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Eyes and ears on the cash register, Hollywood seeks Bollywood ticket

A woman in a flowing beaded gown glides through a pond. A mosquito net brushes over her lover. And to insistent drumbeats, a dancing phalanx of tunic-clad women twirls.

A woman in a flowing beaded gown glides through a pond. A mosquito net brushes over her lover. And to insistent drumbeats, a dancing phalanx of tunic-clad women twirls.

These images appear in the trailer of a forthcoming movie, Saawariya. The melodramatic film has an Indian director and cast. Its characters speak Hindi and burst into eight song-and-dance numbers. It is, in other words, vintage Bollywood — but for one thing.

It is brought to you by Hollywood.

The studio behind Saawariya, Sony Pictures Entertainment, is the first in a wave of American studios to produce their own kaleidoscopic Bollywood musicals. The American studios are keen to make money in India, but in a nation where $19 of every $20 spent at the box office goes to indigenous films, the studios are deciding to join Bollywood, not conquer it with their American-made fare.

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“The importing of American films into India is not filling a gap,” Gareth Wigan, a vice-chairman of Columbia TriStar, the Sony division that produced the film, said by telephone from Los Angeles. “You’re not bringing a dish to a bare table. You’re bringing a dish to a table where you have to move a lot of other dishes to fit in, and that’s not true in a lot of other countries.”

And so begins a strange competition to make the best Bollywood film, pitting Hollywood against India’s own studios, which make more movies and sell more tickets than any film industry in the world.

With international revenues increasingly important to the conglomerates that own the major studios, Hollywood wants to tap into India’s market. But indigenous films captured 95 per cent of Indian box-office sales in 2006, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. The figure is identical for domestic pictures in the US, but was just 35 per cent in France, 33 per cent in Japan and 12 per cent in Britain, according to 2005 data published by two scholars, David Waterman and Sang-Woo Lee.

“There is no country on the planet, other than India and the US, that approaches that level of domestic business,” Andrew Cripps, the president of Paramount Pictures International, said by telephone from Los Angeles. And so Paramount, too, is contemplating Bollywood productions.

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Walt Disney has partnered with an Indian studio, Yash Raj Films, to make animated movies. Their first film, Roadside Romeo, scheduled for next summer, is a parable of Indian inequality, featuring a dog abandoned by rich owners in Mumbai and forced to brave its hungry streets.

In addition, Warner Brothers is developing two Bollywood projects, according to Richard Fox, a Warner vice-president and the head of its international division. In a telephone interview, he said the studio would seek to earn a majority of its Indian sales from Bollywood productions. It plans three to six movies annually in the coming years, all with Indian talent.

“We’re not coming to change anything,” Fox said.

That is Hollywood’s Indian mantra. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of Saawariya, was at first wary of Hollywood, and surprised when Sony left him alone. At most, he said, Wigan would offer gentle suggestions for the script, which is based on Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights.

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Local filmmakers say Hollywood is wise in trying to mimic, not supplant, Bollywood. “They’re doing the right thing,” said Yash Chopra, one of Bollywood’s most revered filmmakers. “To come to a country to make a film is either to understand the culture or break the culture.”

Hollywood has gone native elsewhere, in France, Germany, Hong Kong and beyond — but never against a domestic industry with so vast and impassioned a following.

First published on: 09-08-2007 at 01:32:08 am
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