Review: Mallamall

Mallamall (Lalita Krishna, DER) is a documentary on globalization and the changing face of retail in India. It explores the growth of the Indian middle-class consumer market through the development of malls, and explores how the mall boom affects retailers and vendors in smaller street markets.

Mallamall is a riff on the old superstore-versus-mom-and-pop-store battle, but set in India against the backdrop of globalization and liberalization. The film follows three primary storylines, if one may call them that. There is the high-powered NRI-returned executive in Delhi (or more properly, Gurgaon) who shops in the National Capital Region’s (NCR) swanky malls and rattles around in a mansion with her daughter and a small contingent of servants, improvising Mexican cuisine with mall-bought Indian ingredients. There are the various employees of Canadian company Perennial, Inc. and its very new Indian subsidiary. Perennial is a retail consultant trying to get a foothold in India and tap into the booming retail market. And then there are the small vendors of Bangalore’s KR Puram sandi (street market), who are in imminent danger of having their livelihood taken away and the sandi razed to make way for a mall. Headed by the indomitable retailer-activist-farmer’s advocate Yele Srinivas, the film follows the vendors’ protests and battle for their sandi and their livelihood.

As the film moves between these three stories, we get a good sense of the underbelly of Indian retail, and also of the very real impact these malls are having on small retailers, not just because their clientele may be moving away to superstores, but also because their markets themselves may be moved to make way for malls. As the film shows, malls affect not only rich consumers, but also poorer ones, and smaller retailers are closing shop.

In India, I’ve shopped in malls, and I’ve shopped in local markets. I confess, I enjoy the experience of shopping in local markets more. But there’s no denying that what malls do, more than anything else, is clean up the retail experience. Imagine doing your shopping in the Delhi heat, dust flying everywhere and on everything you buy. Now imagine stepping out of that heat into a (relatively) sanitized, air-conditioned environment. That’s what malls bring to the retail experience. However, Mallamall clearly demonstrates that this sanitization comes at a heavy price.

There were a couple of small issues with the film. There were some typos, like, in one place, “Perennail” instead of “Perennial”. The music was too loud in parts, drowning out voices. I had another issue with the film, and it was a big one, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where the blame lay. I had no narration on my copy. Now, the DER website credits a narrator, and there’s a narrator on the trailer, so I don’t know if (1) there’s no narrator at all; (2) my DVD was flawed; or (3) something glitched because the DVD player in the room wasn’t working and I ended up watching it on a PC. Whatever the cause, it really got in the way of my appreciation of the film, because without narration, there’s no sense of context. That said, I watched the film with a handful of students from my Anthropology of Work class, and they thought it was great, so I don’t think it’s inaccessible to non-Indians even without the narrative. If someone contacts me and clarifies this issue regarding the narrative, I’ll update this comment accordingly.

The documentary is interesting, holds the viewer’s attention, and very informative. The visualization and imagery is excellent, although the camera lingered on some scenes a little too long. Nevertheless, it drew me in and gave me a strong sense of home. The juxtaposition of the lifestyles of different classes is also very well done, and the film has an overall poignancy that is subtle but powerful. I really felt for the sandi vendors, and I felt awful that I hadn’t really thought about what malls did to local markets before.

Mallamall worked well in my Anth of Work class, folded into discussions of globalization and the changing nature of work (in this case, the retail industry). I can easily see it being used in a class on globalization or retail. At 74 minutes, it works well for both longer and shorter class periods. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in India, globalization, the retail industry, grassroots activism, consumerism, work, or any combination of the above. It’s very accessible to undergrads, but also has value for researchers who might be interested in any of the aforementioned areas. Watch it. You can’t help but learn from it.

I have to say this, however, and it has no bearing on the content or quality of the documentary. The title is a godawful, groan-worthy pun.

Mallamall; 2012; Lalita Krishna, Documentary Educational Resources; 74 minutes, color.

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