Mumbai: An Indian woman in a flowing beaded gown glides through a pond. A mosquito net brushes over her lover. And to insistent drumbeats of the Indian heartland, a dancing phalanx of tunic-clad women twirls.
These images appear in the trailer of a forthcoming movie, Saawariya. The melodramatic film, whose Hindi title means beloved, has an Indian director and cast. Its characters speak Hindi and burst into eight song-and-dance numbers. It is,
in other words, vintage Bollywood-except for one thing.
India calling: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of Saawariya, was at first apprehensive of Hollywood exerting its influence, but then pleasantly surprised when he was allowed complete freedom to work.
It is brought to you by Hollywood.
The studio behind Saawariya, Sony Pictures Entertainment, is the first in a wave of American studios to produce their own kaleidoscopic Bollywood musicals. The American studios are keen to make money in India, but in a nation where $19 (about Rs770) of every $20 spent at the box office goes to indigenous films, the studios are deciding to join Bollywood, not conquer it with their American-made fare.
“The importing of American films into India is not filling a gap,” Gareth Wigan, a vice-chairman of Columbia TriStar, the Sony division that produced the film, said by telephone from Los Angeles. “You’re not bringing a dish to a bare table. You’re bringing a dish to a table where you have to move a lot of other dishes to fit in, and that’s not true in a lot of other countries.”
And so begins a strange competition to make the best Bollywood film, pitting Hollywood against India’s own studios, which make more movies and sell more tickets than any film industry in the world.
With international revenues increasingly important to the conglomerates that own the major studios, Hollywood wants to tap into India’s market. But indigenous films captured 95% of Indian box office sales in 2006, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. The figure is identical for domestic pictures in the US, but just 35% in France, 33% in Japan and 12% in Britain, according to 2005 data published by two scholars, David Waterman and Sang-Woo Lee.
“There is no country on the planet, other than India and the US, that approaches that level of domestic business,” Andrew Cripps, the president of Paramount Pictures International, said by telephone from Los Angeles. And so Paramount, too, is contemplating Bollywood productions.
Walt Disney has partnered with an Indian studio, Yash Raj Films, to make animated movies. Their first film, Roadside Romeo, scheduled for next summer, is a parable of Indian inequality, featuring a dog abandoned by rich owners in Mumbai and forced to brave its hungry streets.
In addition, Warner Brothers is developing two Bollywood projects, including one song-and-dance smorgasbord, according to Richard Fox, a Warner vice-president and the head of its international division. In a telephone interview, he said the studio would seek to earn a majority of its Indian sales from Bollywood productions. It plans three to six movies annually in the coming years, all with Indian talent.
“We’re not coming to change anything,” Fox said.
That is Hollywood’s Indian mantra. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of Saawariya, was at first wary of Hollywood, and surprised when Sony left him alone. At most, he said, Wigan would offer gentle suggestions for the script, which is based on Dostoyevsky’s short story, White Nights.
“There was no compromise asked of the film,” which releases in India in November, Bhansali said, staring out at the Arabian Sea from his stylish North Mumbai apartment.
Hollywood is now Bollywood’s competitor, but local film-makers say Hollywood is wise in trying to mimic, not supplant, Bollywood.
“They’re doing the right thing,” Yash Chopra, one of Bollywood’s revered film-makers, said. “To come to a country to make a film is either to understand the culture or break the culture.” A number of observers, however, doubt that American executives grasp the nuances that entice Indian audiences. Tyler Cowen, the author of Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures, said it was unusual for Hollywood “to try to copy the native style so exactly.”
“That is unusual for a reason,” he added. “It usually doesn’t work.”
Cinema here is booming, as the Indian middle class mushrooms, and builders erect air-conditioned multiplexes in cities to show the 1,000 or so annual home-grown productions (as well as the foreign movies). PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that India’s industry will expand to $4.4 billion a year in 2011 from $2.1
billion in 2006.
In the web: Spider-Man 3 made $17 million in India, becoming the most successful Hollywood film in the country’s history.
Hollywood wants more of that pie, whether through imported or indigenous movies, and this year, it has had surprising success with imports. Among other triumphs, Spider-Man 3 made $17 million in India, becoming the most successful Hollywood film in Indian history. Behind the growing box office take is a trend towards dubbing films not just into Hindi, but also into regional languages such as Bhojpuri and Telugu.
But dubbing cannot woo a billion Indians. Uday Singh, the managing director of Sony Pictures in India, estimates that a Hollywood movie in English can attract up to 5 million viewers. Dubbing expands the upper limit to around 30 million, but that is still only a fraction of India’s vast movie-obsessed populace.
Singh said he strongly believed that Sony would earn 90% of its Indian revenues from Bollywood films.
Hollywood has gone native elsewhere, in France, Germany, Hong Kong and beyond - but never against a domestic industry with so vast and impassioned a following.
For millions of Indians without a television, movies are primary entertainment. For big families with divergent tastes, Bollywood packages romance, comedy, drama and action into a single serving.
Bollywood is interactive: Bhansali recalled taking his maid to one of his movies and, during a musical number, she leapt from her seat and began to dance.
Bollywood is also everywhere: There is a music-industrial complex in India, hooking consumers to the songs before a film release. Nightclub DJs spin the songs; phone companies release matching ringtones. When the movie comes out, its songs are stuck in many million heads, and watching it is the only path to mental peace. “If you take Bollywood out, our lives would be completely empty,” said Shuchi Pandya, a jewellery merchandiser in Mumbai.