India's new cinema has a global script

CANNES: For a long time, the typical story line of an Indian film has gone something like this: Guy meets girl. They sing and dance. Guy and girl meet each other's families. More singing and dancing. Guy loses girl. Tears. Guy gets girl back. Singing and dancing all around.

It is a relatively simple formula, and it has been remarkably successful. Bollywood, as the Indian film business is often known, churns out more than 1,000 movies a year, and theaters sell more than three billion tickets annually.

Bollywood also has been unusually effective in keeping Hollywood at bay. While American exports dominate the big screen almost everywhere else, they account for less than 10 percent of the Indian market.

There is only one problem with this rosy picture. While films from China, South Korea and other Asian countries, all with far smaller domestic industries, have broken through in the West, only a handful of Indian films have done so.

Often, the only international audiences for these movies are members of the Indian diaspora, an estimated 25 million people of Indian origin who live in Britain, the United States, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

But that may be about to change, as Bollywood starts to mirror broader shifts in the Indian economy by opening itself to globalization and adapting its products and business practices to international tastes.

Encouraged by the surprise success of several recent films by expatriate Indians, Bollywood studios are tinkering with time-honored traditions, dropping the campy song-and-dance routines and melodramatic plots in favor of more realistic fare.

The early results are giving Indian filmmakers, who are gathered here in unusually large numbers for the Cannes International Film Festival, reason to cheer. "Rang de Basanti," a film about a young British woman who inspires a group of Indian friends to shed their apathy and take pride in their country's heritage, has raked in $24 million at the box office since it was released in the winter.

That may not seem like much by the standards of Hollywood, where a blockbuster's takings are measured in the hundreds of millions, but it is a huge amount in a market where film budgets are typically less than $10 million.

Perhaps more surprisingly, $9 million of the total has come from outside India, and Ronnie Screwala, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures, which produced "Rang de Basanti," attributed the export success to the new approach.

"For 100 years of Indian filmmaking, scripts were an afterthought," he said.

Marketing strategies are also changing. In the past, Screwala said, Indian filmmakers spent only about 5 percent of a movie's budget on marketing, leaving the work to distributors, who were good at getting films into theaters but often out of touch with consumer tastes.

On "Rang de Basanti," marketing spending was raised to 40 percent of the budget, comparable to Hollywood levels, and the change has helped make the film more palatable to Western audiences, he said.

It may be no coincidence that Indian filmmakers' new openness to Western approaches comes as Hollywood prepares a new move onto their turf. While U.S. imports continue to be hampered by Indian audiences' preference for domestic films as well as strict rules limiting the amount of sex and violence that can be shown on Indian screens, several Hollywood studios recently announced plans to start making their first films in India.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has one film in the works, while Walt Disney's Buena Vista division also recently set up shop in India.

Hollywood executives say these ventures are aimed primarily at the domestic Indian market. Meanwhile, a growing number of Bollywood studios are looking in the other direction, aiming to make movies in a more international style.

Planman Motion Pictures, a Mumbai-based studio, is working on a film called "London Summer," to be set in Britain around the time of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla. The story, about a fictional Indian nobleman and his mistress, features an Indian cast and a Bollywood director, Rituparno Ghosh.

"If a mainstream audience wants to go see a film by Wong Kar-wai or Pedro Almodóvar, then why not Ghosh?" said Shubho Shekhar Bhattacharjee, chief executive of Planman, referring to the Chinese and Spanish directors.

One attraction of filming outside India is the public financing, including tax breaks, that Britain and other European countries offer that do not exist in India.

Britain and India recently signed a film co-production pact that is aimed at making it easier for films with mixed Indian and British financing to realize these benefits, while opening the doors to British filmmakers to do more work in India, where costs are lower.

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