FOR DECADES THE cardinal rule of the Indian film industry has been 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. So studios have stuck to a formula that works - stories of thwarted love, byzantine family melodramas, tales of intrigue, bravery and revenge. They are all filmed amid scenery ranging from the alpine to the tropical, with the hero and heroine cavorting around in the standard song-and-dance routine without which Indian films would be like France without the cheese. But the formula is not working any more. In the past year film after film has bombed at the box office. The industry is reeling from massive losses in what is being called the worst year in its history. The top 32 films in the first seven months of this year have lost a combined US$27 million. If the other 90 movies that were made in this period are included, the figure rises to US$30 million. And if other intermediaries such as exhibitors and music companies are included, the losses grow even more. The irony is that the Hindi film industry is at its lowest just as it is becoming better known outside India than ever before. The much-acclaimed Lagaan (Land Tax) won the country its third Oscar nomination and Andrew Lloyd Webber's lavish stage musical, Bombay Dreams, brought a taste of Bollywood's song-and-dance extravaganzas to London. The only real hit of this year in India as been the thriller Raaz, (Secret), based on Hollywood's supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath, which starred Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Others have been successful, but not hits. Producers have tried everything imaginable to come up with a success - low budget, high budget, lavish costume dramas, bleak minimalist sets - but nothing has clicked with audiences. 'I can't recall a year as bad as this and I think the future is going to be even worse, disastrous in fact, for the industry,' said producer Mukesh Bhatt of Vishesh Films. One reason is that audience tastes are changing, but no one seems to know in which direction they are moving. A sense of deja vu pervades audiences. They are jaded and want fresh content. Another reason is that the big stars seem to be losing their pulling power. 'Big stars have lost their mystique. They are in so many commercials, selling everything from underwear to soaps and colas,' said Vinod Mirani, editor of the trade weekly Box Office. The industry had pinned its hopes on the love story Devdas, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Based on a popular Indian novel, the movie is about a man haunted by his childhood love and unable to return the affections of a courtesan. It is India's most expensive film to date, a spectacular costume drama costing US$10 million. But the film - despite featuring two of India's biggest stars - was not the expected blockbuster that might have lifted the industry out of the doldrums. Devdas did moderately well, earning US$14 million. The other top nine films made even slimmer profits. But they were luckier than many others, which saw losses of up to US$4 million. 'Even Hollywood movies [dubbed into Hindi] have flopped, with the sole exception of Spider-Man. The other 40 or so dubbed films left no mark at the box office at all,' said film critic Komal Nahta. Leading Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt, Mukesh Bhatt's brother, believes it will take some 'new magic' to get the crowds back into the cinema halls. 'You have to make a daringly different kind of movie,' he said. That, in a nutshell, seems to be the crux of the industry's problems - a dearth of ideas. There are very few people who want to experiment, innovate and tell a new story or tell an old story in a new way. Mainstream filmmakers are ignoring the fact that the audience profile in 21st century India has undergone a drastic change. Film critic Nikhat Kazmi says: 'What you have out there is a whole new breed of cinebuffs bred on a cine IQ drawn from a global market. They know the latest in Hollywood and MTV and are living in a world where the old has a place, but only in a re-invented, post-modern package. 'The old boy-meets-girl tale or the antiquated revenge stories which the industry insists on recycling are definitely out. What the industry needs today is new stories, an innovative style and a youthful vision.' Some directors are beginning to play around with new ideas, but the experiments are still somewhat raw. The film industry is going through a major transition. Once the new ingredients are mixed, a concoction might emerge to wipe away the ennui that is keeping Indians - a truly film-mad nation - at home watching soaps and repeats.