New York: The Namesake departs theatres this month in the US after more than three months of screenings and about $13.5 million (Rs55.35 crore) in box office sales. Director Mira Nair’s next film, Shantaram, will follow in 2008 and bring together stars from two worlds: India’s Amitabh Bachchan and America’s Johnny Depp. Nair’s films are both part of a 21st century spike in movies bringing India and its culture to the American film screens.
“Americans are increasingly familiar with Indians as friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc.,” says America’s top film critic Roger Ebert. “If they see one good Indian film, they’re likely to try another. There is even a growing cult audience for Bollywood musicals. And note that Indian authors have been widely accepted in new fiction; the best novel I’ve read in years is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Readers are the cutting edge of a new audience for ‘foreign’ films,” he adds.
Film experts and viewers say that American movie-goers are buying the $10 ticket for these movies because they are more aware of India; the English language makes the culture more accessible and the new crop of talent, in both directing and acting, brings strong cinematic storytelling to Indian themes. Since the turn of the century, film makers have brought to the US a series of films that highlighted Indian culture through real stories, characters and plot lines inspired by Indian themes. In the process they have earned in excess of $77 million in US box office sales alone.
“I think that what has allowed some India-themed films to be seen by more mainstream audiences are the stories being told by talented writers and directors like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Nisha Ganatra, etc.,” says Kal Penn, who played protagonist Gogol in The Namesake. “India alone is not going to sell a movie to an American audience, especially in today’s political climate—it’s got to be about something universal: a family story, a soccer game, a relationship, and so on,” adds Penn. Mira Nair was not available for comment.
Yet, movies such as Monsoon Wedding or Water have not appealed (or necessarily been marketed to) a wider audience, but have been part of the independent movie circuit. Independent or “indie” traditionally refers to a lower-budget movie, but these days the term also often tells viewers that the plot is more intellectual than that of a mainstream Hollywood movie. And although the number of movies with a touch of India has increased, the films have still not exceeded the revenue strength of the mainstream hits from pre-2000: Gandhi and Passage to India.
David Reck, a professor at a leading US liberal arts school Amherst College who uses these and mainstream Bollywood movies to teach students about India, explained that there was a cult-like following (of which he was a part) for the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray. Now the audience for such films is not as niche, he says. “An audience comprised of average Americans? No, it is not happening yet, but it has been a growing trend from the 60s to the present time,” says Reck. “The films are now seen by more of a general audience. Although I would assume the audience is an intellectual one, and one who is aware of film traditions in other countries.”
America has a strong sub-culture of movie-goers who seek out independent films. Chrissy Smith, a theatre director in her 20s living in Manhattan, was looking for a movie to see with her mom Sarah Smith, who was visiting from California. They didn’t look to the mainstream movie theatres showing Live Free or Die Hard or Evan Almighty. They were choosing between a documentary on farms or The Namesake at the local independent movie theatre. “It’s an indie film,” Sarah says about The Namesake. “No one shoots each other.”