What Homer's Iliad is to Greek and Western civilization, the epic of Mahabharata is to India. In the late 1980's, B.R. Films, a father-and-son movie-making team, turned the 2,000 year-old classic into the most watched Indian television series of all-time.
"The Indian way of life is a life of values. The moment these values start deteriorating, the stage is set for a great war,” says Ravi Chopra, one of India's best known television and film producers. "The great war" is the war between good and evil.
Mr. Chopra says all his movies have a social message: "Now we've made a movie called Baghban, which means The Gardener. What we are trying to say is that just like a gardener grows a tree and makes it big with the idea that one day he is going to sit in the shade of the tree and spend the rest of his life there -- similarly a father is like a gardener. He brings up his family and looks after it with the hope that some day in the last days of his life, he is going to be able to sit in the shade."
In the movie, these hopes are increasingly dashed by the realities of contemporary life. Young couples today are too busy to care for their aging parents. Baghban is Ravi Chopra's first film for movie theaters after a several-year hiatus in which his company produced mainly television series.
Mr. Chopra says the advent of television initially affected the film industry, but the time has come when doing both kinds of films can be profitable: “I don't think it makes a difference what kind (of movie) you make because one film can make more money than a television series, but you can make more television series than films."
Film City, a 220-hectare site on the northern fringe of Bombay, is where many Bollywood films are made, particularly those for television. It provides affordable space, studios, sets, costumes and technical personnel. Walking through the area you can find fake courtrooms, temples, shops, city streets, country lanes and every other set imaginable. The facilities available at Film City enable a company to keep expenses to a bare minimum. For example, privately owned Zee-TV, one of India's fastest growing entertainment networks, is currently using a jungle set.
Located at the bottom of a steep hill, the set is accessible only by a steep, narrow lane. The television crew, actors and all other staff travel up and down the slippery slope, sometimes with expensive equipment in their hands. The trip is particularly hard on this rainy day in the monsoon season, but producer Karunesh Upadhyay is not perturbed:
"It is a part of an island, which is totally inaccessible. That's why it is inaccessible to us at the moment. It is the story of some people who are traveling by plane. The plane is hijacked and later crashes on an island and some people remain alive. It is their story and the story of their relationships."
Further down the road, television director Mahendra Batra is shooting a detective series for the national television. He admits that competition is challenging as a growing number of television networks fight for viewers: "But at the same time if the program is good, it catches on to the viewers. And you have to be in competition and you have to fight to be the best."
Mr. Batra denies that television movies have hurt the profits of what he calls feature films -- movies for the large screen. He says each has a special appeal: "No, not at all. Feature films have got their own place. This (TV) is home viewing. Even if you are in the kitchen you can watch what is happening, while film you have to concentrate and you are meant to see all that is happening on the screen."
Hollywood movies and television series also have an audience in India, but Indian producers say they do not represent a competition.
"The appeal of the Indian (film) is very much emotion,” says producer-director Ravi Chopra. “The Indian is an emotional man and his life is full of emotions, whereas the West is very technical. A big action movie like Terminator 3 and similar has not been done much in this country because people don't relate to that."
Music is another important element in Indian movies.
Commercial broadcaster Ameen Sayani is also a movie buff. He runs a weekly program on the history of the Indian movie music: "Our films are all musicals. I think I remember there being a movie with 18 songs in it. In fact not to have songs is a rarity."
In contrast to most popular Hollywood movies, songs in Indian movies tend to give insight into the characters' feelings - somewhat like opera arias. Most of the songs as well as movie plots are romantic.
Screenwriter Naseem Mukri says romance will never go out of fashion in India: "My inspiration is poetry and poetry deals with love. So my films deal only with love. People love romantic movies but because of the Western influence, there is a lot of violence and horror going on these days (in the movies). Still, they will see a horror or a violent film, but go back to romance."
Although India produces more than 800 movies a year, compared to Hollywood's 100, it doesn't make nearly as much money. The movie industry earns about 300-billion dollars a year, and India, which makes more movies than any other country, gets only a little more than one percent of it -- 3.5 billion dollars. According to media reports, the Bollywood industry lost close to 600-million dollars in 2002. So there is a lot of interest among Bollywood producers to attract an international audience. But broadcaster Ameen Sayani points out movies that appeal to Indians may not be attractive to others:
"If you had a love story of an Indian business man and a simple homely girl who was good looking but not fashionable, do you think that kind of story, which is based only on Indian songs and dialog would appeal to the west? I doubt it very much."
Indian movies have long been shown in the United States, although mostly in specialty theaters catering to immigrants from India. So, at least for now, Bollywood and Hollywood are not rivals.