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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Here comes Bollywood

There is a sea change in the sort of movies that are being made, and a lot of the movies are increasingly made with a worldwide audiences in mind. Taking cognizance of the fact, Time Asia is carrying the "new" Bollywood as its cover story.

The film world has heard rumors of an Indian invasion for years. In London in particular, the success of cross-cultural writers like Vikram Seth, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, department store Selfridges' decision to adopt a Bollywood theme, and a host of wildly successful Indian TV comedies has long convinced the British public that it was set for a Bollywood bonanza. Often, the sheer size of the Indian film industry—releasing an average 1,000 films a year, compared with Hollywood's 740; and attracting an annual world audience, from Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town, of 3.6 billion, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion—made it seem as though the West was the last to catch on.

So what's changed? Everything. Rai's [ed: Aishwarya] unchallenged position in the industry is partly due to her determined pursuit of "different, against the grain" roles, such as her 1997 part in Tamil director Mani Rathnam's little-seen but acclaimed art-house movie Iruvar. But Rai is not some solitary crusader, rather the most successful disciple of a new mantra of innovation that has swept Indian film in the past year. Because in 2002 Bollywood truly bombed. All but 12 of the year's 132 mainstream Hindi releases flopped, and the $1.3 billion-a-year industry, used to comfortable annual growth of 15%, groaned under unaccustomed losses of some $60 million. The formulas suddenly weren't commercial anymore. And although some moviemakers groped around for new blueprints—horror, skin flicks, anything—a band of urban and Westernized writers, directors, producers and actors, loosely grouped under the banner "New Bollywood," overran the industry.

The issue also has interviews with Aishwarya Rai (who also graces the cover), Amitabh Bachchan, Rahul Bose, Ram Gopal Varma, Aamir Khan and also an essay written by long-time Bollywood junkie (and one of my favourite movie reviewers), Richard Corliss.

Bollywood is the world's largest movie machine. Big Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai arguably command a larger fan base than most Hollwood stars. In fact, Bachchan was voted Star of the Millennium in a BBC poll, leaving names like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Robert De Niro and Homer Simpson behind. Bollywood and India are the only sources of competition to Hollywood and the U.S. in the domain of pop culture. I have always maintained that India does not make any use of the "soft-power" potential inherent in this cultural dominance. Clearly, that's a lesson India (and Bollywood) need to learn from the U.S. -- it's not just nuclear explosions that gain you influence in the world. It's also "Friends," "Simpsons" and Rock n' Roll.

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