Bollywood, Hollywood Tightening Film Ties

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 7, 2009

NEW DELHI -- The surprise success in the United States of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" -- shot in India with Indian actors and musicians and based on an Indian novel -- has put the spotlight on the Indian film industry's ambitions of going global.

The industry, which makes more than 1,000 movies annually with over 3 billion tickets sold, has in recent months signed a range of creative and commercial deals with Hollywood production houses, studios and stars. The deals were initially fueled by a booming economy over the past five years that inspired Indians in Bollywood to dream about Hollywood. The success of "Slumdog Millionaire," which recently won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, has cemented the feeling that U.S. filmmakers are going to be interested in India, and that the United States will be hungry for Indian films.

"There is a natural synergy between the film industries in India and the U.S. India is a democracy, has a massive moviegoing market and an open entertainment policy with no government restriction," said Amit Khanna, chairman of Reliance Big Entertainment, the most aggressively expanding entertainment company in India. "We want to develop a global market for Indian movies, content and talent, and also produce Hollywood films."

The company has signed a $1.2 billion debt-equity deal with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG for 36 movies over six years, with 50 percent control. Last fall, it also signed with the production companies of George Clooney, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks and filmmakers Brett Ratner and Chris Columbus to fund the development of their scripts and jointly present proposals to studios. At present, 18 scripts are under development.

"The talent in Hollywood is subsumed by studios. We give them a lot more breathing space," Khanna said.

Hollywood studios such as Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, Sony and Fox are already co-producing movies in India. Last month, the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America set up an office in Mumbai to represent the growing interests of Hollywood studios and to try to tackle the $400 million video piracy market.

Indian companies also see an opportunity in the recent success of small-budget "indie" films such as "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

"There aren't too many studios for smaller films" in Hollywood, said Siddharth Roy Kapur, chief executive officer of UTV Motion Pictures, which has produced a $2 million American film shot in Texas.

India's film industry, now at $2.2 billion, is estimated to grow to $3.3 billion by 2013, according to a study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. In the past five years, increasing availability of organized funding, multiplex screens and soaring overseas collections have professionalized an industry that caters to a nation with over a billion potential moviegoers.

"American companies are now looking at making local films for the Indian market," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of the New York-based "They want to get into India with local products."

The economic slowdown in the United States has also figured in India's favor when it comes to enticing Hollywood. "From an economic perspective, India represents an important new source of funding for Hollywood at a time when funding from Wall Street, a recently predominant source, has diminished," wrote Emanuel Nunez, an agent with Creative Artists Agency, in an e-mailed response to questions.

But there are still concerns over the possible limitations of Bollywood-Hollywood collaboration. In the past six months, both Warner Brothers and Walt Disney produced Hindi movies that bombed at the Indian box office. Meanwhile, some wonder if true Bollywood creations can make it big in America. "Slumdog Millionaire" was directed by a British filmmaker.

"If 'Slumdog' was made by an Indian director, would it have made the same splash?" asked Uday Shankar, chief executive of Star India, a group of entertainment and news channels owned by Fox. "When an Indian makes a movie for an international audience, he has to first sell himself and then the movie. A few Indian investments here and there will not shake Hollywood into accepting Indian content and talent."

Still, Bollywood is optimistic.

Talks are on with Universal, Warner Brothers and Lions Gate to distribute a $30 million movie that Reliance produced called "Kites," with Mexican actress Barbara Mori and Indian actor Hritik Roshan. The movie is shot in the southwestern United States and directed by Indian filmmaker Anurag Basu.

"It is like a reverse 'Slumdog Millionaire,' " Khanna said. "It is a film made by an Indian, shot in the U.S. and released internationally."

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