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Fri 24 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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The tide is turning

One of my favourite pastimes is people watching - watching the millions of people who like to watch me. What is it about me, about Indian culture and Indian movies that is so fascinating to the rest of the world?

One of my favourite pastimes is people watching - watching the millions of people who like to watch me. What is it about me, about Indian culture and Indian movies that is so fascinating to the rest of the world?

What is it about our all-singing and dancing productions, which can last for over three hours, that now attracts a world-wide audience of three billion? (Yes, since 2004, in terms of viewers, Bollywood finally overtook Hollywood and has stayed ahead ever since).

Well, it could just be that we have always done movies better and it's only now that we are getting the credit. Only a decade ago, the idea of watching an Indian movie was seen as strictly an Indian pastime.

I know from my trip to Dubai last week that our audiences are now not only vast, but multi-cultural: Arabs, Australians, Europeans and even the Chinese have caught the Bollywood bug. What were once dismissed as weak story lines are now seen as tales steeped in cultural and social history. Our scripts, stories, music and productions have reached a new level.

And the proof is in the pudding: Bollywood now rolls out over a 1000 movies a year, and with around 500 million Indians still under the age of 20, the market can only grow. Hollywood is struggling to put out half as many films, purely because there isn't the viewing appetite.

But the real difference - and the reason why so much more is coming out of India than Los Angeles - is cost. Figures I have seen suggest the average cost of producing, marketing and distributing a Hollywood film is more than US$60 million. That said, a movie like Star Wars or Harry Potter will break the $100 million mark.

Compare that to the Indian way. As an example, what many experts think is the most expensive Bollywood production ever - Shekhar Kapur's ‘Paani' - cost less than $20 million. On average, Bollywood movies cost $5 million to make.

And this is just the beginning. Another reason I am spending more time in Dubai is to look at opening my own offices there - in particular, making use of animation studios. Outsourcing a large part of the production process hugely reduces costs.

I know that some of the big Hollywood studios have been looking at doing the same thing, but I feel we are ahead of the game. India has been making movies since 1899 - that's 11 years before the first ever Hollywood movie!

So what next for the Indian movie industry? Every year I think it has peaked, but I am proved wrong by you, the audience. Now, I just assume it will only grow and grow. Part of the reason is the NRI (‘Non Resident Indian' market). More than 15 million Indian expats are dotted around the globe, and it is estimated they account for 65 percent of Indian movie revenues. In other words, we have a large, expansive and growing market.

The more we keep the cost down - by continuing to outsource - the more movies we can make.

The real challenge for Bollywood is achieving Hollywood's multi-cultural appeal. Wherever you live and whatever language you speak, the chances are you will have seen a James Bond movie. I sense from my travels that the tide is turning, and that in the next decade, movies like Sholay (our biggest ever hit - released in 1975) will sit alongside James Bond in people's living rooms across the world.

When that happens, regardless of all the statistics I could roll out, I will know that we have succeeded.

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