India's film industry is facing huge challenges, but a global breakout success may not be far away, says Len Klady
It has been a brutal summer. The movies that were supposed to set box-office records have come up short. And the seasonal surprises, while warmly welcomed, are failing to close the gap in lagging ticket sales.
Yes, the movie moguls of Mumbai are in a quandary. Just last weekend the high-profile Apne starring veteran Bollywood actor Dharmendra and his two sons was unexpectedly overshadowed by Aap Ka Surroor, the film debut of singer-songwriter Himesh Reshammiya.
Two weeks ago India's biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan, was not sufficient insurance to provide Jhoom Barabar Jhoom with a big opening. The talk of the industry was Sivaji with Rajnikant, a star of Tamil cinema, not the Hindi mainstream.
Bollywood and Hollywood
The parallels between the two 'Woods are not simply a matter of each industry finding they are having to confront a temporary disconnect with their respective audiences.
Both cinemas have developed a ferociously loyal global audience (roughly 30% of India's film revenues are derived from outside its borders) who are generally unlikely to consider other viewing options.
Both industries have established genres, an entrenched star system and publicity machines that can often generate blockbuster business for cynically commercial fare.
Bollywood has other dilemmas than simply coming to terms with recent hits such as Life In A ... Metro or Bheja Fry, which were modest productions without high-profile stars but are among this year's most commercially successful movies.
The marketplace sliver that Hollywood films have represented in India is growing. Spider-Man 3 grossed $15m to set a new record for a foreign film, and the more aggressive approach to the market has also been good for the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean, this week's debut of Die Hard 4.0 and the forthcoming Harry Potter instalment.
We're just beginning to see the effect satellite TV and the internet are having in expanding audience tastes,' says Vishal Nath of the country's IBOs Network. 'The popularity of the Spider-Man comics really paved the way for the movie's success and, because of satellite and DVD, pictures such as Pirates or Harry Potter, which had limited releases a few years ago, now open as wide as anything from Bollywood.
'But it's not simply American product that's benefiting, it's also our regional cinema in Tamil and Telugu. Sivaji simply could not have played as wide and popularly even two years ago.'
There's been talk over the past two years of Hollywood co-producing in India and of Mumbai film-makers looking seriously at English-language projects. However, the prospects remain just prospects despite the odd cross-cultural effort such as Bride And Prejudice and The Guru.
'Sony has made a few films in India for the Indian market,' says Ken Naz who heads Eros Entertainment in the US. 'I really don't think we'll see a significant American investment until there's a genuine Bollywood crossover success.
'We've seen that the films are having a stylistic influence but it's going to take something else to prove its commercial viability for foreign money.'
That 'something else' isn't simply the hundreds of movies produced annually in India. The template could come from what has occurred in China, as its global influence has grown in political, technological and financial areas as well as cultural ones. India appears to be stepping out on those fronts, and talent and serendipity could produce its equivalent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the next five years.
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