Bollywood’s new era

Slicker production values, better training and racier plots are all helping the Indian film industry reinvent itself. Can Bollywood take on Hollywood?
Colours, melodrama and dancing are still very much part of Bollywood, but there’s a parallel new era in terms of production emerging in India.
By Courtney Trenwith
Sun 11 May 2014 09:43 AM

“I just want to kiss you.” Those words and split-second lip-locking between two young college students created waves in India earlier this year when the trailer for ‘2 States’ was released. Raunchier scenes, including sensual undressing and a kiss under flowing water, followed as the story of two live-in lovers slowly unfolded.

Essentially, ‘2 States’, released on April 18, is a romantic story intertwined with song, dance and colour. But that’s where the Bollywood likeness ends.

The Abhishek Verman-directed movie is one of the most intimate ever produced in India. It boldly explores the relationship of young lovers who live together - still taboo for much of India - and who try to convince their families to allow them to marry despite vast caste differences.

It is as true a representation of India today as any film has delivered, with the new generation breaking down centuries-old traditions.

Bollywood has been slow to follow this generational shift - until now.

“The younger generation of filmmakers are pushing the envelope now,” Anil Kapoor, Bollywood veteran actor and now producer, tells Arabian Business during filming in Dubai for his next movie, ‘Welcome Back’.

Intimacy is not the only taboo being crushed. ‘The Lunchbox’ is the most internationally acclaimed Indian film in a long time, but there’s not a hint of Bollywood melodrama. Not one song, not one dance.

In fact the simplicity of this love story between a nearly-retired office worker widower and a neglected young housewife who are connected via a lost lunchbox – the film also depicts Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas, or lunchbox deliverymen – is exactly what the world has loved. It took the 2013 Cannes Film Festival by storm and was lauded by many as an Oscar contender.

Love stories are synonymous with Bollywood, but this unconventional film is one of the first in India where two people falling in love never meet. It is intriguingly unpredictable.

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“It’s one of the most unique love stories I’ve ever come across, if not the most,” ‘The Lunchbox’ star Nimrat Kaur said in an interview last month.

Her co-star, Irrfan Khan, arguably India’s best actor today, believes Bollywood is turning a corner.

“There are so many things which are waiting to happen in India, there are so many ideas,” he said during the same interview, aired on CNN IBN.

“We never make films on our own stories, we kept boring, but now the time has changed.”

The Indian film industry is experiencing the most dramatic evolution in its 100-year history. And not only on screen; the entire Bollywood business is becoming more professional.

Digital effects are being embraced, formal training schools have been established, insurance - once sniffed at - has become commonplace and in an industry that has long lived on chaos, film schedules and budgets are being enforced. The biggest Hollywood companies, including Disney and Sony Pictures, are also edging their way into Mumbai.

The changes have been evolving in only the past decade; there’s still plenty of progression to come, but they’re already producing dividends.

More Bollywood films are becoming international box-office hits and joining the international film festival circuit, sometimes taking home awards.

The International Indian Film Academy awards - the “Bollywood Oscars” – were held in the US for the first time this year, with 20,000 people in the audience and another 800 million expected to watch when it’s broadcast on TV in June.

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The event co-starred Hollywood actor John Travolta, but there were still signs of the colour, staged performances and voluptuous costumes synonymous with Indian film.

There’s more money in it too. Multiplex cinemas have had an enormous effect on how movies are screened in India. Last century, as many as 1,200 Indians would gather to watch a single screen, having paid a mere 20 rupees (45 cents) for the experience. Today, they are forking out 300 or 400 rupees to sit in air-conditioned, enhanced cinemas screening multiple movies at one time.

Helping to lead the change has been Mukta Arts, the first Indian film company to list on a stock exchange, to introduce insurance and to set-up a state-of-the-art training school.

Established by one of India’s most successful film directors, Subhash Ghai (‘Kaanchi’, ‘Hero’, ‘Good Boy, Bad Boy’), Mukta Arts has pioneered film education in the country. Its college, Whistling Woods International, now teaches 450 students each year, including a few from the Gulf. It’s been named one of the top 10 film training schools in the world by Hollywood Reporter.

“There were lots of people working in the industry but they didn’t have formal training, they would learn on the job, which was really stunting the growth of the industry. It was chaos,” Whistling Woods president and Ghai’s daughter Meghna Ghai-Puri says.

“The idea was to open a world-class institute where we would graduate students from all aspects of film and media and they would go out and make the changes that really need to be made.

“We now have 1,000 alumni in the industry, making a lot of changes, introducing new technology and software and best practices. They really are creating a new wave of cinema.”

Since a relaxation of government-controls on the industry at the beginning of the century, the number of TV channels in India has soared from one state-owned broadcaster to hundreds.

International production houses, particularly those in Hollywood, now also have a major presence in India, particularly in Mumbai.

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“Having them there has changed the culture a lot, they’ve brought in new things,” Ghai-Puri says. “At the same time, the great thing about India is, culturally, we’re so strong and our films are so unique in themselves and they make so much money within India that we don’t really need to change the format.

“So while we do have ‘The Lunchbox’ as a different film, you still have the Bangalore hero in ‘Main Tera Hero’, which was just released, [and] pure commercial films that you would see in the 1980s and 1990s re-package nicely and [are] released again. The audience still has an appetite for that, which is great, because otherwise we would lose our uniqueness and we would not have an industry.”

Increased professionalism has also drawn in more money, both for investment and ticket sales, although there’s less to be made on music.

“[A decade ago], we didn’t even know if the theatres owed us money; usually the distributors would just give you a lump sum and say ‘okay this is it’,” Ghai says.

“Now you can actually sell your movie and any prospective returns on it, DVD and TV rights - TV is huge ... commercials are looking much better [and there’s more money in cinemas] because multiplex ticket prices are much higher, so even if you had 1,000 people watch a film for 20 rupees, getting 400 people to watch at 250-300 [rupees] is still better.”

More Indian films also are being shot overseas, due to the bigger budgets and desire for more authentic filming locations.

Dubai is faring well from this, with 33 Indian productions shot in the emirate last year. The proportion of movies being filmed in Dubai is also rising, with several doing more than half their entire filming in the emirate, such as ‘Happy New Year’ and ‘Welcome Back’ (the ‘Welcome’ sequel, which also was shot in Dubai).

The entrance of local powerhouse conglomerates Reliance and Tata also demonstrates the money-making potential the Indian film industry is now considered to have, while banks are  now more open to lending for productions, helping to reduce the industry’s reliance on mafia funding, once a dark secret of the business.

Bollywood actors are also taking their own slice of the action, becoming co-producers and establishing their own production companies.

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Kapoor, who played the game show host in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and more recently a Middle Eastern leader on US drama ‘24’, last month launched global content company Antila Ventures in Dubai. Registered in London, Kapoor intends to also open offices in Los Angeles and Singapore.

“That’ll allow us to make our way into both markets, East and West,” he says. “I would love to have Indian content that can travel all over the world.”

The father of a film producer, Kapoor bought the rights to produce an Indian version of ‘24’. Now he says his goal is to make Indian content that can be adapted to Western audiences and vice-versa.

“Nobody ever imagined that ‘24’ could be adapted in India,” he says.

“Fiction in India has been focusing only on the women, the housewives, so nobody’s really made good fiction for men, for youngsters, for teenagers, for the niche audience. I had a lot of convincing to do to the channels but you have to stick your neck out, raise the bar, think out of the box.

“Anything made well … [with] good content and if the scale is correct, performances are right, casting is right, it just resonates, it just works and it’ll work all over the world.”

Kapoor says India’s film industry has not previously needed to globalise its content because its domestic audience was already one-sixth of the world’s population.

“India to some extent, I feel they’re slightly self-sufficient where the audience is concerned and where the money is concerned; there’s a certain comfort level so they don’t push the envelope or raise the bar,” he says.

“But the younger generation of filmmakers are pushing the envelope now. For example, young film makers and a few people like me are sticking their neck out and gambling their own money.”

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Ghai-Puri remembers when, not so long ago, her father’s suggestions to divert from the traditional musical interludes and rainbows of colour would be quickly quashed by veterans of the industry.

“Growing up, discussions we would have were so funny,” she recalls. “[On one occasion], the creative team wanted to have the entire flashback shot in black-and-white ... and distributors and the producer said ‘no we can’t do that because the audience, when they pay that 50 rupees for the ticket, they want full value and you cannot give them half the film in black-and-white’.

“That is something that’s so past now.”

Bollywood films are also steadily becoming shorter.

“[It used to be thought] the longer the film the more value for money,” Ghai-Puri says. “Today the audiences don’t have the patience to watch a film for more than two-and-a-half hours. They’re so exposed to the TV and to the internet, the younger generation today doesn’t have that kind of attention span.”

But the industry is still missing out on a potentially huge revenue pool – tourism. There are only one or two companies that offer structured tours of locations such as Film City, where about 80 percent of Bollywood films are shot.

“Somehow we’ve not been able to get the numbers for tourism,” Manoj Gursahani, who launched the Bollywood Tourism company two years ago, says.

“Look at the number of tourists coming into India, it’s 7 million per annum. Right now we’re not even touching 1 percent of that [in Bollywood]. [Tourists] will come in for historical importance, they’ll see the palaces and beaches and that sort of thing, [but not Bollywood].

“Slowly, we’re experimenting to test the waters.”

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Earlier this year, Gursahani tied up with Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, the government body overseeing tourism in the west Indian state that is home to Bollywood, which specifically refers to films produced in Mumbai.

Presently, Bollywood Tourism offers half-day and full-day options that include visiting Film City, potentially going on a live set, learning about post-production and star-spotting outside Bollywood actors’ homes.

There are plans to create longer packages that would see international tourists travel to India specifically for the Bollywood experience – and dip deeper into their wallets.

The number of tour customers is growing 30 percent annually but is still only 5,000. Gursahani has no doubt it can grow exponentially with industry backing.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The challenge is to open up the Bollywood world.

“A lot of production companies were hesitant to allow visitors to come on to their set because they felt the cost of production was so high and every hour they pay the actors ... they didn’t want intrusion to affect their work. So it took us time to convince a lot of production houses to start working with us.

“We feel there’s a huge market and potential. If you look at the interest in Universal Studios, it’s huge, it’s an industry in itself. They put more budgets into marketing this concept, [while] we’re still getting the understanding ... but we definitely feel it will have an impact.”

And with films such as ‘The Lunchbox’ attracting international audiences as well as Indians, and inevitably more such ground breaking hits to come, there is plenty of potential for indirect Bollywood business.

It’s not likely to overtake Hollywood anytime soon, but there is certainly something to sing and dance about in the new era of Bollywood.

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