One of the joys of being a film journalist for a listings magazine is learning about movie releases in advance. It means that you can organize your life and plan your weekend getaways. It also means dealing with the eternally optimistic colleague who will march up to your desk ever so often and quiz you about whether the movie that has impressed Philip French will make it to the local cinemas any time soon. It means gently deflating said colleague’s hopes and advising her to do one of the three: Travel to a film festival in the hope that the movie will be screened there; wait for a copy to show up at a rental library; or buy a pirated DVD.
The much-reviled studio bosses who worship at the feet of the tent pole in Hollywood also find the finances for indie projects. Yet very little of Hollywood’s diverse output trickles down to India. Among the movies that were supposed to be released in India in the last two years, but weren’t, are Closer, Atonement, Frost/Nixon, Fur, and, most recently, State of Play. What we usually get, with some exceptions, are films with eardrum-splintering action and computer-generated wizardry or rom-coms about the sex lives of New Yorkers.
Size matters: Only mainstream fare such as ’Star Trek’ is shown here.
Among the Oscar-nominated heavies were the Batman movie The Dark Knight and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. No prizes for guessing which one made it to our cinemas and which one eventually turned up on television to be consumed between advertising breaks. We got Revolutionary Road and Milk, but they slunk out of the cinemas almost as quickly as they came. We also got Spider-Man 3, whose ticket sales in India contributed considerably to its global box-office mop-up.
The five most significant centres for English movies, in order of importance, are Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune and Kolkata. What works in these cities, says Shony Panjikaran, associate vice-president, marketing Hollywood at Fox Star Studios, are “hand-to-hand action” and “special effects the likes of which you don’t see in a typical Bollywood film”. There is also a small but sure shot audience for Hollywood rom-coms. The crowd that watches sitcoms on Star World and Zee Café—the friends of Friends—will put down money for a Marley and Me or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Panjikaran says this crowd numbers 300,000-500,000. “They require no advance publicity—you just have to let them know that a rom-com is coming,” he said.
Filmgoers in metros are in the strange position of being able to watch German film-maker Fatih Akin’s latest marvel, but not Charlie Kaufman’s new mindbender. What allows a company such as NDTV Lumiere to bring the Turkish-German The Edge of Heaven to India is that it imports very few prints, slots these in limited shows, and staggers the release across a handful of cities. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, by contrast, is due to open with 250 prints, of which only about 70 are in English. The rest are in Hindi and Tamil.
The fact that there is a huge appetite for the gravity-defying stunts that Hollywood does so well means that blockbusters routinely get dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Even here, there is a hierarchy at work—the latest Star Trek (scheduled to open on 5 June) may have broken a few box-office records in the US, but it won’t be dubbed, unlike X-Men Origins. There are fewer takers for a slice of quintessentially American pop culture than there are for a fantasy about a half-human, half-animal who’s avenging the death of his beloved.
Discerning filmgoers who complain about the lack of imagination in Bollywood movies haven’t yet reached enough of a critical mass to justify supporting a healthy run for independent Hindi films. Similarly, there don’t seem to be enough takers for even mildly offbeat Hollywood dramas. I’ve been dying to watch Frost/Nixon, but since the movie has been shoved into the NRP category (no release plan), I am going to dial Abdulbhai and wait for him to show up with his pirated copy. While I’m at it, I might as well buy Synecdoche, New York. Heaven can wait. A good film can’t.
Nandini Ramnath is film editor, Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at email@example.com