The year in Indian cinema has demonstrated the failure of the blockbuster while proving the virtue of low-budget offerings.
A film experiment gone awry
Dr Frankenstein in his laboratory could hardly have devised a more volatile mix than the fusing of Hollywood and Bollywood movie styles. The year in Indian cinema has demonstrated the failure of the blockbuster while proving the virtue of low-budget offerings, writes Richard Orange "Love and music, sir, have no language," says the Indian film star Hrithik Roshan at the end of the trailer for the US$30 million (Dh110.1m) Bollywood movie Kites and then flashes a long grin.
His character in the film, the Las Vegas dance teacher J, is answering a question from a stereotypical US detective about his Latina girlfriend: "She doesn't speak any English, you don't speak any Spanish, so how did you fall in love?" The line is clearly intended as a manifesto for this most ambitious of films, a love story shot simultaneously in both English and Hindi and designed to appeal to the audiences of both Bollywood and Hollywood.
Sadly, the signs are that Kites will probably end up proving quite the opposite, that the sensibilities of the major film centres regarding love and music are in fact so wildly different that trying to appeal to both is a kind of commercial madness. The year that Slumdog Millionaire unexpectedly swept the Oscars has turned out to be one of enormous hubris in Bollywood, a year of overly ambitious experimental big-budget movies that have flopped one after the other at the box office.
While Kites may have been the first to try its luck on Hollywood's home ground, others have also strayed equally far from Bollywood's time-tested formulas. Chandni Chowk to China tried, and failed, to be Bollywood's first Kung-Fu comedy; London Dreams, a European rock 'n' roll road trip, could not get viewers fired up. Blue, a $25m underwater blockbuster set in the Bahamas, dived completely; Luck By Chance, 8X10 Tasveer and Delhi 6 have similarly disappointed. Only a few films, including Paa and Wake Up Sid, have bucked the trend.
The omens for Kites are bad. More than a month after the original October date for the film's release, its producer, Roshan's father Rakesh, said he had decided to rope in the US director Brett Ratner to recut the film for American audiences. Anyone optimistic about the prospects should note the negligible impact the Hindi version of Slumdog Millionaire made in Indian theatres. Kites is now slated for release next April, more than a year after Hrithik Roshan and his father first took it to Cannes for the international film festival.
"Overall they won't have made money," says Timmy Kandhari, the director of entertainment and media practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, on Bollywood's performance this year. "Most of the big films of 2009 haven't recovered what was spent making them." Though the subcontinent's film finances are famously impenetrable, the Indian Film Company, which because of its London stock listing is one of the few production houses to publish figures, posted a net loss of £3.1m (Dh18.4m) for the first six months of the year. It made a profit of £6.4m last year.
"It's been a tough year for everybody," says Sandeep Bhargava, the company's chief executive. "Most of the films that have been released this year were produced or bought when the market was at an absolute high. But in the last year or so, the market has changed completely, so if you've got a film acquired or produced a the wrong price you can't get the revenue you expected." The Indian movie malaise, for the most part, has just been a case of bad luck as the economic downturn affected spending.
"The first two quarters were literally a washout because the overseas collections started to dry up and so did satellite rights," explains Farokh Balsara, the head of Ernst & Young's media and entertainment practice. "To make matters worse there was this stand-off with multiplex owners, so for two months, in April and May, there were no releases at all. And then all the movies got put together in the monsoon period, when everything's - bad, and so there was this series of flops."
With so many different films on the market from last July, India's audiences could be picky as their spending tightened, Mr Bhargava said. "The consumers have been given so many films, and along with Bollywood, there have been a fair amount of Hollywood films as well, so they've become very choosy," he said. "Any content which is seen as even a little bit suspect they reject outright." It has not helped that in the boom time a lot of money was put behind some bad scripts.
"What's happened since 2007 and 2008 is that there is money but no ideas," said the film critic Mayank Shekhar. "The quality has suffered largely because there's been no time spent in research and development." Bollywood producers who once struggled to raise funds, often waiting years to get a film made, have seen cash gushing in from Indian and international production houses over the course of the two years prior to this one.
They could therefore make wild flights of fancy without shouldering much risk. Take Kites. Big Entertainment, owned by the Indian billionaire and aspiring international film mogul Anil Ambani, paid a record $24m for the film rights in February last year. That means the producer, Rakesh Roshan, was off the financial hook long before post-production on the film was even complete. Similarly, the money behind Chandni Chowk to China came from Warner Brothers and Fox Star Studios has already bought the rights to My Name is Khan, which is competing with Kites to become Bollywood's first Hollywood crossover hit.
"Losses need to be defined in terms of 'whose loss'," said Mr Shekhar. "Nowadays they sell the movie to the corporates before the film is even watched. So a movie costs 300 million rupees (Dh23.4m) to make, but by the time it goes to the theatre it becomes a 700 million rupee movie. The losses aren't made by the producers." Mr Shekhar believes that each time international film studios have made Indian films, such as Sony's Saawariya in 2007 and Walt Disney's Roadside Romeo last year, they have lost money.
Still, that is not preventing them from putting in more. Disney has four Indian films under production and Warner Brothers has two, a Hindi language film and a South Indian film, as they hope to cash in on anticipated growth. Mr Kandhari projects India's media and entertainment industry will grow 11 per cent a year up until 2013, far ahead of a global average of 2.7 per cent. There are a few more big-budget Bollywood movies in the pipeline. The release of 3 Idiots, a $15m film, came last week. Veer, a war movie set in the British Raj period which was released on Thursday, reportedly has the costliest song ever included in a Hindi movie.
Alongside the year's ill-conceived blockbusters, there has come a rich crop of imaginative, well-written and surprisingly successful low-budget films. They include Dev D, which comes close to being an art movie, and Little Zizou, a Parsi football film in the vein of British productions such as Billy Elliot. These more humble offerings, rather than grandiose projects attempting to fuse Hollywood and Bollywood, are likely to be the next trend in Indian cinema.
"People are now concentrating more on the script, more on the genre and also trying to make films at the right price," says Mr Bhargava. The salaries of top stars soared to close to $5m a movie last year and the cost of a big-budget blockbuster has nearly doubled to more than $20m. That figure is starting to come down. Still, the year's experimentation has not been entirely fruitless. If London Dreams failed, the slick gangster movie Kaminey is widely thought to have succeeded.
Even if Kites does not prosper in the international arena, My Name is Khan, which also has international ambitions and which is set to premier at the Berlin film festival next February, might do a bit better. The legacy left by the biggest boom time bet on Hollywood and Bollywood coming together has also yet to be written. The $825m partnership sealed this year between Mr Ambani's Reliance Big Entertainment and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio was an earthquake in its own right.
With Kites, Reliance will know next year whether love and music really have no language. However, it may take until 2015 and beyond before anyone knows for sure if the same goes for money. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org