It can be said without any exaggeration that India, represented through Bollywood is the only country in the world that produces a cinema that in market terms poses some kind of challenge to Hollywood. There are certainly many places in the world today where it gives the American film industry a run for its money, which would include amongst others countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
English cinema, despite its substantial contribution, does not really have a distinctive status and is generally happy to be clubbed with Hollywood. Most viewers are not even aware that a particular film was made in England and in the global public view - outside the island country - it is more or less synonymous with Hollywood. They do make films in Europe of course, but with the exception of something like 'Life is Beautiful', which actually reached out to a global audience because of the Oscars, most European films are viewed only within the country of origin or within the continent at any rate.
The rest of the world may see French, Italian and Polish films in film festivals that showcase 'art cinema' but there is no serious money being made by the Europeans. Within Europe perhaps the French are the most upset at the American hegemony, and do their best to promote French cinema. Films represent culture and it is upsetting for the French to see American muscle power in theatres in their own country, because somewhere the more cultivated Frenchman believes that American cinema represents 'low culture'. Low or high, there is little the French can do about it.
Unlike the French, Indian cinema on the other hand not only dominates its home turf but is also viewed globally. This global audience is not confined to Non Resident Indians although they certainly represent an extremely important consumer. Nationalities other than Indian all over the world watch Indians films - and it is a growing market.
Indian films are watched all over the Middle East. There are also viewers in South East Asia. In Africa they command a sizeable audience within the native population. I have found viewers familiar with Indian actors and actresses in Somalia as well as Liberia. Anton, a Dutch friend who has worked in Uganda for many years once asked some Africans why they watched Indian films when they couldn't even understand the language. 'Oh, the acting is so good,' was the reply he received, 'you don't need to understand the language.' 'You mean the acting is so bad,' said Anton.
A friend of mine, Narendra Laljani, who lives and works in the UK, told me this story of how he was once invited to a meal at his Professor's house. The Professor was recently married and proudly introduced Narendra to Natasha, his Russian wife. During the course of the meal, Narendra and Natasha became engaged in a serious discussion about Raj Kapoor's movies. The Professor was visibly rattled and soon his patience ran out.
'Who on earth are you talking about?' he wanted to know. Narendra had to explain to him in Hollywood speak that they were talking about the John Wayne of Indian cinema!
Yet, it is not only Russians like Natasha who grew up watching Indian films during the Indo Russian great friendship years but much of Eastern Europe under communist influence as well. Hollywood movies could not be screened in those territories, being as they were a product of the evil, capitalist West.
Bollywood now makes good money in the UK and in the US with the strong NRI population living there. Hollywood is also now trying - with some moderate success in the metros - to make inroads into India.
Indian cinema needs better marketing, according to veteran film director, Shyam Benegal. Three years ago, a couple of South Indian films starring the South Indian star Rajnikant did rather well in Japan, traditionally part of the Hollywood empire. Their success prompted some journalists from Outlook- India magazine to do a story investigating the reasons for the success. A Japanese was quoted as saying that Indian cinema could easily appeal to them (the Japanese) because of shared cultural values. Notions of family loyalty, a brother sacrificing his life for his sister (from one of the Rajnikant film's in question) - all these themes held resonance within the Japanese mindset. Another Japanese pointed out that in sheer physical terms the five feet seven average Indian resembled the Japanese more than a six-foot something American star. The Indians needed to do good dubbing in different languages and more importantly go in for good marketing if they wanted to make serious inroads into what is now traditional Hollywood territory.
In the West, Indian films are quite often rubbished as shoddy, formula films with song and dance routines. This may be true for some films, but equally, it could be argued many Hollywood productions are terrible.
Indian films, it is said, all stick to a formula and there is often little, if any, story line. However Hollywood too has its formulae.
One formula used in Hindi films is to pander to the different religious communities in the country. Thus, a blockbuster like Amar, Akbar, Anthony has Amar as a Hindu, Akbar as a Muslim and Anthony as a Christian providing religious identification to three major religious communities in the country together with a 'feel good' factor by all three being actually brothers who were separated in childhood. What is Hollywood's formula, if any? Well, they too will make films in which there is a friendship between a white American and an African American and this is not very dissimilar to the Amar, Akbar, Anthony model if you look at it carefully. The appeal here is to ethnic and not religious identification.
The film business like any other business is about making money. There are huge investments at stake and producers want to be sure of getting a good return. As society and the market changes, formulae too will change.
With India experiencing greater sexual freedom, many Bollywood films now try and introduce one really sizzling number. In 2005, the sizzling number of the year was 'Kajrarey, kajrarey,' danced on film by Ashwariya Rai, Bollywood super star and ex Ms World. The track was played all over the world, including in some New York restaurants. In 2006, it was 'Bidi lagayi key,' a sizzling number by Indian sex goddess, Bipasha Basu. If this is formula, well, then so are the car chases and stunts of Fast and Furious 1 and 2 as are the traditional Bond antics and hi fi gadgetry (though the most recent Bond film was a bit different).
Bollywood is also trying to woo the NRI audience in many ways, because they now form an important territory especially in the UK and US, and they buy their tickets in pounds and dollars. One of the ways is to adjust or shift the formula a trifle. For instance the story could pair a Gujarati heroine (to cater to the strong NRI Gujarati population) with a hero who is playing a British or American born Indian. Another way of catering to the overseas Indian population would be to do location shooting in that country (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna).
Can Hollywood be far behind? The producers of 'Samurai' were very careful to get their act right as far as the Japanese were concerned. Japan is an important territory yielding serious profits and they didn't want to have anything in the movie that would offend Japanese sensibilities.
In the globalized world of today, there is, expectedly, a sharing of expertise already taking between Hollywood and Bollywood. Some aspects of filmmaking are being outsourced to Bombay. Indian actresses, such as Ashwairya Rai are finding main roles in Hollywood productions (The Mistress of Spices). Hollywood movies are being dubbed in Hindi with even their titles changed (Museum Key Andar Phus Gaya Sikander). It's big business, presently dominated by the Americans and to a smaller extent the Indians, but newer smaller players such as the Koreans and Chinese are also getting into the act. It's not the same as making concrete blocks though and America and India have a lead because they have both been making a large number of movies for a long time.
Bollywood and Hollywood are both pulling up their socks to get that viewer, be he in China, Mongolia or Greenland. Shekhar Kapur, director of 'Elisabeth' nominated for several Oscars, who is certainly savvy about the changing film world, remarked in an interview last year how Spiderman 15 may be played by an Indian or a Chinese. The point he was making is that cinema, being a business has ultimately to satisfy the consumer. With India and China making up nearly half the globe's population, once their economic clout increases and the capacity of the average Indian and Chinese to pay good money for cinema tickets increases, producers will try to pander to their tastes. That may be quite a while away, but there is good reasoning here.
With viewing turning global will there tomorrow be Gollywood (an amalgam or merging of Hollywood, Bollywood and other emerging cinemas) churning out formula films of the future and if so what will they look like?
I can suggest one formula and it is one that carves its formulaic appeal along ethnic lines such as in the case of Hollywood cop films with a White Cop teamed up with an African American cop. Perhaps ethnicity is not the right terms. It may be more about skin color identification, one reason why Russian looking Raj Kapoor was such a hit in the States and a darker Shah Rukh Khan is more popular in Africa than say a fairer Aamir Khan.
Can I suggest a formula that is a little ahead of its times? If you want to get world populations interested have a multimillion dollar production with an American star (Tom Cruise), a South Asian (Amitabh Bachchan), A Chinese hero (Jackie Chan) and an African hero (represented by someone like Denzel Washington). Oh, its not that I'm ignoring the women. Just outlining the ethno skin color selection principles involved which will apply, in a modified way, to female casting as well.
Gollywood, that will represent the globalized film industry, will plan and organize simultaneous global release in different global cities such as New York, Nairobi, New Delhi, Beijing, Dubai and Moscow in major global languages such as English, Hindi and Chinese. It goes without saying that you not only have to have a good formula but you also need good direction, music, sex and above all try and get an interesting story line fitted into that formula.
It may not be this particular mix of stars, and the global cinema machine may not be called Gollywood, but there certainly will be formula films of the future that will cater to a global market.