Don't call it Bollywood: Indian superstar Abhishek Bachchan discusses his country's giant movie industry
The soccer player Pele was the world's biggest star of the world's biggest sport—and until he came to play in America in his final years, he could have walked through Anytown, USA, and not gotten any glances.
Indian film actor Abhishek Bachchan is not quite the world's biggest star of the world's biggest cinema—that would be his dad, Amitabh Bachchan, a sort of Clint Eastwood/Harrison Ford/Sean Connery rolled into one—but he's close: He and fellow stars of the Mumbai-based movie industry known as Bollywood (i.e., Hollywood in Bombay, the city's former name) collectively appear in 800 to 900 films a year—making India the single largest producer of motion pictures. While India's roughly $1.5 billion-dollar annual box office may pale next to Hollywood's, which drew $1.028 billion domestic gross in January 2009 alone, the lavish, escapist musicals in which Bollywood specializes draw a massive audience throughout Asia, the Middle East, the British Commonwealth, and even such far-flung markets as East Africa, the Caribbean and the former Soviet Union, and have prompted recent co-productions with Sony, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Pictures.
These facts are not lost on the contemplative and well-educated Abhishek Bachchan, who attended a Swiss boarding school and then Boston University before breaking into the movie business, rising to stardom in such overseas hits as the police-detective actioners Dhoom (2004) and Dhoom 2 (2006), and the two highest-grossing Bollywood films in America, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) and Om Shanti Om (2007). During a trip to the U.S., where his cultural-identity drama Delhi-6 had its world premiere at New York City's Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 15, he acknowledges Bollywood's reach while detesting the term "Bollywood."
"We prefer 'the Indian film industry,'" he says gently. "We're the largest film industry in the world, we make the most amount of films in a year and sell the most amount of tickets, so I think we have our own identity. We have the utmost respect for Hollywood and the films made in the United States, but I think it wouldn't be fair to name the Indian film industry after Hollywood. Unfortunately, it's come to stick and it's in the dictionary and I don't think we'll get away from it."
He has a point: Strictly speaking, the Mumbai-based, Hindi-language Bollywood industry is far from India's only. This subcontinent of over a billion people has a plethora of producers in disparate regions with their own portmanteau monikers, making films in Punjabi (Pollywood), Bengali (Tollywood), Tamil (Kollywood) and many other languages. But for Western audiences and theatre owners, "Bollywood" is a catchy shorthand—and any international cinema wanting to make inroads into the West can use all the catchiness it can get. (And before you ask, no, Slumdog Millionaire isn't a Bollywood film—it's a drama set in India, produced by a British company and made by a British director, with one musical number that's out of continuity and simply part of the end credits.)
Whatever you call them, Bollywood movies perform better at the North American box office than do most countries' movies, fluke blockbusters like the $128 million Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) notwithstanding. From 2006 to 2008, at least six films from Eros International and Yash Raj Films, the two most prolific distributors in this market, grossed over $2 million each here, the most recent being Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (God Bless This Couple), released on Dec. 12, 2008, and earning $2.08 million. A host of others have cleared over a million each domestically. That ain't Tandoori chickenfeed.
Yet while Hindi-language, English-subtitled Bollywood musicals have expanded beyond the U.S. ethnic market to claim a cinemaphile niche, have influenced such hits as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), and inflect even such (presumably) mainstream fare as Mike Myers' The Love Guru (2008), which included a Bollywood-style musical number, Bachchan does not believe "any foreign-language film in America is going to break through apart from a cult audience. You're always going to have the rare Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—that's a one-off. The majority of the American audience is not going to regularly go see an Indian film because they won't understand the language and they won't relate to the sensibilities and approach. For example, in Indian films, we break into song and dance at any given opportunity: Boy meets girl, they go into a dream sequence, they haven't even spoken to each other yet, and boom, they're in a song."
That's no different from any musical at all, however, and the rabid popularity of the "High School Musical" franchise—two telefilms that spawned a theatrical feature and shows no sign of stopping—suggests that a generation of teens and tweens raised on music-videos has no problem accepting the form. Bachchan is dubious—"I think over the last ten years the Indian film industry has made wonderful inroads into the West. But at the end of the day, it's still an Indian sensibility"—but like any niche from horror movies to Tyler Perry seriocomedies, films made under a certain budget can be surprisingly profitable.
And Indian films are made under a certain budget. "Especially in the last ten years, we have at least two or three films a year which gross over $2 million [in the U.S.]. Which at one point before the dollar's value crashed was pretty much the budget of the film. Indian films are actually sometimes made within $2 million," Bachchan says. "I think for our most expensive film the budget, translated to American, would be between $10 and $15 million, which is huge for India, but here it's miniscule."
Bachchan speaks box office fluently, since he comes from a filmic family and helps run ABCL, a.k.a. Amitabh Bachchan Corp. Ltd., the production company his father Amitabh started many years before. Abhishek—scion of a cinematic legend who even served in the Indian Parliament's lower house for three years in the 1980s—spent his elementary years at the Bombay Scottish School in Mumbai and the Modern School/Vasant Vihar in New Delhi "before I went to boarding school [Aiglon College] in Switzerland. Since fifth grade, I've been educated abroad." He attended Boston University, declaring his major as performing arts his sophomore year, but left in 1996, after three years, when ABCL "went through a lot of financial trouble because of bad management. And I just felt as a son I needed to be around my father, to help him in whatever way I could."
Though Bollywood has a history of hyping what the country calls "star kids," grooming the sons and daughters of superstars Old Hollywood-style to continue the franchise name, Bachchan says he started at his father's company "as a production boy—carrying the lights, cleaning the set, making tea—then worked my way up to an assistant director and then a production executive whilst I was still trying to break into acting."
Ironically, for a star kid, "I was what is popularly called pounding the pavement, and wasn't getting a gig at all," he recalls. "People didn't want to work with me because, so I was always told, they didn't want the responsibility of making my first film—or making, as they told me, 'Mr. Bachchan's son's first film'!" He eventually debuted in Refugee (2000), won three Filmfare magazine Best Supporting Actor Awards (essentially the Hindi People's Choice) for Yuva (2005) and the major hits Sarkar (2005) and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), and makes four to six movies a year, most of which play in the U.S. His wife, 1994 Miss World Aishwarya Rai (lots of Miss Worlds and Miss Universes seem to be Indian and transition to acting), is more familiar to Western audiences, as a L'Oreal model and an actress in films including Bride & Prejudice (2004) and this year's The Pink Panther 2.
"Your name can only get you your first film," Bachchan notes, "and can possibly get audiences into your first show. After that you have to prove your credentials, because they're not going to spend their hard-earned money just because they like your parents."
Whether in India or elsewhere, Bollywood audiences' money is indeed hard-earned—the populist cinema, whose style can range from silent-movie broad to surprisingly subtle and nuanced, must appeal to a billion-plus people, many of whom are uneducated villagers.
"A mainstream Hollywood film would not break through and penetrate the same way a Hindi film would in India," Bachchan contends. Not even the oeuvres of Will Smith and Harrison Ford? "I think the largest-grossing English films in India have been Jurassic Park and Spider-Man 2," he says, "but that's also because they were dubbed in Hindi, as opposed to subtitled. You're dealing with a nation in which a lot of people really don't know how to read. It is a very oral culture, and song and dance play a huge part in maintaining our culture; a lot of our stories are told through song."
While that will certainly remain true for the foreseeable future, a small but growing number of Indian films are non-musicals made entirely in English—a language that already turns up all over Bollywood films, with modern young Indians peppering Hindi with English to speak "Hinglish." Indeed, Abhishek's father starred in 2008's English-only The Last Lear, playing a Shakespearean actor. As its producer, Arindam Chaudhuri, told the British newspaper The Guardian, "English is part of the modern middle-class life in India. We talk, think and dream in English… What's changed in India is the audience."
The same could be said for North America. Though Sony Pictures' Saawariya (2007)—the first Bollywood film co-produced and distributed by a Hollywood studio—and Walt Disney Pictures' animated feature Roadside Romeo (2008) and Warner Bros.' $9 million-budgeted Bollywood/kung fu hybrid Chandni Chowk to China won over neither audiences nor critics, co-venture activity remains strong. Warner has announced three more Bollywood co-productions; DreamWorks has signed a $500 million deal with India's Reliance ADAG; Paramount Pictures has created a movie investment fund with India's TV 18 group; UTV Motion Pictures, a unit of UTV Software Communications, has a co-production deal with 20th Century Fox; and the Universal co-production Kambakkht Ishq—starring Sylvester Stallone and major Bollywood star Akshay Kumar of Chandni Chowk and the Tarantino-esque Tashan, has finished shooting at…Universal Studios in California!
"It's a learning process," Bachchan says. "I don't think anybody's going to get it right the first time around. What's important is they're still trying. I think [Hollywood] is open to co-production now, and I think they definitely will penetrate the Indian market."
And, perhaps, vice-versa. "It's going to take some time for Indian mainstream actors to be accepted in America," he reflects. "For Indian actors, especially Indian male actors, there is definitely a glass ceiling predominantly due to language—not that we don't speak English; most of us are educated in English, it's almost the first language of the country—as well as to color of skin, to sensibility and to the kind of cinema we're used to working in. I think I'd be most happy if an Indian film produced, directed and acted by Indians were to be released in mainstream Hollywood"—from Chandni Chowk to Cineplex.