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Indian Films Should Now Look to the Far East

The future of Indian cinema lies in pan-Asian appeal and audiences

Published: May 2, 2013 07:36:08 AM IST
Updated: Apr 26, 2013 11:13:35 PM IST
Indian Films Should Now Look to the Far East
Ang Li’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

It is believed that if you keep repeating something long enough, people will believe you—even if it’s true! So, as I reflect on Indian cinema in the next 100 years, pardon me if I quickly get a few facts—my favourite refrain—out of the way first.

India makes the most films in the world—1,000 to 1,300 feature films annually.

Hollywood makes about half of that, France a quarter. The Germans or Italians each make about 10 percent of India’s output.

Indian cinema is among the strongest in the world. In no other country is Hollywood small change—it is less than 10 percent of the Indian market. Hollywood has destroyed national cinemas worldwide: The French have barely 40 to 45 percent of their own market, the Italians and Germans barely 10 to 15 percent of theirs. Many nations—France, China, South Korea and Iran—have protectionist policies to defend national cinemas against Hollywood. But India has no protection: We just ‘lerve’ our own cinema.

India is the only country to make films in up to 39 languages and dialects, making for an incredibly rich and diverse cinema. This makes for splintered markets, but some of India’s regional cinemas are as prolific as other countries’ entire national cinemas. Marathi cinema produces about as many films as Italian cinema; Bhojpuri cinema is as productive as Mexican or Argentinian cinema.

India and the US have film industries with some of the biggest domestic markets. Even if they don’t sell much overseas, they can support a healthy film industry. Despite that, all Hollywood majors—Sony, Warner Bros, Fox, Disney, Universal and Paramount—have had far greater overseas revenues than domestic, sometimes more than double.

By comparison, India is still taking baby steps, primarily wooing the NRI market. And even when chasing that chimera, the ‘cross-over film’, Indian filmmakers are haring after two-and-a-half goras in the West. Funny. The whole world is furiously chasing the over 2 billion-strong markets in India and China, but Indian filmmakers don’t seem to have noticed either, even after a century of filmmaking.

It is only after Hollywood started making co-productions in regional Indian languages to tap those markets that Bollywood is playing catch up. Broad emotions, recognisable characters, SFX, dubbing and high quality English subtitles are ways to tap all-India and international markets. SS Rajamouli’s superbly inventive Eega (Makkhi in Hindi, Naan Ee in Tamil) and Shankar’s Enthiran (Robot) took that route to success.

As for China, Hollywood is far ahead of India in wooing it. Given China’s highly restricted film imports, Hollywood is trying co-productions to weasel in as Chinese films. In 2012, foreign films—mainly Hollywood—earned 8.8 billion yuan in box office revenue, while Chinese films earned 8.3 billion yuan. Again, it took a Hollywood studio operating in India—Warner—to try to tap the Chinese market with Chandni Chowk to China. Never mind if it was about a Delhi cook being mistaken for the reincarnation of a Chinese warrior. The last Indian film set in China that I remember is V Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani in 1946. It was about a real-life Indian doctor who supports the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion.

Indian Films Should Now Look to the Far East
Image: Punit Paranjpe / Reuters
Stanley Tong’s The Myth starred Jackie Chan and Mallika Sherawat

But there have been brave attempts to tap the Indian and Chinese markets from our neighbours. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aimed at universal and especially pan-Asian markets. It starred Chow Yun-Fat (Hong Kong) and Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia-born), was directed by a US-based Taiwanese, and produced by the Japanese-bankrolled Hollywood studio Sony and Columbia. It won four Oscars, and did terrific box office collections worldwide. Lee also directed Life of Pi, set in India, with an Indian cast, but as a philosophical parable with universal appeal; it won another four Oscars.

Hong Kong director Stanley Tong directed The Myth, aiming at a sort of pan-Asian market. It starred Jackie Chan (Hong Kong), Kim Hee-seon (South Korea) and Mallika Sherawat (India). In one sequence on a conveyor belt coated with sticky rat glue (don’t ask, just YouTube it), after Sherawat loses all her clothes one by one, Chan strips off his banian and pulls it over her torso in one smooth move, thus protecting her modesty—or whatever it is called in her case. Peter Chan’s Perhaps Love tried to fuse Chinese and Indian USPs with Chinese opera and Farah Khan’s choreography.

In the next 100 years, India will hopefully turn to conquering not just the Chinese, but the Asian markets. Go East, young man, should be our mantra.

Asian cinema itself is too diverse to be described as a monolith. But Indian cinema has an underlying affinity with Asian cinema, whose sensibilities broadly emphasise traditional values, family ties, and humanity more than in Western cinema.

Along with Indian Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, many of our storytelling traditions, such as the Ramayana, resonate throughout Asia. Indonesian director Garin Nugroho has directed Opera Jawa, a modern interpretation of the Ramayana.

So too, our Buddhist philosophy has been adopted in many Asian nations. The Jataka Tales are popular elsewhere in Asia. The films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have resonances of these. For instance, in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival, a family member, reborn as a kind of gorilla with red LED lights for eyes, joins the family at the dinner table—and the family doesn’t turn a hair.

Moreover, Tamil films have long had pockets of appeal in Malaysia, Singapore and the Gulf—apart from NRIs in the US and the UK. More Indian film studios are cultivating Asian markets. Apart from Rajinikanth’s Muthu, My Name is Khan, Don 2, Om Shanti Om, Ek Tha Tiger and 3 Idiots were released in Asian markets, including Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the Gulf.

May the next century be one in which India, more ardently, accepts Asia’s warm embrace.

(This story appears in the 03 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Chandni Shah

    I agree. Our common sensibilities can serve as a good platform to attract the East Asian audience towards Indian cinema !

    on May 2, 2013