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Bollywood needs to change its act


Despite the success of Hindi films abroad, Bollywood has not really made a dent in the global cinema market.

“Mother India” WAS premiered at Liberty, Bombay, on October 25, 1957. It is said that it has been shown somewhere or other uninterrupted till this day.

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library

Truly global: “Andaz”,

It is 50 years since India’s most iconic and, perhaps, most global film was released. “Mother India” was premiered at Liberty in Bombay on October 25, 1957. It is said that it has been shown somewhere or other uninterrupted till this day. There are restaurants in Greece named after Nargis. Shyam Benegal recalled the other day that when he went to Milan many years ago, he saw how Passolini’s newly released “Teorema” hardly had many people buying tickets while next door there was a queue round the block to watch another film. That was “Mother India”.

The man who wrote the screenplay for that great film and also for another iconic Hindi film “Andaz” and many other scripts for Mehboob and other producers, S. Ali Raza, died on November 2. He was one of the creators of the global Hindi cinema of the post-Independence age before globalisation became a fact.

Spread of Hindi cinema

“Mother India”,

Intellectuals and habitués of Film Festivals may credit Satyajit Ray for putting Indian cinema on the map but that is for others like them who read subtitles. But millions of others — Greek mothers and Moroccan nomads, Egyptian matrons and Brazilian old men —have watched Ali Raza’s great film.

Indeed, the spread of Hindi cinema across the world has been going on for a long time. “Awara” sent the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc countries crazy in the 1950s. Mehboob’s “Aan” had a French release after its premiere in London. Long before that Himansu Rai made visually stunning films with German collaboration in the early 1930s — “The Light of Asia”, “A Throw of Dice” and many more were shown in Europe as Indian films with Indian stories.

By then the Bombay film industry (Bollywood as it is now called) had been around for 35 years. It is as old as cinema itself and certainly older than Hollywood which began in the late 1900’s. (I do not speak of non-Hindi film industry, which is also very large and very popular.)

Now 100 years later, Bollywood is being hailed for going global. This time it is different. A breakthrough was made by Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding”. But there was much more to come. This is because there is a large and rich South Asian diaspora in the West and also (not so rich) in the Gulf countries, which is a big natural market.

Industry status

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library


Making a film for the diaspora market is a surer moneymaking bet than the desi market. Hence films like “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”, “Kal Ho Na Ho”, “Salaam Namaste”, “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham” and many others. The stories involve foreign locations and not just for item numbers; the characters are themselves diaspora or, if desi, they move around with ease between India and the West.

India’s economic miracle has helped of course. The three B’s — Beauty Queens, Bytes and Bollywood — caught the imagination of the West. But the climate of economic reform also helped Bollywood. The NDA government gave industry status to the film industry a century after it had begun and decades after it had not only survived but thrived in a profit-making state unlike most industries in the public sector.

The Indian film industry, on the other hand, is one of the few modern industries built up with indigenous talent through the 20th Century. That one gesture has transformed Bollywood. It no longer needs to rely on criminals or black money or usurious money lenders to survive. It can draw on the vibrant financial market, which has emerged in India thanks to liberalisation.

Now new cinemas can be built, especially multiplexes which make niche films viable. Film producers are into serious corporate structures and Indian and foreign business is pouring money into cinema. Already on the AIM facility of the London Stock Exchange Indian film companies — Eros, Adlabs, India Film Company, UTV — have raised hundreds of millions of pounds from hungry institutional investors. Western film companies are taking a significant equity share in these companies. Indian business such as Reliance is not far behind. A wall of money is descending on Bollywood and there is a huge bubble building up.

Serious problems

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library

“Monsoon Wedding”

Yet there remain some serious problems. The domestic and the diaspora markets are too large for Indian cinema to adapt itself to Western tastes. The Third World markets are there of course but the real money is in the rich OECD countries. Hollywood even now commands 80-90 per cent of the global cinema market. Bollywood has to change its act if it is to make (or even wish to make) a break in this large market.

For one, the films are too long. Even the best Bollywood films are 20 to 30 minutes too long. Somehow making entertaining films in 110-120 minutes seems to be beyond the reach of most producers.It is just not their style. Scripts are too loose and have much excess fat. (In this matter, every scriptwriter today can learn a lot from studying Ali Raza’a script for “Andaz”.)

Chinese costume films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are capturing the Western audiences much better. “Krish” came near to matching that style but “Devdas”, despite its premiere at Cannes and despite Aishwarya Rai’s global reach, was too long and too desi to succeed. But it had the domestic market sewn up.

So there is yet the next phase of globalisation to come for Bollywood. There will be genuine co-productions in which the talents of filmmakers from around the globe will combine with Bollywood genius. In much of the 20th Century Hollywood attracted to itself talented film makers from around Europe, Latin America and Japan. India stayed out of that global phase (except for Sabu Dastgir, perhaps the only Indian to make it in Hollywood). It is time Bollywood got seriously ambitious and went for the global market head to head in competition with Hollywood.

The writer is Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics and has authored a book on Bollywood icon Dilip Kumar.

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