By Indiewire | Indiewire September 18, 2002 at 2:00AM
WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Crossover, Anyone? Bollywood Makes Influences, But Few Inroads
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 09.18.02) -- "This is the year of Bollywood," claims an announcement by the Vancouver International Film Festival, which kicks off next week and includes a program called "A Bow to Bollywood . . . And Beyond." The announcement touts, "From Baz Luhrmann to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and from Deepa Mehta ["Bollywood/Hollywood"] to a host of upcoming crossover English and American films, campy, all-singing, all-dancing artificiality is in." While such declarations make for spicy-sounding copy, the fact remains that Bollywood -- the Indian cultural phenomenon, so named for its Bombay meets Hollywood ethos -- has not yet crossed over into the Western market.
Sure, enthusiastic trend-spotters have reported that Bollywood cinematic allusions have appeared in "Moulin Rouge" and "Ghost World." And admittedly, Mira Nair's New Delhi-set "Monsoon Wedding" is a bona fide success story, approaching $14 million and still going after seven months in release in the States. But let's not forget, none of these films are Bollywood productions.
While "Monsoon Wedding" includes a little singing and a little dancing, it's largely a family melodrama whose musical moments remain firmly rooted inside a naturalistic world, rather than the fantastical, kitschy universe that invades the typical Bollywood narrative. (It's also mostly financed by the Independent Film Channel.) The same goes for upcoming international co-productions such as "The Guru" -- and to a lesser extent "Bend it like Beckham" -- which borrow from Bollywood without being Bollywood.
American audiences got their first true taste of genuine movie-masala with "Lagaan," the Oscar nominated four-hour crowd-pleaser about a cricket match rivalry between Indian locals and British colonialists. Sony Pictures Classics released the film on May 10 to arthouse audiences with much critical support: The Village Voice declared, "'Lagaan' could be the film that hoists Bollywood from the cult fringes of American pop culture toward a wider acceptance by the Western mainstream."
No such luck. During its three-week opening run at the Film Forum, the film made about $29,000. According to the Forum's Mike Maggiore, "those are pretty decent numbers for such a long film, which could only play two shows a day." But outside of New York, the Western mainstream hardly embraced the picture: Variety put Sony Classics' grosses at $73,276.
Still, Sony Classics VP Tom Prassis says their "Lagaan" release was "not a fair test" for Bollywood productions. "It's hard to judge, because it was already exploited in the Indian community and the DVD was already out," he says. In fact, the global distribution arm of Sony Entertainment Television, SET Pictures, distributed "Lagaan" on the Hindi theater circuit in 2001 to the tune of $835,000.
So even with the Oscar nomination, "Lagaan" remained largely a success in the South Asian communities already reached through its SET release. "Everyone who saw it really liked it," Prassis notes of the mostly non-Indian audiences who saw the movie under the Classics banner, "but getting them into theaters wasn't easy."
The Indian audience, however, is a rapidly growing market in North America, filled with avid filmgoers raised on Bollywood product. Recent U.S. census figures put the Indian population at 1.9 million. That's a healthy number of tickets, but compared to other minorities, such as Hispanic (31.3 million) or Chinese (2.7 million), the figure is relatively small.
Around the world, comparably, the market for Hindi films is strong. A recent Screen Daily article set the overseas value at $50 million a year, with Bollywood product selling well in the U.S., the Middle East, the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, and several other locales.
This explains why U.S. companies have recently joined the Bollywood fray. 20th Century Fox is producing its first Hindi feature "There Was A Beautiful Girl" and "Marigold," a U.S-Indian co-production is being touted as the first Bollywood movie to be made by a U.S. director, Willard Carroll ("Playing by Heart"). The film, which will be shot in both English and Hindi, tells the story of a B-movie actress stranded in India who takes a job on a Bollywood musical, with the set-up allowing for musical numbers to be integrated American-style seamlessly into the narrative. Crossover, anyone?
Clearly, that remains the goal, as an Indian audience alone doesn't make for breakout attendance. Much hype had recently centered on "Devdas," a Bollywood epic about a forbidden low-caste/high-caste romance, which was the first of the genre to nab a slot in Cannes' official selection last May. The most expensive film ever made in India, "Devdas" broke opening box office records locally, and is expected to gross more than $10 million at home. At Cannes, the new Good Machine/USA Films hybrid Focus picked up international rights, and Screen Daily reported that Miramax made "an aggressive play for U.S. and U.K. rights." But no U.S. distributor has since come on board for North America.
Why, then, might you ask, if you live in New York, are there posters for "Devdas" plastered on the windows of just about every Indian bodega in town? A recent trip to the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights for some of the best naan in the city recently confirmed my suspicions: "Devdas" is currently in U.S. release through Eros Entertainment, the film's producer, Indian sales agent, and the largest distributor of Indian content worldwide. Since putting out "Devdas" in Indian specific-theaters since mid-July (its worldwide day-and-date release on a record 1000 prints worldwide), the film has made well over $2.2 million in the States, according to Eros.
Eros Entertainment CEO Ken Naz recently told indieWIRE they were still planning on a conventional Western theatrical release, but hadn't finalized the details. "We already have a relationship with many of the theater chains, and we didn't think that people would recognize the South Asian market," he said. "Now that the companies have seen the grosses, we are talking to three U.S. distributors." But Naz would not divulge the names of the companies, and Eros has not returned repeated calls for an update.
Eros has had some success in the last few years with Bollywood or Indian-themed content in the U.S. "American Desi," a culture-clash comedy, wound up with over $900,000 and according to Variety, ranked 26th on its list of the most successful independents of last year. ("Lagaan" ranked 30th. Interestingly, both beat out such notables as "Requiem for a Dream," "The Taste of Others" and "The Princess and the Warrior.") But again, these successes remain firmly rooted in the Indian-going audience, one that has yet to be tapped by the usual suspects of specialized distribution.
At the Toronto Film Festival, Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta unveiled her own hoped-for crossover success, the aptly titled "Bollywood/Hollywood." "If everything is about economics, let's face it," she noted to another news source, "I think that people in the West and mainstream distributors have realized that there's a huge population from Southeast Asia," she said. "Just the way people became more aware of Iranian cinema 10 years ago, I think this is a time for Bollywood." And yet, Mehta -- and many in the industry -- may be speaking a little too soon.