Freedom Economy: How India can beat China at the content game
China may be good at the hardware economy, but we should harness our freedom economy.
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The Chinese are not just at our borders. They are all around us — in Pakistan through the Belt and Road project (BRI), in Sri Lanka with new ports, and in Africa through massive investments in many countries. China is a country resolute on dominating the world.
One could assume that a country which is pitted to be the largest economy in the world in less than a decade would be dominating all aspects of human experience. But it is hardly true. The world imports a lot from China. But one thing it does not import as much yet, are the stories of human experience through creative content.
India, besides the obvious US, is, however, a leading exporter of content to Asia, Middle East, Africa and even the West. Our films and TV shows are massively popular around the world and our saas-bahu soap operas do well even in Africa.
Freedom is a big economy and India has an advantage
The capacity and ability to create content comes with the legal freedom to express thoughts which may be controversial or unconventional. In the US and much of the West, freedom of expression is as close to absolute as possible and is certainly more than other parts of the world. When there are no legal limitations on what thoughts can be shared with the public, a much wider genre of content can be created. Comedy, for example, is full of content that mocks conventions, customs, authority, religion, and society in general, and is a big industry in the West.
Freedom to think and to say leads to freedom of creating films, shows, and music that are edgy and impress on people’s minds. This freedom also leads to experimenting with content and provides huge employment opportunities to writers, creators, comics, filmmakers, along with numerous semi-skilled and unskilled labour.
Dangal was such a hit in a communist dictatorship because the creators acknowledged our societal imperfections and developed characters who were willing to cope with it in their insignificant but personal ways. (Photo: Associated Press)
Media and entertainment, which comes closest to representing a market which is a direct or indirect outcome of the freedom of thought, is about US $800-billion big in the US and is about US $270 billion in China. While China is a big market due to its vast consumption and distribution, it struggles to create original content. It has been highlighted in reports that the import of content in China far exceeds its exports, and there are efforts by the Chinese government to create original content, which hasn’t yielded results yet.
India, on the other hand, is one of the global leaders of original content even though it may not be as big in the size of its market, which stands at about US $30 billion according to various estimates. Our films, music and shows reach almost all continents and despite all our limitations, Indian movies are recognized around the world and have played a critical role in shaping our perception around the world. With the arrival of studios and streaming services like Netflix and PrimeVideo, this creativity will only find a bigger market, creating more jobs and wealth for Indians.
With Great Freedom to express comes Great Influence over the world
The current Black Lives Matter movement has gained global support. It’s been possible because a lot about America – perfect and imperfect – has been conveyed by its creative minds. Only a couple of years ago, Donald Glover came out with the popular song This is America which highlighted the problem of racism and has more than six hundred million views.
Young people around the world are growing up hooked on shows like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, among others. Breaking Bad and House of Cards, in particular, directly show the imperfect side of America – one of the drug problem and the other of corrupt politics – while other shows might portray other issues more subtly.
Eminem made a career while singing about his imperfect relationship with his mother and by using the “F” word against then-President Bush, in opposition to the Iraq War. His music dominated the world. Not because he was singing praises for his country but because a lot of young people could identify with the rage and frustrations of an imperfect upbringing, and because he wouldn’t be persecuted in his country for a cry against a baseless war.
In the UK, the Royal family is there for a creative taking, a film could eulogise them in The King’s Speech while Ricky Gervais could mock Prince Andrew in this year’s Golden Globes.
Can you imagine a Chinese show that captures the struggles of life under the Communist Party of China or a Chinese song about Uighurs in the ‘re-education’ camps?
The imperfect portrayal of America doesn’t make people hate America, its life or its merchandise. Rather, it influences people. We buy Nike or Starbucks because they come with a backdrop of cultural influence. However, that imperfection of America does arouse curiosity and interest because it espouses complicated characters, socio-political dynamic, and human interest.
This story-telling about vulnerability and imperfection is something only another freethinking democracy can understand and produce. Our entertainment industry is making giant leaps with shows like Sacred Games and more recently, Pataal Lok. It’s safe to say that Indian content isn’t far from making global waves.
However, our content creators do struggle with constant restriction by people who take offence on productions that portray our society or our history as ‘weak’ or ‘compromised’ by their definitions. In other words, an ‘imperfect’ portrayal of our actually imperfect society is not acceptable.
Accepting and portraying imperfection appeals to people. Dangal was such a hit in a communist dictatorship like China not because it showed we are a superior civilisation than the Chinese, but because in the film, the creators acknowledged our societal imperfections and developed characters who were willing to cope with it in their insignificant but personal ways. Perseverance, despite inherent sexism and patriarchy, was something that the Chinese could relate to in the film.
If just by expressing our imperfections, we can touch the lives of people in an autocratic dictatorship, imagine how much influence it will hold around the world in more open societies.
Once our ideas and content start influencing the world, commercial merchandise will soon follow. Who’s to say kurtas won’t be sold in huge numbers around the world when Indian women don them in numerous shows? Or our chai cafes won’t find a market abroad when a popular show uses them as a setting? Our artists, musicians, and comics have only started going global and they will for sure open doors to a lot of business by allowing people to make sense of our society and its commercial products.
India’s history of influencing the world through freedom of ideas
China’s economy is five times bigger than ours and no one expects us to beat them at railroad construction in Africa or building ports in Sri Lanka, any time soon. However, while the world may inevitably hop on Chinese trains, they will tune in to music, check in movies and binge-watch shows, at times during those train rides.
What India can offer the world is our ideas, our philosophy, and our content. This will come from unleashing our creative minds by empowering them through legal protection and by updating our laws on freedom of expression, defamation, and reputation. There is hardly a film or show that depicts history or criticises a society that doesn’t come under political opposition. When we can’t express our imperfections at home, how will we ever influence anyone abroad?
The imperfect portrayal is indeed an intellectual strength of a society. The world doesn’t expect freedom of ideas from China – a country that has never had the imagination to vote and elect a leader in its five thousand-year history.
We need to encourage controversial and unconventional ideas. As a society, we need to move towards greater freedom of expression so that our freethinking ideas can nourish and grow. We have already done it once, more than two thousand years ago. The biggest religion in much of Asia and in China, which the Communist party went lengths to, to destroy, came from Indian Buddhist philosophy. Countries like Thailand and Indonesia are still influenced by early Hindu philosophy despite being majority Buddhist and Muslim, respectively.
That was the age of ideas through religion; today is the age of ideas through content. There is no betting against the possibility that more than a billion free-thinking people produce great ideas and influence the world. China may be good at the hardware economy, but we should harness our freedom economy.