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Sony flops in Bollywood

By Joe Leahy in Mumbai
December 04, 2007 10:39 IST
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Hollywood's first big foray into Bollywood has received a bruising reception in India with websites that track box-office sales branding it a flop.

Sony Pictures' co-production of locally made feature film Saawariya premiered in direct competition with locally produced Om Shanti Om, which stars the actor dubbed the "King" of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, and is on track to become one of India's biggest blockbusters.

"I hope it will function as a wake-up call to investors in Hollywood," said Mahesh Bhatt, a Mumbai-based producer and director. "You may have your marketing network, you may have your inexhaustible financial resources, but you need to get a sense of the palate of the Bollywood consumer."

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  • The battle between Saawariya and Om Shanti Om comes as international investors are increasingly looking for a share of India's movie industry, the world's most prolific with more than 1,000 releases a year.

    Disney, Viacom, Warner and Twentieth Century Fox are also eyeing India's box office, whose revenues are expected to reach $3.7bn by 2010 from $1.8bn last year, according to a report by AT Kearney and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

    Many Indian production houses are also attracting international investment through listings on London's Alternative Investment Market, such as the Indian Film Company, Eros International and UTV Motion Pictures.

    Critics say that Saawariya and Om Shanti Om could hardly have been more different. Saawariya is a moody love story based on the Dostoevsky novel White Nights. It stars two debut actors and was directed by the acclaimed Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Its competitor was an upbeat song-and-dance production described by critics as pure Bollywood "masala", or spice.

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  • The two films were released last month on Diwali, India's biggest festival and prime movie-going weekend, setting the stage for what the domestic media characterised as a clash of the titans.

    According to website, Om Shanti Om made Rs656.5m ($16.6m) in India in its first two weeks and nearly $3m overseas. Saawariya made just over a third of this, or Rs236.4m in India and $805,804 overseas, according to the website.

    Analysts estimate the films would have cost Rs400m-Rs500m to make, in addition to marketing costs.

    "This film was an art-house film made at a price of a blockbuster," Mr Bhatt said of Saawariya. He said it was pitched at the wrong audience. "Caviar might be a great thing but you can't go to an industrial area and market caviar."

    Sony was not available for comment.

    But Timmy Kandhari, of PwC, said he believed Sony would be able to recoup most of its costs eventually through its vast distribution channels.

    Greater Hollywood participation in Bollywood was here to stay, he said.

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