Lights, camera, action! India’s reel dreams get a global canvas

June 28th, 2008 - 6:50 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of DreamWorks
By Anik Basu
It’s a story that began 71 years ago, involving a 13-year-old mahout from Mysore in southern India. Sabu Dastagir, who rode an elephant belonging to the Maharaja of Mysore, was spotted by Hollywood director Robert Flaherty looking for an Indian face to play the lead in his movie “Elephant Boy”. Based on a Rudyard Kipling story, the movie was a runaway hit and Dastagir’s performance was universally acclaimed. Wrote one film reviewer: “With a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure the stripes off a tiger, the young Indian became an instant star.”

A slew of offers followed and Dastagir made Hollywood his base before moving on to Britain to make movies.

That was in 1937.

Seven decades later, India’s tryst with the world’s tinsel town is being cemented further, with Mumbai-based tycoon Anil Ambani’s Reliance Big Entertainment on the verge of committing a $500-million investment in Steven Spielberg’s production house DreamWorks.

If the deal crystallises, it will propel the Indian company to be one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. Last month, at the Cannes film festival, it had announced a clutch of deals with production houses in Hollywood, roping in marquee names such as Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Ambani is not alone in going global with his reel dreams. Two Indian production houses, UTV Motion Pictures and Eros Entertainment, are today listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market and have offices abroad.

At the Cannes film festival, Britain signed a co-production pact with India that will now see upcoming British talent starring in Hindi films as part of the UK Film Council’s agreement to spend 13 million pounds on broadening the film industry in the two countries.

Clearly, India’s time has come in the global film industry. Matinee idol Shah Rukh Khan makes it to Madame Tussauds, former Miss World and cine star Aishwarya Rai finds a place on the jury at Cannes, Jackie Chan takes the long flight to Mumbai to pander to Indian viewers, Dubai announces an entertainment park revolving round movie mogul Yash Chopra, and countries from New Zealand to Britain trip over one another to attract filmmakers from Bollywood, as India’s film industry is popularly known.

Mumbai’s filmmakers were once tainted for receiving underworld funding; now, major production houses such as Yash Raj Films receive bank financing. And when making “Krrish”, his film about an Indian Superman, producer Rakesh Roshan tapped the Singapore Tourism Board’s $6.3 million Film in Singapore scheme that subsidises international film productions by up to 50 percent.

Alongside, newer markets outside the traditional Bollywood “strongholds” such as the US, Britain and West Asia are opening up: moviegoers in Australia, Holland, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and even China are showing an interest in Indian content.

In fact, Amsterdam has hosted what the Dutch media called the “Bollywood Oscars” - International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards for movies made in India. Dutch newspapers, magazines and websites covered the event in detail, often downloading photos of Indian stars from the internet. This year’s event was held in Thailand.

Bollywood is an industry that few can afford to ignore these days. And to a great extent, it’s driven by the 25-million-strong Indian diaspora - with an estimated combined wealth of $300 billion - giving rise to a new genre of Bollywood flicks: “the NRI movies”. Film producer Subhash Ghai readily admits he now makes films for the dollar- and pound-paying audience.

Similarly, UTV sees 20 percent of its revenues coming from the overseas markets, and is now planning to raise this to 50 percent over the next few years, its chief operations officer Siddharth Roy Kapur told the Forbes magazine in a recent interview.

Realising the dollar strength of the Indian diaspora in the US and their fascination with Indian movies, an American company is now banking on Bollywood’s song and dance spectacles to push the video-on-demand business.

Last December, Tinsel Cinema, a US-based company, launched an online service featuring movies and television programmes from India; its target: Web-connected South Asian expatriate families that want access to familiar content.

“If there are two things this audience can’t get enough of, it’s Bollywood and cricket,” Tinsel Cinema’s chairperson and chief executive Chase Weir was quoted as saying by the Washington Post newspaper.

Bollywood films play in only about 80 theatres in the US, so the market is huge for Tinsel Cinema. Its customers pay $3 per movie, or $10 for a package of five movies. The company hopes to draw 150,000 customers to its site, www.tinselvision.com, during its first quarter.

To ensure a steady stream of content, the company has also signed distribution deals with film and television companies, including Yash Raj Films, one of India’s biggest studios.

The overseas markets’ fascination with Bollywood is expected to continue, and it’s estimated that revenues will rise by 25-30 percent annually. Says Ernst and Young’s head of media and entertainment Farokh Balsara: “Indians abroad have always wanted to see their films.”

According to a report on entertainment prepared by industry lobby FICCI and audit consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Indian film industry is valued at around Rs.80 billion ($2 billion) and grows by 20 percent annually. It is expected to touch Rs.153 billion ($3.5 billion) by 2010, with the overseas box office accounting for nearly 10 percent of this market.

“Koi Mil Gaya” made $10 million in India, $1.9 million in the US and 1.6 million pounds in Britain; “Kal Ho Naa Ho” made $8 million in India, $700,000 in the US and 600,000 pounds in Britain; “Chalte-Chalte” earned $4.5 million at home, $900,000 in America and 700,000 pounds in Britain, and “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” made $5 million abroad.

By Hollywood standards, this may not be huge. But it’s a beginning and in all likelihood it won’t be long before Indian filmmakers - propped by corporate funding - storm Hollywood. As Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan said in a recent interview: “Have you seen how the world is lapping up the Indian song-and-dance routine? Once a country progresses, people like everything it does.”

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