Hollywood Looking for a Piece of Bollywood Action India's billion-plus population is mad for movies, and Hollywood is hungry for a piece of the Hindi film market. Sony Pictures took the plunge recently with a highbrow romance — and found itself going head to head on opening weekend with a home-grown superstar.
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Hollywood Looking for a Piece of Bollywood Action

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Hollywood Looking for a Piece of Bollywood Action

Hollywood Looking for a Piece of Bollywood Action

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Hollywood likes to think of itself as the place where movies are made. But every year India puts out almost twice as many movies. And the nation of more than one billion people prefers its own films to Hollywood productions. Hoping to capture some of that lucrative market, Hollywood studios are trying something new - making Hindi-language films.

NPR's Laura Sydell has the second part of our series on India's rise as a cultural player.

LAURA SYDELL: Indians have two national obsessions - cricket and movies. Going to a movie is a major family outing.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: On this Friday night, there is a live three-man band in black suits and ties in the lobby of the multiplex. Theater seats are assigned. There are gourmet sandwiches and samosas along with the popcorn. Movies have intermissions. Theater manager Arun Hatiya(ph) says sometimes they even have contests.

Mr. ARUN HATIYA (Theater Manager): We try and give people, you know, something more than just watching a movie. And if it's movie-related you could, you know, participate or, you know, act like an actor and maybe we dance like him and maybe win prices.

SYDELL: India's own film business is so big and so successful that some people call it Bollywood. Hollywood wants a piece of those one billion Indians who love to go to the movies. At first the studios tried a strategy that has worked in almost every other country - dubbing Hollywood blockbusters into the local language. But that only brought limited success, says Uday Singh, the managing director of Sony Pictures in India.

Mr. UDAY SINGH (Sony Pictures, India): Culturally, India is much more connected with our movies and our own stars - much like our food. Here, 95 percent of the business is local films, so if you want to be a meaningful player of any sort, you have to participate in that big chunk of business.

SYDELL: That's why Sony became the first major Hollywood studio to produce a Hindi-language film. They chose a script called "Saawariya," or "Beloved" - a romantic tale based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights."

Back in New York, Sony executives like Deborah Schindler loved it.

Ms. DEBORAH SCHINDLER (Sony Pictures): I think that it's a magical vision. It is a fabulously romantic, passionate tale of youngsters finding true love.

SYDELL: The movie was shot on studio sets in India that evoked an aqua-and-blue and version of Venice or St. Petersburg, with dark canals and low-lying bridges. The sets call to mind the glamour of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, and the movie even had a love-sick actor singing in the rain.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: Sony put all its corporate muscle behind the movie. There were promotions on Sony-owned TV stations, billboards, and the title song was all over the radio.

(Soundbite of song)

SYDELL: When Sony first asked director Sanjay Leela Bhansali to work for them, he hesitated a little. He worried that a big Hollywood studio would try and dominate him creatively.

Mr. SANJAY LEELA BHANSALI (Director, "Saawariya"): One part of the multinational giant would come and overpower a filmmaker in India and I thought they would have the dos and don'ts and rules and regulations and this and that. Yes, they had all those dos and don'ts or whatever, but it was always done with such simplicity and such niceness.

SYDELL: Sony planned to open "Saawariya" on Diwali weekend - a holiday which like Christmas is a big movie-going time. Unfortunately, it wasn't big enough for two major movies. On the same weekend one of India's biggest stars premiered in "Om Shanti Om."

(Soundbite of song, "Dard-E-Disco")

Mr. SHAHRUKH KHAN (Actor): (Singing) (Unintelligible) Put your hands up and say, Om Shanti Om.

SYDELL: Shahrukh Khan is to Hindi film as Brad Pitt is to Hollywood. All over the country, everyone was talking about billboards with Khan in an open shirt, revealing his newly acquired six-pack abs. And the title song from "Om Shanti Om" was just as big a hit as "Saawariya."

"Om Shanti Om" had more than 30 major Indian stars. It was a send-up of the last 30 years of Hindi film and was what Indians call a masala movie. It had a little bit of everything - comedy, tragedy, drama, music, reincarnation, love. It had all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster like "Pirates of the Caribbean." Sony's first foray into the Indian market - the arty, literary Bergmanesque "Saawariya" - was hardly a match for it at the box office. The Indian media went to town.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello and welcome to the special show on "Saawariya" versus "Om Shanti Om."

SYDELL: It became a competition worthy of two world-class boxers.

Mr. KOMAL NAHATA (Editor, Film Street Journal): Two big films releasing on the same day, and this type of rivalry was quite unprecedented.

SYDELL: Komal Nahata, editor of the Film Street Journal in Mumbai. Unfortunately for Sony, critics like Nahata didn't care for their movie.

Mr. NAHATA: It's a debacle. It's a bomb. It's a disaster.

SYDELL: Nahata thinks Sony didn't do their homework.

Mr. NAHATA: Sony stepped into territory which it doesn't understand. And they did not think it fit to take the opinion of people who understand, because they wouldn't have made this mistake otherwise.

SYDELL: Audiences did come out in record numbers for both films on opening weekend, but as the reviews poured in, ticket sales tapered for Sony's movie and kept rising for "Om Shanti Om."

Megastar Shahrukh Khan suggested that seeing his film was a way to fight against the Hollywood giant trying to take over the Indian film industry. Sony's experience is a cautionary tale for all the other Hollywood studios eyeing the India film market - Warner Brothers, Fox, Viacom and Disney.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: Yash Raj film's screen test.

SYDELL: Disney will release its first animated feature for the Indian market - "Roadside Romeo" - this summer. The first promo is already out with lead character, a dog named Romeo trying out for a part in the movie.

(Soundbite of promo)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Hey.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) (Hindi spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Romeo.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) (Hindi spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Well, it's cool like me.

SYDELL: Disney's strategy is different from Sony's. Disney is internationally known for its animation. Animated features are new to India. Disney partnered with one of India's most well-known studios, Yash Raj Films. CEO Sanjeev Kohli.

Mr. SANJEEV KOHLI (CEO, Yash Raj Films): Now, when we will go to animation, that is an area that we don't have expertise in. We felt the need and it would bring a lot of value to the product if we tie it up with the world's leader in that area. And there's no better name than Disney at all.

SYDELL: Price Waterhouse Coopers predicts that India's film industry will more than double in size over the next four years from just over $2 billion to close to 4.5 billion. With numbers like that, it's no surprise at all the big American studios want a piece of the Indian market.

Despite Sony's rough entrance, Film Street Journal editor Komal Nahata actually wants them to keep trying.

Mr. NAHATA: I just hope that this one bad experience doesn't put off Sony or other studios. Of course anybody who is investing in Bollywood is great news for Bollywood, so it is a good thing.

SYDELL: Sony's executives say they plan on making more movies in India, and there is even a sense that one of these days movies from India may become as much of a force in world as Hollywood pictures.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we hear about a new venture aiming to bring characters from traditional Indian stories into American movies.

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