, in the US (“Bollywood in the Indian-American Diaspora: Mediating a Transitive Logic of Cultural Citizenship”, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Volume 8 Issue 2 (2005), pp. 151-173); and Christiane Brosius in Germany (“The Scattered Homeland of the Migrant: Bollywood through the Diasporic Lense”, in Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, Raminder Kaur and Ayaj J. Sinha, eds. (London and Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005), pp. 207 -238).
  8. Jha, “The Politics of Emotion in British Asian Experiences of Bombay Cinema”, p. 112.
  9. Ziauddin Sardar, “Dilip Kumar Made Me Do It”, in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, Ashis Nandy, ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.21.
  10. This emerges clearly in Nirmal Puwar’s research into cinema going in Coventry between 1940-1980. See Puwar, “Social Cinema Scenes”, pp. 253-270. See also Rajinder Dudrah, “Vilayati Bollywood”, pp. 19-36.
  11. The research was conducted in and around the area of Novellara, a small town located around 80 km north of Bologna, and which is close to Mantova, where the screening of My Name is Khan that I described at the beginning of this article took place. This area has seen the growth of a quite significant community of Indian Sikhs since the mid-late 1980s, which is why I decided to conduct my study there.
  12. This situation is now slowly changing, as there are some attempts at diversifying the Italian mediascape. The most recent example is Bangla, a TV series inspired by the eponymous 2019 romantic/coming of age comedy, written and directed by Phaim Bhuiyan, a young Italian man of Bangladeshi heritage. The eight-part series was broadcast on the Italian public service channel RAI3 from May 2022.
  13. Clelia Clini, “Migration and Multiculturalism in Italy: Conflicting Narratives of Cultural Identity”, Synergy, Volume 1 Issue 2 (2015), pp. 251-262.
  14. There are several studies on Bollywood films’ take on the diaspora in the 1990s-2000s, which frame these representations within the social, cultural and economic changes taking place within India. See, among others, Christiane Brosius and Nicolas Yazgi, “Is There No Place Like Home? Contesting Cinematic Constructions of Indian Diasporic Experiences”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Volume 41 Issue 3 (2007), pp. 355-386, and Patricia Uberoi, “The Diaspora Comes Home: Disciplining Desire in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge”, in Tradition, Pluralism and Identity, Veena Das, Dipankar Gupta and Patricia Uberoi, eds. (New Delhi: Sage, 1999), pp. 195-218.
  15. Clelia Clini, “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed: Indian Films, British Networks and the Sikh Diaspora in Italy”, Comparative Critical Studies (2014), pp. 203-217.
  16. Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 269.

About The Author

Dr Clelia Clini is an academic based at Loughborough University London. Her research cuts across disciplines with a specific focus on the cultural politics of migration and the South Asian diaspora; South Asian diasporic literature and cinema; Indian popular cinema; gender, race and the media. She has published in international peer-reviewed journals such as South Asian Diaspora, The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Transnational Screens.

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