New Delhi: Dev Patel-starrer Lion may have charmed the world, earning six Academy Award nominations and making more than $24 million in domestic box office collections, but the film awaits yet another test as it opens in India, where a majority of the story is set, later this month on 24 February.
However, there is more working for director Garth Davis’ debut than the diaspora movie genre is used to in the country. For starters, the Hollywood film, based on non-fiction book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose, works on the conventional Bollywood premise of innocence and survival—a young child lost on the streets of Kolkata is adopted by a kind Australian family and later sets off in search of his roots—which is likely to resonate greatly with Indian audiences.
“Plus there is a strong tech vibe in the film with Dev Patel using Google Earth to search for his hometown that should have the youngsters hooked,” said Utpal Acharya, founder of film production, distribution and marketing company Indian Film Studios, which has backed diaspora movies like Monsoon Wedding in the past. “With that move, they cater to both fans of commercial mainstream cinema and also those looking for a diaspora connect.”
The glowing reviews and Oscar buzz aside, there is a conscious effort to create conversation around the film in India.
“For Lion, we’re looking at a wide release which will mainly be in the metro cities for the multiplex audience because the film is not entirely in Hindi,” said Avinash Jumani, chief executive officer, Pictureworks, which is releasing the film in India together with PVR Pictures.
The film is already available for paid previews on PVR’s theatre-on-demand service Vkaao, over the past couple of days. The team has organized premiere screenings attended by Davis, Brierley and much of the Indian cast, across the country, including Mumbai, where it was organized in association with the MAMI (Mumbai Film Festival) Film Club; Delhi with the Australian High Commission; and Kolkata where a major chunk of the film is set. There are plans for further press screenings too.
“I guess it all depends on what the subject is. Every film has a different audience so I’m hoping Lion does have one which I feel would be something in the genre of a Slumdog Millionaire,” Jumani said. “Content works above all and these days, true stories work more than anything else.”
Indian diaspora films have come a long way in the home country. From Mira Nair’s Punjabi drama Monsoon Wedding (2001) to Danny Boyle’s Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (2009) to the more recent Ang Lee’s survival drama Life of Pi (2012), these films have created a defined niche market in the country, making as much as Rs2.5-3 crore in box office collections.
Going beyond the traditional territories of Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai, the screen count for these offerings has gone up from 100 (Monsoon Wedding) to 600 (Slumdog Millionaire) to as high as 1,000-1,200 today, which is the same as a Bollywood indie. Kamal Gianchandani, chief executive officer, PVR Pictures, said they would target at least the top 35 cities of the country for Lion.
“Multiplexes and digitization have taken these films to smaller towns,” said Rahul Kadbet, head of programming, Carnival Cinemas. “Earlier, a cost of Rs50,000 per print would mean nearly Rs2 crore for 400 cinemas. That meant we were not ready for alternative cinema. Now the cost of production has gone down so our bandwidth has increased.”