Is Bollywood's romance with NRIs causing heartburn?

It is that time of the year when the famed Indian diaspora from across the world flocks to toast its triumphs at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and Bollywood seizes the opportunity.

A clutch of film stars made it their business to be present at the cultural nights of the three-day event that brought together Indian expatriates in the capital.

Their numbers were miniscule compared to the galaxy of stars that had descended for the event last year. Onscreen, however, Bollywood makes no pretence of the fact that most of its productions are meant for non-resident Indians (NRIs).

Trade observers say the fixation with the so-called "NRI film" genre may be making Bollywood lose all-India appeal but the trend will continue as filmmakers are able to recover cost and book profits purely on account of box-office revenues in overseas markets.

NRIs have become a serious market for the Hindi film industry, particularly in Britain, where approximately three percent of the population is Indian/Pakistani, and in the US, where 1.7 million out of 281.5 million people are Indian.

The rupee box office is now augmented quite handsomely by the dollar-and-pound box-office, say industry watchers.

Ever since filmmaker Aditya Chopra's "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge" became a runaway success overseas in 1995, the NRI has become a Bollywood staple.

Other filmmakers have followed up with "Pardes", "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai", "Taal," "Yaadein", "Kabhie Kushi Kabhie Gham" and now "Kal Ho Naa Ho".

Among the films reporting a half to three-quarters of a million-dollar box office in the US or Britain are "Aa Ab Laut Chalen" (1999), "Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai" (2000), "Refugee" (2000), "Lajja" (2001), and "Asoka" (2001).

The NRI "million-dollar-box-office club" boasts such films as "Yaadein" (2001) and "Lagaan" (2001) in the US, and "Taal" (1999), "Hum Saath Saath Hain" (1999) and "Mohabbatein" (2000) in Britain.

"Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" (1998) tallied $2.6 million in Britain. Most recently, setting a new high in the overseas box-office, "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" (2001) grabbed the No. 10 spot its first week of release in the US and earned $2.9 million during its five-week run. In Britain it earned nearly $3.6 million over an 18-week run.

Even the non-commercial, multi-award-winning "Bawandar" (2001) incorporates an NRI as a thread piecing together Bhanwri Devi's gang rape.

The English/Telegu film "Hyderabad Blues" (1998) and the English/Tamil film "Mitr-My Friend" (2002), both smaller-budget films built on delivering messages without preaching, deserve mention.

Trade observer Deepa Gahlot says: "From what one can see, the NRI is more patriotic, more traditional and more family-oriented than the average Indian who is either too poor, too un-enterprising or too stupid to acquire NRI status.

"So overwhelmingly 'Indian' are they that when they touch foreign soil, the air itself hums 'Vande Mataram' (long live India).

"Of course, the made-for-NRI film should not reflect life as it really is, either in India or overseas.

"Only then will they (NRIs) pay their hard-earned money to see an Indian that doesn't exist anymore -preferably to the accompaniment of A.R. Rahman or Anu Malik's music."

Films featuring or "made for" NRIs have been criticised by some in India who see them as an unabashed need to pander to NRI sensibilities.

NRIs on the other hand are unhappy with the portrayal of Indians living abroad and put the blame on filmmakers for the stagnation.

During the past decade, Indians filmmakers have managed to captivate international audiences.

The latest to join the elite club are Rajat Kapoor's "Raghu Romeo" and the Kiron Kher-starrer, "Khamosh Pani".

While Rajat's production won the Best Film Award at the prestigious MAMI film festival in Mumbai, Kiron Kher won yet another Best Actress Award at the third Kara Film Festival in Karachi. This is her third within a span of two months.

Reports say Raghu Romeo, starring Vijay Raaz, has evolved an innovative financing strategy. While part of the film has been financed by government-run National Film Development Corporation, the rest was sourced from friends and investors.

Producer Rajat Kapoor, reportedly, says: "The best thing about this method is that you don't have a producer sitting over your head, demanding that a film be made this way or that. You can let your creativity flow and come up with the exact final product that was envisaged in the first place.

"Also, with so many people investing in your project, it has a lot of positive energy inflow - they all believe in you. And that is the best thing that can happen to anyone."

"Bend It Like Beckham" also continues to charm jurors abroad. It has now been included for Best Picture at the annual Image Awards ceremony in the US along with "Bad Boys II", "The Fighting Temptations", "Deliver Us From Eva" and "Whale Rider".

The ceremony is slated for March 8, 2004, in Los Angeles. The film has been directed by Gurindher Chadha, who is of Indian origin, and has been a runaway hit in Britain and India.

Films that seem controversial in India are finding paradise overseas.

The latest to join the bandwagon heading West is Kamal Hasan's "Virumaandi".

The film that was in the middle of a controversy on account of its initial title "Sandiyar" is now all set to hit US theatres on January 14, which also happens to coincide with the Tamil New Year.

The film's earlier title was criticised by caste groups and political parties alike on the grounds that it could instigate violence, and hence the change in name. The film's story revolves around two warring families.

Laugh riot "Munnabhai M.B.B.S." by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, starring Sanjay and Sunil Dutt, continues to dominate the Indian box-office.

Bollywood's most hyped film, "LoC: Kargil", however, is battling to stay on the marquees.

Commercially the film has taken a severe beating across the country with collections nose-diving from the fourth day itself, though director J.P Dutta trimmed his four-hour production by 17 minutes on the second day and a further 24 minutes from the sixth.

The film, however, had the best openings for 2003 with gross collections expected to touch Rs.110 million. The Rs.400-million multi-starrer was sold at a rate of around Rs.30 million per territory in major circuits.

This week witnessed the release of three films, including a Sanjay Dutt-starrer. "Plan", "Paisa Wasool" and "Chameli" are vastly disparate and would be able to make a mark in their respective niches.

On January 16, a Varma Corporation Ltd and K. Sera Sera production is slated to go on the silver screen.

The film - "Ek Hasina Thi" - is directed by first-timer Shriram Raghavan and has music by Amar Mohile. The highlight of the movie is the presence of Urmila Matondkar, who is one of the strongest contenders for the best actress awards in 2003, and Saif Ali Khan, who has got himself a strong fan following after his performances in "Kal Ho Naa Ho" and "Dil Chahta Hai".

Another experimental film slated for Friday release is "God Only Knows!"

The Hinglish movie by producer "Why Not?" has been directed by Bharat Dabholkar. The film is a pun on politicians today and tells the tale of a politician who politicises heaven. God only knows what the film's box-office fate will be?