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Bollywood: In need of consolidation

With Bollywood having managed to catch the eye of corporates and international film studios, its time now to consolidate that position.
PTI | By Manjulaa Negi
UPDATED ON AUG 03, 2004 07:18 PM IST

If only life were as promising and as hunky-dory as Bollywood would have us believe. Wish life were just a raunchy rain dance choreographed to a soulful melody to which you and I would sway and get all dreamy-eyed. Wish life were a bed of red roses (or pink lotuses in a green painted pond, lit by an artificial moonbeam if you so prefer). Life would get even better if it were a meadow of Edelweiss somewhere on the Swiss Alps... Wish life were more like Bollywood.

Bollywood - the world that you and I have known since 1931. A world that has survived (and how!) with its ups, downs and swings. A world of dreams that has provided countless hours of pleasure in a waking state. A microcosm that has survived inspite of the odds. The same Bollywood that you and I like to berate over goblets of expensive wine in air-conditioned surroundings. A world that by remaining true to its identity is today making news worldwide.

All told, the Indian film industry produces around 900 films annually, almost twice as many as the American dream-factory, Hollywood. The name 'Bollywood', reportedly created by journalists in the 1970s for Bombay's film industry, connects both film industries with each other. Romantic comedies such as The Guru or Baz Luhrmann's films Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge use elements from popular Indian cinema.

Therefore, it is no wonder that in Northern Africa and in the Middle and Far East, the Indian cinema embodies a cultural power, which can, by all means, compete with Hollywood. It isn't without reason that corporates and even film studios like Century 20th Fox are tapping into Bollywood to come up with co-productions or (this gets better by the minute) enter into negotiations for remake of a Hindi film, Munnabhai M.B.B.S. into English. There's big bucks involved here and everyone is cashing in on it.

Says author and consultant editor with Time Out New York Tanuja Desai Hidier (who brought out a special supplement devoted to the South Asians with focus on Bollywood and Andrew Llyod Webber's Bombay Dreams): "A great part of the appeal of traditional Bollywood musicals is the sheer joyful vibrancy therein: Song and dance and gorgeous people in fabulous clothes and fantastic settings. It's like a long, lush cinematic party at best. And these Bollyfilms let you go through a whole range of emotions if you give yourself up to them. One minute you could be sobbing inconsolably, the next laughing hysterically. The complete suspension of disbelief that is required to watch Bollywood films provides a great kind of escapism as well. Who cares if the character was in a green sari in Ooty and one second later is in a salwar-kameez by the Eygptian pyramids in the same song number? As long as there's a happy ending. And I think particularly today, with the current political climate and that constant stress and tension it brings - we'll be just fine."

This is also the reason why corporates are making inroads into Bollywood. The focus has obviously shifted from single producers who called the shots to corporate companies who will produce and distribute Hindi films. As Ronnie Screwvala, CEO UTV Entertainment - a multimedia house which now includes co-productions and overseas distribution, says in an interview: "We forayed into the distribution business primarily because we wanted to stay in the movie business and understand it before we start putting big monies on production. We've distributed about 14 movies, 11 of which have been successful over the last two-and-a-half years. Right from Sarfarosh  to Mission Kashmir, Hera Pheri, Lagaan, we have had a good run in movie distribution. It was done to understand the market, build our relationships and credibility.
"Going forward, we see ourselves as being producers where we originate our own content or co-produce like we have with Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya or Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades. The reason why we are going for an international distribution model is that it is still very virgin and we feel we can understand that market better."

But lots needs to be done on ground before the world goes beyond being "curious". And that requires brand building. Says Gautam Hooja, film distributor for Indian films in Canada and for Canadian products in India: "Co-production treaties between the Indian government and the respective country could go a long way in facilitating film-related activities abroad. So while, there are single theatres in every medium to large city in US and Canada (opened by an enterprising NRI and devoted only to popular Hindi fare) there is still a need to build the brand first. The genre itself won't sell itself so easily. On ground, people still ask for a Satyajit Ray film rather than pick up a Bollywood DVD yet!" 

Another glitch is that the Indian filmmakers drive a hard bargain when it comes to distribution. A reason why foreign distributors rarely touch Hindi films. "The prices aren't competitive when it comes to Indian producers. They don't want to leave more than 12 to 15 per cent (or 20 per cent if really pushed) of the box-office reciepts to the distributor, while others like Hollywood makers or even Iranian filmmakers leave a mimimum of 25 per cent, once in a while going up to 35-40 per cent depending on the product. So, those films get picked up faster," he points out. 

To complicate matters, Bollywood films have less box-office appeal as compared to films from other nations, not to mention the Hollywood blitzkreig. Eros International, pioneers in Hindi film distribution however have a different take on the issue. They don't need to sell themselves to anyone except NRIs and since one in every four people worldwide is an Indian, the  equation is balanced out.

"The NRI loves mushy fare. Action is a definite no-no. So actors like Sunny and Bobby Deol who have action hero images don't sell abroad. Give them a Shah Rukh or a Salman Khan anyday," says Vikas Sahni of Eros International, who along with Sunil Lulla acquires Hindi films for the overseas market. So the next time Shah Rukh says he doesn't need to change his "romantic image" since his fans like it that way, you know there is more to it than meets the eye!

Add to romance, elements of Indian-ness (read Karan Johar's idea of patriotism) go a long way in making Hindi films a hit abroad. So what if Kajol spouting a Jan Gana Mana or an Om Jai Jagdish Hare makes little sense to us here in India, for the homesick NRI it simply reinforces that hamara  Bharat is Sare Jehan Se Achcha.

But if Bollywood is to 'be international' in every sense of the word, its makers need to let go of their inward-looking ideas. For the world is truly an oyster if only we know how to tap the potential. As Desai Hidier says, "If run in London is any thermometer, I believe we're just on the verge of getting Bollyfever going on a larger scale in the States too. In the UK, the play's launch was tied into and inspired a Bollywood theme month at Selfridges, film festivals,
park celebrations, poster expos, and so on. And two years on, that interest shows no signs of flagging. I think something something similar could take place in the States. And with the way a Bollyinfluence has found its way into music, fashion, and non-Bollywood films and spectacles - even references in films such as , it may not be so easy to escape in the States."

And who would want to? Escape that is.

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