Picture yourself as a white middle-class British person with a passion for cinema. Better yet, picture yourself as a white middle-class British person who's so into cinema you're working in either film production or distribution. You're the smartass of the company and everyone you know considers you the motherfucking Oracle of cinema. All your colleagues defer to your judgement on everything to do with movies. You come into the office every Monday morning and log on to EDI to see what's done good business over the weekend at the UK box-office. Everything is always pretty much as you expected. You were right in your assessment of what movie would rule and what would flop. You've also even seen pretty much everything on the chart... but one film. It's a film with a funny sounding title that's come from nowhere and has the highest screen-average of anything in the charts. You go online to read up on this bastard film as you know you'll have to discuss what's been happening at the UK box-office in your company team meeting. You discover the funny sounding film is some Bollywood movie that's storming the nation, but you had no idea it even existed. You arrange to meet your token Asian pal Deepak (although you've anglicised his fucking name to 'Deeps' because, he too, is more comfortable with it that way) and arrange to meet for drinks that evening. Deeps and you hook up and you ask him about this pesky Indian flick. It's at this point you realise that Deeps is as clueless and middle-class as what you are. Since Deeps started dating some white chick called Audrey who works as an assistant to a talent agent, he's pretty much shunned anything that isn't bland. This is a problem for you. You need to find out- not just assume- why these Indian movies are catching you by surprise. You ask me to investigate.
It seems that every week sees a new Bollywood movie come crashing into the box-office and then fade away just as fast. Indian cinema's international profile is booming right now and the movies it's producing are earning big money. It's not uncommon to see Indian titles sitting comfortably in the UK, US and Australian box-offices. Exclusive Indian film distributors like Eros and Yash Raj have global offices in all important markets and the multiplexes are riddled with Bollywood fare. In an earlier post I talked about how KITES was the first ever Indian movie to crack the US Top 10 Equally, last week saw I HATE LUV STORYS (sic) oust more expensive Hollywood blockbusters and nest comfortably in the UK Top 5. These movies may attract a significant audience, but that audience often comprises exclusively of Indian sub-continental diasporas. In recent years the Hindustani film industry has been very focused on the international market. Despite big-budget Bollywood movies like VEER, RAAVAN, KITES and BLUE struggling to succeed in India, they have done rather well internationally. The bone of contention for the Indian film industry is how to fully maximise profits by getting white folks to take their films seriously. Studios like Sony (Saawariya), Disney (Roadside Romeo), Fox (My Name is Khan) and Warner Bros. (Chandni Chowk to China) have made pathways into investing in Indian films, often with inauspicious results. The Indian film industry has attempted to appease Western palates; whitewashing the ethnic strength of their films by giving them Western hybrid sounding titles (God Tussi Great Ho, Jab we Met, Singh is King). I suppose the greatest obstacles preventing mainstream crossover for Bollywood movies is largely due to their odd nature. Bollywood makes movies marred by superficial content and hyperbolic sentiment. There is never really any intelligent subtext or sophistication to them other than intoxicating production values. They're mostly unreal stories, and the notion of characters breaking into random song is simply weird. Indian films have tried to shorten their intimidating running-time, but that's still not been good enough. To top it all, Bollywood movies are rampantly camp and a suspension-of-disbelief is hard to develop when watching them.
I suppose what really matters is that Indian films are making a lot of money overseas and have a lucrative following known for spending money on movies. It's totally understandable why American studios want to get in on the act. The recent success of Indian themed movies has spurred many into taking the whole thing very seriously. What is all the more surprising is that the real crossover Indian themed films of recent times have not been written nor directed by personnel of Indian lineage. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Chris Morris' Four Lions are films about the Asian cultural experience, but made by white middle-class men. Both of these films have been massive successes and as a result the bar for these kinds of pictures is now set very high. There was a time when Gurinder Chadha could get away with making insipid ethnic comedies that play to the lowest denominator, but her last film It's a Wonderful Afterlife died on arrival. Filmfour is pressing ahead with their pointless sequel to East is East but it's questionable whether there's still a sizable audience for it. Britain has a big Asian market and one that is known to adore Bollywood films. The key is producing films that stretch beyond the perceived core audience. There are innumerable UK film producers wanting to strike it rich with Asian audiences, but they need to craft great original stories that are inclusive of the Asian experience; not just ethnic for the sake of making money. There is the underlining danger of commissioning executives expecting too much too soon from the Asian market. That's already happened in radio with BBC Radio 1 ghettoising their once primetime Asian music show, and now announcing they're shutting down the BBC Asian Network because of competition from other Asian themed stations. (Why the same argument can't be applied to closing BBC Radio 6 is baffling as there are as many 'white boys with guitars' radio stations out there competing with it.)
The real question here is can Bollywood movies actually crossover into the Western mainstream? Maybe it can, but not without multilateral thinking. I get the feeling Indian filmmakers are assuming they know what will click with Western audiences, but falling short. Likewise, producers in Britain seem to be over-embracing the zeitgeist and rushing to make silly films about caricature Indians and their cute idiosyncrasies. For me, the project to keep an eye on is Danny Boyle's BOMBAY VELVET (a thriller set in the 1940s and based on real criminal incidents that occurred in Bombay), which the former will produce and Anurag Kashyap will direct. Boyle has been taking his role on this film very seriously and has been commuting twixt London and Mumbai; successfully negotiating the involvement of leading-man Aamir Khan. Boyle's commitment to creating quality Anglo-Indian movies is further exemplified by him optioning Suketu Mehta's Mumbai set non-fiction book MAXIMUM CITY. If anything, to create successful crossover films the two industries- East and West- have to truly inspire one another, collectively. There can't be any second-guessing about whose vision is superior. It must be a combined prediction focused on creating universal stories: not just superfluous marketing exercises destined for failure.