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Bollywood Rising? – Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival, New York

With its seventh edition the MIAAC Film Festival has become the most important North American festival for films produced by filmmakers of South Asian descent retaining its special emphasis on directors from India and the large Indian Diaspora. This year’s festival held from November 7-11, was a milestone as reflected in the shift to new and established screening venues, the Asia society, and Loews theatres in Manhattan and Jersey City, the programming of 49 productions, covering features, shorts and documentaries with numerous premieres, the expansion of seminars to cover ‘Bollywood and Its Foreign Markets’ and more elaborate opening and closing ceremonies. Most importantly as the festival’s changed name indicates there is a now a partnership with Mahindra, one of the ten largest industrial corporations of India, which had supported the festival in the past. This shift continues the trend of large companies teaming with film festivals to enhance their corporate image.
Most of the 2007 MIAAC festival selections do not conform to the typical Bollywood format. The program reflects instead the growing diversity of Indian film making and the rise of what could be called an independent Indian cinema which is now an important component of the more than 1000 films produced in India. The festival’s Bollywood screening seminar was held at the New
York Consulate General and featured R.O.Mehra’s
provocative RANG DE BASANTI. An expert panel moderated by Richard Pena from the New York Film Festival provided unique insights into the status and marketing of Bollywood films in foreign territories and the Diaspora. Industry and academic experts including the media attorney Arnold Peter, UTV’s Lokesh Dahr and NYU’s chair of the cinema department Richard Allen and the anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti, served as panelist.
New regulations have made foreign participation in the Indian film industry easier as evidenced by large investment from SONY and the Weinstein brothers, Disney's purchase of a 15% share in UTV and Viacom's commitment to joined ventures with India’s Network 18. These transnational investments are not prompted by trying to change Bollywood to adapt to Hollywood styles and formats. Though these investments are part of the globalized media and culture industry, they follow pragmatic business consideration. Growth rates of US box office receipts are flat, the US exhibition market is saturated and most of Hollywood’s revenue now originates abroad. In India annual revenue growth for the film industry is estimated to reach between 20 and 25%. Whereas the US has about 35.000 screens, India serves a much larger population of more than one billion inhabitants with 3000 screens only. But India has a rapidly growing affluent middle class and a young television audience with about half of the viewers 35 years old or younger. Average ticket price in India is about one dollar and can only go up.

Thus India offers a tremendous opportunity for expansion. Another important market for Bollywood films is the Indian Diaspora, which includes the
24 million persons of Indian origin dispersed all over the globe. The global penetration of Indian films follows the Diaspora route without, until fairly recently, the benefit of systematic pro-active film marketing. Thus Hindi films have been enjoying a global audience on their own in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean. In some cases, like Israel, Hindi films were actually dubbed. The reluctance to engage in marketing is due to the low profit margin derived from these territories and limited returns from North America.
Other factors which makes marketing of Bollywood films to non Indian groups in the United States and Western Europe difficult, is the reluctance to watch subtitled films. The idiom or form of Indian filmmaking is not appealing to the main line audience, the marathon length of most films serves as a deterrent, and frequently story telling succumbs to song and dance. Thus Lokesh Dahr expressed doubts that a Bollywood film which was successful in India and the Diaspora could cross over to non-Indian audiences and generate significant income. Even Mira Nair’s Indian Diaspora story THE NAMESAKE grossed only $14 million in the US.

Yet the professionalization of Indian film industry by innovators such as UTV’s Ronnie Screwvala will result in changes facilitating access to larger foreign audiences beyond the Diaspora. These changes entail cutting the length of films, generating new plots beyond the standard Bollywood format, producing outside India, and developing marketing strategies customized to the new electronic platforms. What also will help the passage to the global audience is the concerted effort by the Indian film industry to increase presence in international film festivals and markets. Recall the Confederation of Indian Industry’s gala show at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival under the direction of Anand Mahindra, the current CEO of Mahindra & Mahindra who was also instrumental setting up the film festival partnership with the Indo-American Arts Council. In line with the startling growth rates of the Indian economy and the arrival of India as a powerful global player, there is also the desire to have cultural prominence or to paraphrase Richard Allan; the Indian film industry has a great craving for cultural legitimacy.

Informal discussions with members of non-Diaspora audience about the attraction of Bollywood reveal other elements accounting for the appeal of these films. Most commonly reference is made to the beauty of Indian actors and actresses, the elaborate sets, the costumes, the dance numbers and songs, the exotic background, the upbeat stories with happy endings, the absence of violence or stark social or political conflicts, elements which presumably permit ready escape from everyday life…. and recall the golden age of Hollywood musicals of the depression years.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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