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Friday, February 6, 2009

Bollywood Busts Out


Bollywood Busts Out
Richard C. Morais, 01.29.09, 05:00 PM EST
Forbes Magazine dated February 16, 2009

Indian films have long been dismissed by the West as formulaic Hindi fare. Signs are that might be changing.

Runaway hit: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in 'Slumdog Millionaire'.
The year's hot film, Slumdog Millionaire, tells a classic Bollywood tale of love and revenge through the postmodern storytelling frame of a TV game show. The film is fresh because it fuses Eastern and Western filmmaking techniques. But this crossover of Eastern and Western celluloid skills had been taking place in Bollywood and Hollywood boardrooms well before it ever showed up in an editing room.

Last September, for example, Steven Spielberg officially dropped his longstanding ties with Paramount for a $1.5 billion deal with Indian billionaire Anil Ambani. Disney (nyse: DIS - news - people ), meanwhile, has for the last year been systematically buying into India's UTV. Disney's recent Hindi feature film, Roadside Romeo, was about a pampered pooch released into the mean streets of Mumbai and reportedly cost $7 million to make. Low production costs are certainly one reason Hollywood is attracted to India, but tapping the nation's growing middle classes, and their voracious movie appetite, is equally part of the heady mix.

Warner Bros. wants a piece, too. It just released Chandni Chowk to China, a Hindi feature film about a roadside chef from Delhi mistakenly believed to be the reincarnation of an ancient Chinese warrior. Reviews are dire, but box office sales are curry hot. The film was the fourth-highest-grossing film ever to open in India. Warner quickly followed up with a three-film deal with an Indian production company, People Tree Films.

Budgets for Bollywood extravaganzas usually peak, according to one report, around $5 million; most cost around $150,000 to make. In contrast, it costs $107 million on average for a major Hollywood studio to make and market a film, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Back-alley Bollywood is further believed to make around 1,000 films a year, sell 3 billion low-cost tickets and generate an estimated $2 billion in revenue. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that India's film industry will grow at a 15% rate a year until 2012, when it will be a $4 billion industry.

Hollywood makes only a few hundred films a year but sells, in the U.S. domestic market alone, close to $10 billion worth of tickets. So Bollywood is still far from Hollywood, even though the latter has been struggling recently with overproduction and fallout from the credit crisis. But in this fertile environment India's famously parochial film industry, with scripts chock-full of weeping, singing and dancing, is slowly opening up to outside influences.

UTV World Cinema, NDTV and Palador Pictures recently began, for example, showing the best films of the West to India's middle-class audiences. One of the surprise hits of last year, according to India's Financial Express: Palador's Ingmar Bergman festival, which drew crowds in six cities across the country and, by popular demand, repeat shows in Mumbai.

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Do Knot Disturb is a Bollywood film not yet released but filmed last October at the Filmistan Studios in Mumbai. During shooting, paparazzi clamored by the studio gate, hoping to get a shot of starlet Lara Dutta. The studios, some of the oldest in India, are crumbling warehouse edifices on a rutted lane. Young men and women with earpieces, elderly men carrying trays of tea and carpenters constructing sets for the next shot all scurry through the narrow passageways in a dusty haze of feverish activity.

Inside, director David Dhawan was shooting a dance scene with 110 Bollywood hunks and starlets. At the assistant director's order the set suddenly erupted in a blur of azure, crimson, gold, pink, yellow, mauve and mustard costumes as the 110 hotties burst into their frenetic dance moves. "Now boys and girls, listen. No circle. Just follow the actors," barked Dhawan's deputy.

If India's industry continues to absorb some of the best ideas of Western cinema traditions--song-and-dance routines that move the plot forward, for example, a technique established by American musicals in the early 20th century--it's hard to predict what will happen to this lively local industry.

In the late 1950s a small group of French directors and actors drew inspiration from Hollywood B films. Adapting film techniques established by Hollywood directors, they unleashed a flowering in French films eventually known as La Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Perhaps a similar movement is in the making in India: films that are both innovative and popular with global audiences.

La Naya Vague, perhaps?

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