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Myopia dogs Bollywood?s global act

Distributors need to look beyond NRI theatres, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2006 18:53 IST

Much has been said and written about the Indian movie industry’s growth curve in recent years as a key global entertainment player. While some of these grandiose-sounding claims may contain an iota of truth, the fact remains that large segments of Bollywood, for whatever their output is worth, are still, at best, a fringe phenomenon on the world stage.

But isn’t that fact far too well known to bear repetition? Yes, it certainly is. But if one has decided to harp on it yet again, it is simply because of the gnawing feeling that the time has come for Indian movie producers and distributors to realise that the conventional concept of an overseas territory – represented by the NRI markets in the US and UK – is in desperate need of a thorough overhaul.

Under the existing global distribution system the Hindi films rely upon, only a handful of companies like the ubiquitous Eros Entertainment bear the responsibility of acquiring, promoting and releasing Indian films in the West. Unfortunately, these distributors do not have the vision or the imagination to look beyond the theatres that service the expatriate Indian communities. No serious attempts are ever made to explore the arthouse or general distribution outlets that Chinese and Iranian films have been so effectively exploiting to their own advantage for many years now.

Consider the way in which Paheli, India’s official nomination for the Academy Awards, has been left to fend for itself in the Oscar race. If you don’t love your own film enough, how can you expect the world to take a liking to it?

Programmers of Indian cinema whose job is to handpick Indian films for international festivals often receive offers from non-conventional US exhibitors desirous of picking up Mumbai films for wider airing, but the overseas distribution rights holders are never interested in pursuing such deals for they do not, in their wisdom, see any percentage in seeking to extend the reach of Hindi and other Indian language films beyond the already saturated NRI segment.

Strange as that may sound, it is the truth. In the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which screens a majority of the foreign-language Oscar submissions from all over the world early each year, Indian films do often command an enthusiastic audience response, ending up on the list of viewers’ favourites. But from there on, they go nowhere because the distributor, a person who understands nothing beyond his margins, is happy enough to count the greenbacks already in his kitty to worry about the big picture.

The big picture is this: if Indian films are to be taken seriously in the long run, they have to strive for more than just box office collections – not just singly, but collectively. And for that to happen, films that show signs of striking a chord with western audiences need to be pushed hard through both conventional and innovative means into the space that films from China, Taiwan and Iran currently occupy.

But the current Indian showbiz mindset is hardly conducive to a more meaningful global engagement. Consider the way in which Paheli, India’s official nomination for the Academy Awards, has been left to fend for itself in the Oscar race. If you don’t love your own film enough, how can you expect the world to take a liking to it?

It’s not that general awareness of Indian cinema is in danger of shrinking. At Palm Springs this year, as many as three films from India – Parzania, Paheli and My Bollywood Bride – had additional screenings on public demand. The list could have been longer had a better print of Parineeta been sent to the festival.

The Pradeep Sarkar film, which will be soon on the way to Berlin as well, was well received and should, in the normal course of things, have been in the Best of the Fest list. But the print was in such bad shape that the festival organisers could not have run it one more time.

So, it was clearly an opportunity missed for Parineeta. The issue is not about one film; it is about a way of thinking that prevents Indian filmmakers from taking the right steps in their quest for an increased international profile. The time is ripe and a globalised world is ready to accept all kinds of cinema. It is the time to strike out new directions. Sadly, myopia is the bane. It prevents Indian moviemakers from looking beyond the NRI theatres.

First Published: Jan 30, 2006 20:00 IST