A few years ago, India's crossover queen Aishwarya Rai made it to the cover of the Time magazine. In India, it was then considered a nod to Bollywood's emerging international clout.
But recently, when Newsweek put Ronnie Screwala, a relatively newcomer Bollywood producer, on its cover, it signalled the marking of a new faultline in the world of entertainment business. More than a nod, it was a screaming acknowledgement that Bollywood had remarkably arrived on the international entertainment scene. It was time Hollywood, the world's richest and most influential film industry, took its minuscule contender, Bollywood, the world's largest producer of films, seriously!
On the other side, the news has brought a fresh bout of enthusiasm and excitement to Bollywood's upcoming directors, especially those who do not belong to the established film production houses such as Yashraj Films (Run by veteran filmmaker Yash Chopra and his son Aditya Chopra who produced India's biggest blockbuster ever, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), Dharma Productions (of Karan Johar of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kahbhi Khushi Kabhi Gham fame) or Factory (of filmmaker Ramgopal Varma, the maker of hits such as Satya and Sarkar), just to name a few.
Emerging Bollywood writer and director Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, 2007; No Smoking, 2007) cried on his blog: "Believe me, there is going to be a change in order in this Hindi film industry. There definitely is a new wave, I have seen it coming, the world is also seeing it which is why Ronnie Screwwala is on the cover of NEWSWEEK and not Aishwarya Rai or Yashraj or Amitabh Bachchan."
For upcoming filmmakers like Anurag, entry of Hollywood symbolises the end of the tyranny of the status quo in Bollywood, for Bollywood's new blood wants an end of the dominance of the few "mom-and-pop" variety of filmmaking houses in the Hindi film industry.
Aiding them in this endeavour are the Hollywood studios. Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt once said that Bollywood is connected to Hollywood by some invisible umbilical cord. He was talking in terms of Hollywood's influence on Bollywood. Well, in the new century, the umbilical cord is becoming increasingly visible. And there are some cold reasons for this.
Bollywood has been seeing domestic and foreign boom in its reach and revenues. In 2006, India's film business grossed about $2 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 2004, reported The Newsweek. Revenue will leap to more than $4 billion over the next five years, forecasts PricewaterhouseCoopers. Bollywood’s gain in the overseas market is stupendous. Some Indian producers are realizing up to 30% of their total earnings from the overseas market. In Europe, Bollywood has increasingly taken the centrestage, getting quite popular in Germany, Poland, Russia, and England. The USA, Canada and UK are the major export destinations. Other territories such as Japan, South Africa, Mauritius, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East are fast becoming important markets for Indian films.
The game is getting global, the pie is increasing but Hollywood is not getting any of it.
For despite its presence for a long time, Hollywood could not increase its box office share in India's entertainment sector. In fact, Hollywood's market share on India's box office has been swinging between 5 and 8%. The only way it can increase its box office profits in India, they reckoned, is through financing Bollywood films. So, if you can't beat them, join them seems to be the idea behind this jockeying. That's why all these Hollywood giants are flocking to Bollywood.
But why now?
"Apart from the business angle which is the main angle," says Prakash Jha, a veteran Bollywood director and producer (Gangajal, 2001 and Apaharan, 2005), explaining the factors that is drawing Hollywood studios to Bollywood, "the Hollywood studios are also sort of trying to look at the consolidation of Indian production and distribution outlets, corporatisation and some kind of fiscal discipline. They are now surer of taking advantage of this."
With 11,000 domestic screens and millions of eager eyeballs, it is this whopping domestic and foreign success of Bollywood that is inspiring its filmmakers to thing big, think global. So, buyoed by Bollywood's success, when Indian filmmakers like Screwala start gunning for even Hollywood, the world takes note of them. It is remarkable that The Newsweek dubbed Indian film producer Ronnie Screwvala as "the front runner in the race to become Bollywood's Jack Warner—the man who began the transformation of parochial U.S. cinema into its modern global form." Screwvala, the man behind the super hit Rang De Basanti (2006), produced Mira Nair-directed The Namesake, and is now coproducing The Happening, a new sci-fi thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan with a budget of $57 million. "Our ambition is to be a global Indian entertainment company—there's no reason we can't make big-budget Hollywood movies, too," Screwvala told The Newsweek.
Srewwala's rise has been spectacular. An impressed Disney has bought a 15 percent stake in his UTV for $14 million in 2006. UTV already has forged coproduction deals with Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures, as well as with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment.
But other players are also getting into the game in a big way. Sony Picture was the first to step in and its first film Saawariya, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is releasing in November during Diwali. Viacom has inked a 50-50 joint venture deal with Raghav Bahl, head of Network 18. The venture, called Viacom 18, will produce and distribute TV shows, digital media and (eventually) 10 to 12 movies a year. Together, they have raised $112 million from a London Stock Exchange flotation. Also, three Indian studios held IPOs in London this year, raising a combined $220 million.
Before Viacom jumped into the fray, Disney made a deal with Yash Raj Films in June to take both companies into India's growing CGI animation business. The deal is to make one cartoon film budgeted at $4 million-$10 million each year.
The latest Hollywood studio to gamble on the Bollywood game is, as Variety recently reported, Warner Bros. It is backing its first India production, the action comedy Made in China, to be directed by Nikhil Advani. At a budget of US$12 million, it will be the most expensive Bollywood film yet.
So, where would Bollywood go from here? Will it affect the nature of Bollywood's narratives that is the hallmark of Hindi films? "I don't think the variety of films is likely to change very much," says Jha.
Will then Hollywood's entry in Bollywood shake up the established production houses in Mumbai?
Jha does not think so. "No, they will continue to dominate because most of the times these collaborations would be with these corporate houses. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is collaborating with Sony Pictures. He's got a brand which is acceptable to the western market. Yash Chopra is also collaborating with them for animation films and multiple products. So, collaborations with big Indian production houses are bound to happen."
Unlike Kashyap, Jha is not sure if Hollywood studios will promote new talent in Bollywood. "The new talent is getting promoted by the India corporate houses anyway," he told Today. "You are seeing Percept Pictures or Adlab Films or Reliance Entertainment are working both with tried hands and also the new hands. All kinds of films are being made because now there are possibilities of exhibiting these films in terms of limited shows in multiplexes. That was the sort of thing which was not available previously."
Agrees Gitesh Pandya, the editor of United States-based BoxofficeGuru.com and a film commentator on CNN: “As more companies from both countries tie up and make films together, we will probably see bigger and better films, especially if the projects involve the most talented filmmakers. New filmmakers will have more opportunities, but those who have been making films for generations will still have their place in the business.”
Whatever way the ball swings, it is great time for Bollywood filmmakers, for they would make hay (and some good movies too) while the sun shines. And most importantly, Bollywood might not barter its spicy grand narrative style for Hollywood’s money. Who can put it better than the king of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan himself: “My point is I do not want your money. I want your knowledge and technology. I am glad Sony, Columbia and Warner are all here. I like the tie up Yashraj has done with Walt Disney for animation. You tell me how to do it and I will tell my own story. I would like to collaborate with scriptwriters from there. They speak the international language better than we do. I would like to learn that. But the story would be mine and I would shoot it the way I want to.” (Outlook, Oct 22).
An edited version of this article appeared in The Weekend Today (Oct 27).