Hollywood East

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

It has been 'Hooray for Bollywood' ever since Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards last month. Suddenly, dancing Indians and lavishly choreographed detours in the middle of a film are not so odd to movie-goers.

The belief among some optimistic Indians is that Mumbai is now mainstream. So is this another case of how the west was won, or won over temporarily by the exoticism of eastern techniques, culture and a visual masala?

The hope in Bollywood now is that the door to the west has been opened for its films, directors and stars. Slumdog actress Freida Pinto apparently impressed Woody Allen sufficiently that he signed her up for his next movie, and she's supposed to be auditioning to be a future Bond girl, too.

Another of the film's stars, Irrfan Khan (the police inspector), is even more sanguine in touting the good times he believes are coming. 'Bollywood will see more collaborations with Hollywood following the grand success of the film,' he said in a recent interview.

Well, Indian chic might be the new wave now, but some of that excitement should be tempered with the cold reality that fashion fades. As they say on Project Runway: 'One day you're in, the next you're out!' Film, like fashion, is fickle.

Just look back to the year 2000, when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon swept film festivals with its mix of wire-fu and unrequited love. China cool was the season's new 'must-have', even if our stylish wushu drama lost to Gladiator at the Oscars.

Since then, there have been plenty more big-budget silk-and-sword period spectacles, and many directors and actors have reached superstardom. But Chinese cinema hasn't really made much more headway in the west to match the critical and commercial success of Crouching Tiger.

Zhang Yimou's Hero came close. It garnered Oscar an nomination (but only in the foreign-language category). Wong Kar-wai is cool, but he's still just a cult director.

In terms of actors, Zhang Ziyi is a big star - kind of. Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, Chow Yun-fat, Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Jet Li are all famous names internationally, but no Hollywood restaurant would give them a table over, say, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Put it this way: none of them have managed to win individual Oscars the way that Spaniards have done two years in a row (Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz).

From a business perspective, yes, some firms have set up subsidiaries in China for co-productions and screening in regional cinemas, but they're making The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon and The Forbidden Kingdom. Is that progress?

China's film industry has grown in size and reputation since Crouching Tiger. But would it have done so without Ang Lee's classic? Probably. The opening of the world's biggest market is hard to ignore. However, in almost a decade, no Chinese film has equalled Lee's movie in its gravitas or critical triumph. Come to think of it, even Lee hasn't been able to better it. In some ways, it's actually been all downhill since master Li Mubai banished the Jade Fox.

Does this mean Indians shouldn't get their hopes up about their country's cinematic future? Of course they should. There will probably be some really interesting future east-west collaborations and fusion projects with Bollywood singing and dancing and Hollywood budgets. Are they likely to catch lightning in a bottle the way Slumdog Millionaire has? I wouldn't bet on it, but you never know.

The big difference between Crouching Tiger and Slumdog is the Chinese hit actually had a Chinese director. Danny Boyle is a lot of things, but Indian he isn't. As the director of Trainspotting, 28 Days and The Beach, it's unlikely he'll now suddenly dedicate himself to telling only Indian stories.

If Bollywood is to expand beyond the domestic Indian audience - which at more than a billion people is not insubstantial - it needs to groom its own talent and look past its borders. It needs directors and writers with something to say and a way to say it that film-goers in the US and Europe will want to hear, too. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan may be famous and lovely to look at, but her vehicle Bride and Prejudice is nobody's idea of a timeless classic.

Meanwhile, Bollywood might just settle for an Indian Jackie Chan, or at least a character mainstream America will find endearing and digestible. Warner Brothers tried their luck with a comedy called Chandni Chowk to China - which curiously combines Bollywood hi-jinks with Crouching Tiger stunts and effects. Unfortunately, its January release in India proved a bit of a flop. Oh well, that's showbiz - millionaire one second, slumdog the next.