Rani Mukherjee in Sony Pictures’ Saawariya
Ironically, while Bollywood has borrowed and even copied unashamedly from Hollywood, American movie mughuls have not been able to penetrate, what they consider their last bastion, Indian cinema industry. Whose defiance and steadfastness have while perplexing the Americans, evoked a sense of admiration.
India is a complex country all right whose dress and food habits have remained singularly Indian. Despite a fondness for hotdogs, burgers and Coke, an overwhelming majority of the citizens still have their own brand of food. Most women do not turn up in business suits or jeans, but in traditional sari or salwar-kameez.
Likewise, home-grown Indian cinema continues to rule the roost at the boxoffice, and in spite of concerted efforts by Hollywood, Bollywood has firmly barricaded itself from the onslaught. This even after Hollywood tried a Trojan War tactics. The industry dubbed its films in Hindi, in Tamil, in Telugu — which are some of the biggest movie industries in the nation of 1.3 billion people –but to no avail. Hollywood failed here.
(One must clarify here that Bollywood or the movie industry in Bombay or Mumbai now produces roughly about 200-odd films a year out of the country’s total of 1,300 or so in many languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Bengali. Hence, the term Bollywood can in no way claim to represent the entire Indian cinema industry.)
Indians just did not take to a Tom Cruise or an Angelina Jolie speaking in Tamil or Hindi. Bond looked out of place when he asked in Hindi that his drink be shaken, not stirred.
And in a country with over 16 official languages, subtitles did not quite work. Was one going to use subtitles in Hindi, in Bengali, in Tamil … And India is still illiterate in a certain sense. Many people can sign their names, but this is just about all.
And reading subtitles while watching the action on screen calls for undivided attention and a special kind of ability, but Indians go to the theatres also for a picnic, and their eats go beyond popcorn. Can you believe that pizzas are served inside auditoriums? Some sell hot biriyani!
So, Hollywood did the next best thing. Like Chinese companies who, realizing that their nationals were smitten by American fare, began investing in Hollywood, the LA motion picture business came to India. Sony, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Walt Disney and Columbia, among others, began to co-produce not just Hindi movies, but also in Tamil and other language.
But the box-office has not been jingling loud enough for these co-productions — despite near desperate attempts. Fox made a glossy in Hindi called Ekk Deewana Tha (Once There Was A Lover) with Prateik Babbar (son of the brilliant Indian actress, Smita Patel, who died young and after childbirth) and Miss England finalist, Amy Jackson. But Indian audiences were not quite taken in by this romantic pair.
Nor were they when Hindi songs were added to the James Bond adventure, Casino Royale. Mercifully, Daniel Craig and Eva Green were not forced to dance on Eurostar.
Sony’s first effort in India, Saawariya (My Love), way back in 2007 was based on a Dostoyevsky story. Later, Disney made its first Indian animation, Roadside Romeo. Both bombed.
However, there were a few successes. The 20th Century Fox, through its Fox Star India imprint, and Walt Disney came close to hitting it big. Fox’s Dum Maaro Dum (Take A Shot) took a respectable $ 11 million in India, and its Shahrukh Khan starrer, My Name Is Khan (the Indianised version of Forrest Gump) did better at $ 16.4 million in India and $ 44 million worldwide.
Disney’s PK (with Aamir Khan essaying an alien, something akin to ET) and Haider (with Shahid Kapoor and Irrfan Khan, and based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet) also had a good run.
One plausible reason for Hollywood not being able to strike the actual jackpot is that its India offerings have not been anything novel. In fact, the Hollywood studios playing on Indian fields have been working through Indian companies, and so there is not even anything culturally different in what they produce.
And the money Hollywood invests is nothing spectacular. In 2009, Warner Brothers promised about $40m for Hindi-language projects. That’s enough for about four big-budget movies by Indian standards, but it’s unlikely all of them would make a splash.
Fox and Star combine, Fox Star Studios upped its presence in the Tamil language film industry. It stuck an alliance with Thirukumaran Entertainment, and this resulted in two movies — Mundasuppati and V Chitiram. Both did reasonably well last year.
But as Siddarth Roy Kapur, the CEO of the studio UTV, estimated, only 5% of all Bollywood works made any kind of profit. Of course, he was not saying anything new. This fact is well known. And, this is true of all of India. Not just Bollywood.
Yet, movies continue to be made in greater and greater numbers. Most lose money. Some break even. Some are huge successes — and these keep the hopes of the dream merchants alive. Hollywood is one of them — now.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.