Bollywood and Beyond
The biggest film industry in the world isn't the one we write about here week in, week out. For eighty years, Indian cinema has dominated its own domestic market - it currently attracts a billion ticket buyers every three months, 95 percent of the local audience. On top of that, Indian films are at least as popular as Hollywood pictures across wide swathes of North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. With demand like that, it's not surprising that in a typical year, the subcontinent will produce between 800 and 900 films, twice as many as Hollywood.
We call these 'Bollywood' films, although strictly speaking Bollywood refers specifically to Hindi films made in Mumbai (Bombay). It's become a catch-all term encompassing productions from Karnataka (sometimes called 'Sandalwood'), Kerala ('Mollywood'), Kodambakkam ('Kollywood'), and Telluga ('Tollywood'), among other regional centres.
No matter where they hail from, Bollywood films generally share the same attributes: they're sentimental melodramas with song and dance numbers interspersed and hopefully integrated into the story. They're relatively chaste (the Indian censors allow kissing but recently banned cigarette smoking). And they're long, often more than three hours (though the current trend is for shorter running times).
Substantially cheaper than Hollywood films, they have an artificial, kitsch appeal to foreign eyes. But given a chance, they can also work on your emotions more directly than American movies do. Hollywood has become so knowing and ironic; it's not the dream factory it once was. A good Bollywood movie reminds us how invigorating it is to let yourself get swept up in a big old-fashioned musical.
As Bollywood star Shah Ruck Khan once told me, 'In Vegas they have David Copperfield, and in India we have snake charmers. In Hollywood they have special effects and The Matrix, and in India we have monkey dancers. Sometimes it's more interesting to watch the monkey dance.'
There's a distinguished art-house tradition too, of course, dating back to Bengali maestro Satyajit Ray and including Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and James Ivory producer Ismail Merchant, though the industry has tended to resist what they have had to offer.
On paper, last year was a good one for Indian film, though like film industries everywhere the state of its health is the subject of much debate. Profit margins are narrow, tickets are the cheapest in the world, and total revenue only came up to about $1.3 billion last year, a paltry 1 percent of global box office takings.
While studios do reap more substantial profits in music sales, piracy is probably a more substantial problem for Bollywood than Hollywood. There are plans to build 500 multiplexes across the continent by 2010, which should help, but implementation is still some way off. Meanwhile there are plenty of people who will tell you that creatively the industry is bankrupt, choking on stale conventions, secondhand story ideas, too much censorship and too few bone fide stars.
Increasingly, the industry's response has been to think globally. Over the last decade, more and more Bollywood productions have gone abroad to dress up familiar scenarios in fresh settings. At the same time, the studios are thinking more about the non-resident Indian (NRI) audience, the vast Diaspora across North America, Britain and further afield.
The audience for Bollywood films in the UK is large enough to get a film like Dhoom 2 into the national top ten, even if Bollywood business practices often seem designed to keep them under the cultural radar. (No press screenings!) In North America last year, among the top 15 foreign language films, no less than 8 were Hindi.
They're also beginning to venture into international co-productions. This week's release, Mira Nair's The Namesake, is one example, part financed by Bollywood company UTV, along with money from the US and Japan. Nair's film reflects a very modern Indian sensibility that Bollywood itself could never have made, but which is striking a chord with audiences across the board, in the US and in India, where the initial reception has been ecstatic.
UTV has also announced a substantial investment in another Indian-American filmmaker, Manoj Night Shyamalan, on his next film, The Happening.
So far Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) hasn't shown much interest in putting his roots on screen, but many other NRI filmmakers have, including Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay), Deepa Mehta (Earth), Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Asif Kapadia (The Warrior), and Meera Syal (Anita and Me).
If Bollywood can stretch and evolve enough to meet these artists even halfway as India itself assumes a bigger role on the world stage, it might yet break down some borders and give Hollywood a run for its money.
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