Bollywood Beyond Borders

From North America to Europe, the world is waking up to the emotional appeal and the business opportunity of Hindi cinema.

bollywood
Bollywood Theme Park in Dubai

It’s a sunny morning in Istanbul as you step on to a bus outside the Hagia Sophia in the older part of the city. The young Turkish bus conductor asks if you’re Indian. You nod in reply. “Ah,” he suddenly beams. “I love Aamir Khan, I saw Lagaan eleven times. I am a big fan of his.” The scene is repeated in Copenhagen (“You are Kapoor? Kareena Kapoor?”), Cairo (“Amitabh Bachchan? You know him?”) and Toronto, where the entire city is lit up with posters of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards, screaming fans throng event venues leading to never-seen-before traffic jams, and non-Indian cabbies can only shake their heads in wonder: “Your Shah Rukh Khan must be bigger than Hollywood.”

A surprisingly effective ambassador for brand India, Bollywood – a colloquial term for Hindi cinema – has done more to seal cultural ties and build bridges around the world than international diplomacy ever could. It is not just the sentimental appeal of Hindi films or their unique song-and-dance sequences, the adulation for the industry is bolstered by its stars who are hero-worshipped by legions of adoring fans worldwide on- and off-screen. Whatever they touch turns into gold; wherever they go, business opportunities follow.

Valued at Rs 13,820 crore in 2015, the Indian film industry is slated to touch Rs 17,410 in 2017 according to a 2016 report by KMPG called ‘The Future Now Streaming’. It churns out over 1200 films every year in 23 languages, and 2015 saw over 2 billion ticket sales, making it the most prolific film industry in the world, though it earns only a fraction of the revenue that Hollywood makes (see graph).

International box-office is responsible for only a 7% pie of the industry’s revenue, a figure that has remained constant over the past decade, but its year-on-year growth in 2014-15 was 11.5% compared with domestic box-office, which was 8.5% in the same period. Besides, related activities, merchandise sales, awards nights, dance shows and other events held abroad have generated entirely new avenues of income generation and soft marketing.

Hindi cinema, or Bollywood, accounts for only 15% of all films made in India, but it contributes 43% in terms of box-office collections by language according to another study by ASSOCHAM-Deloitte. “It is India’s cultural export that unites the world. Whether it is street urchins in Addis Ababa who have memorised Bollywood songs, or connoisseurs in Beijing or Moscow or Santiago, people everywhere flock to Bollywood,” says Vikas Swarup, former spokesperson at the Ministry of External Affairs, and author of Q&A, which was adapted in the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. “There’s a certain emotional way we communicate our stories that has a global appeal. It’s not just the Indian diaspora but also the non-Indian population that is responsible for its growth abroad. Without that, you could not have had Raees or Dangal break into the top 10 globally.”

As a public diplomacy initiative that is part of the ‘India@70’ celebrations in 2017, Swarup, who was last month announced as India’s ambassador to Canada, roped in award-winning documentary filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai to produce Filmistan, an hour-long documentary film that will be showcased at film festivals in India and worldwide. Releasing this month, the film features top names from the industry, from stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to film directors and critics, talking about the medium and its star power.

Priyanka Chopra, for instance, talks about shooting in New York and stepping forward to take photos with fans. “The Indian fans push out the poor Western guys. They’re like, “Get out of the way! Mine!’” she laughs, describing their possessiveness for their Indian icon. Abhishek Bachchan adds his own take on his NRI audience: “You’re talking about people who are physically very far from India. For those three hours [of the film] they are back home with their own people. So as a film actor, you’re not an object to be loved, you’re part of the family.” His fellow actor Saif Ali Khan shares his experience, his voice full of incredulousness, “The whole arena is full of screaming fans, as if you’re a rock star. One doesn’t normally take oneself so seriously but when you’re standing in Wembley stadium and taking off your shirt and looking at the crowd [screaming], it’s quite surreal.”

According to Bollywood film critic and TV personality Anupama Chopra, “NRIs are very seduced by stars. They respond to film stars in a way that is more passionate than local Indians.” She reasons that the joyousness, colour, beautiful people and stunning locales of Hindi films offer viewers an escape into a dream world of shared values that Western cinema doesn’t. Kidwai – whose 2013 documentary film No Problem! about African village women who travelled to Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, to study solar electrification, won over 20 awards worldwide – is of the view that Bollywood films usually end with a sense of hope and the triumph of love over hate, “messages that we really need to hear in today’s world.”

With more than 22 million non-resident Indians around the world, Bollywood filmmakers themselves woke up to the potential in wooing a global audience around the turn of the century, when Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra came into their prime with films such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenga, Kal Ho Na Ho and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

“These directors gave NRI viewers the perfect mix of traditional Indian values with a modern Westernised treatment,” says film trade analyst and TV show host Komal Nahta. He adds that Johar stays in New York and London for weeks and months while working on a script so that he can absorb the local culture, trends and attitudes there, which he then incorporates in his films. In Filmistan, Shah Rukh Khan puts it succinctly: “When I did those films, I think I just packaged Indian values in Ralph Lauren; there was nothing more to it. I sold churan, anaar, papad in a Louis Vuitton bag.”

Many blockbusters today can earn more than 30% of box-office revenue from international markets. The Aamir Khan-starrer PK, considered the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, earned $120 million dollars worldwide, of which $47.2 million was from non-Indian zones. The second biggest film, Dangal, has so far earned $110 million worldwide; of this, it earned $30 million from outside India and is still running. The 2009 blockbuster 3 Idiots, which grossed $59 million worldwide, earned almost half of it – $26 million – from non-India box-office collections, notably China, where it sparked interest in older films of director Rajkumar Hirani as well (see graph).

But it’s not just how much revenue Bollywood generates at box offices abroad, it is also how much it earns in terms of foreign exchange when Hollywood and other studious outsource animation and sound-production work to Indian ones, says Swarup. For instance, the Walt Disney Company has a team of animators now working in India at a fraction of the cost they would charge in Hollywood. “The other plus is that Bollywood talent has gone global; actors like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Irrfan Khan are now working in Hollywood films. After his Oscar win, Resul Pookutty is considered one of the top sound designers in the world,” Swarup points out.

The globalisation of Bollywood has also led to strategic partnerships: Anil Ambani’s Reliance Big Pictures invested $325 million for a 50% stake in Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks, besides other tie-ups with US production houses owned by the likes of Nicholas Cage, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney. The company also acquired American movie theatres to showcase Indian films in areas with larger Indian communities. UTV Motion Pictures co-produced two films with Fox Searchlight and one with 20th Century Fox. And this is besides the several investments that global movie majors Walt Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and Fox Star Studios have continued to make in Bollywood films since 2007.

Governments and tourism boards across the world have also woken up to the revenue generation opportunity of Bollywood of late. The Visit Britain and Swiss Info tourism websites list popular spots where Bollywood films have been shot in UK and Switzerland, including interactive maps that tourists can use to plan their route. A new amusement park inspired by Bollywood was launched in late 2016 in Dubai, featuring thrilling rides called ‘Don’, ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Sholay’ and a stunt show called ‘Dabangg’ among others. Bollywood magazines are now published in almost all languages, including one called Ishq in Germany, where Shah Rukh Khan is particularly popular with the ladies, and where you can find dance studios dedicated to Bollywood-style moves.

Several countries have also begun offering subsidies for Bollywood film shoots after noticing the accruing profit. From a few thousand Indian tourists in 2010, Spain saw an influx of 85,000 of them in 2011 after the release of Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which was shot there. The Mediterranean country has since then proactively wooed Bollywood producers and event organisers alike. India now has several trade deals in place with Malaysia, Australia, Fiji, Italy, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Ireland, Turkey, South Africa, Mauritius, Canada, UK, US and others for incentives including cash grants and tax credits going from 20% to even 50% on film production costs if criteria such as dubbing in local languages and use of local talent are fulfilled.

Bollywood award shows have also yielded returns for both India and their host countries. After their launch in 2000 in London, the IIFA Awards organized by Wizcraft have turned into a money-spinning force of their own. They have not only left a direct economic impact on the cities that have hosted the awards (see table) besides almost double the economic impact over 12 months, but also triggered trade deals and better distribution channels for Hindi films; in some cases, even regular flights to and from India were scaled up during and after the awards. The success of IIFA in Tampa Bay also led to the city’s selection as the ‘Best Big City to Live’ in southeast US by Time/Money.com.

“Whether the seat capacity is 4,500 or 45,000, we’re always sold out,” says Wizcraft founder-director Sabbas Joseph, explaining the reason for expanding from a single night to an entire weekend of activities for the annual event. “In Toronto, we sold out 18,000 seats in a record 8.2 minutes. We then added more tickets, taking the total to 25,000, which again sold out in seconds.” Though it costs almost about eight times more to host an awards event abroad versus in India, the subsequent revenue opportunity from merchandising, ticket sales, and sponsorships is far greater as well. “It’s not just a one-time gain. The IIFAs have created an atmosphere of collaboration and a new avenue for sponsorships in Bollywood. They have also facilitated the assimilation of Indian talent in Hollywood,” Joseph avers.

Many factors contribute to selecting a location for an awards event or a dance show such as The Bachchan Unforgettable Tour in 2008 in UK, US and Canada, which was conceptualised by Wizcraft based on the ethos, ‘If the fans can’t come to you, you go to the fans.’ The location must have the required infrastructure and diaspora, but also an inclination to increase business ties with India. “Fortunately, there are now many Indian-origin citizens in high positions in various cities across the West, and they hold Diwali or Holi parties and screen Bollywood movies as part of cultural events. They understand the value of hosting an awards or dance show in their town,” says Mohammed Morani, co-founder of Cineyug, which organizes the Zee Cine Awards, Stardust Awards, TOIFA Awards, amongst many others. The company is all set to host the Indian Academy Awards in San Jose, California, in July 2017, a destination that was selected keeping the Silicon Valley diaspora in mind, though Morani admits foreigners are beginning to make up almost a fourth of the audiences abroad.

“Moving forward, the world is going to see even more of Bollywood,” he predicts. That sounds like AR Rahman music to the industry’s ears.

This article was first published in The Economic Times

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