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Home > Movies > Columns

Karan Johar: Definitely not targeting non-Asian audience

Maria Giovanna in New York | March 28, 2007 18:22 IST

If you live in the United States and are not Indian, but have nonetheless become enamored of Bollywood, you can get your fix one way or another. If you live in or near an urban area, there is possibly at least one Indian neighborhood with DVD stores and maybe even a cinema screening Hindi movies. Even if you live further away, say in the pristine countryside of rural Maine or wide open Montana, you can, thanks to Netflix, feed that hunger with fresh red envelope arrivals every few days. Moreover, anyone with a good Internet connection and a decent ability to do a Google search can enhance the film-viewing experience by trolling for gossip, cinematic scholarship or even like-minded companionship via discussion groups.

We know there are others like ourselves out there, but I began to wonder, do the people at Yash Raj Pictures or the local Indian cinema know we exist? Do they care? Do they want our dollars and our eyeballs? Or is it not necessary to court the firangi flock when you are in the largest movie industry in the world with a population of one billion possible consumers plus the Diaspora? Moreover, is it right or wrong to want to? Does a filmmaker too anxious for a phoren audience run the risk of being called a disloyal sellout?

Some, like Amitabh Bachchan -- while he is gracious when accepting the French legion d'honneur and will say he is touched by these demonstrations of appreciation -- will also question, in essence, why the Indian movie industry needs to obsess itself with crossing over and winning Academy Awards, when it is different from Hollywood and should only worry about pleasing itself.

With all of these questions and more, I set off to find out what the situation right now is and what the attitudes of those involved in the business are. I will caution you up front that numbers are not easy to find, when looking for the non-Indian segment of Bollywood moviegoers.

I chatted briefly with Steve Swesey, director of corporate communications at Netflix, who said, "We don't dice subscriber information by race or ethnicity, but of the 1.5 million DVDs that Netflix ships daily (that's some 35,000 to 40,000 titles), six percent are foreign films." And no, it wasn't possible for him to give me a breakdown of how many Indian films slipped into US mailboxes every day but Sunday.

On a much smaller scale, I asked my own local Indian DVD rental guy what percentage of his customers didn't have bloodlines to their desh. Aside from me, there was just one other woman, no more.

Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com and a media consultant to several film distributors, told me, "It does seem that Bollywood films have slowly been reaching a non-desi audience in the US in the last couple of years. It is still primarily South Asians who fill theaters, but I have noticed many people of other backgrounds curious to know more. There is a tremendous audience of foreign film lovers in the US, and India makes some terrifically entertaining films, so there is an immense amount of untapped potential. I work with American film journalists all the time and most are eager to know more about Bollywood."

"In order to effectively tap into this market, he continued, "Indian companies need to improve their marketing and distribution efforts. This is hard because producers in India are afraid of piracy and do not send prints to the US early enough to hold press screenings a week in advance of a release. More American press would cover Bollywood films if they could see them earlier and not just a day or two before the opening." In terms of the box office, Pandya added, "Bollywood films now routinely gross more in North America than in the UK, marking a major shift in which the Western market is more lucrative. I see the North American market getting even bigger in the near-term, as long as quality films keep getting made."

Lokesh Dhar, who is in charge of UTV's North America and UK operations, admits that, at present, 98 to 99 per cent of the audience at Hindi movie screenings in the US is South Asian. "Our main objective now is to grow the audience we have," he says. "What we need to do first is create content that is more appealing to a larger audience, although directors don't have to abandon what they are good at. Another challenge is distribution, given its prohibitive costs."

When asked if he saw any upcoming films of 2007 with potential in the US, he mentioned Jodha-Akbar, Ashutosh Gowariker's historical movie starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai, due for release October 12. "But," he added, "It is also up to the distributors, how they feel about it and how they want to market it."

With regard to the theater manager's take on the matter, I asked Dylan Marchetti, Director of Theatrical Acquisitions and Programming at ImaginAsian Entertainment -- and also the man who oversees the ImaginAsian cinema in Manhattan -- what he thought of the current system, especially since his theater screens a variety of Asian movies, not just Bollywood films. "I think filmmakers in general think of their films as global in nature, and not just for Indian audiences," he said. "I think they know adding too many Western sensibilities would dilute what makes Indian films so special. So, they have honed and polished their craft instead. An Indian film looks and sounds just as good, and often better, than some American films with much bigger budgets. Distributors have begun to reach out as well. Now, you find reviews of the latest Indian films in The New York Times and Village Voice, where they wouldn't bother before. Most films still aren't actively marketed to non-Indians, but that is beginning to change. Krrish was a great example of a crossover film: It took the masala of Indian cinema and mixed it with East Asian action, to great success. And KANK, in telling the story of four Indian-Americans, made New York a real character in the film, rather than just a backdrop."

Marchetti continues: "In terms of filmmakers, again, I don't see much difference between directors from India and, say, Hong Kong. They are out to make the best film they can, and if it catches on globally (as most good films will), even better." With regard to marketing, he explains his theater's approach: "We market the Indian films we play to our very diverse audience; if we're playing a Japanese film one week, and an Indian film the next, everyone coming to see the Japanese film will see a preview for the Indian one." The strategy has borne fruit. "We have had great success marketing to non-Indian audiences. I like to visit the theater and talk to crowds after the movie, and increasingly see non-Indian couples claiming to be hooked after their first Indian film. They are always delighted when I tell them that we usually show two or three films per month � audiences that love foreign films know that, for most countries, there are often just one or two films a year, whereas there are dozens of Indian films per year."

When in New York mid-February, Karan Johar attended a screening of his controversial, and financially successful, 2006 release Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna to a group of New York University film students. The event was orchestrated by Professor Richard Allen, chair of cinema studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. At the question and answer session, it was evident that Allen was smitten with Johar's work. When asked what he thought was the potential for mainstream Hindi movies to appeal more broadly to an American audience, he said, "I don't really understand all this talk of crossover, because what appeals to me about Bollywood film is precisely what does not easily cross over: the melodramatic idioms I was talking to Karan about (that belong more to Hollywood of the 50s), the lack of narrative economy (Bollywood films are consumed more like Broadway shows than films), the song sequences, the 'inflation' of stars (star cinema more like classic Hollywood than contemporary 'character acting' driven). These are, to me, the four main reasons for lack of a crossover. Directors aspiring to crossover begin to abandon these idioms."

Apparently, Johar told Allen he was making a film without songs or, probably, stars. "Of course, directors have done this before," said Allen. "Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and the so-called middle cinema 'crossed-over' -- Ray especially -- but not to a popular audience. I think if Bollywood films do cross over, they will end up doing so in the same way -- addressing a niche middle-class art cinema crowd."

Karan Johar was quick to state, "I am definitely not targeting a non-Asian audience. I am hoping that happens by word-of-mouth. We have definitely been going from strength to strength in the last five years. I understand our format is very different from the way the West functions on celluloid. My sensibility is more urban. I definitely target an Asian audience, but it could be anywhere in the world. Everything that has been happening outside of the Asian parameter has been the icing on the cake."

When asked for his take on Indian films ending up in less-than-perfect theaters across America, Johar said, "We haven't been able to penetrate a theatrical chain in North America. It is possibly the only part of the world where we are lagging in that department. There is such a flow of films from Hollywood, along with the prevalent studio system, that we really are very low on their priority list, and I can understand that. New York was a struggle, but we finally managed." He continues, "In the UK, we play at huge chains -- the Odeon, West End cinemas. Every mainstream chain carries an Indian film, which is not the same scenario in North America. We hope to achieve that in time. We are hoping to make a big impact and a bigger noise about our cinema so we find a base in the international distribution chain and theatrical network in North America. There is a definite lack of knowledge vis-�-vis our cinema in this part of the world."

Meanwhile, those living in New York are continually knee-deep in all things Indian, and increasingly, also filmi. The massive ABC Carpet & Home furniture emporium is hosting a month-long series of events devoted to Indian design, crafts, culture and spirituality. One night in late February, Hesh Sarmalkar, actor and director of events for the Asia Society, gave a lecture on the subject 'Bollywood: Then, Now and Beyond'. He found himself before an audience that he estimated to be around 90 per cent non-Indian, running the gamut from French and Italian people, to a "hip 25-year-old American."

On the prospects of Hindi movie expansion beyond South Asian audiences in the US, Sarmalkar reasons, "Bollywood does need the overseas audience, with only one or two per cent of films doing well each year."  He admits the songs -- that are "culturally linked and become the soundtrack to people's lives" -- could prove problematic for some. "When you look at it through non-Indian eyes," he says, "they can interrupt."

Anupama Chopra has a special place from where to consider the Hindi film industry. Her mother is a scriptwriter, her sister a director, she herself has been a film journalist for over a decade, and if all that were not enough, she is married to director Vidhu Vinod Chopra. In addition to writing for India Today, she also writes about Bollywood for Variety and The New York Times. I caught up with her on Academy Award Sunday in February and asked what she thought about the question of expansion beyond South Asians.

"I don't think there is any mainstream successful filmmaker in India who would dilute what he or she does to reach out to mainstream audiences in America," Chopra replied. "Karan Johar told me a great story about how [American film producer] Harvey Weinstein came here a few years ago. Johar said, 'We all met and chatted and he didn't call us and we didn't call him because we don't need them.' This is an independent industry where directors are one-man-studios. They make movies that are watched by 3.6 billion people around the world. Are they going to kill themselves trying to appeal to an American audience? No. They are never going to risk alienating the Indian to talk to the American."



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