The success of Slumdog Millionaire has paved the way for a host of Indian-themed films being produced in the West. Liza Foreman reports Even before the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire, British production companies were no stranger to all things Indian. Consider recent films such as the 2004 hit Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood update of the classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice by the Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha.
In fact Chadha, along with other filmmakers dealing with stories from the region, such as the British-Pakistani director Ayub Khan Din, could be credited with leading the way for the recent success of Slumdog Millionaire, which swept the American movie awards this year. Call it the Chadha effect, or the influence of Slumdog, or something in between, but a slew of Indian-themed productions is now emerging from the US and the UK, and producers are finding it easier than ever to realise these films.
That wasn't always the case. Chadha had to wait a decade between shooting her directorial debut, Bhaji on the Beach, in 1993, and her breakout film, Bend It Like Beckham, in 2002. In Beckham, starring Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, a young girl from a devout Sikh family rebels against her traditional family to become part of a football team. Now things are much easier for the director. Chadha is currently filming It's A Wonderful Afterlife, starring the Indian actress Shabana Azmi. Azmi plays a British-Asian mother who is so obsessed with marrying off her daughter that it leads to murder. Azmi's upcoming projects include an untitled biopic on the late Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, who was shot dead when she returned from exile to Pakistan in 2007. The film is set to be directed by Mahesh Bhatt.
Chadha's company, Bend It Films, is co-producing the picture with the Indian Film Co and Studio 18. "I am thrilled to have found an Indian partner in the Indian Film Company and Studio 18, as this new film has huge international appeal for the NRI [non-resident Indian] and non-NRI audience," said Chadha. "It's A Wonderful Afterlife is part of a new slate of films by me that have an Indian element but are aimed at the global audience."
Chadha's new projects through Bend It Films include two movies set in India that, she said, "should offer more opportunities for British-Asian and Indian film talent to make their mark in the UK". "The idea for the slate came about after we realised we hadn't been able to build on the success of Beckham properly and actually benefit from it," she said. The list of films includes Bollywood Blues, which is in pre-production.
Afterlife is being billed as My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Shaun of the Dead. Other cast members include Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes) and Shaheen Khan (Bend It Like Beckham). Afterlife also introduces the British-Indian theatre actress Goldy Notay. But now Chadha has company. One of the most ambitious of the current crop of Indian-themed films in development in the West is Working Title Films' Indian Summer. Joe Wright, the director of Atonement, will direct this exotic tale of the dramatic final days of the British Raj. The project is being prepared for a 2010 shoot on location in India and is based on the non-fiction book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by The Guardian online columnist Alex von Tunzelmann. The story revolves around Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India, who oversaw the handover of power in the summer of 1947 to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Although Working Title is keeping tight-lipped about the production, recent speculation in the Indian media suggests that the film will focus on the close relationship between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, who remains a heroine in India to this day for her efforts to minimise the suffering caused by the partition of India from Pakistan in 1947. There has been speculation that Hugh Grant will play Mountbatten and Cate Blanchett his glamorous wife. "I think the most important thing is that India is a fascinating, extraordinary place," Wright told Daily Variety. "What's happening there is going to affect us more and more, whether in film industry terms or politically with what's happening with Pakistan."
Working Title, which has transformed itself from a producer of romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Billy Elliot into a Hollywood stalwart with titles like The Interpreter and State of Play, would seem the perfect partner to make an Indian-themed movie for its partner company, Universal. A global audience could follow thanks to Britain's large Indian population and its earlier embracing of Indian-themed films going back to David Lean's epic A Passage to India in 1984.
Other films with a similar theme include the British-Indian director Paul Angunawela's musical-comedy Blame It on the Bhangra, which follows a young British-Asian girl trying to get into the male-dominated world of bhangra dancing. In order to do so, she disguises herself as a character called Sanj the Man. Khan Din, meanwhile, is working on the comedy Rafta Rafta, which is set in an immigrant Indian community in Northern England and follows two newlyweds. The film is being developed by the UK distributor Optimum Releasing and the British producer Andy Harries (The Queen). His other upcoming films include West Is West. Like Chadha, Din had to wait a decade between his debut, East Is East, which he wrote based on his play of the same name, and his feature directing debut, Blame It on the Bangra. East Is East followed a fish and chip shop owner from Pakistan who expects his British-born family to follow his strict traditional ways.
East Is East and Bend It Like Beckham were hailed as signs of a new British-Asian cinema breaking through globally, but that hasn't happened until now. British producers have long been able to rely upon the sizeable British-Asian population as well as the added benefit of potentially breaking into the Indian domestic market. But now these films also have potential in the US and elsewhere. These projects are not only winning prizes but have also become solid commercial propositions, with Slumdog, for example, taking in more than $350 million (Dh1.3 billion) worldwide. Companies from Rome to Los Angeles are banking on there being more to come. In April, the newly formed Smuggler Films acquired the rights to Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel The White Tiger, together with Ascension Entertainment.
This contemporary tale follows a rickshaw puller, who, born too poor to get an education, is busy capitalising on corruption and poverty as India focuses on reinventing itself as the nation of the future. Gaining his education on the streets, he decides there is only one way to gain the glamorous life he wants. The acquisition of the rights was announced in tandem with the launch of the new company by the veteran Broadway producer John Hart, whose credits include the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, and Chicago, which is currently running in Manhattan.
The trend has reached as far as Italy, where the novel Banker to the Poor, which is based on the autobiography of the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, is being adapted for film, complete with what the Sicilian director Marco Amenta said was a Slumdog Millionaire angle. The film will be set in Bangladesh, where Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, an institution that provides loans with no collateral to poor women exempt from obtaining credit from traditional banks. The film, which will feature an Indian cast, marks a change of scene for Amenta. His previous credits include The Sicilian Girl and Girl Against the Mafia. "Slumdog has become our inspiration," Amenta said in February.