Growing Pains In The Land Of Bollywood

Mumbai skyline. i i

The skyline of Navi Mumbai. Shivani Dogra for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shivani Dogra for NPR
Mumbai skyline.

The skyline of Navi Mumbai.

Shivani Dogra for NPR

An Essay From Mumbai

Shivani Dogra was overwhelmed by the squalor, stench and crowds of Mumbai when she first moved to the Indian city for work in 2003. But she eventually came to appreciate the vibrancy and the possibilities, which now makes her love Mumbai. Read her essay here.

Navi Mumbai. i i

A shopping mall in Navi Mumbai. Shivani Dogra for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shivani Dogra for NPR
Navi Mumbai.

A shopping mall in Navi Mumbai.

Shivani Dogra for NPR
Mumbai fisherman. i i

Fisherman R.B. Boya standing next to his boat. Shivani Dogra for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shivani Dogra for NPR
Mumbai fisherman.

Fisherman R.B. Boya standing next to his boat.

Shivani Dogra for NPR

Mumbai, or Bombay as many Indians still call it, is India's largest city, one of the world's greatest commercial centers and home to the vast, vibrant Bollywood film industry.

Some of the richest people on the planet live within its boundaries. But so does a multitude of poor. Half of Mumbai's population lives in slums.

The city, which overlooks the Arabian Sea, was built on a cluster of seven small islands, which were eventually united to become one big island. Every day hundreds of Indians arrive, drawn to the metropolis from the countryside in the hope of scratching out a living.

The property prices, which rival Manhattan or London, are well beyond the reach of most people, including the growing middle class.

The infrastructure is drastically overloaded. The roads are so crowded, despite a plethora of elevated highways built in recent years, that a journey of a few miles can take several hours. When the monsoon rains come, the place floods, walls collapse, electric wires short-circuit and roads turn into impassable rivers. In 2005, the monsoon-related death toll was more than 740 people

This all explains why an entire new city is being built on what were once mangrove swamps and fishing villages a few dozen miles along the coast to the east.

The city is called Navi — or new— Mumbai. The project started back in 1970, on an area of 213 square miles, but for years it stagnated.

India's economic boom brought about a spurt of growth. Information technology, pharmaceutical, mobile phone and back office companies are among those that have moved in, and so has India's largest private sector company, Reliance Industries, led by the industrial magnate Mukesh Ambani. Reliance is investing vast sums in Navi Mumbai.

The population has grown to around two million, and it is adding around 100,000 people a year. It has new shopping malls, parks and wide uncrowded highways. The city has become a magnet for the young Indian professional: the average age is 28. City officials say the literacy rate is above 98 percent — way above the national average.

Opinions about Navi Mumbai are divided.

Leading Indian environmentalist Bhittu Sahgal calls it the "first step to hell." He points out that it is built at sea level, a mistake, he says, given the possibility of flooding due to climate change.

He says the livelihoods of fishermen were destroyed by the arrival of the new city, and so were swaths of mangrove swamps, an important habitat for fish and crabs.

One of those fishermen, R.B. Boya, testifies to the damage caused by urban growth. He is from the traditional Koli fishing community. They are the original inhabitants; they have worked the waters in and around Mumbai since well before the city existed.

Standing by his nets and his canoe, which is fashioned out of the wood of a mango tree, Boya explains that his catch has dropped off sharply in recent years. He blames the fact that the waters on which he relies are now badly polluted. Some days he catches nothing.

Kishore Rathod, news editor at the Navi Mumbai office of the daily newspaper DNA, has worked in Navi Mumbai for years, much of that time as a beat reporter. At first he thought the city would fail.

"There were no trees, there was no greenery. People used to say it's a malaria-infested place. It was a nightmare," he says.

He has changed his mind, and now sings the praises of his adopted home city.

Rathod says people are pouring in and earning good money — upwards of 30,000 rupees ($700) a month.

"Where will they spend that?" he says. "They need the malls. They need the food courts. They need the multiplexes. They need the theaters."

He says they also seem to need fancy cars: "You have the Hummers flying on the roads of Navi Mumbai. You have the Ferraris flying on the roads of Navi Mumbai. Now America is going to small cars, and we are talking about big cars."

Bringing Bollywood To The U.S.

An Indian conglomerate has acquired more than 200 movie screens across the United States in the past year. The company, Reliance, is using the theaters to showcase Indian films. Now it's grabbing headlines for reported plans to set up a new movie venture with Steven Spielberg.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of India's largest conglomerates has been making headlines in the United States because of its reported plans to set up a new movie venture with Steven Spielberg. The company is called Reliance. It's based in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Its $500 million investment in a new movie-making venture with Spielberg has not been confirmed, but as NPR's Asma Khalid reports, the Indian company is already slipping into U.S. cinemas.

Unidentified Man #1: Two tickets for (foreign language spoken), 7:15 show, please.

Unidentified Man #2: Two for (foreign language spoken), two for...

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, can I get two for "Love Story 2050?"

ASMA KHALID: We're at the movies in Edison, New Jersey. The smell of buttery popcorn fills the air, but the concession stand at Movie City 8 also sells lassis, an Indian yogurt drink, and samosas, a fried dumpling snack. And while half the movies at this multiplex come from Hollywood, the other half come from Bollywood. That's India's multibillion dollar film industry. Tonight, one of the big hits is "Love Story 2050." Like most Bollywood movies, boy meets girl, they fall in love, sing, dance.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

KHALID: This movie's distributed by the Indian media company Reliance. Reliance also operates this multiplex. Over the last year, Reliance has acquired more than 200 screens across the U.S., mostly in cities with large south Asian populations. And it bought a majority stake in a U.S. cinema company called Phoenix to manage the operations.

Mr. PHIL ZACHERETTI (CEO, Phoenix): Business has been great.

KHALID: Phil Zacheretti is CEO of Phoenix.

Mr. ZACHERETTI: In some of the theaters that we're playing the Indian films, they can outgross the top Hollywood product of that week two to three to four times.

KHALID: That's despite higher prices theaters charge for Indian movies.

Mr. ZACHERETTI: The loyalty is just phenomenal. We see people driving 40 to 50 miles to come see these films.

(Soundbite of cash register ringing)

Unidentified Woman #2: Enjoy your movie.

KHALID: At Edison's Movie City 8, the air conditioning's not working. That's typical of the run-down mom and pop theaters that show Indian films. But Reliance plans to spend a million dollars on new seats, new carpeting, new bathrooms, a new projector and hopefully working air conditioning. It's planning similar upgrades at other theaters, but the goal is not just to improve the Indian moviegoing experience. Reliance is building up a chain of cinemas to distribute its own films.

Mr. UDAY KUMAR (Reliance Movie Investments): We realize that U.S. is a very big and key market for cinema from India, and we found that the Indian cinema suffered because of lack of good theaters.

KHALID: That's Uday Kumar(ph). He runs Reliance's movie investments here. He admits this is an experiment. But Patrick Frater, Asia editor at the entertainment publication Variety, is skeptical the company can find appeal outside immigrant communities.

Mr. PATRICK FRATER (Asia Editor, Variety): India cinema industry has been talking about the day that the Bollywood industry will cross over into mainstream globally for years and years, and it hasn't happened.

KHALID: He thinks Reliance's foray into the U.S. isn't really about making money. It's more about going global, something many of India's top corporations are trying to do now.

Mr. FRATER: They want to learn the U.S. market from the inside. It's much easier to do that if you're actually running a business rather than looking in from the outside and saying, hmm, I think that's how it works.

KHALID: Uday Kumar doesn't deny that.

Mr. KUMAR: The focus of the group is now to make this business a global business, rather than just an India-centric business.

KHALID: Acquiring a couple hundred rundown movie screens might seem like a minor move, but Reliance is also reportedly investing in a new movie venture with Steven Spielberg. And the company's struck agreements with production houses run by top U.S. actors like George Clooney. It's all part of a multi-pronged approach to becoming a more prominent player in the global movie industry.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

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