Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bollywood in India: Self-Reliance & Global Ambition

By: Lou Chen
Edited by: Steve Gartner

Combining the first letter of the filming studio center Bombay (now called Mumbai) with Hollywood, Bollywood, is regarded by some people as the world’s largest film industry for making the biggest number of movies and selling the largest number of tickets every year.

The Indian film industry as a whole produces about 1,000 films a year (over 900 from Bollywood), ten times the number from Hollywood. It also sells the largest number of movie tickets all over the world. The Indian film industry contributes more than 70% of the Asia-Pacific film market with about US $ 11 billion every year.

There are two distinct kinds of Bollywood movies. The “masala” movies, which is well-known by Western audiences and considered as the typical Bollywood musical movies jammed with songs, dances and dramatic, formulaic plots such as “clichéd boy-meets-girl” love stories and “predictable family dramas.” While, the parallel ones tend to adopt either more artistic or complex plots that focus on Indian realities.

“Movies like 'Gangajal' directed by Prakash Jha or 'Rang De Basanti' which was directed by Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra, or Swadesh directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar,'DevD' by Anuraag Kashyap, or any movie by Madhur Bhandarkar like 'Chandni Bar', 'Astitva' or movies by Nagesh Kukunoor like Hyderabad Bules and feminist movies like 'Fire' by Mira Niar or 'Rudaali' and 'Daman' directed by Kalpana Lajmi, are all movies that talk about the reality of India,” Enakshi Roy said. Roy was a producer for Meow 104.8FM, Radio Today Broadcasting in New Delhi before she started her graduate degree in Ohio University in September 2009.

“Bollywood movies can serve several functions, not only as escapist fare for Indian audience, but they can speak to their cultural needs, and at the same time, reveal psychological truths.” Asociate Professor Stephen Teo said, and he specializes in Asian cinemas and Film history in the Wee Kim School of Communication & Information at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, who specializes in film studies in Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, said, “I do not think that cinema’s job is to provide snapshots of poverty or religious concerns. The relationship between textual productions like cinema and reality is not just of reflection.”

Just like some people stereotype most Chinese movies as “Kungfu movies,” considerable overseas audiences still relate Bollywood movies with masala movies.

“Bollywood movies are too long; the plots are usually lightweight and too clichéd; they are too reliant on musical interludes to provide a ‘cinema of attractions,’” Teo said.

“Western audience is not as much exposed to those movies exposing realities and hence the false notion that Bollywood is all about song and dance,” Roy said.

There is a vibrant film culture in India and the industry has for the longest time survived by catering to Indian audiences, said Radhakrishnan. About 20 to 30 million Indian movie enthusiasts go to the cinema to watch domestic movies every day.

“Even today, the global segment is a small part of the total film industry in India, considering that it is only a handful of films among hundreds of film made in a number of languages that has global ambitions,” Radhakrishnan said.

The biggest audience for Indian movies abroad is the Indian Diasporas especially in UK, USA and Canada. There are around 2.7 million South Asians living in the U.S, 1.8 million in Britain, and 1.3 million in Canada. “They don’t live in India for some time and hence already moved away from the reality in India or people who want to see the traditional India, the song and dance, the patriarchal joint-family set ups, the festivities in India,” Roy said. To these audiences, the Yash Chopra, Karan Johar camp fantasy movies have a bigger appeal. “So clearly from an economic perspective, it is these movies that are shown to the Western audience,” Roy said.

After Fox Searchlight’s successful marketing of last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (although it’s not an Indian movie), since then more films have been released to a global audience than ever before. With the release of “My Name Is Khan” in mid- February 2010, the box-office revenues broke the record compared to previous Indian films with a recently landmark revenue of USD 3.6 million by reaching South Asian audiences who live in smaller towns and heartland cities like Rogers, Ark.; Warren, Mich.; besides New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The United States and Canada currently make up about 30 percent of Bollywood's overseas revenue.

“It is generally difficult to sell foreign movies in America but it’s not impossible. Occasionally, Americans will make a foreign movie a huge hit, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” said Teo. He added that “Generally, I see movies in theaters that are more visually engaging, more kinetic and full of a lot of visual elements that will look better on a big screen, also affected by hype.” Matthew Bates said, who was majoring in Film Production and Studies from Case Western Reserve University with one of his focus on Asian Cinema, also studied in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

According to the latest data released by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in India in 2006, Bollywood’s global annual revenues, counting DVD sales as well as theater tickets, estimated USD 1.85 billion in 2005 (around 1 million U.S. dollars from U.S. market) compared with Hollywood’s 39.72 billion U.S. dollars. In comparison, theaters worldwide sold 3 billion tickets to Bollywood films last year, compared with Hollywood’s 1.64 billion. With $ 6-10 for a first-run Hollywood movies’ at a U.S. cinema, compared to USD 0.70-2.80 for Bollywood movies at an Indian cinema, it is easy to spot the discrepancy for the box-office revenue.

Moreover, like in China, piracy is common in the Indian cinema industry.

However Radhakrishnan said, “I am a firm believer in piracy and do believe that piracy is a democratic practice that needs to be supported.”

“One of the fallouts of piracy is that the audiences are more aware of cinemas from all over the world. To spread Bollywood among Indian Diasporas is thanks also to piracy. I believe that it has proved good for the industry in the long run,” Radhakrishnan said.

Photos courtesy of myindia.net and searchindia.com

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