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Bollywood ballyhoo

People watch a Tamil movie at a multi cinema complex in Singapore on Oct 3. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

MUMBAI/SINGAPORE -- Indian cinema is making its way to screens around the world and making waves. Bollywood, as the mainstream Hindi-language film industry is popularly known, has produced superstars like Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan whose paychecks rival -- or even surpass -- those of Hollywood A-listers.

     The film industry has also caught Hollywood's eye, with moguls cozying up to their Bollywood counterparts. And while the stereotype of the song-and-dance epic is hard to shake, filmmakers are cultivating a wider audience with more nuanced productions.

     On a Sunday night in late September, laughter erupted inside a cinema at a shopping mall in central Singapore, where "Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon," a newly released Hindi-language romantic comedy, was being shown.

     Khusbu Tiwari, a 25-year-old legal secretary, comes to the cinema to watch Indian films "almost every other week." Tiwari, whose grandparents hail from northern India, speaks Hindi fluently. "Watching Hindi films helps me relate back to my roots," she said.

     Demand for Indian films is rising as more people from India and neighboring countries come to Southeast Asia to work. Theater operators are beginning to offer a variety of Indian movies. Singapore's Golden Village Multiplex, which operates 11 cinemas around the city-state, has screened 19 Indian films since the beginning of the year, compared with just three in all of 2014. It began showing Hindi films regularly in 2005, adding Tamil movies in the past few years along with some in Malayalam, another southern Indian language.

     Sharanjit Kaur, director of programming at Golden Village Multiplex, says she sees "sufficient demand" from audiences to keep Indian titles on screens. An influx of Indian film distributors to Southeast Asia has helped ensure a constant supply of Tamil and Hindi movies. "Malays and Chinese enjoy them as well," Kaur said of some mainstream Indian films.

Scenes from home

Indian cinema magic is winning fans across the globe. In the U.S., the audience is mostly ethnic Indians drawn to movies from the old country.

      The number of screens is on the rise in the U.S. but the number of viewers per screen is falling. AMC Theatres, the country's largest multiplex operator, which controls 35% of the market, is trying to turn things around by targeting the growing number of people with Indian roots.

     AMC has screened 53 Indian movies in the first half of this year, grossing $7 million. At its theater in Santa Clara, California, it recently showed "Katti Batti," a Hindi-language Bollywood romance subtitled in English.

     "Bollywood is now culturally or morally more tolerant," said Tushar Jain, a 37-year-old employee at a technology company who brought a date to the movie. In "Katti Batti," the unmarried protagonists live together, something that was never shown before in conservative Bollywood movies, Jain said.

     "Bollywood became realistic to reach a global audience," said Aditya Thakkar, 27, another worker at a technology company. "I recommended it to my Chinese friends and they liked it."

     According to Sony Jalarajan Raj, an assistant professor at MacEwan University in Canada who studies the Indian film industry, it was Bollywood that first exploited its global connections as the country opened up its economy in 1991. Previously, the industry was focused only on Europe and parts of South Asia, and the films were mainly in Hindi.

     "But now it is becoming a mixture of local languages and English. Switching of languages is appealing to the global audience. Indian films are now being exported to Turkey, Iran, the Middle East, Vietnam and everywhere else," Raj said.

     Another factor in the growth of Indian cinema is the diaspora, which now has the money, power and mobility to influence people around the world. "These empowered people with Indian roots carry their entertainment products to all of these countries and unleash their cultures to other races through the medium of entertainment," Raj said, adding social media is playing a big role in expanding the fan base of stars.

Hollywood connection

Jehil Thakkar, head of media and entertainment at professional services company KPMG's Indian unit, estimates the $2 billion Indian movie industry does 10-15% of its business overseas. "It is still restricted to the Indian diaspora. Indian movies haven't quite crossed over." There are certain limits in viewership, but the business is growing fast. The Indian film industry, Thakkar said, is expected to grow 10-12% annually, reaching $3.5 billion in the next five years.

     That growth has caught the attention of Hollywood. Walt Disney Pictures coproduced "Khoobsurat," a romantic comedy released in 2014, and "ABCD 2," a 2015 dance movie. The recently released "Brothers" was backed by Lionsgate Films and Endemol India.

     Fox Star Studios, a joint venture between Twentieth Century Fox Film and TV broadcaster Star India, both of which are owned by Twenty-First Century Fox, has produced movies like "Bang Bang," a 2014 thriller staring Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif.

     The attraction between the movie capitals is mutual. YRF Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production and financing company, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Yash Raj Films, India's top independent studio. Its Hollywood productions include "Grace of Monaco," staring Nicole Kidman.

     Well-known filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra has made his Hollywood debut with "Broken Horses," a film released in April about the bond between two brothers.

     Hollywood is also welcoming more actors from India. Irrfan Khan has appeared in several Hollywood movies, including "Life of Pi." Anil Kapoor, a successful Bollywood actor, appeared in the Academy Award-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire." 

     "Quantico," a TV drama about FBI recruits that premiered on U.S. TV network ABC on Sept. 27, features Priyanka Chopra, a top Bollywood actress, in a lead role. The following day, Chopra tweeted: "Thank u for all the love for 'Quantico,' can't wait for you all to c episode 2 next Sunday!"

Not the old song and dance

India, which makes roughly 1,000 movies a year, has an extremely diverse industry. According to KPMG's Thakkar, Bollywood accounts for about half of the Indian film industry, while southern cinema -- films made in Tamil, Telugu, Malyalam and Kannada -- make up about a third. Bengali, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and others account for the rest. Now Hollywood is taking a bigger piece of the box office pie.

     "Bahubali" illustrates this growing diversity. The Telugu-Tamil movie, which has been dubbed into Hindi and several other languages, is the box office champ so far this year. A work of historical fiction with world-class special effects, it is the most expensive movie ever made in India, with a budget of over 2 billion rupees ($30.8 million). Pramod Bokadia, a Bollywood producer and distributor, said it has already collected over 5 billion rupees since its release in July, the first non-Hindi movie to cross that line. The film is also faring quite well overseas and is slated for release in China in November.

     A number of successful movies from southern India are being remade in Bollywood and vice-versa. "Tagore," a Telugu-language hit directed by V.V. Vinayak in 2003, was remade in Hindi under the title "Gabbar is Back."

     Vinayak, who is known for churning out successful films, feels there is no magic formula for making a commercially viable movie. His upcoming film, "Akhil -- the Power of Jua," has a budget of 500 million rupees. It is also the debut film of Akhil, son of the famous southern Indian actor Nagarjuna. "It's a commercial love story with action," the filmmaker said without revealing much about the plot.

     "After 'Bahubali,' our platform has grown. It has opened a lot of doors" for southern cinema, he said, and even exhibitors are now coming out with the best facilities for screening movies.

     Vinayak, who shot two songs from his previous film in "fantastic locations" in Japan and wants to do so again during cherry blossom season in early spring, said films from India's south are also doing well in Dubai, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. But he said only people of Indian origin are watching these movies. "Foreigners find them illogical -- the dancing, fighting, singing and all."

Fictional numbers

Vineeta Dwivedi, chief executive of entertainment company K Sera Sera Digital Cinema, said most of India's more than 10,000 theaters have gone digital. Those that have not are finding it hard to survive.

     "With digitization ... you can actually distribute films simultaneously in several screens across India." 

     Dwivedi said now far more Hollywood films are being released in India than five years ago because of the availability of multiplexes, which lets theaters screen a wider range of movies. Although Western films tend to draw a niche audience, some have mass appeal. "Fast and Furious" has become the biggest grossing Hollywood film in India, raking in a billion rupees, she said.

     However, Dwivedi insisted the indigenous film industry provides almost everything that Indians look for -- not only Hindi films but also regional ones. "An animated Punjabi film called 'Chaar Sahibzaade' was an unprecedented hit last year and made 700 million rupees."

People wait for a movie showing at Maratha Mandir theater in Mumbai on Sept. 14. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

     One Bollywood film that is still ruling the hearts of moviegoers 20 years after its release is "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge." The romance-drama starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol marked its 1,000th week at Mumbai's Maratha Mandir theater in December last year and continues to run there.

     "I have come to Maratha Mandir again today to watch this film," said a man who gave only his first name, Vijay, 40, a die-hard fan who has already seen the movie four times, as he stood in line at the entrance.

     Even as the Indian film industry grows beyond its borders, box office inflation has been a persistent issue. Big name actors like Aamir Khan, whose 2014 movie "PK" was supposedly the first Indian film to take in 7 billion rupees worldwide, has spoken out against the trend, saying those who fudge the numbers  are "just fooling themselves." At a promotional event in December, Khan denounced the practice as "childish." A creative person should never think of figures, but follow his heart, he said, adding, that "over-attention to figures is very harmful to creativity."

     Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the producer of "PK," tied up with Rentrak, a U.S.-based box office researcher, to track the film's revenue, marking the company's entry into India.

Nikkei staff writers Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore and Yuichiro Kanematsu in Silicon Valley contributed to this report.

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