Hollywood and Bollywood Undergoing a Continental Shift
America and Bollywood are quite taken with each other these days. It started out as a flirtation many years ago, with occasional teases that seemed promising but failed to lead anywhere. And then a little movie called ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ came along, and even though it was not a product of Bollywood, it pitched America into a full-blown affair with India and its cinema.
However, the heady new relationship almost immediately hit a bump. Bollywood producers boycotted multiplex cinemas in India for two months this spring, refusing to release new films because of a revenue-sharing dispute. The timing of the boycott was unfortunate from an American perspective. Just when a fresh crop of fans wanted to see Indian movies-and more mainstream U.S. theaters were starting to show them-the boycott happened.
But disappointing newcomers was the least of Bollywood’s problems. The boycott is estimated to have cost the Indian film industry $63 million, which is a lot, given that it only generates about $2 billion a year. Once the boycott ended in June, Bollywood badly needed a blockbuster. Fortunately, it got one right away-with a hit film about America.
‘New York,’ the first major release since the dispute was resolved, grossed 350 million rupees ($8 million) during its June 26th opening weekend, which doesn’t sound like much by American standards, but Indian films make significantly less because ticket prices there are considerably cheaper. Directed by Kabir Khan and starring John Abraham, Katrina Kaif, Neil Nitin Mukesh, and Irrfan Khan, New York is about three friends in New York City on 9/11. Abraham, who has long been dismissed as eye candy, delivered an astonishingly strong performance that establishes him as a serious actor. His character, Sam, who’s as American as apple pie, goes through wrenching experiences after 9/11 because he’s Muslim, and Abraham more than met the demands of the role. Mukesh was spot-on as Sam’s college buddy, the sensitive Omar, who’s scared out of his wits and trying desperately to save his own hide as well as his dear friend’s. Kaif gave a competent performance as Sam’s wife, despite the limitations of her rather underdeveloped character. And Khan was impressive as usual, this time as a Muslim FBI agent who uses any means necessary to catch terrorists. The plot is not without flaws, and the climax could have been better finessed, but the film is an intelligent, balanced, and gripping story of friendship and betrayal, persecution and patriotism, told from the perspective of an American minority.
‘New York’s’ success bodes well for Bollywood’s next big release on July 3rd, ‘Kambakkht Ishq,’ which also tells an American story-it’s a romantic comedy about an Indian stuntman in Hollywood and his contentious relationship with a model. The film stars Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor and features cameos by Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards. It’s the first time Hollywood stars of their stature have appeared in a Bollywood movie-and audiences can expect to see a lot more of it.
Hollywood and Bollywood are melding right now, with big bucks driving the fusion, and those financial forces were bringing the two industries together even before ‘Slumdog’ took off. Last September, DreamWorks, the Hollywood studio co-founded by famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg, signed a $1.5 billion deal to produce films with Indian entertainment conglomerate Reliance ADA Group. DreamWorks sought the financing from Reliance because it was ending its partnership with Paramount Pictures-and because the world’s two largest films industries have yet to crack each other’s movie-mad markets. Hollywood films capture as small a share in India as foreign films do in the U.S. And while Bollywood only generates one-tenth of the annual revenue that Hollywood does, that revenue is growing at a clip of 17% a year, compared to Hollywood’s annual rate of less than 3%. Bollywood produces far more films-and attracts far greater audiences-than its peer on the other side of the globe.
Reliance and DreamWorks aren’t the only ones trying to get into each other’s game. India’s UTV Motion Pictures, whose parent company is part-owned by Disney, is already co-financing and co-producing Hollywood films. Likewise, Sony Pictures opened up shop in India a few years ago and is making its own Hindi-language films, and Disney has made animated movies for the Indian market in partnership with Bollywood’s Yash Raj Films.
While the cross-pollination of actors has yet to begin in earnest, a few Bollywood actors have already dabbled in Western film-namely megastar Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who appeared in ‘The Mistress of Spices’ (2005) with Dylan McDermott, ‘The Last Legion’ (2007) with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, and ‘Pink Panther 2’ (2009) with Steve Martin. Aishwarya is reportedly set to appear with Meryl Streep in a Hollywood remake of the 2001 French film ‘Chaos.’ You’ll soon be able to add Indian actor Anupam Kher to the list-he’s been cast in Woody Allen’s next picture, along with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s’ Freida Pinto (who, incidentally, has never worked in Bollywood). Reportedly, Sharon Stone and Amitabh Bachchan will act together in an upcoming project, as will Bipasha Basu and Billy Zane-with both pictures set in India.
Bollywood has been shooting films in foreign locations-from South Africa to Switzerland-for some time. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks of Hindi movies-if the primary setting isn’t foreign, then at least a musical number or two is shot in some exotic locale. The U.S. has become a popular setting in recent years. Since 2006, eight major Indian films have been shot in New York City alone, with lots of emphasis on recognizable landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Station.
Bollywood is not only making movies here, but also opening its own theaters. DreamWorks’ new Indian partner Reliance ADA Group owns Big Cinemas, the largest movie-theater chain in India, and as part of its U.S. growth strategy, opened its first Big Cinemas multiplex in the U.S. this spring, in my hometown of Chicago. The five-screen theater will primarily show Bollywood movies.
My only concern about all this cultural convergence is that Bollywood might change under the influence of the West and lose the qualities that make it special. But I’m hopeful that won’t happen because the creative possibilities (and the financial opportunities) of the Hollywood-Bollywood pairing are too exciting to limit. As a fan of both, I can’t wait to see what emerges.
July 2, 2009