Bollywood sets sights on wider market

IIFA hosts, Riteish Deshmukh and Boman Irani, give the BBC an exclusive backstage tour of the stadium, ahead of the big night

As some of the biggest names in Indian cinema gather in Toronto this week, the Indian International Film Academy (IIFA) hopes its annual awards ceremony will help boost its presence in the North American market.

So far the IIFA's nomadic three-day festival and awards event, created to raise the global profile of Bollywood, as India's Hindi language cinema is popularly known, has travelled from cities in Europe, including London and Amsterdam, to the UAE, Africa, and south and east Asia.

Now, 12 years on, for the first time it is being held in the Americas.

Some 200 Indian actors and film makers, along with 40,000 fans, are converging to witness a lavish spectacle of song, dance, and fashion, not too far removed from the average Bollywood film.

Toronto, home to a prestigious international film festival of its own, is seen as a fitting launchpad for world cinema hoping to gain a foothold in the US market. Ultimately Bollywood producers have an eye on closer collaboration with Hollywood - a fact that is not lost on Canadian officials.

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"Is it worth pointing out that Slumdog [Millionaire] premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival? Then went on to sweep the board at the Oscars and put Bollywood on the map," says Michael Chen, Canada's Tourism Minister.

Prestige is not the only reason that Bollywood film makers would wish to make their mark here. North America is responsible for 25% of the industry's overseas box office revenues.

In an economic climate where DVD sales are down, and piracy and illegal downloads are on the increase, this industry is looking to reach different audiences.

Early years

India is the world's largest producer of films. In 2009, it produced a total of 1,288 feature films. By contrast Hollywood produces an average of 500 per year.

Hindi cinema is just a portion of India's annual film production, making up about 235 films in 2009. However, it remains the single most popular and influential, in India and beyond.

Named after its birthplace, Bombay, since renamed Mumbai, Bollywood dates its first feature film to 1910. It wasn't until the 1950s, however, when Indian films were exported to the West.

One of India's earliest actor-film makers, Raj Kapoor, achieved huge popularity in the former Soviet Union with his 1952 film Awara (Vagabond). Emphasising the working class hero's dignity and optimism in the face of hardship, Kapoor's films struck a chord with first Russian, and then Eastern European audiences.

Rapid expansion

Overseas box office returns are increasingly important for Indian film makers. In 2009, UTV Motion Pictures released period-epic Jodhaa-Akbar in 26 countries, the largest Bollywood worldwide release of its time.

In the same year, an estimated 3.6 billion tickets were sold worldwide for Bollywood films, compared with 2.6 billion tickets for Hollywood movies.

Just one year later, My Name is Khan, featuring one of Bollywood's biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan, expanded further, releasing in 45 countries, followed by a second-phase release in another 25 'non-traditional' countries. It is, to date, India's most successful film in terms of overseas revenues.

A behind the scene glimpse of choreographer Shiamak Davar and his team of dancers as they prepare for the Indian International Film Academy Awards

So, who is watching these films, and why?

The south Asian diaspora audience is a significant factor. Bollywood films are popular in Europe and North America with large settled immigrant communities who relate to stories from south Asia.

"We're about dance and music and song and celebration, and it's part of our culture and that's what people want to see on screen," says Anil Kapoor, a veteran of commercial Bollywood, who starred in Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.

However Bollywood films have a strong following in Afghanistan, central and south east Asia, Africa and the Middle East. More than 135,000 tickets were sold within four days on the release of My Name is Khan in the UAE.

"Bollywood is a real buzz word at the moment. I think that's because Bollywood has been able to translate beyond the whole south Asian community," says Vinay Virmani, writer and actor of Breakaway, a cross-cultural hockey drama set in Toronto's suburban Indo-Canadian community, due for release later this year.

"It's this return to feel good cinema, that the whole family can watch together - that's a concept that speaks to people beyond South Asians."

Hollywood goes East

India's fast growing economy and the provision of 100% foreign direct investment has made the Indian film market attractive for foreign enterprises such as 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Warner Bros.

Actress Bipasha Basu Bipasha Basu stars in Singularity, due for release later this year

Fox Star Studios, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, were the distributors behind My Name is Khan, which went on to earn over $19m in international box office revenues.

Although the sums are small when compared with average Hollywood box office takings - Avatar took over $2.7bn in worldwide sales - Bollywood's market, in terms of audience reach, is impressive and growing rapidly at a rate of about 15% every year. By contrast, Hollywood audiences are growing at just 5-6% a year.

A number of international celebrities are following the studios in the march towards Bollywood.

In 2009 Sylvester Stallone starred in Kambakht Ishq (Damned Love), as an action hero who pays tribute to his stunt man, played by Bollywood lead actor Akshay Kumar. The film also features brief appearances by Superman star Brandon Routh and Bond girl Denise Richards, among others.

Also in 2009, pop singer Kylie Minogue flew to Mumbai for a cameo appearance in a mega-budget film Blue, also starring Akshay Kumar. Although the film wasn't a huge success, Kylie's song and dance number, 'Chiggy Wiggy', was an instant hit.

The latest Hollywood-Bollywood "crossover" actor is Rob Lowe, who stars in 2011 film Breakaway, as hockey coach Dan Winters.

Crossover effect

A newer phenomenon is the crossover of talent in the opposite direction.

Anil Kapoor, who began life as a leading Bollywood actor in the 1980s, has achieved what he describes as a "second career" in Hollywood.

After his sleazy game-show host portrayal in Slumdog Millionaire, he has appeared in the hit US television series 24 alongside Keifer Sutherland, in Mission Impossible 4, due for release later in 2011, and is currently filming Cities, also starring Clive Owen.

Kapoor has led the way for Bipasha Basu, who makes her Hollywood debut in Roland Joffe's Singularity, due for release in 2011.

Mallika Sherawat, another aspiring crossover actress, has starred in The Myth, with Jackie Chan, and is currently filming Love, Barack, a romantic comedy set during Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

New cinema

The trend towards greater acceptability in the West, of acting talent at least, is generating excitement among Bollywood watchers.

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Bollywood is a potent pop culture, but it doesn't represent everything that India is today”

End Quote Lisa Ray Indo-Canadian actress

Yet the more circumspect admit Bollywood films have a long way to go before attaining a following among western audiences.

"There are certain [Indian] films I have seen recently that are on a par with a lot of Hollywood films and would appeal to an international audience - but you really have to pick and choose," says Lisa Ray, who starred in fellow Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta's Water.

"In terms of classic Bollywood, I don't think western audiences are ready for that, other than as a novelty," she says.

Ray describes a newer generation of urban films, which appeal to a younger and more globally aware Indian audience, as closer to international tastes.

Recent smaller budget movies, like the 2010 film Love Sex aur Dhokha (Love, Sex and Deceit) have done well in urban markets in India. The film is a complete break from the typical Bollywood song and dance genre.

"Bollywood is a potent pop culture, but it doesn't represent everything that India is today," says Ray.

In fact, the term "Bollywood" itself is misleading, she says. "There are the brash, mainstream films that are unapologetically entertaining and big budget, and there are the art cinema movies, and it seems they're melding together under the Bollywood umbrella."

This comes down, in part, to astute Bollywood film makers recognising the benefits of diversifying their stable of films, investing in a mix of large and smaller budget films, playing to different markets, rural or urban, eastern or global.

Ultimately though, Ray feels that mainstream Bollywood is not trying to speak to a western audience.

"There is already a tremendous fan base - they're not looking for something beyond that."

For more IIFA coverage, go to the BBC Asian Network website.

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