Give us some of that Bolly lolly

What kind of relationship is shaping up between Hollywood and Bollywood? Saawariya (Beloved), which opens around the world tomorrow, is the first Bollywood film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, Sony.

The giant film corporation has woken up to what is the envy of all nonBollywood distributors in Britain: with minimal publicity and with fewer than 50 prints, the box-office receipts and screen averages of a big Bollywood film outstrip by far any of their other foreign-language counterparts – and sometimes even Hollywood blockbusters. The world’s largest film industry – India produced more than 1,000 films in 2006 – has caught the imagination of Hollywood, and its Western eyes are fixed firmly on the international and Indian box office (Bollywood has a global audience even larger than Hollywood’s).

Hollywood has flirted with Bollywood in the past with films such as Moulin Rouge (2001), The Guru (2002) and Inside Man (2006), using Hindi songs on their soundtracks. Earlier this year Marigold, with the Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan and Heroes star Ali Larter, was the first significant Hollywood film to appropriate Bollywood’s unique style of film-making: its lead characters spoke English but they unashamedly broke into song and dance in front of the Taj Mahal.

Saawariya, on the other hand, is radically different: it is in Hindi, it has 11 songs and it is the traditional three hours in length. Hollywood studios are desperate to penetrate the Indian and global NRI (nonresident Indian) market. This is because, with a few exceptions such as the Jurassic Parkand Spider-Man series, Hollywood films usually flop in India. Moreover, the overseas audience for Bollywood films remains predominantly South Asian.

With five Bollywood films grossing more than $2 million (£950,000) in America in 2006 and with films routinely making their debut in the British Top Ten, it is an astute recognition by Hollywood of a potentially lucrative new market.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Indian films will now gain access to possible new audiences through a much wider worldwide release. Uday Singh, the head of Sony Pictures, India, says: “A foreign player allows Indian producers to tap the vast global network of studios, thereby showcasing their work outside the home market and acquiring greater exposure for their films.”

Sony is not the only Hollywood player jumping on to the Bollywood bandwagon. Walt Disney Pictures recently teamed up with Yash Raj Films, the biggest Hindi production house, to co-produce a series of animated films. The trailers of their first feature, Roadside Romeo,scheduled for release next summer, are currently being shown in British cinemas. UTV, another leading Bollywood studio, currently has deals with Fox, Sony and Disney for forthcoming projects.

At first glance, Saawariya appears to be a typical overblown boy-meets-girl Bolly-romance. “It is the story of a woman waiting endlessly for her beloved, and I wanted to explore the nobility of relationships,” explains Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film’s director. Is there anything about Saawariya that could appeal to a wider Western audience? “Language is not a barrier as it is a beautiful love story,” asserts the male lead, Ranbir Kapoor. His leading lady, Sonam Kapoor (no relation), agrees: “It is about humanity and being in love which is universal.”

Sony is taking a risk. Bhansali may be an Alist director, but his overblown style of film-making, as exemplified by Devdas, has divided audiences and critics. Furthermore, Sony’s baby has little star power (both of the leads, pictured above, are making their debuts), and its music is weak. These can be major drawbacks: the presence of big stars and a hit soundtrack can determine in advance a film’s box-office appeal. But Sony’s biggest gamble is in its choice of a global release date for Saawariya.

Its opening clashes with that of Om Shanti Om, the latest film by Bollywood’s biggest superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, whose movie is the most eagerly awaited of the year. It features appearances by more than 30 major Bollywood stars. “King Khan” is not worried: “I wish Sony all the best as they have taken a big chance fighting with me. I am India’s giant.”

Whether or not Sony’s Saawariya succeeds in the Diwali box-office battle remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the film is a significant sign that Bollywood’s wings are extending internationally.

What is certain is that its appeal and financial success cannot be denied – or ignored. As the leading actress Aishwarya Rai states: “We like the song and dance, emotional drama and duration of our films, and our audiences embrace it; the global audience will adapt to Bollywood as it is.”

With Saawariya, Bollywood has now been firmly embraced by Hollywood, but on its own terms.

Saawariya is released on Friday November 9, 2007

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008

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