Back in 2002 when Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas screened at Cannes, the Indian film industry was still regarded as an exotic item - fun to have at the party but the international industry did not really know how to talk to her. Fast forward through six years of a booming Indian economy and corporatisation of the local film industry and an array of suitors are lining up for her hand.

In addition to deals between the US studios and Indian film companies, several co-production treaties have been signed by India and international governments over the past few years. A treaty with the UK is the most recent to come into effect, joining agreements with Germany, Italy, France and Brazil. Talks are underway with Canada, South Africa and Hungary.

Following the signing of the UK treaty, the UK Film Council (Ukfc) is holding a series of workshops - including one next week in Goa - to explain to Indian film-makers how it works. Germany's Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg (MBB) was also recently in Mumbai to give a presentation on working with Berlin.

Reluctant bride

Territories such as the UK and Germany, which are exploring ways of working with India, say they envisage collaboration will fall into two camps, both of which are made easier by treaties.

On the one hand both territories welcome the economic benefits of hosting footloose Bollywood productions - and treaties can smooth the passage of films such as Vipul Shah's London Dreams which recently filmed in the UK capital - and give the producers access to subsidies and tax breaks.

There are also European and other international film-makers who have projects that they want to make in India but cannot access soft money unless a co-production agreement is in place. 'We have many UK film-makers who are developing Indian projects but need the treaty to unlock funding,' says Ukfc senior executive, international strategy & co-production, Isabel Davis.

However, the world outside North America may discover India is a slightly reluctant bride. The US studios and larger independents such as Lionsgate and Hyde Park Entertainment have already made major headway in the territory - setting up slates of co-productions, fully financing Indian-language films and mapping out wider alliances such as Reliance Big Entertainment's deal with DreamWorks. Europe and other regions are now starting to court India but are lagging behind.

A problem they face is that the North American market is regarded as the most lucrative and attractive by the mainstream Bollywood industry. And while Europe offers production incentives, and large markets such as the UK and Germany that are open to Indian product, the mainstream Indian industry is not short of money and is more interested in export and locations than co-financing.

'The blockbuster producers are mostly looking for production services,' explains the CEO of MBB, Kirsten Niehuus. 'They do expect some support from the region, but mostly help with hotels and in-kind services rather than funding.'

Other sectors of the Indian film industry - either independent or regional-language - may be more open to co-production, but there are obstacles to combining Indian and international finance. 'Of course film-makers here want to reach as wide an international audience as possible, but the problem is that there's already a lot of money available to make films, including those outside the typical Bollywood mainstream,' says local film-maker Partho Sen-Gupta. 'The game for local studios is to keep IPR (intellectual property rights) so they can use it in their own channels. So they say they're interested in international partnerships but then they get cold feet.'

Rome-based Indian film-maker Aditya Bhattacharya points out that the Indo-Italian treaty, ratified earlier this year, has not been used, and says he believes Indian film-makers distrust the concept: 'They see it as one more government thing slowing progress. We need to overcome that thinking if we want to reach more markets.'

Bhattacharya has also found it difficult to match overseas and Indian money. He is co-producing Murali Nair's upcoming drama Virgin Goat with Nair's own company and Philippe Avril's Paris-based Unlimited Films, but he could not get an Indian studio involved despite, or perhaps because of the fact, that he had two thirds of the budget covered by French TV money and a sales agent's minimum guarantee.

German producer Helge Albers of Flying Moon, who co-produced 2003 drama Silent Waters with Pakistan, had similar problems with India. 'We were approached for a few co-productions with India and China but found the local producers were not prepared to wait for the money from our side,' Albers explains. 'The European way of financing is different - our money is slow money so unless the project is extremely arty or difficult it's faster for them to find the money at home.'

Of course, it is not always necessary to co-produce in order to make a convincing India-set film. Danny Boyle's $15m Slumdog Millionaire was not a co-production with India although it was entirely filmed in the country with a local cast and crew. However, this only works if a project is not relying on European subsidies or the Indian market; Slumdog's producer and sales agent, Pathe, regards distribution in India as a bonus rather than a necessity.

Also there is a growing realisation among Indian film-makers that while they may not need international money, they need to work with foreign producers and sales agents in order to achieve international distribution. They may also need to look abroad if they want to make anything that is commercially risky or controversial.

Sen-Gupta says it was fairly easy to raise finance in India for his upcoming feature, The Sunrise, but he attended the recent Pusan Promotion Plan in South Korea to find a sales agent, as Indian companies are not hugely experienced in selling arthouse films.

The foreign producer's role

Finding the money at home can often mean that the project stays at home; by the time a sales agent is brought on board it is far too late. Paris-based producer Sylvain Bursztejn, who has worked extensively with China and is now exploring India, observes that having a foreign producer on board is often the first step towards securing international distribution. 'Indian film-makers usually don't understand the international taste, so we can give them feedback on how, with their own story and actors, they can make movies for both domestic and international distribution,' he says. 'Then we can help them access international sales agents and festivals.'

Bursztejn adds that sales agents don't usually have time to act as producers and need someone to act as a bridge between them and the film-maker, to ensure that they end up with the film they are expecting, especially if it is being pre-sold. Otherwise they will only contemplate picking up completed product and by then it could be too late to position the film.

France has historically been an active co-producer with China, North Africa and South-east Asia, but not so far with India. 'France is a difficult market for Indian movies until one or two actually work,' says Bursztejn. 'Devdas was the last one that worked but it had a huge push at Cannes.'

Producers who have worked extensively with relatively uncharted territories such as India and China also talk of the importance of finding people you can communicate with, and work effectively with, as misunderstandings can easily arise.

One recent film, Good Sharma, a co-production between US producer Nicola Scott and India's WSG Pictures, ended up in Afma/Ifta arbitration before it finished shooting. A settlement was reached but last month the US producer filed a complaint in the Los Angeles county court against Indian post-production house Adlabs which is holding the negatives at the request of the Indian producer.

As alarming as this sounds, it is true that legal spats are common in the international film industry. It just takes time for people to learn who they can work with - and that usually means racking up the air miles as you cannot forge relationships by sitting in an office in Los Angeles or London.

However, international producers may find the relative ambivalence of Indian producers changes next year as a result of current financial turmoil. As 2008 draws to a close, India's local box office is still growing and the local industry is relatively well-funded. But it is also struggling with soaring costs, slumping stock markets and a disappointing year at the box office for Hindi films. Local investment may start to dry up, and it could encourage Indian producers to find partners to share the risk.