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India's love song to itself

December 01, 2005 10:43 IST

Little did anyone think these figures possible. In 2001, The Mummy Returns took in Rs 23 crore (Rs 230 million) from Indian audiences. In 2002, Spiderman spun itself Rs 27 crore (Rs 270 million). In 2004, Spiderman II did Rs 34 crore (Rs 340 million). Join the dots. In statistics, it takes just three to call a trend. So: Hollywood fare sure
looks on an incline.

And this is India, the country with a domestic film industry that sells more seats than any other. It is an industry that has been termed "India's only autonomous industry" by a Nobel winner, and "India's love song to itself" by a Booker winner. It does not lack the appreciation of the accomplished.

But does it lack a defence strategy vis-a-vis Hollywood?

The short answer is no. Hindi cinema has already guarded itself, using the device of market segmentation. Witness the new "multiplex" segment of the entertainment market. At the outer edge of the defence flank are gritty action-thrillers.

But delve deeper: audiences have taken far more readily to romance flicks with global gloss and segment sensibility. This is the so-called Dil Chahta Hai (2001) trend, with Hum Tum (2004) and Dhoom (also 2004) as highlights.

"It is the young and the new emerging middle class that will decide what will work," says Yash Chopra, chairman, Yashraj Films, which has had a string of multiplex successes of late, "Today, Bollywood is as good as Hollywood." And he says this not just in terms of gloss, but in understanding the inner complexities of the young mind.

"There is an acute focus on urban and hip cinema," observes Shailendra Singh, managing director, Percept Picture Company.

"Bollywood today is primarily making films for metroplex audiences," adds Ravi Gupta, CEO, Mukta Arts, "The massive growth of multiplexes has led to producers actually understanding who the viewer is. With the end viewer finally located in the metros, Bollywood has adopted strategies similar to Hollywood."

Elaborates Atul Goel, CEO, E-City Entertainment, "Hindi movies are being marketed and packaged very well." Merchandising techniques and brand hoopla apart, the industry has adopted Hollywoodian ideas of sequels and Disneyesque character spinoffs.

Trade analyst Komal Nahta cites Hanuman, the animation mythological, as an indicator of Hollywood influence. Sunir Kheterpal, country head, media and entertainment, Yes Bank, meanwhile, is bullish on sequels of old blockbusters because they leverage existing brand equity.

Still, a remade Sholay would be a challenge of retaining the original magic formula for a globally exposed market that wants no formula. It's the new market dynamics.

"In the past," says Nahta, "the need of the hour was more mass based movies with a rural touch, to ensure the film does well in the rural centres, as B and C grade cities contributed more than half the box office revenue. With that figure having dropped to 35-40 per cent, the focus is clearly on segmented and niche cinema. Therefore, Salaam

The globalisation of Hindi cinema has also meant dollar tickets as a separate revenue stream. "Overseas revenue is opening up," says Ronnie Screwalla , CEO, UTV, "from a meagre 5 per cent, international distribution now stands at 25-30 per cent."

Another advantage of Hollywood competition, according to Taran Adarsh, trade analyst, is that "Bollywood has realised the importance of a story". And also of risk diversification.

According to Yes Bank's Kheterpal, organised production houses are releasing several films a year now, like Hollywood studios. Dual partner creative and financial co-production is another trend.

Yet, none of it has halted Hollywood's increasing influence. By the calculation of Vikramjit Roy, head of publicity and acquisitions, Sony Pictures, Hollywood cinema is likely to take a Rs 200-crore (Rs 2 billion) slice of the Indian market this year, and a bigger slice the year after.

If the Hindi film industry is really all that autonomous, and all that devoted to India as an incredibly universal idea in itself, shouldn't its defence strategy look less like mimickry?

The good news, from that perspective, is that outward gloss is no more than outward gloss. So long as it remains, at heart, India's love song to its complex self, there's little worry.
Sonali Krishna