If you grew up in a South Asian home, you probably have fond memories of Bollywood movies and their stars, from Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan. University of Michigan’s film and media studies assistant professor Swapnil Rai sees these stars as more than just entertainers. She sees them as “non-state actors” that deeply influence cultural diplomacy, building bridges and spreading the word about India and Indian culture worldwide, outside state-initiated diplomatic discourses.

Dr. Swapnil Rai’s research discusses the intersections of politics, popular culture, and media industries. It brings together global media industry studies, transnational stardom, audience studies, and women and gender studies. Her forthcoming book, Networked Bollywood: How star power globalized Indian cinema, examines the history of the global reach of Indian films and the role of stars in Bollywood production culture and industry globalization. 

Dr. Rai has covered cinema, art, and culture in her prior experience as a journalist, writer, and editor. She has worked in the multimedia and information services industry for Thomson Reuters. Her experience as a journalist in the early 2000s, when Indian cinema began to globalize rapidly, led her to investigate Bollywood and its global effect further. 

“Bollywood is known globally, yet people don’t understand how much influence it has everywhere,” says Rai. “People have been watching Indian movies around the world since the early 1900s, and its megastars have carried great industrial power and geo-political influence, or ‘soft power.’” 

Her article on the importance of stars as non-state geopolitical actors is forthcoming in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. She will give a talk on the subject at the Weiser Center for Diplomacy, Ford School of Public Policy, on January 30th.

Dr. Rai earned the prestigious Richard and Lillian Ives Humanities Fellowship for the 2022-23 academic year, where the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities faculty fellows are released from their usual teaching and service duties to pursue their research at the institute. During her tenure at the institute, she is wrapping up her book manuscript, Star Power in Networked Bollywood.  Her newest book presents an oft-elided history of narrativizing Bollywood’s globalization and India's cinematic diplomacy that traditionally focused only on the industrial exchange. In this exchange, stars are valuable commodities rather than critical drivers of globalization and soft power. The book also reveals this exchange's masculinist and gendered nature of this exchange and star power.

Before this work, Dr. Rai’s other recent publications include From Bombay Talkies to Khote Productions: female star switching power in Bollywood production culture in 2020 and May the Force Be With You: Narendra Modi and the Celebritization of Indian Politics in 2019. 

Dr. Rai holds a PhD from the Department of Radio, TV, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. She has served as a postdoctoral visiting fellow at the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University and taught at Wesleyan University’s College of Film and the Moving Image. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Communication, Culture & Critique, Feminist Media Studies, International Journal of Communication, JumpCut, Journal of the School of Literature (JSL), and Cinephile. 

Please visit the Ford School of Public Policy's event page to register for Dr. Rai’s upcoming talk on cultural diplomacy and Bollywood's soft power in China on January 30, 2023. You can visit her university faculty page for more information on all of Dr. Rai's work.