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Hollywood, meet Bollywood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOMBAY, India -- Fans of the world's largest film industry were unlikely to tune in for the Academy Awards. After all, their favorite stars carried off their trophies more than a week ago right here in Bollywood.

Bollywood, as Bombay is known to fans of Indian cinema, is the capital of an industry that produces some 800 feature films a year in several Indian languages. That's well over double the number made in Hollywood, and almost one-fifth of the world's total. Revenue from India's colorful song-and-dance extravaganzas and melodramas surpasses $1 billion a year.

"Film is not a pastime in India. It's a religion," said Ranjan Bakshi, a vice president at Zee Network, a group of popular satellite TV channels featuring Indian film and its spinoff music videos.

Few Americans have even heard of Bollywood. But that may soon change. This year's Academy Awards marked the first time an English-language movie directed by an Indian has captured the attention of the Motion Picture Academy. Bombay's Shekhar Kapur snagged seven Oscar nominations for "Elizabeth," including one for Best Picture, plus 12 nominations from the British academy awards.

The accolades for Kapur's first venture into English-language film, and the Hollywood offers that have poured in for him, have movie executives here hopeful that America's film capital will take notice of the huge reservoir of film talent in India. That could mean opportunities for Indian directors, technicians and actors to cross over into American films, or for joint ventures in India between Bombay and Hollywood. It could also be an opportunity for Hollywood to take a page from India's movie-making playbook by holding down costs and appealing to a growing Third World audience.

Hindi film, the most popular export among Indian-language movies, has a decades-old following among Arab, African, Asian, Eastern European and Latin American audiences. Last week's Lux Zee Cine Awards drew an estimated 200 million viewers in 80 countries, rivaling Oscar and Super Bowl audiences.

"I've met Greek taxi drivers who know Hindi film music. Our stars are mobbed when they go to Egypt. In all countries where Indian films are popular -- and that includes China and Japan -- they are a great affirmation of values people are afraid they are losing," Kapur said from his Bombay office before leaving for the Oscars. "They are all about male bonding, about families coming together, about husbands and wives or mothers and sons reuniting, about reinforcing religious values."

But that's not quite the whole story. Hindi films have been nicknamed "masala movies," after the traditional Indian spice mix, because of their wild blend of romance, action, suspense, melodrama and music. They follow stock formulas tied to traditional "family values" -- with a male chauvinist bias and a requisite dose of song, dance and violence. They are also full of contradictions; a full-lip kiss is still considered poor taste, while pelvic-thrusting dance scenes, wet saris, and rape subplots are de rigueur.

The cliche story line: boy meets girl, villain separates them, villain tries to rape someone, fight breaks out, hero wins, boy and girl get married. All of this is set to a rousing score, with the stars lip-synching to soprano and tenor soundtracks while they dance around trees, gyrate in clingy clothes, and sing about love -- all with the help of a huge troupe of extras.

This makes them seem shlocky to American viewers, but they have huge appeal at home for the fantasy they create -- and with 14 million Indians overseas, for their portrayal of traditional and modern values in conflict.

Americans are more familiar with subtitled art house releases, such as Kapur's "The Bandit Queen," a true-life bio-pic about a low-caste woman who fought back after being gang-raped and rose to popular goddess status before being elected to Parliament. The late director Satyajit Ray is revered in cinema circles worldwide. Bombay native Ismail Merchant has produced acclaimed English films with director James Ivory. And Harvard graduate Mira Nair got a Foreign Film Oscar nomination for her film about slum life, "Salaam Bombay!"

But in India, with its large poor and illiterate population, people aren't looking for cinema verite. Movies have been the main escapist entertainment venue since the advent of Indian film in 1913. The more fantastic, the better.

For 20 cents for stall seats in small towns, to $2.40 for balcony seats in fancy theaters in Bombay, cinema-goers can trade crowded, squalid lives for air-conditioned comfort and be transported to a world of wealth and glamour.

In large, city theaters, the experience is reminiscent of Shakespeare's day, with the wealthy comfortably ensconced in balconies while the poor, noisy rabble hoot at love scenes and shout at villains from the stalls below. The majority of movie-goers here are young, working-class males, and for them, Hindi blockbusters portray an India that doesn't exist -- one where everyone is handsome, wears expensive clothes and lives in a mansion.

Karan Johar, the 26-year-old first-time director of India's new smash hit, "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" ("Something, Something Happens"), is unapologetic about making a bubble-gum romance in which clean-cut students sport American designer clothes and live by traditional Indian values.

"It takes you away for three hours to a dream world that is not India, and you come out feeling good," Johar said.

Big-budget pictures often weave in foreign locations with no explanation or relationship to plot; they are merely a chance for audiences to visit places they might like to see. Another new film, the most expensive movie ever made here, at a cost of $8 million -- peanuts by Hollywood standards -- included a song with sequences shot at each of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Not every film is pure escapism. Many promote tolerance by showing friendship among different religions, and some reflect disenchantment with politics, crime or societal inequality.

In this cinema-obsessed nation, many film stars have been elected to office and a few have risen to god status, with fans setting up shrines to pray to them. A former prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, wrote a screenplay. The nation's most revered painter, M. F. Husain, became so fixated on a starlet that he saw her movie over 50 times on the big screen and began painting her obsessively. Now he's producing her next film.

But as movie-goers here become more discerning, in part through their exposure to satellite television and Western programs, they are rejecting the silliest stock conventions of Indian film and demanding higher quality and better plots.

"Indian cinema is becoming more quality-conscious. ... Illogical, routine formulas are now failing at the box office. The audience is growing up," Johar said.

Changing tastes at home could revolutionize the industry by making Indian films appeal more to Western viewers. Foreign countries already account for more than one-fourth of revenues for some Hindi hits. But more sophisticated fare could make way for a cross- fertilization between Indian and Western movies.

Movies are already India's biggest cultural export, reaching millions of overseas Indians and Pakistanis who pack cinemas from London to New York. "Kuch Kuch" out-grossed "Titanic" in South African cities with large Indian populations and hit the Top 10 in the United Kingdom on the strength of Hindi-speaking audiences alone.

For Hollywood, poaching Indian film talent and learning from Bollywood's efficient, low-cost production techniques may become an economic necessity, as American movie-making costs soar. Here, high-gloss hits cost just a few million dollars -- as cheap as shoestring-budget independent films in the United States.

"Budgets are out of hand, and the American box-office take is not rising fast enough to keep pace," Kapur said, adding that many Hollywood pictures already depend on overseas markets for as much as 60 percent of their revenue.

"America increasingly needs to make films that succeed on the international circuit, and that means you have to make your actors and subjects appealing to an international audience," Kapur said. "Hollywood has no choice."

Pub Date: 03/28/99

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