June 7, 2010

India Journal: In Praise of Bollywood’s Global Appeal

Indian cinema, whether you consider it unbearable kitsch or high culture, is an undeniable global force.

Salman Khan’s moves and the music of A.R. Rahman are proud proof that India doesn’t blindly mimic the trends of entertainment in the West. It literally dances to a different drummer.

A vibrant local film industry in many countries is not the norm. The Philippine film industry, for example, has been devastated by Hollywood. Other than a few local-language love stories and corny comedies, it’s impossible to compete, one Filipino director told me. He only had a budget to blow up a few cars when blockbusters from the U.S. virtually blow up New York regularly.

Unless your audience wants something really different – like Kung Fu or Bipasha’s moves – it’s hard to beat Will Smith and Johnny Depp.

India doesn’t have that problem. Its unique stories and ways of telling them sell more than 3 billion tickets a year. In India, it’s U.S. films that struggle, rarely getting more than a fifth of the box office receipts.

There are millions around the world who appreciate the South Asian swagger. The star-studded International Indian Film Academy awards that ended this weekend in Colombo, Sri Lanka, will be watched by close to half a billion people when broadcast globally, its organizers say. That would make it one of the world’s most watched events.

“Hindi cinema is India’s most successful brand ambassador,” Shashi Tharoor, member of Parliament and former senior U.N. official, told film fans at the event.

And like all good ambassadors, cinema is more than a representative of India in foreign lands. It is a key connection for Indian’s living abroad to the home land.

The non-resident Indians’ appreciation of their ambassadors from Bollywood was on display at the IIFA weekend. The clusters of camera-clutching fans that collected at the entrances of every venue as well as the host hotel — where attendees paid up to $10,000 per person for three days room and board and access to the awards — were all stacked with NRIs.

The IIFA was created around 10 years ago to promote Indian films abroad. While Aishwarya Rai Bachchan may have been in a few Hollywood movies and on the Oprah show, the biggest Hindi film fans outside of India are still non-resident Indians.

International tickets sales account for 15% to 25% of the money made in theaters by Indian films, analysts say. For some films that figure can be as high as 50%.

Non-resident Indian movie goers often have different tastes than their cousins at home. Over the years, there have been many films, like “Don,” “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna” and “Salam-E-Ishq,” that have done fine at home but been blockbusters abroad.

“It is a certain escape [that] NRI’s crave,” through movies like “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and “New York,” said Anupam Kher, a Hindi film actor who has done more than 300 movies. “Stars like Shah Rukh Khan are the icons of Indians abroad.”

Big film stars and big films are lifelines for the expatriate Indian. They need Hindi cinema to stay in touch with home. Directors like Yash Chopra and Karan Johar figured out the formula for NRIs: big budgets, international locations and themes like family and home.

“The (NRI) audiences are not just looking at a film, they are looking at a way to connect to a value system,” said Anuvab Pal, an Indian screen writer who spent much of his life abroad. “They don’t want to watch cutting-edge cinema.”

Mr. Pal’s first movie “The Loins of Punjab Presents,” a comedy set in the U.S., was aimed at an international audience. He expected a healthy turnout from NRIs but his biggest audience ended up being at home.

“I was a little bit surprised because the story was set in Edison, New Jersey,” he said. “Our audience has mainly been city people in India.”

The Indian audience of course is much larger, but it is also more complicated and confused and looking for new story lines. Movie goers in India don’t need to be reminded of home so they are increasingly picking movies with mixed messages like “Dev.D” and “LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha.”

As in the entertainment business across the world, it is hard to predict what the next big thing will be for Indians at home and abroad. One thing is certain though, it won’t come from Hollywood.