Song and dance about Bollywood
If a Hindi movie due to be released in October is a hit, it could usher in a new era for the Indian film industry. The movie is already a milestone: for the first time, Bollywood is working directly with Hollywood to produce a film for the international market.
Success could bring the major breakthrough that many in the industry have been wanting for a long time. The fact is that, despite considerable resources and an impressive output, filmmakers here have been unable to crack any major international markets. Art movies, such as those of Satyajit Ray, don't really count because they're not considered commercial cinema. Nor do the movies of Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta qualify because, although seen internationally, they are made in English by Indians based abroad. In short, Indian films made in India are watched only in India.
Then, last year, entertainment giant Sony Pictures confirmed a deal with Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali to produce its first Hindi movie, Saawariya (the name means Beloved, and the film is based on one of Dostoevsky's short stories, White Nights).
Bhansali has a reputation for making successful big-budget Hindi movies: Devdas, shown at Cannes in 2003, was the most expensive Indian film ever made, with a final price tag that exceeded US$22 million. He also has the common touch: Black, the story of a blind and deaf girl's relationship with an elderly, alcoholic teacher, was a big hit and, despite not having any song-and-dance routines, was as popular with rickshaw wallahs as with the intellectual elite.
Saawariya, however, will be a classic Hindi movie - a love story with plenty of songs and dances. Bhansali is unwilling to talk about the movie at this stage, but industry sources say it's set in the hill town of Shimla during the British Raj.
In Dostoevsky's short story, the male protagonist is a 26-year-old dreamer. He comes across a young lady in St Petersburg and their love story unfolds over four nights. The plot will almost certainly be similar.
News of Sony's collaboration with Bhansali stunned the local industry. Here was an Indian director not only being funded by a US studio, but also - and, perhaps, most importantly - gaining access to Sony's international marketing and distribution system.
'This will be a huge leap for the local industry,' says director Vinta Nanda. 'The time is right. Bollywood is more confident than ever and non-Indians are increasingly aware of what our movies are all about.'
Nanda says she hopes Bhansali can pull it off because success will open the floodgates for people like her who also want to make movies that can reach a global audience.
The film's producer, Deepak Sharma, says Saawariya will be special.'I'm expecting something big to happen,' says Sharma. 'It's going to be a huge success. This film will also open the doors for other studios like Fox, Paramount, Warner and MGM to enter India. They're just waiting to see how it goes.'
Hollywood is looking at India and other international markets - such as Russia - for good reasons. Western European economies are slowing and cinema attendances in those markets are falling. The US box office has also been lack-lustre. On the other hand, movie attendance in countries such as Russia is rising, and Hollywood movies are popular. American movies are also popular in India, but India's own filmmaking tradition is strong. No matter how much Indians may like American movies they remain fanatical about their own cinema.
The Indian box office offers a good business opportunity. The country's film industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, revenues from India's media and entertainment industry are expected to double in four years to US$22.5 billion. Revenues from the film industry alone are expected to double by 2009 - from US$1.25 billion in 2004. The economics of production are also appealing. Indian movies are much cheaper to make then American films, and the devoted fan base provides an assurance of success. 'Indians will always watch Indian movies,' says columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao. 'They're so rooted in our culture and lifestyle that no other cinema can possibly threaten them, no matter how westernised Indians become.'
Uday Singh, managing director for Sony Pictures in India, is aware of the potential that Indian cinema offers Hollywood. 'Given the expected growth, the market is important for us,' he told the Business Standard newspaper recently. 'In Sony Pictures' business plans for the future, India is already targeted and listed in the top 15 markets.'
Bollywood movie budgets are already shooting up. Collaborations between international and domestic studios provide more funds and help entry into each other's territory, opening up new markets.
What remains to be seen is whether an Indian film made with a totally Indian sensibility can appeal to international audiences. Sony's marketing is renowned throughout the global entertainment industry for its power, but can singularly Indian content - given that Bhansali is offering a quintessentially Indian story in an Indian style - strike a chord outside India?
'Well, they made Chinese movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a big hit across the world,' says Sharma. 'That one made US$400 million. Sony also markets Russian, Italian and Mexican movies all over the world. I think they will know how to project an Indian movie to global audiences.'