Item Numbers in the Digital Age: From Cinema to a Landscape of Techno-Tactile Sensations
This is the fourth and final research note from Silpa Mukherjee, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
In my introductory post I referred to the new phenomenon of online citation culture built around item numbers as the item number effect. Amateur digital culture spawned by social networking and micro-blogging platforms, and online platforms that encourage user generated content build an archive of virtual signage associated with the item number that now bleeds out of cinema and becomes more than music. Here I signpost the registers of a new fan identity which often curiously blends with the star’s (viz. a web-worm, a prolific user of digital media), digital fan labour, fan blogging, YouTube and social media’s significance to the industry and its stars and the intermedial role played by online media companies in curating publicly produced digital content that is followed by both the stars and the fans. This post maps the landscape of techno-tactile sensations generated by the travels of the item number across social media and the feedback loop it creates between the film and music industry and the fan-user(s).
Social Media as the New Playground for Stars and the Industry
A year ago the Twitter handle #bangbangdare that was moving through other micro-blogging sites, Facebook, and YouTube was back on Twitter with avid Hrithik Roshan fans reminiscing the challenge that the star had tweeted to other popular Bollywood stars’ as a promotional of his film Bang Bang (Siddharth Anand, 2014). The dare caught everyone’s attention when Ranveer Singh accepted the challenge and danced to the song “main aisa kyun hun”, dressed in Hrithik’s Krrish costume mouthing Hrithik’s dialogue from the film “1, 2. 3…get ready…Bang bang” and mimicking his steps from his remarkable number “ek pal ka jeena” (Kaho Na Pyar Hai, dir. Rakesh Roshan, 2000) on a crowded Bandra crossing, wriggling to the traffic policeman’s nonchalant face and finally running away with his laptop when chased by the police. Ranveer uploaded the video on YouTube and fans started “liking, commenting and sharing it”, sharing it on micro-blogs and “re-tweets” started pouring on Hrithik Roshan’s Twitter handle; fans and other stars wishing him luck for Bang Bang. Later in a television talk show hosted by Niranjan Iyer, Ranveer Singh confessed his “cinephilia” and his “crazy fascination” for Hrithik Roshan’s iconic “ek pal ka jeena” choreography that drove him to publicly perform the #bangbangdare as a fan’s homage to his favourite dancing star.
The #bangbangdare Twitter handle
The convergence of media around this single event of one star referencing another and garnering fan following for both suggests the case of a new cinephilia and new fan culture that is highly participatory in nature. The extensive use of social media by A grade actors to address each other as well as their fans displaces and defers the distinction between their on-screen and off-screen personas. What emerges is a haze of shifting screen personas; from the single big screen to multiple small screens. With social media sites usurping the old custom of sending fan letters to stars the question of increasing star-fan interactivity arises. The ensuing interaction one needs to remember is simulated in most cases. Web 2.0’s unique infrastructural design for user activity permits one to feign identities; not all stars manage their social media accounts themselves, most of them have managers to handle their WhatsApp and Email accounts as well. In a conversation, Dibyojyoti Baksi, film journalist with Hindustan Times confirmed that the top notch stars use social media like Twitter and Instagram only to announce their location. Baksi says, “Priyanka Chopra uploads her photos on Instagram and shares it on Twitter while she shoots for Quantico just to let fans know when she’s in Atlanta, but she’ll never post shooting memos on social media. Unless the production house releases something officially, the star is rule bound to not upload details from an on-going shoot…her use of social media has a very different purpose than a budding starlet’s, who’ll possibly keep updating her Twitter account every half an hour publicizing minute details of her life.” One can recall the lawsuit filed against Sherlyn Chopra by director Rupesh Paul when she uploaded on YouTube raw footage from an item number shot with her for Paul’s film Kamasutra 3D prior to any official release of the film’s teaser. Baksi further informs, “Traditional fan activity still exists for the big stars, large numbers of fans still gather near Mr.Bachchan’s or Shahrukh or Salman’s houses to witness their personal physical appearances, live and at close proximity. Social media has merely created a façade of reachability for the actors to the fans and vice versa (stars are still physically or even virtually inaccessible to their fans, it is usually the production houses that tweet thanks to the viewers who made certain film releases successful. Stars like Farhan Akhtar, Shahrukh Khan and Mr.Bachchan only thank their ten million followers for following them by tweeting “thank you(s)” after they achieve a certain benchmark following on Twitter).”
In his work on Otaku culture in Japan, Hiroki Azuma notes the formation of databases that catalogue, store and display results, providing a space where users can search for the traits they desire and find new characters and stories that might appeal to them; the users are the Otaku fans who form the database (not simply a computer programme but also a worldview that sees the environment around them as coded with information and one that responds to clicks on search buttons). The Otaku are defined by Azuma as fans “who fanatically consume, produce, and collect comic books (manga), animated films (anime), and other products related to these forms of visual culture and who participate in the production and sales of derivative fan merchandise”. Azuma even points out the traces of Otaku in Web 2.0 Internet culture including blogs and YouTube. The phenomenon of the item number effect indicates the formation of a similar database of cult images that are produced and circulated by digital media in India. The new database alters audience interaction with the item numbers as the aural acquires a haptic quality when music frees itself from cinema and is morphed into multiple other formats on the web (viz. as remixes with 3D, animation and text mashups, gifs and short videos edited with warping texts in listicles, memes with sound clips attached to speech bubbles). Revised modes of audience interaction also add new layers of tactility to the image that is formed by freezing music. Proliferation of social media in India, a landscape of an always ascending figure of technologically enabled population invokes a new fan identity; a user of digital media with a fascination for the new medium and obsession to leave a barrage of signage on the virtual cutting an arc from the invisible (an older logic of star-fan relation) to the hypervisible (the new corpus of web-based fan activity enmeshed in a complex web with the star’s movements on the internet). The marks left by the fan-user’s activities on the web reminds one of an older moment of aesthetic marking that emerged with the popularisation of the videotape. Marks left on the videotape became a tangible part of its aesthetic. About the aesthetic marking on bootlegged video pornography, Lucas Hilderbarand notes, “Videotape amateurs and bootleggers’ sticky fingerprints…signifies the inherent vices of analog video- and personalises it as well…distortion can become beautiful, arousing…or emotionally moving.” Laura Marks in her work on digital video art suggests the ways in which the marks of decay and generational loss on analog video becomes a part of the definite aesthetic bent of the digital video artist’s fascination for indexicality that she refers to as “analog nostalgia”; “artists are importing images of electronic dropout and decay, “TV snow” and the random colours of unrecorded tape in a sort of longing for analog physicality.” It is remarkable to note that Marks treats old media like the fossil, an object that retains the trace of the user. The materiality of trace on analog video can be compared to the algorithmic function of the database of fan-user activity that gets updated with every new upload. The traces left by individual users appear (often curated by the online platforms) when the future users search for it, the entire process enabled by a complex working of the algorithms of Web2.0. This layer of fan-users generates a ripple of sensations across media that even the stars partake in with equal frenzy (discussed later in the post). Image addiction and image making spurred by the digital becomes a continuous everyday process travelling in a loop between the industry and the fans with an emerging grey zone in which stars play fan roles and fans attain stardom by producing sensational images.
It is not only the stars who tap into the social media boom for publicity but also the music companies who procure the music rights of the films. Music companies create a minimum of three versions of a single item number (which they release at three different stages of the film’s distribution) for YouTube: a teaser version of the video followed by a release of the “full audio song” to lead to the final upload of the “full video song”. While similar multi-durational tracks of songs were edited for televisual promotions as well, the amount of thought given to promoting singles in multiple formats specifically for a YouTube audience suggests a shift in spectatorship in terms of sites of exhibition and music consumption. Over the past two years the three-version release has become a standard for music companies on YouTube. The three-version song moment coinciding with the shift of spectatorship from television to smaller devices resonates with what Caetlin Benson-Allott notes about Hollywood’s recognition of the video moment in the spectatorial shift from the theatres to the home resulting in its altered aesthetics of horror cinema towards of end of 70s and early 80s. Recognizing the shift of a considerable body of spectators from the television to the smaller screens of the personal, more haptic devices, music promotional through YouTube has gained prominence. The change in music consumption patterns and music distribution thus influence each other. Item numbers work the best to promote films because no longer are films associated with a full album; multiple composers work on a single film and popular film music today is geared towards catering to a growing pub culture which favours Electronic Dance Music with auto-tuned vocal tracks and chartbuster singles. Paramjeet Singh, co-founder and Managing Director, Saavn.com, a streaming platform for popular music is quoted to say, “When you say you like Ek Villain, you mean two-three songs from the film and similarly you associate Ragini MMS with Baby doll, and not the entire album… Creating a lot of hype around each song leading up to the full album release has become a good way of making it a success.” The significance of social media for music companies is corroborated out by Aseem Chandaver, a member of the creative team of Eros. Chandaver’s anecdote coming from the entertainment syndicate Eros is interesting precisely because Eros manages all aspects of a film’s production, distribution as well as its music release. He points out the number of stages of publicity that their marketing team went through for the theatrical release of Goliyon ki Raasleela: Raamleela (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2013): “We released a motion poster, a teaser, first trailer followed by Trailer 2 and finally two dialogue promos with eight to ten dialogues from the film. We released them on YouTube and shared it on social media pages for Eros as well as our Eros International blog (now we also have an app, the Bajirao Mastani trailer was released to be streamed on the app). In this particular case Mr.Bhansali himself did the trailer, so we didn’t have much say in it. He edited the first part of the trailer to the audio track of the Ranveer Singh number “tattad tattad” and asked for a separate YouTube upload for the Priyanka Chopra special appearance item number “ram chahe leela” just a month before the release of the film. With most other films we outsource the business of trailer making to promo managers at Andheri, especially Trigger Happy Promotions.”
The Democratising Digital New Media, is it?
New technologies (viz. digital media) are enabling average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in a convergence culture moment when fans are crucial to the operation of culture in a mediatised economy. At a cursory glance the participatory culture seemingly holds great potential to the building of multiple voices of the mass as opposed to the unified gigantic noise emitted by the corporations. However, one needs to be aware of the nuances in this arrangement. Although, fan activity facilitated by amateur digital culture is voluntary against any logic of compensation or commercial benefit, it is usurped by the “internet’s continuous need for updating itself” by continuously extracting value out of continuous, labour-intensive and updateable work. Tiziana Terranova critiques the phenomenon of fan labour: “The sustainability of the Internet as a medium depends on massive amounts of labour (which is not equivalent to employment), only some of which was hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of venture capitalism (during the late 1990s dot-com boom). Of the incredible amount of labour which sustains the Internet as a whole (from mailing list trafﬁc to websites to infrastructural questions), we can guess that a substantial amount of it is still free labour.” Abigail De Kosnik explicates digital fandom as a growing community of “prosumers” who constitute a category of “work”: “unauthorized marketing for a wide variety of commodities…a new form of publicity and advertising, authored by volunteers that corporations badly need in an era of market fragmentation.”
The “kajra re” (Bunty Aur Babli, dir. Shaad Ali, 2005) gifs. Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/Ybx0H
I engage with fan-user generated digital content as a form of value. Online transaction amongst fans supports the functioning of Web2.0 companies and their allied media corporate partners. Fans producing content thus offer voluntary digital labour and fall under the category of “prosumers” as suggested by De Kosnik. In the process, prosumers unwittingly build an archive of signage with the traces they leave on the web. Online platforms like 9gag, Buzzfeed, Imgur and the more India specific content based internet media companies, Scoopwhoop, trolldekho.com, memecenter.com, memegenerator.com were instrumental in creating a whole host “prosumer” fans in India who create, “like” and share content (“funny” images in the form of memes, gifs, short videos and picture comments), troll starlets and other users (posting either “offensive” or ridiculous images on their social media pages), form a community of prosumers who design, advertise and consume merchandize associated with image specific fandom and unwittingly advertise corporations which includes film and music business. The images that I am referring to in this post are frozen sequences from item numbers that are extremely tactile in nature. The tactility is derived from the multiple processes of technological morphing that these images undergo in the domain of digital media. Amateur fans are thus enabled to personalise the digital images of their favourite stars as opposed to the paper pin-ups of an earlier era. The resultant phenomenon fosters a virtual world of sensations; an affective condition that even the stars are not untouched by. “One of our most loyal followers is Bollywood celebrity, Anushka Sharma (the star is one of our regular readers), although our target group is teenage girls of the age group of fifteen to twenty five years”, says Rega Jha, founder of Buzzfeed India. She further says that after working with Buzzfeed International she brings it to India with the notion that “India should not be sheltered from the global web and pop culture and that Buzzfeed India was possible only because (as our sources say) there are 300 million web users and 200 million English speaking Indians”. Jha notes that Buzzfeed functions at a much smaller scale in India than in the U.S: “…in the U.S. it is more specialized with a social media and technology team constantly updating the portal, here we’re a team of writers who produce India specific stories, as a vertical community that also encourages content from the users but we make them public only after they’re vetted by our editors.” One should note that although the buzz word of these online media platforms for content sharing is “User Generated Content”, purely user bred content is a rarity in any of these internet media companies. Debarshi Banerjee, a founder of ScoopWhoop, a Delhi based online media house says that the five founders of the first Indian internet news company come from backgrounds in digital advertising and were thus familiar with the medium and could surmise that the Indian consumer was ready to make the leap to transition to consuming content that is wholly digital. Both ScoopWhoop and Buzzfeed India have been operational for a year now and both offer content that is “curated by a team of editors.” Banerjee suggests, “The danger of allowing absolutely unedited content is that some of the users might upload abusive or offensive content in the name of trolling, we don’t want to run into that.”
A ScoopWhoop feature
User generated content or fan uploads in the case of the item numbers can range from benign online fan communities compiling videos and photographs of favourite stars and highlighting their attainment of a certain number of YouTube “likes” on Google+, Facebook or Twitter to the most vicious hate trolls on 9gag and memegenerator.com. For example, the members of Shruti Haasan Fan Club on Google+ kept updating the page when the star’s item number “madamiyan” was uploaded on YouTube, marking every development on the YouTube link from sharing gifs out of their favourite moments from the number to celebrating the video reaching a more than one million views in a few days of its release. On the other hand some of the most hateful trolls are directed against ex porn star Sunny Leone which is then circulated on social media: Sunny Leone drinking a green juice is Hulk’s cum (wink, wink)/ Sunny Leone co-hosting MTV Splitsvilla on the small screen is booed by trolls saying, “But we’ve already seen you in many small screens, LMFAO” etc. What is interesting in both the extreme cases, one of fan bhakti and another of organised virtual hatred, is the longevity of user activity on a particular content. It points out the memetic as well as the mimetic tendency of the attention of the users of Web 2.0 reminding one of Terranova’s logic of the mimetic node of users paying attention to what others do on social networking sites. J. MacGregor Wise notes that what is perhaps new to distraction (it was an important feature of both modernity and postmodernity) is the seeming ubiquity of technologies of distraction. The economics of the new assemblage (formed by the user body in stratification with the multiple dimensions of affect and the multiple devices surrounding it) is the economics of attention. The urge to theorise attention is in response to the growing cult of online stardom and the new clamour for our attention across proliferating media and within the media themselves.
A list found on the Eros Blog.
The emergence of the blogger as a fan veers the landscape of techno-tactile sensations in unimagined pathways. The blogger, a more definite category of the fan-user is not an uncritical fan, the blogger produces content in the form of word texts and thus expresses her/her opinions in more concrete forms. The blogger unlike the writers of online media portals are autonomous writers and artists, not producing curated content. The blogger’s production moves in a rhizomatic pattern, from the blogging site to being shared on social media to corporate media platforms and sometimes even to the stars’ social media pages. Henry Jenkins writes evocatively about the utopian possibilities of the blog in 2001: “Imagine a world where there are two kinds of media power: one comes through media concentration, where any message gains authority simply by being broadcast on television; the other comes through grassroots intermediaries, where a message gains visibility only if it is deemed relevant to a loose network of diverse publics. Broadcasting will place issues on the national agenda and define core values; bloggers will reframe those issues for different publics and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard.” While the utopian universal blog land began with the aspiration of being the zenith of a platform that offered variability and mutability to personal identities, and the promise that every opinion be expressed, documented and considered significant, it quickly transformed itself into “vague media”, a network paradox where blogs produce opinions which are constructive and destructive of the social at the same time; bloggers represent “not collective active but massive hyper-individual linking”. Bloggers we know write to express the views of those they imagine share their ideas, without ever uniting other bloggers or their readers. Blogs dissolve any sense of a space for the development of a mass body; “they dis-place it, producing instead ever-accelerating circuits of images, impulses, fragments and feelings”.
One can find some content related to item numbers from Tumblr accounts of users but a whole gamut of such content is harvested by blogs maintained by larger media corporations like Eros that aim at building a certain kind of fan base among their readers by uploading only those content that suits their criteria. Aseem Chandaver shares, “The Eros blog is a separate user level platform. We started it in 2015 with an aim to delink it from our aggregate corporate productions and encourage a fan base that has an extremely casual take on Bollywood and pop culture. Of course none of it was possible even five years ago without this scale of rapidly spreading digital culture all over India.” Tumblr, a micro-blogging and social media website allows free sharing of grassroots level users, permitting them to creatively express their opinions without violating the aegis of the parent body’s aims. One of the interesting “trends” that I followed on Tumblr is the discussion of the item number “Sheila ki jawaani”: bloggers who have shared their opinions and content related to the “search” appear on a carefully curated Tumblr page, individual blog posts appearing as stick notes on a personalised office wall, which are then “reblogged”, “liked”, and “noted”. Along with the usual “smart list, funny meme, and sexy gif” posts on Sheila ki jawaani and item numbers in general, one can find a virtual discussion on the possible interpretations of the item number, one of which (posted by a user under the name, confessionsofawritergril) teasing out a feminist reading of the song is shared on Buzzfeed which is further shared by Katrina Kaif on her Twitter handle. The sensorium created by a platform like Tumblr is wide reaching and has the effect of worlding the content made possible by the convergence of digital media which in turn creates the feedback loop between the industry, the media house and the fan-user. The content on these blogs and micro-blogging sites range from lists, memes, gifs, podcasts, short videos or “interesting” stories; haptic in nature inviting affinity and aspirations for a particular kind of fashion and lifestyle.
 This is marked by the proliferation of images that overwhelm the cinematic and disperse into other intermedial platforms provided by digital social media. The key to the circulation of these images is a cinephilic recognition of iconic moments from the numbers that are frozen as quintessential images associated with the stardom of the performing actors (arms opening out to hug nothingness- Shahrukh Khan, teasing the elastic of the boxers: John Abraham, belt shake: Salman Khan, hair ruffle: Ranveer Singh, closing the top button of the blouse: Priyanka Chopra, wink followed by fingers-in-mouth whistle: Katrina Kaif, etc.).
 In a conversation Dibyajyoti Bakshi. September 22, 2015.
 Azuma, Hiroki. Trans. Kodansha Gondai Shinsho. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2009, p-xvi
 Ibid. p- xv
 Ibid. p-xix
 Hilderbrand, Lucas. Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright. Duke University Press, Durham, London, 2009. P-71.
 Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2002. P-153.
 Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, US, 2000. P-85
 Allott, Caetlin Benson. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2013. P-19.
 Paramjeet Singh quoted in Suanshu Khurana and Sankhayan Ghosh’s “Bollywood is Waking Up to a New Music Marketing Device” in Indian Express, updated : November 21, 2014, 14:35. Retrieved from http://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/play/who-killed-hindi-film-music/
 In conversation with with Aseem Chandaver, September 23, 2015.
 Jenkins, Henri. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York and London: New York University Press, 2006.
 Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. New York, Pluto Press, 2004. P-90.
 Kosnik, Abigail De. “Fandom as Free Labour” in Trebor Scholz ed., Digital Labour: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Routledge, New york and London, 2013. P-99.
 In an interview with Rega Jha. September 22, 2015.
 In an interview with Debarshi Banerjee. September 22, 2015.
 Quoting Rega Jha and Debarshi Banerjee.
 Debarshi Banerjee. September 22, 2015.
 The term fan bhakti is borrowed from Madhava Prasad’s “Fan Bhakti and Subaltern Sovereignty: Enthusiasm as a Political Factor”
 Terranova, Tiziana. “Attention, economy and the brain” in Culture Machine, 13, 2012, 1-19.
 Wise, J. M. “Attention and assemblage in the clickable world” in Communication Matters, 2012.
 Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York University Press, New York and London. 2006, p-178.
 Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. Routledge: New York and London. 2008, p-5, 29.
 Dean, Jodi, “Whatever Blogging” in Trebor Scholz ed., Digital Labour: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Routledge, New york and London, 2013. P-129, 134.
 In a conversation with Aseem Chandaver. September 23, 2015.
 Referring to https://www.tumblr.com/search/sheila%20ki%20jawani
 Retrieved from https://www.tumblr.com/search/sheila%20ki%20jawani