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Bollywood Flourishes at Home, Struggles to Earn International Acclaim

  • Patricia Nunan

Known for decades for its elaborate song and dance routines and formulaic storylines, India's film industry, known as Bollywood, is changing. No longer are films conforming to simple boy-meets-girl or rags-to-riches plots. Directors and filmmakers have pushed into more provocative territory - many with an eye on breaking into the international market.

It produces a thousand movies a year in nearly 40 languages and dialects, and has annual revenue of over a billion dollars - all signs that Indian cinema is thriving.

The industry is dominated by what is called Bollywood - Hindi and English films - the face Indian cinema presents to the world.

Unlike France, South Korea and a handful of other countries whose governments take steps to protect their film industry from outside influences - particularly Hollywood, India feels no such pressure. Movies made by an industry based in Bombay are hugely popular at home, and Hollywood blockbusters represent just a fraction of what is seen here.

Meenakshi Shedde is a Bombay film critic who has served on the juries of several international film festivals, including Cannes.

"Indian cinema comes and says, Boss, come and do what you like!" he explained. "It's dubbed in three Indian languages apart from English. With all the Tom Cruises, with all your Steven Spielbergs, with all your money and your clout, you're five percent of our market. You will not find this anywhere in the world. Our people just adore our cinema."

Now, some Bollywood filmmakers want to break into international markets with crossover movies, designed to appeal to audiences at home and overseas. So far, however, there has been little success.

Rahul Bose is a director, writer and actor in Bombay. He says India has so far failed to produce crossover hits for one simple reason.

"When I watch Amores Perros, or when I watch Motorcycle Diaries and I try to look for an equivalent in India, it isn't there," he said. "It just isn't there. We just have not made films that are good enough. And not Western enough, not American enough, not English enough - just good enough."

With a billion people in India alone plus millions of other Bollywood fans around the world, many in Bombay say there is only one reason to try adapting their styles to break into Hollywood - the money to be earned by tapping a global audience.

Some filmmakers are making the effort and as a result are changing the way movies are made in India.

The Rising - the Ballad of Mangal Pandey is based on the legend of Mangal Pandey, an Indian soldier who led the 1857 mutiny against the British, seen by many here as the beginning of the end of colonial rule. Two versions of the film have been shot - one in Hindi, the other English. It opened a few days ago in London, ahead of its Indian release. It was also the opening film at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.

Those are all signs, Ms. Shedde says, that director Ketan Mehta is aiming for a crossover hit.

"It certainly has a great star, Aamir Khan, who's certainly one our finest actors, who's sexy as hell," she noted. "It has a story that is quite deliberately - and very consciously made for a global audience. You know only when the box office responds whether it's made it or not, but when the film is made in Hindi and English - it's made for that audience."

Still, only a few Indian filmmakers aim for the crossover market. After all, the tried and true Bollywood formula of boy meets girl -- and bursts into song and dance while overcoming the odds to be with her -- still has huge appeal in India.

Some filmmakers, however, are trying to break that mold, but in movies still primarily aimed at an Indian audience. They are dropping the song and dance routines and developing more provocative storylines.

The Bombay production company Pritish Nandy Communications turns out about four movies a year - modest in Bollywood terms. Its director, Pritish Nandy, aims his movies at a young, English-speaking urban audience - who have an appetite for more sophisticated stories.

One 2004 production was "Shabd," or "Word," about an author suffering from writer's block. The author only overcomes it after he encourages his wife to have an affair with another man, and then observes how she changes. Mr. Nandy says it was a provocative idea in traditional India.

"But reviewers as usual promptly jumped the gun and said it was amoral, 'how can a husband do this to his wife?' " he explained, "and started doing moral posturing. As a consequence audiences were led down that road, and what was actually an interesting idea seemed condemned as an immoral idea."

Despite such criticism and resistance to new styles in Indian cinema, Mr. Nandy says Bollywood has a pool of extraordinarily talented actors and filmmakers who are breaking old boundaries. He and many others believe it is only a matter of time before Indian filmmakers garner international attention and acclaim.

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