Bollywood on the Hudson
Is America finally ready for Bollywood?
Pick up a seashell and put it to your ear – and you can hear the roar of the ocean. While the gutsy, lusty ocean of Indian cinema has been around for over a hundred years, American media are just about finally becoming aware of this larger than life phenomenon. While audiences from Russia to the Middle East to Malaysia have been enraptured by Bollywood for years, the U.S. of A is finally discovering its joys.
Pick up any mainstream publication – Newsweek, Timeout, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and you hear the murmur slowly cascading to a rising hrefrain worthy of a Broadway musical chorus – Bollywood, Bollywood, Bollywood!
Just about five years ago, this writer recalls writing a piece for a mainstream publication in which someone at the copy desk actually changed the word “Bollywood” to “Hollywood,” so little known was the name or the cinema it represented. One could not write the word “Bollywood” without having to include a description of what it meant.
Now Bollywood is almost a shorthand, a buzzword for one of the most happening trends in America.
Even as the boisterous, colorful Bombay Dreams with music by A.R.Rahman is lighting up Broadway, giving mainstream audiences a spicy taste of filmi music and dance, Bollywood’s reigning queen, Aishwarya Rai, is making inroads into Hollywood with Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice as well as Singularity with Brendan Fraser and Chaos with Meryl Streep.
Bollywood sensibility is even coming into American living rooms and bedrooms, with sitcom pilots for NBC and HBO, revolving around Indian American families!
The Bollywood spirit seems to be invading everything from the music to dance and style. As Susan Carpenter notes in The Los Angles Times: “Scratch a little deeper and you’ll find the Bollywood aesthetic popping up all over the place: There is an all-Bollywood dance studio in Artesia and a Bollywood comic book out of the Bay Area. The style is being picked up by everyone from Dolce & Gabbana to Target. It’s even part of the decor at Tantra, a hip Indian restaurant in Silver Lake that continually plays classic Bollywood films on plasma screen TVs.” A lot of things you didn’t expect to see have come to pass.
A decade ago who would have thought that a young Indian American director with the unwieldy name of M. Night Shyamalan would be the toast of Hollywood? With The Sixth Sense and Signs he showed that everything he touched turned to gold at the box-office.
A decade ago who would have imagined that a small budget film about a Punjabi wedding shot in a mix of Hindi and English would totally captivate Western audiences? Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding grossed millions across the United States.
Again, who would have thought there’d be any interest in a young Indian girl’s passion for, of all things, soccer? Gurinder Chadha knocked everyone’s socks off with her multi-million dollar hit Bend it like Beckham. And yes, Lagaan was nominated for the Oscar for the best foreign film.
Will Bollywood be just another passing fad or is it here to stay? It might indeed be here for the long haul, not only because the mainstream is becoming more familiar with it, but also because the Indian film industry itself has gone through some dynamic changes recently.
There will certainly be more of a Bollywood-Hollywood interaction.
India’s many advantages can make it a compelling place to try new things and its billion strong audience can really make major Hollywood studios salivate.
Outsourcing of movies, technical and music effects must surely be a light in some producers’ eyes at the moment, and major studios like Columbia Tristar and Fox already have a presence in India.
Indian cinema is finally on the radar screen of mainstream America and all these happenings are the harbinger of bigger things to come in the future. For starters, there’s Cinema India! Showcase 2004: The Changing Face of Indian Cinema, a 9-city tour of Bollywood films, being shown at major mainstream museums in New York, Santa Fe, NM; Columbus Ohio; Atlanta, Ga; Boston, Ma; Washington DC; Chicago, Ill; Philadelphia, Penn; and Lincoln, Neb. In New York, the films played at Asia Society and at the American Museum of the Moving Image.
Yes, the super hit Dil Wale Dulhaniyan Le Jaye Ge, which has been running in Bombay continuously for eight years, will finally be seen by mainstream America, albeit with the title The Braveheart Will Take the Bride!
Radha Welt Vatsal, the curator of the show, did her Ph.D. on film history and distribution of early cinema, and hopes to use some of those ideas in the distribution of Hindi films to a larger, mainstream audience.
“A lot of what I’m trying to do has been inspired by the early history of cinema where people were trying new ways to get a new product out and build new audiences,” she says. “It’s a way to think outside the box, using creative ways because you’re trying to educate an audience about this whole area of cinema that is completely under-represented in the U.S.”
India is the largest film industry in the world producing over 800 features a year yet Indian films rarely make to mainstream screens. As Vatsal points out, Indian films are not represented as well as those from China, Japan or France or even Iran, and though there’s a buzz about Bollywood, the release patterns have not hreflected the surge.
More than just a festival of films, Vatsal hopes to make Cinema India into an organization that promotes good Indian cinema in the U.S., since filmmakers and producers in India are also interested in finding ways to bring their films to mainstream U.S. audiences.
What she wants to show is the vast diversity of Indian cinema: “It’s Satyajit Ray and it’s art movies and Bollywood, so many faces of the country that are all represented through the various types of filmmaking, in so many languages, in so many styles. It’s a great experience for both Indians and Americans in the U.S. I believe even the music will cross over.”
These exciting times arrive just as the Indian film industry itself is changing, with greater interaction between art house films and Bollywood. The noted art house filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s Choker Bali, for instance, starred the major Bollywood draw Aishwarya Rai.
Bollywood is also borrowing some of the techniques and sensitivities of art house cinema.
Vatsal says, “You are seeing very commercial films that are trying to do things very differently and are taking a new approach to filmmaking.”
One of the films in Cinema India is Maqbool, a chilling retelling of Macbeth, set in Mumbai’s underworld, a tightly drawn tale that never veers from the narrative, even though it has its mandatory couple of songs.
Then there is Waisa Bi Hota Hai by debut director Shashanka Ghosh who helped launch MTV in Asia and was instrumental in creating Channel V. Says Vatsal, “He’s made a film which combines Bollywood style with a Quentin Tarantino kind of take on story telling with a MTV sensibility to appeal to a younger urbanized Indian viewership that has been brought up on a diet of cable TV.”
This irreverent and fast-moving fun film captures all the chutzpah of contemporary Bombay where so many worlds intersect. In fact the producer often introduces it to audiences as Bollywood 2004. Says Ghosh, “We are far more exposed to global influences so it becomes an interesting kitchri. The cable has changed audiences tremendously and it’s created a whole new urban market for film.”
In this new India the multiplexes make it possible to screen many different kind of movies, catering to different audiences. Says Ghosh, “What’s happening is that from the traditional 1,500 seaters they’ve come down to theaters which seat 150 or 300 people. So it gives the theater owners as well as audiences a lot of choices. It’s changing viewing habits.”
A whole new generation seems to be taking center stage in India, both as audience and filmmakers. Says Vatsal: “So you have these young audiences that are being exposed to a lot of different material, and a lot of specific youth programming. You also have young directors coming out of Bollywood who are trying to combine those kind of influences with American-style youth filmmaker influences with a Bollywood sensibility.”
Last year 40 new directors debuted in the industry, representing a sea change in a tightly knit community. According to Ghosh, three years ago Bollywood was going through the doldrums with about 124 films out of 128 flopping: “That’s usually a sign that we don’t know what we are doing and we need to look for new ideas. So it’s the end of a formula and the start of another and that’s what I think happened, we all happened to be on that path.”
Earlier, he recalls, when he was trying to get financing for his films, he was always asked about the stars; now he finds financers ask, what’s the story? And that is a major change. At the same time, there is a major initiative to make the industry more transparent, so that it can attract public funding.
Director Ram Gopal Varma has played a major role in introducing new types of film-making to India. Some of the films tweak the Bollywood style; others adapt Hollywood films to Indian audience tastes.
Bhoot drew on horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, while casting it into an Indian idiom for Indian audiences.
While formula films are still the staple, offbeat films are breaking out.
Then there are English language films like Rahul Bose’s Everyone Says I’m Fine, which do well with an urban audience.
The market for English language films has also grown with NRI audiences and regular Bollywood films are also capitalizing on the NRI connection.
The recent big box office hit Kal Ho Na Ho was shot entirely in New York and delves into the NRI life. Says Vatsal, “It’s still very much a classic Bollywood style film, but set in New York, and it’s in its own way a variation and a new direction for Bollywood films.”
As the Bollywood genre expands and enters new territory, Indian cinema becomes more attractive to mainstream American audiences. Indeed, films like Maqbool, says Vatsal, are more geared to a Western audience in the way the narrative is handled. As a result, it’s a Bollywood film, but has won audiences at the Toronto Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival.
One of the highlights of the traveling film festival is Bariwali, a beautifully nuanced essay on loneliness, with a powerful performance by Kiron Kher. This offbeat film has won several awards, but since it is not a Bollywood blockbuster, the U.S. market would have been difficult to penetrate. Video stores generally don’t carry films by art house or regional producers, and theater owners don’t want to take the risk of expensive screenings, which may not give them box office returns.
Says Vatsal, “Museums may show them once or twic,e but over time if we can prove that there’s an interest and there’s a track record then I think people will start showing these films for a longer duration.
“You start building that way but part of it is building the audience, building the awareness. It’s a very slow and painstaking process to do all of that. We are in nine cities this year, I would like to be in 20, 30 cities next year.”
Other interesting developments are afoot with Indian cinema. Mira Nair’s Mirabai Films recently teamed up with Bala Entertainment in April to establish International Bhenji Brigade (IBB), a film production company that will create independent Asian cinema for the global marketplace. The company plans to highlight Asian talent by developing features films from Asia and the Diaspora. Over time, this back and forth, this East-West connection may become far more pronounced. Young Indian American filmmakers are getting into the act. In New York, the Indo American Arts Council Diaspora Film Festival has been the germinating ground for many emerging filmmakers, giving them exposure in the mainstream.
A sort of community seems to be developing now with young actors, directors and writers on both coasts. Without big budgets or backers, many of them are attempting to bring their Hollywood and Bollywood sensibilities together on celluloid. There is certainly a chance of one of these becoming a crossover film.
The short film format is also popular with young filmmakers as these are easier on the pocketbook and can still be shown at film festivals and create a buzz. The subjects are getting more innovative: Fillum Star is a zany mock documentary about a desi actor in the days before his first Hollywood movie premieres. The film, by Rehana Mirza, was just released on DVD.
Another short film made by Indian American filmmakers is Sangam, starring Hesh Sarmalkar and Ajay Chandani, explores two very different lives colliding on a subway train in Brooklyn and was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival 2004.
While Indian Americans have been also distributing their films in India with mixed success, some NRIs are injecting money directly into the Bollywood film industry and also working to make it more efficient in its work ethics.
Ash Pamani who heads the Pamani Group of Companies in New Jersey has built his sizable business trading from the Far East.
Last year Pamani, along with a group of NRIs, acquired K Sera Sera, a company that is listed on the MumbaiºStock Exchange and found himself financing Bollywood movies, the movies of the hottest new director Ram Gopal Varma, no less!
The board of directors of K Sera Sera include Ricky Pamani of New Jersey, Ashok Gangwani and Raj Sital of Hong Kong. Says Ash Pamani, chairman of KSS, “Collectively we have over 100 years of business experience!”
He says he researched the Indian entertainment industry and saw the tremendous untapped valuation: “Basically entertainment is a product of creativity which when packaged in the right manner along with the mechanics of finance, marketing and distribution strategies can be very lucrative.”
Pamani says, “Our approach is professional, our schedules tighter and our team works at multi-levels. I feel Varma is a master creator and both our visions matched: his creativity coupled with our professional business experience, along with our overseas networking makes a fantastic final product. We both believe in the ‘studio’ model.”
K Sera Sera has produced and released three films within the first year, Darna Mana Hai, Ek Haseena Thi, and Ab Tak Chappan. The movies currently under production are Gayab, 2 ‘o’ clock Murder, Naach, Darna Zaroori Hai, Vaastu Shastra and James.
Recently KSS and Varma Corp. signed a $17 million dollar deal with Sahara India Pariwar to produce 10 films over the next two-and-a-half years. Also in the pipeline are two TV shows.
Does Pamani think American financing is going to become big in the Indian movie sector? Says Pamani, “I don’t think it’s only American money. I feel the whole world has realized that Bollywood has a tremendous amount of untapped skill and talent. It’s being able to use a vast corporate infrastructure in Bollywood that is going to make a difference.”
He feels NRIs bring an efficiency model to the table, applying the project management approach to film and TV production and distribution. They also implement cost savings and keeping schedules within the specific time frame.
He says, “Our pre-production homework is very strong and everyone in India loves our corporate structure. I feel we are only at the beginning stage. There is a lot more to happen and the Indian American entertainment connection will only get bigger.”
As Americans become more familiar with their Indian neighbors, spice up their food and learn to groove to bhangra music, Bollywood will be just as addictive.
And now Indian actors and sitcoms are finally headed for the living rooms of America. Mainstream television has already opened up a notch to South Asians, with actors like Parminder Nagra in ER or Ravi Kapoor in Crossing Jordan, both series regulars.
Sonia Nikore, vice president of casting for NBC Primetime television, has overseen casting on over 50 pilots and Emmy winning series including ER, West Wing, Law & Order, Frasier and Seinfeld. A decade ago when Nikore handled an open call in New York for Disney’s Jungle Book looking for a South Asian to play the lead, just 50 people showed up (the role finally went to a non-South Asian actor, Jason Scott Lee).
She says, “What is remarkable is that this time I did an open call for Nevermind Nirvana and we had over 250 people show up in LA, and this is not including all the hundreds of actors who auditioned outside the open call. Internationally we looked at over 1,000 actors.”
The South Asian population has reached critical mass and the entertainment industry is taking heed of that. At the same time, the characters are also getting more developed and nuanced. Says Nikore, “We are seeing richer characters. South Asians are not getting relegated to the 711 owners, taxi drivers. Sure these roles are still there, but in addition we are finding these very dynamic, interesting three-dimensional characters that writers are creating for South Asian actors.”
She points out that with Nevermind Nirvana, written by Ajay Sahgal, the network has recognized the interest by mainstream America in South Asian culture. She says that while the script is about a South Asian family, it’s a family dynamic that resonates universally: “The generational conflicts, the humor that comes from cultural differences between generations, it happens in Jewish families, it happens in Italian families, Latin families, it happens across the board. It’s not unique to our culture.”
East West Values, the HBO pilot that Sabrina Dhawan is working on, is a half hour comedy about a South Asian family in New York. She says the title is a hreference to the language used in matrimonial ads in the Indian newspapers: “They are looking for somebody with East West Values. You want them to be Westernized but you want them to be Indian too. I just love that phrase!”
Dhawan, whose thesis film at Columbia, Sanj, won a number of awards at various film festivals, shot to overnight fame with her script for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
She has her arms full of assignments for mainstream projects. She has adapted Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri. Cosmopolitan, her adaptation of the Akhil Sharma story has been directed by Nisha Ganatra and airs on June 1 on PBS; she is working on a screen adaptation of Diary of a Teenage Mom for Lifetime television, produced by Kathleen Kennedy, who produced the Oscar nominated Sea Biscuit. She is also working on a project for Killer Films, which produced Boys Don’t Cry.
Her management company, Brillstein-Grey, which also produces major TV shows, such as Sopranos for HBO, asked her to come up with an idea for a TV series about Indians in America. The result was East West Values for HBO. She says, “I think TV is just a great indicator of the interest because it’s so much broader and reaches so many more people.”
So has it become easier to be Indian and succeed in American entertainment? Says Dhawan: “The answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s easier now but it’s by no means as easy as you sometimes like to believe. Ethnic papers speak about the big rush to make Bollywood crossover films or films with South Asian subjects and that’s really not true. Hollywood is very insular but things are changing considerably.”
Dhawan’s sojourn in Hollywood showed her just how many desis there are in the entertainment business, at many different levels. How far Indian Americans have infiltrated into the Hollywood system became apparent when she signed on with Brillstein-Grey, which represents major celebrities like Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt and Sean Puff Daddy, and found that her manager was not an “All-American” Tom, Dick or Harry, but Jay Khanna!
Yes, things are certainly not what they used to be.
But for those who think it’s a major Bollywood invasion or a huge impact on American entertainment, it’s best to take it all with a pinch of salt.
She feels distributors won’t catch on until a pure Bollywood film does in America what it has done in England, get its own audiences: “It’s all incremental as these movies make money slowly American distributors will open their eyes to the possibility of a financial return.”
The danger, of course, is that Bollywood may water itself down to be more acceptable to Western audiences, and in the process lose its soul. As Nair observed, “What intrigues me is how will Bollywood film, the pure Bollywood formula film that we all love and adore and need as a part of our staple diet in India and around the world, how will that shift with the now current international attention.” In trying to become more palatable to Western audiences, will Bollywood lose its vigor and panache and its ‘I’ll sing if I want to Sing’ attitude?
In the meantime, any exposure is good exposure. At a Q&A session, a recent film school graduate noted that many of her non-Indian friends had embraced Bollywood, but more for its camp value, as something to laugh at, for its exoticness. She asked, “I’m wondering is this a valid approach to treating Bollywood or is it more like a condescending approach?”
Responded Nair, amidst great laughter and applause from the audience, “I think any approach is fine right now as long as their bums are on seats and they are watching our films.”