Hollywood's Plot for Bollywood
American studios test the business opportunities in financing Indian films.
What’s the recipe for a perfect Bollywood movie?
A topnotch director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali; two brand new stars with rich film pedigrees, Ranbir Kapoor, son of Rishi Kapoor, and Sonam Kapoor, daughter of Anil Kapoor; add to this mix superstars Rani Mukherjee and Salman Khan; fabulous sets, 10 great songs and a dramatic love story.
Now we learn that this is the recipe for a perfect Hollywood movie too!
The much hyped Saawariya is the first Hindi film produced by a Hollywood studio. SPE Films India is a part of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE), which encompasses motion picture production and distribution, television programming and syndication in 67 countries. Earlier, Sony Pictures had been the distributor for Lagaan, but Saawariya is the first movie that is a Sony Pictures financed and produced enterprise.
Nor is Sony Pictures the only studio to embrace Bollywood -Warner Brothers and Disney Studios also have projects on the floor in India and almost every Hollywood studio is looking eastward to Bollywood’s huge fan base and jingling box office returns.
“What’s truly driving this phenomenon is the size of the market, how quickly India is growing and how much disposable income is available for entertainment,” says Vin Bhat, co-founder of Saavn, a digital distributor of South Asian movies, television shows and music videos in the United States. A seasoned watcher of the emerging interest in Bollywood, he says, “The Indian consumer has certainly amassed more wealth per capita, especially in the urban areas, and that’s what the studios have seen – that the end consumer can afford the stuff and afford it en masse, and that’s the trigger for them getting involved.”
He adds that the biggest driver for Hollywood are the multiplexes that are flourishing in India. While earlier Hollywood studios looked solely at the distribution of Hollywood products within India, now they are backing and financing Bollywood products for both the Indian market and worldwide.
India’s rising economic star is another impetus. Deborah Schindler, president of International Motion Picture Production at Sony Pictures, says, “Certainly the news and perception of India has got heated up in the last several months but we got involved with this project quite some time ago.”
She points out that Sony is a global company, which in the past decade has produced 36 native language films in 12 countries.
“We are not new to the table; we’re certainly not new to the marketplace at all,” she says. “We come to the table with a huge history of marketing and distribution worldwide of many movies. Those films have been made in the languages of those countries solely for distribution in those countries.
“We wanted to expand our involvement in other countries and the two places we’ve identified in the last two years have been Russia and India. This is something the studio has been growing for quite some time and if you look at us, compared to other motion picture studios, we are the first people to have done it. We are rather ahead of the game.”
She adds, “Of course whichever country we’re working it, it is motivated by wanting to make motion pictures, to create movies the local people want to see. We would not go into a country where movies aren’t an integral part of the local culture, and obviously there’s this very long history of movie-making and with 1,000 movies being released a year in India it’s obviously an integral part of Indian society and culture. We are excited that our first movie is a part of that and what a huge honor for us to be doing it with Mr. Bhansali.”
For years Bollywood’s mammoth film industry was on the periphery of Hollywood’s radar. Now Hollywood studios are enchanted by the drawing power of the Hindi film industry, which can fill cinema houses and coffers like no Hollywood movie ever could in India.
Close on the heels of Saawariya, which is being released this month worldwide, Warner Brothers has announced it is making Ramesh Sippy’s Made in China, starring Akshay Kumar under the direction of Nikhil Advani.
The principal photography will get underway in January 2008, and the film will be shot on location in China. So fans of Akshay Kumar’s brand of comedy and martial arts will have a field day! Akshay plays Sidhu, a Mumbai cook, who is mistaken for a martial arts hero, and providing the romantic interest is model and actress Deepika Padukone. The film has been written by Shridhar Raghavan (Khakee, Bluff Master) and the music is to be composed by the well known composing trio of Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonca.
“At the turn of the century there was a lot of promise in the air about globalization in Indian Cinema and now with this venture RSE and Orion are joining hands with Warner Bros. bringing that dream closer to reality,” says Sippy whose Sholay is still India’s biggest blockbuster. “Certainly what we hope to achieve at the minimum is a greater knowledge and understanding of the workings and systems of Hollywood and the Indian film industry. And I am sure we both stand to gain a lot from each other.”
At the announcement of the venture, Blaise Fernandes, country manager, Warner Bros. Entertainment India, said, “We’ll count on our partners’ expertise and will do everything in our power to make a well-crafted, popular and successful Indian film.”
Walt Disney Studios has also signed a deal with Yash Raj Films for a co-produced animated film in India. Both companies will be equal partners in the venture and will contribute creative, technical and financial support to the project.
“When YRF decided to venture into the animation space, we felt that an alliance with Disney Studios, the leader in animation, represented the coming together of not just two organizations, but the teaming up of like-minded individuals committed to creating excellent products. Both companies not only have a common quest for excellence but also the same culture and traditions,” said Yash Raj Chopra.
The first film to be co-produced in this alliance will be Roadside Romeo, set for release in 2008. The film will be produced by Aditya Chopra and directed by Jugal Hansraj, utilizing state-of-the-art computer animation technology.
“Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra have proven themselves to be true visionaries and leaders in the Indian entertainment industry and have excelled in everything they have done,” said Dick Cook of Disney in announcing the collaboration. “Animation is a new and rapidly expanding area in India, and the collaboration between Disney and YRF will bring the very best in story-telling and cutting edge technology together as we make wonderful films that appeal to the entire family.”
All these productions are turning to the big guns of Bollywood. Saawariya, Made in China and Roadside Romeo, all have blue chip filmmakers and stars. Roadside Romeo, which is an animation film, will utilize the voices of such top stars as Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor.
“The major studios finally see India as a real legitimate market for them to distribute their content,” says Saavn’s Bhat. “Now you’re seeing real investments and private equity firms getting involved in these deals so it’s a real serious thing. They are raising significant amounts of capital and it’s indicative of the market.”
It remains to be seen whether the studios’ clout and resources will enable these films to discover crossover mainstream audiences. Bhat, whose company makes Bollywood music, content and ring tones available to companies like Time Warner, Napster and iTunes notes, “Bollywood has made its way into Western popular culture over the past year, frequently cropping up in American movies, television programs, and commercials.
“We feel that Bollywood by its very name has the potential to be a pop culture phenomenon. We see it in the same light as reggae or anime. Anime, for instance, is from Japan, but it is not called Japanese animation – it has a pop culture type of term attached to it. And though reggae originated in Jamaica no one calls it Jamaican music. Bollywood is interesting because it has its own term and we feel there’s a spot for it in pop cultures.”
He points out that nowadays when young people hear something really cool on TV, they act on it. When the hit Bollywood song “Chaiya Chaiya” was used in the opening scene of the movie Inside Man, there was a significant spike in the number of downloads of “Chaiya Chaiya” on I-Tunes. Bollywood movies often make the top 20 box office hits in the US market even though they are screened in limited theaters and cities. So the potential for Bollywood to be embraced by the mainstream is surely weighing in the calculations of the Hollywood studios
Saawariya is being marketed in India and worldwide simultaneously on Nov. 9. It will enjoy a wider U.S. distribution – the film is opening on 80 screens in New York. The experience of Saawariya will, no doubt, be carefully assessed by Hollywood studios still on the fence.
If successful, the experiment would produce many winners, create a huge new audience for Hollywood studios, infuse new money into Indian films and offer many more films for diehard Bollywood fans worldwide. An added bonus: Americans will learn to pronounce a difficult new Hindi word Saawariya!