'Bollywood' Produces Real-Life Drama

In the crime, sleaze and movie capital of India, Bharat Shah's arrest proved to be the last straw.

Bombay's biggest film financier, the immensely wealthy diamond merchant whose business moves could once rattle the Bombay Stock Exchange, now languishes in a dreary jail cell after the police revealed they had tapes of India's most powerful movie mogul having a conversation with a notorious kingpin of the South Asian underworld.

Although reports of the alleged links between the Bombay film industry and the underworld are hardly new, given Shah's stature in Bombay, his arrest in January came as a complete shock.

Imagine if Rupert Murdoch were to receive a phone call from a crime boss, ordering his favorite stars into the next film venture by Fox movie studios. Or else...

Hardly likely in the Hollywood of today, where giant entertainment conglomerates listed on the New York Stock Exchange are accountable to shareholders and stringent market regulations.

But if Bombay's $750 million-a-year movie industry is lagging behind its Los Angeles counterpart in business organization, it invariably manages to outstrip Hollywood in drama and sheer make-believe.

They are both colossal dream-spinning enterprises, churning out entertainment, glitz and glamour. Like Hollywood, Bollywood — as the Bombay entertainment industry is known — is a commercially driven enterprise with several spin-off industries catering to a global market. Like Hollywood, Bollywood also once functioned under the grip of large studios that gave way to the present star system.

But that's where the similarities end.

It's Business as Unusual

In terms of sheer output, if not in revenues, film-making in India is a boggling enterprise. In 1999 alone, the country produced 800 films, 412 of which were exported, generating a revenue of $104 million while employing 2.5 million people.

Unlike the U.S., India has several language film industries, the leading being the Bombay-based Hindi film industry that alone produced 230 films in 2000, a bad film year by all accounts, as the unraveling links between organized crime and Bollywood sent the industry into a panic.

Hollywood, by contrast, averages about 200 theatrical releases per year, grossing about $7 billion in domestic sales and $6.4 billion in overseas sales.

While giant media conglomerates in the U.S. generate capital from Wall Street, a history of state neglect and bad business practices have pushed Bollywood producers to look to shadowy crime syndicates for cash to finance their high-risk, million-dollar ventures.

Until 1997, the government of India had not granted Bollywood an "industry" status, making it impossible for producers to raise capital from financial institutions and forcing them into a deadly embrace with the criminal underworld.

On the distribution front, U.S. entertainment companies often own proprietary channels that ensure distribution of their content through film, television and music. Bollywood directors go it alone.

"Hollywood still has studios as distributors," said Tejaswini Ganti, a professor of anthropology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "In India, all of film-making can be characterized as independent film-making. Everyone is a freelancer: the producer, the director, the scriptwriters and the stars."

‘Hot Splashes of Rage’

In the absence of assured financing and distribution, the only guarantee in Hindi film-making is the supposed "draw" of the stars.

Film mandarins the world over look to stars to "carry" a film, but according to Ganti, the nature of an Indian star's hold over his or her fans is unheard of in the West. "You simply cannot compare the nature of celebrity in India with that of industrialized countries," said Ganti. "In India, movie stars are rock stars, sports stars and film stars rolled into one. A Hindi film hero has to cry, sing, dance, fight and be a good son."

For the most part, no Hollywood film can match a Bollywood film in terms of emotional pitch and variety. "Hollywood films still have to show consistency of voice, logical plot development and some semblance of realism," explains Suketu Mehta, co-scriptwriter of the hit film Mission Kashmir and author of a nonfiction book on Bombay, forthcoming from Knopf. "In Bollywood, logic is not essential or even desirable."

Often, Hollywood hits are an inspiration for Bollywood films, but only after the scripts are adapted to Indian tastes. Film critic Jerry Pinto calls the process "Indianization" and describes it as: "adding songs and dances, scooping in hot splashes of rage and large helpings of tears and clearing out shades of gray."

The one film that sent shivers down the spines of many Indian producers was James Cameron's Titanic, which was dubbed in Hindi and released in 1998, grossing more than $2 million with its Indian release. But Titanic, as Pinto puts it, "was just a Hindi film in disguise."

Since individualism and social alienation are not themes that sit well with Bollywood audiences, "Indianizing" films often mean stripping characters of their individualistic personae and adding dense kinship patterns.

With the average Hindi film running 90 minutes, the more complex the plots, the greater the chances of box office success. "We can hardly have a Speed where all you have is a bomb and a bus and you have to get rid of the bomb and the bus," said a Bollywood screenwriter. "Here, it could work only as a climax scene. We need multiple tracks: the emotional track, the comedy track, the action track. Western audiences can appreciate such a basic plot line, but Indian audiences would simply reject it."

And while there are vast gaps between audience tastes in the developed and developing world, some experts believe the two are meeting. The recent success of director Ang Lee's Hong Kong movie-inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the U.S., they say, could be a sign the West may just be ready to welcome Asian cinema.