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Does Hollywood Really Get Bollywood?

By Maria Giovanna Email By Maria Giovanna
July 2009
Does Hollywood Really Get Bollywood?

In the past two years, media outlets in both India and the United States have carried many stories about the growing interest Hollywood studios were showing in the Indian film industry (or rather, in its Mumbai-based counterpart, Bollywood). Much has been written about how American film executives were seeing “gold in them thar hills” of Maharashtra and pursuing deals with the likes of the Yash Raj Films Studios and director Nikhil Advani of Kal Ho Naa Ho fame. One session at a recent Columbia University conference on Indian business was devoted to examining the halo effect of the Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire on the media business. At the most recent Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which included seminars hosted by the famous Creative Artists Agency under the umbrella title of “In Prime Time: Hollywood’s Spotlight on India,” one session was called “Producing Indian Content for the Indian and International Market.”

In a reversal of the flow of money, Reliance Big Entertainment plunked down a considerable $550 million to enable Steven Spielberg and his Dreamworks Entertainment to split from Viacom, while Ronnie Screwala’s UTV has had a slow and steady transcontinental courtship for several years, backing films such as Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, Mira Nair’s successful screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent effort The Happening (well, as Meatloaf sings, two out of three ain’t bad).

While every non-Indian film role that Aishawarya Rai Bachchan bags raises the ubiquitous speculation of her yet-to-happen crossover, some actors famous in Western films are now dipping their toes in Indian waters. The market at the most recent Cannes film festival included the Sylvester Stallone-starrer Kambakkht Ishq among the offerings. Ben Kingsley, of Gandhi and Sexy Beast fame, is facing off opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Teen Patti, and Mickey Rourke, who didn’t win the Oscar but definitely won many hearts for his comeback in The Wrestler, is slated to star in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Broken Horses.

But Hollywood’s initial financial investments have proven to be more than disappointing, with Saawariya (Sony), Roadside Romeo (Walt Disney) and, most recently, Chandni Chowk to China (Warner Brothers) flopping loudly at the box office. One bright star amid all that financial gloom was Slumdog Millionaire, whose own Cinderella-like salvation at the last minute by Fox Searchlight and subsequent Oscar landslide and ticket sales offered a lot of hope, even if it was a film by a British director that just happened to be set in India and staffed by Indian actors and technicians. Given all that, we wondered if maybe it’s all just a lot of hype and these are two industries with such different ways of doing business that success will prove as elusive as a hit movie for Harman Baweja.

Khabar spoke with a variety of people involved in the film industries of both India and America to check the current state of affairs, and also, now that the honeymoon is over, to examine attitudes and assumptions about this big rishta or relationship between them.

Why India and Why Now?

Many who study the Hindi film industry or who are involved in the making and distribution of those films concur that Hollywood turning its eyes toward Bombay and wanting a piece of the action was inevitable. “We saw it coming for a while,” Karan Johar wrote on his blog last year. “It does, after all, make perfect financial sense. It's the biggest benefit of these soon to be solidified deals—the coming together of capital for scintillating, groundbreaking, and oftentimes overindulgent, cinema.” According to Manish Acharya, writer, actor and director of the acclaimed indie movie Loins of Punjab Presents, “it was bound to happen. India is too big a market for Hollywood to ignore. And the Hollywood audience is the next (last?) frontier for the Indian film industry.”

U.K.-based Hindi film academic Rachel Dwyer, who has written 100 Bollywood Films and other books, listed several reasons for this union. “Foreign investors are interested in growth in India; the Indian film industry is becoming well known worldwide; there are many Indians active in Hollywood; PIOs (persons of Indian origin) are doing well in the U.S., and in California in particular. Cinema is a youth culture and, given the size of India's young population, it makes an attractive proposition.”

Tejaswini Ganti, author of Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema and anthropologist at New York University, said she was fascinated by the initial overtures but for more than the economics “because it seemed there were a few things indicated: one, a recognition on the part of multinational film companies of the strength of the Hindi film industry, like ‘Wow, here’s this other world out there that we don’t fully understand but we want a part of.’ And for the Bombay filmmakers there was a huge confidence boost, like, ‘These guys want to play on our field on our terms’, a big source of pride. One of things I’m tracking in my book (the upcoming Producing Bollywood) is this great desire on the part of filmmakers for a cultural legitimacy, and this is seen as a huge validation of the form of Hindi films.”

Apart from the money, this seal of approval may be a key reason for Bollywood’s eagerness to do business with its California cousin. Ganti remarked that on her last trip to Mumbai, she was told by her contacts that, unlike in earlier days when the biggest challenge filmmakers had was how to raise capital, now the word was “Money is not an issue any more.” She cites business mogul Anil Ambani’s investment in Reliance Big Entertainment as one example.

But Ganti posits that these newcomers to Bollywood may be making early missteps due to some attitudes and assumptions as they enter Mumba Devi’s Tinseltown. “I think what is operating here is this kind of strange condescension. There’s a clichéd notion of popular Hindi film. ‘It’s kitschy; it’s loud; it’s perhaps visually amazing; it doesn’t make sense to us but those guys like it.’ There’s a quasi-Orientalist perception. They have a very reductive notion of popular Indian cinema. There’s an inherent condescension about the form, not a desire to understand the cinema, just to get in on the business. They’re studying the market in terms of the huge numbers, but I don’t think they’re actually paying attention to the form, to the cinema.”

Following the initial three big forays—Saawariya, Roadside Romeo and CC2C (Chandini Chowk)—there seems to be some treading of water. Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru and media consultant to studios and distributors for Indian film releases in the U.S., notes: “There is a lot of optimism and talk about who will be working with whom next. Otherwise, people want to be in the right place when that first big hit comes along. The two film industries have wildly different methods of doing business, so the learning curve is steep. I think we will continue to see more joint ventures as both sides slowly try to figure out the best way to use the other country's resources to help make money.”

Making Friends and Influencing People

When asked what the current vibe is among his contacts in the Hindi film industry, Jerry Pinto, author of the acclaimed book on film danseuse and phenom Helen, and most recently, another one on the art of Bollywood film posters, summed it up this way: “Those who have entered into such contracts have high expectations of them. Those who have not sneer at them. I don't think it will be a fruitful collaboration. The processes are one-way, they are created with the unspoken assumption that India is the learner and the Western models are the ones to be emulated. Americans tend to talk softly and carry big bags full of dollars. But they also want good accounting systems and almost everything that founders in this new space founders because Bollywood has accountancy processes that can be described politely as imaginative and haphazard.”

In considering how and why Saawariya failed, Ganti reflects on the many interviews where director Sanjay Leela Bhansali commented on how he was being given free rein and no interference from the suits at Sony, and she wonders, “On one hand you think, ‘That’s great,’ but then you say, ‘Maybe they should have been more so,’ because one of the criticisms is that it was really self indulgent. Now there are deeper pockets for that self indulgence. It leads to failure.”

Dwyer also considered the two stumbles, saying: “Saawariya and CC2C were not good examples of the way forward. However, both looked like good bets. Who's advising Hollywood companies? [Anil] Ambani's company probably have a better idea of what's going on, as is proven by their involvement with Ghajini. They probably understand marketing and how Aamir Khan is so good at this and is one of the safest bets in the industry.”

Karan Johar makes a case for greater cultural comprehension on the part of the Americans. Addressing the Hollywood executives making a beeline for India, he writes, “We're emotional, and we're more connected than you’d think, but we have our patterns. Try to understand who we are as an industry, what works for us and, more importantly, for our audiences. What do they reject with morchas and embrace with jubilees? When sitting with your analysts, conduct a human analysis, not a business one. Deconstruct us if you must, but understand us at the end. Understand why we know that an item song done right will make you money, and we’ll try to make heads or tails of your paperwork. We've been doing this for years, and our mines are filling up fast. To successfully comprehend us, try a cocktail of de-Americanization, and matkis full of Indianization.”

From a U.S. perspective, Sanford Panitch of Fox International Pictures appears very conscious of the value of getting the lay of the land where one operates. “At Fox International Pictures we’re making films in eight countries now and each country has its own customs and set of rules. I find our experience so far in terms of Indian business being one that is very sophisticated and mature. There are certain Hollywood business practices we’re bringing into the equation but for the most part we’re adapting to the local customs and the way films are made there. To try to do otherwise would be silly.”

Going the Indie Route

In recent years, added to the customary audience divisions of ‘the classes’ and ‘the masses,’ and ‘urban’ versus ‘rural,’ there is the category of ‘multiplex audience,’ shorthand for an urban filmgoer who is English-speaking and affluent enough to afford tickets at the shiny, plush multiple screen cinemas now found in all larger cities. The tastes of the multiplex audience have been difficult to gauge, but one path some are taking is to launch smaller indie divisions of larger enterprises—think Zee Limelight or UTV Spotboy. On its website, the former declares “Zee Limelight will produce films which will be modestly budgeted and can be called Multiplex Movies. Such movies will be entirely script driven and will not flaunt any big and famous star cast. These movies will be theme based and will revolve around a strong and intense story line.”

Vikas Bahl, head of UTV Spotboy, describes a similar rationale for the launch of his division two years ago: “My thinking was, we do a lot of so-called commercial cinema in India which is pretty much dictated by star power, and scripts were going out of the window. My thinking was, maybe we should start something where the entire focus is on the story and the script, and we created a company that’s doing that.”

UTV Spotboy hit a homerun with its debut film Aamir, a heart-pounding thriller about the nice NRI doctor fresh off the plane from London and forcibly sent on a mad chase around Mumbai by an unknown (to him) voice who threatens to kill his family if he disobeys. For Bahl, Aamir was “phenomenal. It was a small film, completely the kind of cinema people in India don’t watch and even if they do they never pay for it because they see it on TV. It broke the barrier between commercial and noncommercial cinema. I think it started the whole journey of critically acclaimed films which do well at the box office. The other thing that was icing on the cake was that, without planning, it was the first film for everyone, whether it was the music director, or the DOP, or the director, or us, and that made it really exciting.”

The next two releases (Welcome to Sajjanpur and Dev.D) have both fared well, and there’s talk of Dev.D hitting the film festival circuit to stir up interest beyond India and the diaspora. Vikas Bahl, when considering the recent unions between Los Angeles and Mumbai, looks forward to a time when “more and more markets open up to our kind of cinema and we’re able to create world cinema. Then for us to be able to put in the money that the films and the scripts deserve becomes easier. Right now while our movies are really expensive and our talent and our lead casts are being paid like anywhere else in the world for English cinema, our geographical boundary is still just India. It restricts us from the money we can make on those films. I think what Slumdog has done really is shown that there is talent.”

Whither the South?

So far, most news stories have been limited to reporting on American interest in the Mumbai-based Hindi language cinema, but what of the other popular and profitable film industries around India, particularly those in the southern states? Ticket sales and film fan adoration for movies in Telugu and Tamil often match, if not surpass, those of their northern counterparts.

While no one seems to be writing about it, several of those who have hitched their wagons to Bollywood have also taken a look at the bigger picture and decided to also invest in the south. At the recent Columbia University conference, Vinod Bhat, co-founder of Saavn, a large global digital distribution network for Bollywood content, said, “We know for a fact that Warner Brothers has three or four regional films that have either been completed or are still on the floor. They’re looking at India from a macro perspective and not just Bollywood and Hindi film.” Among those regional films is Sultan the Warrior starring a—literally—animated Rajnikanth in the lead role. The film has a budget of $10 million and will be released in twelve languages.

Fox International Pictures, the one-year-old production division of Fox Filmed Entertainment established to “produce, acquire and distribute local language films around the globe” (with a big interest in India), appears set to get in on the dakshin act, too. When asked point blank if Fox was looking at the southern film industries, FIP President Sanford Panitch said, “We are, and I think we’ll have an announcement about that soon.” About this Mr. Panitch is very practical. “With U.S. films being almost less than 10 percent of the market, if you want to be in the Indian film business the only way is to make Hindi or Tamil language films.”

What About Us?

The ups and downs of the balance sheets or profit margins of Eros Entertainment or Sony Pictures aside, what about us, the fans out there who love our Hindi or regional language films? Other than stories about the bottom lines and the coming together of two cultural behemoths, will these partnerships lead to any changes or improvements in the movies we look forward to every Friday?

Box Office Guru’s Pandya reasons that “moviegoers will get more options since there are more companies there to finance and distribute the product. But at the end of the day, the film needs to be entertaining and the marketing must be strong in order to achieve commercial success. Moviegoers won’t care who is footing the bill, as long as they are entertained.”

Manish Acharya envisions a possible best case scenario where “Indian films will give higher priority to development and pre-production, which will lead to better films, and that will benefit the Indian viewer. And if Hollywood taps into the rich culture of India, perhaps starting with the musical traditions, Hollywood films will also be enriched. At a script level, Hollywood would benefit from a different worldview.”

Not everyone is so optimistic about moviegoers benefitting. Jerry Pinto has a rather blunt and drastic recipe for future success: “What the Hindi film fan needs is for everyone who is in the industry at this point of time to be rendered sterile. Then there will be no star sons, no nepotism and we'll get some real talent into the industry. Until then, we must live with Tusshar Kapoor, Harman Baweja, Mimoh Chakraborty and whoever else is being groomed for launching right now.”

A Few Words of Advice for Hollywood Film Execs Heading to Bombay:Vikas Bahl, UTV Spotboy: See how people are running this business and don’t look down upon it, just see how they are making it to be such a phenomenon in the country. Chill out and have a couple of drinks with people and see how it goes from there and don’t come with an agenda. Gitesh Pandya, BoxOfficeGuru.com: Take the easy road and get into the Shah Rukh or Aamir business. Don't waste your time with people bragging about great ideas who only want you for your studio's money.Lokesh Dhar, UTV Motion Pictures: Knowledge and understanding of the market is key. Partner with somebody who is already entrenched in that market. If you look at the investments which studios have made in India, or which Indian companies have made in the West, initially they’re all partnerships.Karan Johar, Dharma Productions: Put down that copy of Variety, and give this a thought: In our film fraternity, relationships are stronger than contracts. They always have been. It's why I can drop the F word (fraternity, what were you thinking?) so often and know in every sense, that it's true. Our word is as permanent as ink, despite the bad apples that sometimes give us an amateurish reputation. We’ve been nurturing these equations for years, and we do it sans agents and managers and assistants. Those of us lucky to be raised within the industry have the word of our fathers, our siblings, and those friends that might as well be family. We're small, and we may bicker, but we've sat in each other’s living rooms, and we've built this industry to what it is. Manish Acharya, Loins of Punjab Presents: Drink bottled water.

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