Aswin Punathambekar has been appointed Annenberg’s newest professor of communication as well as director of its Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC), effective June 1, 2022. When Dr. Punathambekar moved from India to the US in 1999 to pursue a master’s degree in media studies, anyone who wanted to access film and television from the subcontinent often turned to an unlikely place: the grocery store, where renting a VHS of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ” might provide a connection to home.
Within a few years, however, South Asian media could be found on satellite and cable TV bundles, in video stores and urban multiplex cinemas, and being shared via peer-to-peer online networks. As a student in the comparative media studies program at MIT, Dr. Punathambekar began to reflect on these momentous technological and cultural shifts. Looking at how Indian media diffuses into the diaspora opened up bigger questions about globalization and audiences’ identities. Thinking through the answers to these and other questions has formed the basis of Dr. Punathambekar’s research and teaching, which now have a new home in Philadelphia.
For his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Punathambekar conducted ethnographic fieldwork in India and the US to understand the expansion of the Bombay film scene into the global-influential juggernaut now known worldwide as “Bollywood.” This research formed the basis for his first two books, the edited volume Global Bollywood (NYU Press, 2008) and From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (NYU Press, 2013).
As social media and streaming platforms used in a new era of globalized media, Dr. Punathambekar and his students at the University of Michigan’s department of communication studies unraveled the new multi-polar media world in the contexts of Morocco, the Caribbean, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as India and the Indian-American diaspora. Together they considered the impact of digitalization, but also the histories of media and communication technologies.
During this time, Dr. Punathambekar also joined a project funded by the Social Science Research Council that nudged him toward a more comparative focus by reading and drawing on scholarship that spans South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Working with scholars with deep expertise across these world regions further shaped his work and informed two other books – Television at Large in South Asia (Routledge, 2015) and Global Digital Cultures: Perspectives from South Asia (University of Michigan Press, 2019). In 2015, he founded the Global Media Studies Initiative (GMSI) at the University of Michigan, forming one of the few centers in the United States to foster rich collaboration among faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows interested in global communication.
Over the last three years, which he spent as an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies, Dr. Punathambekar has been working on a British Academy Global Professorship grant to study how digitalization has opened opportunities for migrant women in the UK, notably those from South Asia and the Caribbean, to shape their own sense of storytelling and cultural identity. In addition, Dr. Punathambekar co-edits the Critical Cultural Communication series for NYU Press, where he works closely with scholars to develop book proposals, workshop manuscripts, and shepherd projects to publication.
“Professor Punathambekar’s work covers critical themes in global communication, theorizes the infrastructural and political economic impact of media industries, and provides the Annenberg School with a senior scholar who has demonstrated a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how enhanced attentiveness to theorizing processes of globalization can help to redefine what communication studies looks like,” said Dean John L. Jackson, Jr.
As CARGC director, Dr. Punathambekar said that many of the established research themes will continue, including a focus on popular culture and geopolitics, media infrastructures and mobilities induced by climate change and global conflicts. In addition, CARGC will launch a series of critical conversations called “Turning Points in Global Media History” that explored key in media history that marked technological moments, political, and/or economic shifts. In the rush to study all things digital, Dr. Punathambekar said, the field may not have the most robust historical foundation for understanding where the digital comes from in a global context.
“I want to make sure that when we talk about the digital, we don’t replicate the mistakes other fields have made where we first theorize from the West, and then we go and explore other parts of the world,” he said. “The rest of the world has too often been a blank canvas for case studies, but never theorization.”