“`B’ comes before ‘H’ in a sense,” noted Consul General of India Dnyaneshwar Mulay, who introduced Besharam’s actors—including Ranbir Kapoor and his parents Rishi and Neetu--and the much-anticipated Bollywood film’s producers at Monday’s press conference at the Indian Consulate.
The event also tied in with this year’s observance of 100 years of Indian cinema, and Mulay used his mastery of the English alphabet to express his hope that as "B" does indeed come before "H," the “bridge” currently being built between Bollywood and Hollywood will within the next 10 years lead to Bollywood overtaking Hollywood.
Noting both Bollywood’s huge advantage in films produced annually (over 1,000 to Hollywood’s 500-plus, he said) and tickets sold (3.5 billion to 2.5 billion), Mulay also noted the vast disadvantage in revenues, which he put at $2 billion for Bollywood, between $60-$70 billion for Hollywood. With India’s filmmaking talent and economic power, he looked to a “more globally relevant and active” Bollywood film industry in the future.
During the press conference and at an interview after, Sanjeev Lamba, CEO of Besharam’s distributor Reliance Entertainment, offered insights into the current state of Bollywood in relation to Hollywood and the international movie marketplace, some of which expanded upon comments he made earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I talked about films crossing over [from the traditional Bollywood home market to an international audience] in Toronto,” said Lamba. “From my point-of-view, you can’t build a bridge from the center. You can’t design a crossover film. It has to start at one side.”
One of the problems in crossing a Bollywood film beyond Bollywood, Lamba noted, is that India’s domestic market is so huge, filmmakers and producers “don’t even look at foreign audiences,” since it’s big enough to easily satisfy their commercial needs.
But Bollywood also developed its own “idiom and grammar of filmmaking suited to the domestic audience,” he added, namely, “song-and-dance, emotion--things that don’t carry very well outside of Bollywood, that are a specialized, acquired taste.”
Lamba compared this with other countries, where unlike India, domestic markets are not big enough, “so filmmakers had to think globally and hence, crossed over better. The fact that India’s films haven’t crossed over to non-diaspora audiences, other than from expat directors like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta who have had some success internationally, eventually got me thinking about it, and while I believe in the old adage that you need a good story that is well told, it’s not enough."
Companies like Reliance, he continued, "need to push our films into places they haven’t gone before. A distributor in Mexico, for instance, is not going to pick up the phone and call Bollywood. You have to go there and build an international system of distribution, and that requires vision and effort, and that’s now beginning to happen.”
There’s the language, different, of course.
“Hindi is a limited language on the world stage, as opposed to English, so you won’t find Brazil or Eastern Europe coming to us and asking for our films,” said Lamba, whose company has offices and business associates in many countries. “Again, we have to go to them, with people, distribution offices, and effort.”
Another obstacle recognized by Lamba is that “India is for the most part a star-driven system—and sometimes the presence of a star overwhelms the story. Once you cross out of the diaspora, the star system crumbles: They don’t know the stars and only react to the story.”
He points to 3 Idiots, Reliance’s 2009 Bollywood blockbuster that was the highest-grossing Bollywood film until topped by this summer’s Chennai Express.
“It played in China, Japan, South Korea. Why? Because the story was somewhat universal—the pressures of the education system, doing what you think is right—and caught a chord. I hope this generation of filmmakers casts off the yoke of being happy with what happens locally.”
Lamba cited estimates that China’s domestic box office revenue, which has made it the second-biggest film market, will surpass North America’s by 2018 and double it by 2023. But more important, he said, was that China was starting to cross its domestic productions internationally, as evidenced by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which he noted was not as big a hit in China as it was worldwide—much as Slumdog Millionaire was not a big hit in India.
“In India, we still prefer domestic over Hollywood films, and we have low ticket prices--so there’s not a great global interest in India’s film market,” Lamba said. “But that’s been changing in the last four or five years, as every major studio is now making Bollywood films for the Bollywood market. But the fact that the international industry is participating in the local industry has got to be good for the local in opening windows, because until that happens, Indian films will largely play [mostly] to a Southeast Asian audience.”
Lamba also noted that even the Bollywood film’s structure is different.
“The classical Hollywood film is borrowed from the theater and has three acts—beginning, middle and end--whereas in India we’ve always had an intermission,” he explained. “We always talk about the first half and the second half, which requires a very different screenplay than three acts. So the film starts and it peaks at a pre-interval [intermission] high, then we go out and come in again charged up with drinks and eats and the film goes down in the second half. It’s a different way of thinking and structuring a film.”
But Lamba is heartened to see that young Indian directors are “trying to make films that are offbeat and different, and educate people outside the country. They’re exposed to world cinema, but in India, the sad history has been that the very people who bring their films to festivals and reach a worldwide audience are pretty sure in their hearts that domestic people won’t see them.”
It’s an “either-or situation,” said Lamba, “not an ‘and’ situation.”
“Small films that come to the Cannes or Berlin festivals don’t get much reaction domestically,” he said. “So how can we satisfy domestic storytelling traditions and at the same time attract an international audience?”
And "if you're brave enough to make a movie without songs [in India] you're probably killing youself” regarding the domestic audience, Lamba surmised, since songs in Bollywood films are traditionally vital to marketing them.
But pointing to the postwar global success of Japanese cinema along with the global growth of Chinese cinema over the last 20 years and the more recent crossing over of South Korean films, Lamba looks to see Indian cinema become “increasingly interesting” internationally over the next 10-20 years.
"It’s no accident that the economics of a country and its culture are somewhat linked,” he said. “If a country begins to do really well economically, there is interest in that country from the outside world in terms of business opportunities as well as cultural understanding.”
Films, concluded Lamba, are “a good shorthand” in cultural understanding.
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