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US investors, critics discover Bollywood

By Ashok Easwaran, IANS

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Bollywood is getting hotter by the day in the United States, especially with investors and critics.

The numbers so far are relatively small and the investment ranges from $50,000 to a million dollars. But it is a growing trend.

After focussing on the Indian software sector, US investors have been inspired by "crossover" movies such as "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Monsoon Wedding", which grossed $32.5 million and $14 million respectively.

"Americans in general appear to be more interested now in the culture of the world's largest democracy, from music to food to film - a trend the investors hope to cash on," the San Jose Mercury News said.

The newspaper noted that between 80 and 90 percent of the films made in India fail financially. But investment in Bollywood is still safer for investors who have made their money in the high-risk tech world.

"You will see a lot more people like me investing in the Bollywood business," says Vivek Wadhwa, who founded two tech companies.

"If you invest in a tech company, it will be three or four years before you see any returns. If you invest in a Bollywood movie, you could get your investment in a year."

Wadhwa's first film "My Bollywood Bride" begins shooting in May. The film is about an American who falls in love with an Indian woman and the obstacles he faces to win the hand of his ladylove.

Not just with investors, Indian films seem to be making waves in other quarters too. This week, a retrospective of six Bollywood films opens at the Asia Society in New York.

The New York Times, which has co-sponsored the event, noted that Bollywood movie stars are "staples of the pop culture diet in much of Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa".

"It is hard to resist the charm of 'The Braveheart Will Take The Bride' ('Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayinge', the 1995 film starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol). The film's gorgeous wide screen compositions, the cinematographer's brilliant sense of colour and the movie's surefooted blend of comedy and melodrama recall the great MGM's musicals.

"The film adhering to Bollywood norms is at once fastidiously chaste - not so much as a kiss on the mouth - and stupefyingly sensuous. It is a reminder that when sex was finally allowed into American movies, a great deal of eroticism went out," the Times critic said.

An article in the National Geographic observed that Bollywood cinema was changing from the poor boy meets rich girl plot line to produce more sophisticated stories, and more complex plots, to meet the tastes of the better-educated Indian middle class and the Indian diaspora.

"The transformation is happening at a time when Bollywood's visual style is infiltrating Hollywood sensibilities, the most obvious example being 'Moulin Rouge', starring Nicole Kidman."

"Moulin Rouge", which one Bollywood aficionado said was in the best tradition of the late Mumbai director Manmohan Desai, was reportedly influenced by a trip the film's director, Baz Luhrmann, took to India, and his fascination with Bollywood. The movie even featured a sparkling closing number based on the Hindi song "Chamma, Chamma".

An increasing number of Americans are being introduced to Indian films, from directors like the late Ritwik Ghatak to Ram Gopal Varma. Among them is Bart Woodstrup, a Chicago-based computer musician and art professor. Woodstrup likes to watch Bollywood films for the costumes and the photography.

The films by Ghatak and Ketan Mehta "are very good", Woodstrup said. But he also enjoys watching commercial Bollywood films, especially the comedies. Although he does not understand Hindi, "I have a pretty good sense of what is going on," he added.

"Most Indian Americans enjoy the sheer illogic of Bollywood films," says Woodstrup's wife, Jayeeta Chowdhury-Woodstrup, who has a master's degree in communication studies from a Chicago university.

"We don't mind suspending our disbelief for three hours."

Chowdhury, who is in her early thirties, likes Guru Dutt and Adoor Gopalakrishan's films, and is somewhat typical of the Indian American who prefers complex plots even with darker themes.

She says she found Varma's "Ek Hasina Thi", starring Urmila Matonkar and Saif Ali Khan and which is popular on Chicago's video circuit, enjoyable.

"Here is the female protagonist who is not your typical 'Bharatiya nari' (Indian woman). She accepts, even revels, in the darkness in her. I also liked Saif Ali's portrayal. He has no qualms about being a cad."

Bollywood inspired films like "Mouline" Rouge run the risk of being compared with Hindi films and found wanting, Chowdhury said.

"It ('Mouline Rouge') is a very badly done remake of a Hindi movie. The actors did not have any conviction. Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta would have done more justice to the roles," she said.


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