India's film industry -- the biggest in the world -- is facing what could be the worst slump in its history because of a karate kick.
The king of the Hindi screen, Amitabh Bachchan, took the kick in the abdomen while filming a fight scene in the southern Indian city of Bangalore in July, and because he did not roll in the right direction, a one-man industry whose cumulative investments in films planned for the next five years totals $200 million, is in jeopardy.
Bachchan, whose brooding, rebellious image is seen on the screen by an estimated 1 million Indian moviegoers each day, is in a Bombay hospital, recovering slowly from two major operations he underwent for peritonitis that he developed after the fight scene accident.
His physicians' predictions of a minimum of six months' convalescence, and possibly a year away from work for the 39-year-old matinee idol, have caused shock waves among Indian film producers, many of whom have invested money borrowed at interest rates as high as 40 percent in planned Bachchan films.
Bachchan's injury has also traumatized his fans, who have flooded Bombay's Breach Candy Hospital with flowers and get-well cards, and maintained a constant vigil outside.
India's premier film producer, Manmohan Desai, told of being accosted outside Bachchan's room by a 10-year-old street urchin dressed in rags. Crying pitifully, the boy told Desai he wanted to contribute any part of his body if a transplant would save Bachchan's life. The doctors at that time had given Bachchan only a 50-50 chance of living.
For more than a month, the saga of Bachchan's fight for life has been spread across the front pages of India's 10,000 newspapers, sometimes pushing to inside pages stories about the war in Lebanon and floods in northern India that displaced 10 million peasants.
VIP's have streamed to Bachchan's hospital room. Among them was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who flew to Bombay to see the superstar on her first Sunday after returning from a U.S. tour. Gandhi's son and heir apparent, Rajiv, left his mother's U.S. tour to visit Bachchan.
Bachchan and his wife, Jaya, a former film star, are personal friends of the Gandhis, and Bachchan was a schoolmate of Rajiv and his late brother, Sanjay.
The hospital also has been crowded with state governors, Cabinet ministers and Gandhi's Congress I Party functionaries, most of whom barely know the screen idol but know the value of being seen visiting his intensive care unit bedside.
The Indian movie industry's misfortunes began July 24, when Bachchan was shooting Desai's film, "Coolie," in a university library that had been decorated to look like the inside of a bank.
The script called for the villain to kick Bachchan in the abdomen. The star was supposed to roll backward and land on a table. Instead, he crashed headlong into the corner of the table, rupturing his intestines.
Intestinal leakage and additional complications put him near death several days later, and a large proportion of India's 700 million population began its vigil. With virtually no creative entertainment available on state-run television, Indians of all economic classes crowd the country's movie theaters to see the nearly 800 films that are cranked out each year by the Bombay-based Indian movie industry, which is larger than Hollywood's.
Bachchan is especially popular with India's escape-seeking peasant classes because he normally portrays an underprivileged Indian angrily rebelling against the establishment. In the cheaper seats of India's crowded movie halls, wild applause usually accompanies scenes in which Bachchan scores a minor victory over elitism and the establishment's system.
Industry sources estimate that $6 million to $8 million could be lost in Bachchan films now under production, and that movie contracts he has signed for the next five years represent an investment of more than $200 million. Bachchan produces an average of 10 films per year and promotes up to 40 more film projects a year, charging about $350,000 per picture plus a share of the box office receipts.
Although Bachchan last week was reported to be sitting up in bed, listening to music on his Sony Walkman and complaining about being "bored," doctors said his condition is still serious and his pace will have to be sharply curtailed even if he is able to resume his movie career.
But Bombay's high-powered film producers, seemingly aware of what side of their bread is buttered, hope to recoup their losses when their star does return to the screen.
As one eager producer said, "Anybody can afford to wait eight to 10 months with a man like Amitabh in your picture."