Bollywood aims to narrow Hollywood gap

Berlinale braces for the return of Shah Rukh Khan

BERLIN -- The Berlinale is bracing itself for the return of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

Just two years after his visit with "Om Shanti Om" -- one accompanied by popping flashbulbs, screaming fans and a sellout screening -- the actor is back with an out-of-competition slot for "My Name Is Khan," the highest-profile position yet given to a Bollywood title here.

This year's presser and screening will likely create a familiar frenzy, once again highlighting the ongoing globalization of the Mumbai-based Indian film industry known as Bollywood.

The popularity of Bollywood around the world is attributed to several factors, one of which is the filmmakers' continued adherence to a set of hardline rules that mean no sex on screen and a confidence in the age-old power of suggestion.

It's a throwback to Hollywood's golden age, when the studio system also embraced an understated moral code that makes explicit sex a definite no no.

Putting dance where heavy petting might be and instilling family values is all part of the appeal helping Bollywood -- which churns out more than 1,000 movies every year -- to reach upward of 4 billion people annually around the globe, according to industry analysts.

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"The films offer audiences a gentle form of escapism," London-based author Vikas Pota said. "Bollywood continues to offer audiences the power and impact of suggestion, something which Hollywood seldom does anymore."

Pota is a British government advisor on all things India whose book "India Inc. India's Top 10 Entreprenuers" will be published this month in the U.K.

Pota's book contains interviews with India's top 10 entrepreneurs and includes Bollywood distributor and producer Kishore Lulla, who runs Eros International.

"Lulla is probably the smallest in terms of net worth of the 10 entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book," Pota said. "But he has been responsible for the highest impact business of them all. Lulla is at the front and center of globalizing Bollywood."

Lulla and company are responsible for the rollout of many a Bollywood hit and Eros -- floated on the AIM stock exchange in London -- consistently appears in top 10 charts of indie distribution, with operations in more than 50 countries across the globe.

It was Lulla who brought Khan to Berlin last time around and saw the "Om Shanti Om" screening at the International Cinema sell out in seven minutes in a territory with a relatively small Indian population.

In Pota's book, Lulla says that he hopes that Bollywood films end up grossing as much as Hollywood and "hit the billion dollar mark."

It's a wish Lulla says is not far way.

"The future, as I see it, is cross-pollination between Bollywood and Hollywood," Lulla said. "I have tremendous respect for Hollywood studios, but we are trying to do what they did in 90 years in just 10 years. India is going global. Its food has gone global, its fashion has gone global, and its movies will go global."

The cross-pollination is already in action, with 20th Century Fox distributing "My Name Is Khan" in Germany. And Eros has a $50 million deal with Sony Pictures to invest in four of its Indian productions, while the AIM-listed company also has sealed a deal with Lionsgate to bring U.S. audiences its library in exchange for a slew of the mini-majors titles for the Indian marketplace.

Also unspooling here in a Berlinale Special slot is a film that unites Bollywood actor-producer Aamir Khan with Western filmmaking sensibilities, Anusha Rizvi's "Peepli Live."

Billed as a family drama and media satire, Rizvi's film pokes fun at the way the media deals with the issue of Indian farmers who commit suicide to benefit their surviving families. Cross-pollination indeed.

Other Bollywood titles in this year's Berlinale including Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni's "Vihir" (The Well) and Dev Benegal's "Road, Movie," both unspooling in the Generation sidebar.

And Kaushik Ganguly and Rituparno Ghosh's "Aarekti Premer Golpo" (Just Another Love Story) gets a Panorama slot while Laxmikant Shetgaonkar's "Paltadacho Munis" (The Man Beyond the Bridge) bows in the Forum lineup.

Khan himself told The Hollywood Reporter: "I don't have any (unique selling point) as an actor, there is no place for me (in Hollywood). I would like to continue to work in Bollywood and take Indian cinema to the world."

That's the way to do it.
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