x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Bollywood wows Morocco, dreams of America

Indian actors and directors attending the Marrakech International Film Festival receive rapturous welcome in Morocco.

Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, centre, gives Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, left, The Golden Star award, the festival's grand prize, for his film ‘The Attack’ as jury president John Boorman watches during the 12th Marrakech International Film Festival.
Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, centre, gives Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, left, The Golden Star award, the festival's grand prize, for his film ‘The Attack’ as jury president John Boorman watches during the 12th Marrakech International Film Festival.

MARRAKECH, Morocco // Bollywood, the Bombay-based Hindi film industry, may still be struggling to make its mark on American and European audiences, but its trademark hours-long epics filled with riotous spectacle and glamorous stars have enchanted audiences in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Indian actors and directors attending the Marrakech International Film Festival, which ended yesterday, expressed surprise over their rapturous welcome in Morocco, even as they talked of one day spreading that same appeal into Hollywood by altering the tried-and-true formulas of Indian film.

"Marrakech is, quite surprisingly, into Bollywood. It's amazing," said the director, Prakash Jha, who is known for films that tackle serious social issues with the Bollywood tactic of big stars and musical numbers. "We just attended one of my films, Chakravyuh, and I was surprised at the number of people there who knew us and were into Indian cinema."

Moroccans have enjoyed Bollywood for decades, first in inexpensive theatres showing Arabic-subtitled Hindi films in low-income neighbourhoods, then via pirated DVDs available in bazaars.

On Friday night, there was no doubt about the devotion among the seething crowd in Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna square with tough-looking young men yelling "I love you" as the Indian cinema legend Shahrukh Khan lip-synched and danced to some of the hit tunes from his 75 movies before plunging down to the crowd to shake people's hands.

Last year he was the guest of honour at the Marrakech film festival, which this year celebrated 100 years of Indian cinema, according to festival director Melita Toscan du Plantier.

She said Moroccans adore Indian movies and were celebrating the centennial one year early to get the jump on other festivals. "It is a cinema which speaks about love without nude scenes and is colourful and joyous and makes people dream," she said.

This year's festival, including a tribute delivered by the French actress Catherine Deneuve, included more than 30 names from Bollywood, including at least half a dozen big stars, such as Amitabh Bachchan, 70, who has helped popularise Indian cinema around the world. The industry produces more than 1,000 films a year, with about a third of that coming from the Hindi-language Bollywood, and sells about a billion tickets more than Hollywood does - though annual revenues are only about 10 per cent of Hollywood's US$30 billion (Dh110bn).

Indian audiences are vast but pay little for their tickets, leaving Indian studios eager for overseas audiences, such as Indian diaspora communities abroad that appreciate the action, flash and spectacle.

More lucrative than North African and Middle Eastern audiences are those from America and western Europe, which so far seem to be immune to the lush charms of Indian cinema.

There have been a few American movies by Indian expatriate directors that have done well, such as Mira Nair's 2001 Monsoon Wedding and English director Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning take on Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

But for the most part India's blockbusters do not make it into western theatres in any great numbers - something that many in the industry hope is set to change.

"Especially now, it is changing times for Indian cinema ... we are on the threshold of being able to do some stuff internationally vis-a-vis our films, without changing them too much," Khan, 47, said. "I feel we are on the verge of something really wonderful."

Khan admitted that Indian movies can be a difficult sell for some audiences, given their lack of coherent plots and linear story development. But he said that could be helped with more western input.

"A lot of people in India would criticise me for it, but I think you need a huge amount of western writing help to get the form. The creative should be the same, Indian creative," he said.

Bollywood is entering a new phase, featuring better and more diverse films, said the Mumbai-based film critic, Aniruddha Guha - even as it continues to make the traditional three-hour "masala" blockbusters featuring, song, dance, adventure and romance to appeal to a broad Indian audience.

"The difference is in the number of good films being made each year - and by good, I mean films that attempt to tell a story without falling for conventional traps, (and) which are technically sound and largely display good acting - have been going up," he said.

He said Hollywood has both the massive blockbusters, which are often of questionable artistic value, and well-crafted smaller films that appeal to a different kind of audience.

"Bollywood needs to strike that balance," he said.

"If you want to be attractive to European or American audiences, you have to be more than just traditional culture," said actor Abhay Deol, known as a rebel in the industry for often bucking the standard Bollywood approach. "I don't think until we break that traditional mould, we will be able to break into that crossover."

Director Jha, who began his career in India's small alternative film sector, has made a name for himself by making controversial films about daily problems, including the trademark song and dance.

His 2012 film Chakravyuh, which also starred Deol, focused on the crushing poverty that has sparked a Maoist revolt in Central India, yet still had the love story and the songs - including one that ran afoul from the censor board for its ridicule of country's biggest business family names.

"There are two Indias. One is bright, shining and developing into heaven, and there is a whole big India that is suffering," he said. "The battle in the forest has now spilt into the neighbourhoods."

He admitted that to make his films work commercially he has to tone down the criticism and the realism, but at least they get the ideas out. India's Maoist rebels actually praised the movie for trying to tackle the issues, though they quibbled about some aspects of it.

For now, India's classic song and dance fantasies continue to enthral crowds in Marrakech and elsewhere, but the world may soon be seeing a different face to Bollywood.