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India's Bollywood Film Industry Tries to Produce Crossover Movies

Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan in a scene from 'Kites'
Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan in a scene from 'Kites'

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India's popular film industry, known as Bollywood, is trying its hand at producing films which will appeal to a global audience.  But the popular Mumbai-based movie industry's efforts to break into the international market have made an uncertain start.



The movie Kites, which released in May in more than 30 countries, is an emotional love story of an Indian and a Mexican immigrant in the United States.  Set in Las Vegas, it stars a popular Bollywood actor, Hrithik Roshan and Mexican actress Barbara Mori.  

Its producer, Rakesh Roshan, called it "a truly Indian global film."  Kites was the first big-budget effort by the Hindi film industry to make a movie which would appeal to mainstream audiences in India and in Western countries.

Not impressed

However, the film failed to impress people on either side. Indians said they could not identify with the mix of Hindi, English and Spanish dialogues.  A shorter version, Kites: The Remix, released in countries like the United States, fared even worse. Edited by Hollywood director Brett Ratner, it was an attempt at a Hollywood-Bollywood crossover.

Mumbai-based film trade analyst and critic Komal Nahata says Bollywood film producers have long been enthusiastic about trying their hand at crossover cinema.  But he says their efforts have not met with success, because audiences in India and Western countries are very different.   

"I think it is this urge to tap newer markets, to tap newer audiences," says Nahata.  "But our filmmakers don't realize is that what is lacking is cinema which they enjoy.  You cant jut tweak Bollywood cinema and say that 'I made it for the crossover audience'. Their tastes are completely different, plus their sensibilities are different."

Successful attempt

Bollywood has a massive fan following, not only in India, but in many Asian countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It is also a huge hit with Indians staying in Western countries.  About seven percent of the revenues of the $2 billion industry come from overseas markets.    

The desire to woo Western audiences got a boost after the runaway success of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. The film was a British production, which used Bollywood talent and was shot in the slums of Mumbai fueled the desire among Bollywood production houses to make a similar hit.  

Of course, a typical Hindi movie is very different to Slumdog.  It is usually a predictable, melodramatic story of boy-meets-girl and overcomes all odds to be together. These films are replete with glitzy song and dance numbers.

Reason for optimism

Many people are optimistic that Bollywood movies have the potential to make their presence felt beyond the traditional markets in India and Asia.  Among them is Mumbai-based film critic Taran Adarsh.  

"That is what has attracted a lot of people from the Western world… our colors, our songs, our dances, the Bollywood masala," Adarsh says.  "I have had a lot of people coming up to me and telling me that they love Bollywood films.  They don't understand the language, but there is something about Bollywood films.  They find it very interesting."

In their quest to win international audiences, Indian film producers are trying to break the mold and explore more contemporary themes.

Bridging the gap

Several movie critics say the success in several countries of a recent Hindi film, My Name is Khan, shows that Bollywood is starting to tap a wider audience.  It is the story of an Indian in America who battles the double problems of fighting Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism) and being a Muslim in a post 9/11 world.     

However, trade analyst Nahata points out that crossover audiences are still "miniscule."  He feels the distance between a Bollywood and a Hollywood movie is too vast to be easily traversed.    

"It has to be a completely different film, which risk the Indian filmmakers won't take because then they fear that the Indian audience and the traditional audiences will be lost to that kind of film, notes Nahata. "The amount of crossover audiences which view our films is so small it hardly matters."

Some Bollywood producers are scaling down their ambitions for crossover projects.  But others are not giving up.  In September, one of India's best known filmmakers, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, will start shooting in the United States for an English language film called Broken Horses, also aimed at global audiences. Like him, many others hope that some day Bollywood -- which produces the most movies in the world -- will manage to make a mark internationally.

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