India 2013 in Review: Spielberg, Snoop and De Niro Drop in on Bollywood

11:00 PM PST 12/29/2013 by Nyay Bhushan
"The Lunchbox"

Celebrating its 100-year anniversary, Bollywood saw Indian stars get breaks in Hollywood, while a new independent cinema came to the fore -- and much else.

In 2013, India celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the nation's first feature-length film -- Raja Harishchandra, directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke. The celebratory year was marked by thrilling highs at Cannes and in Hollywood and chilling lows on the social domestic homefront. 

Here is THR's look at the big media and entertainment industry stories of 2013 in India:

Bollywood Joins the Outcry After Horrific Gang-Rape Incident
The year started off on a sombre and introspective note as India reeled from the horrific gang rape on Dec. 16, 2012, of 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi. The incident sparked violent protests, outcry from Bollywood stars, and intense debate about women's security, while many also questioned the way women are portrayed in local cinema. 

After the case went to trial, Bollywood also came out in support and welcomed the death sentence delivered in September against the culprits. 

Big Hits Amid Shifting Landscape
Given the prevailing mood, one of the first releases of the year, Inkaar (Refusal), tackled head-on the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, starring actress Chitrangda Singh and actor Arjun Rampal. Though the film had a mixed response, the year saw a robust box office thanks to a string of hits. Superstar Shah Rukh Khan asserted his marquee power with the success of Disney-UTV's Chennai Express, grossing an estimated 2 billion rupees ($19 million). Rising star Ranbir Kapoor -- already hailed as Bollywood's next big thing after his 2012 hit Barfi! was India's Oscar entry -- continued his winning streak with blockbuster rom-com Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, which crossed the coveted 1 billion rupee mark. The third installment of homegrown superhero franchise Krrish, featuring megastar Hrithik Roshan and actress Priyanka Chopra also joined the billion rupee club.

The sports biopic genre (which saw 2012's acclaimed Paan Singh Tomar) took a giant leap forward with the blockbuster hit Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, starring Farhan Akhtar as real-life athlete Milkha Singh. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the Viacom18 release also sprinted across the billion rupee mark. The biggest release of the year was saved for Christmas, as veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films unleashed Dhoom 3 on Dec. 20, the much-anticipated third installment of its hit franchise that features superstar Aamir Khan, actress Katrina Kaif, actors Abhishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra.

Hollywood Buys Into Bollywood
Hollywood held on to its market share (generally estimated at less than 10 percent) with tentpoles like Iron Man 3 and Warner Bros.'s Gravity (which saw an extended run well into December following its October release).

Meanwhile, Hollywood studios also got more active in 2013 in local productions -- having tasted success last year with billion rupee grossers such as Disney UTV's release Barfi! -- both in mainstream Hindi language Bollywood and the South Indian industry. Fox Star Studios India has a busy 2014 lined up with 28 films set for release, including remakes of titles such as Metro Manila (the U.K.'s foreign film Oscar entry).

Spielberg, Snoop Dogg, De Niro and Stone Descend on India
Beyond the box office, Hollywood enhanced its presence here via some high-wattage star visits by figures such as Steven Spielberg, who landed in March in Mumbai with DreamWorks' co-chair Stacey Snider. While the Oscar-winning director had visited India prior (his first trip was in 1977, when he shot a sequence for Close Encounters outside Mumbai), this was his first visit after Indian conglomerate Reliance Entertainment inked an equal partnership deal with DreamWorks in 2009 with a $325 million investment. Hosted by Reliance group chairman Anil Ambani and his wife Tina Ambani, a highlight of the visit was a conversation between Spielberg and Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan in the presence of a hand-picked guest list of leading film industry figures.

Another global star with an Indian connection, Snoop Dogg, landed here in January for his first India two-city concert tour. Having guest-rapped on the title track of 2008 Bollywood hit Singh Is Kinng, the flamboyant artist enthralled audiences with a live rendition, donning a traditional Indian outfit as he ran through a set list of his classic rap hits. But amid all the good will, Snoop Dogg was also put on the spot, when, at his Mumbai press conference, he dodged questions about the representations of women in his music and his views on the Delhi gang-rape incident.

In November, Robert De Niro swooped into India to address a session at the THiNK event in Goa, organized by Indian political magazine Tehelka. De Niro also visited the Mumbai acting school run by veteran Bollywood actor and Silver Linings Playbook co-star Anupam Kher. The Hollywood icon was welcomed there by some of Bollywood's top stars, including Ranbir Kapoor, Anil Kapoor and actress Priyanka Chopra, among others.

And shortly after De Niro's visit, his Casino co-star Sharon Stone jetted into Mumbai to host the inaugural fundraiser for AmfAR India. The glittering evening was graced by a who's who of Bollywood, including top actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and her husband Abhishek Bachchan, among others. 

Woody Allen Lights a Fire
Woody Allen made big news in India this year without even visiting the country. He refused to follow India's mandatory rule of running anti-smoking disclaimers before every film and during instances of smoking in any film that includes them. Instead, he opted to cancel the India release of his film Blue Jasmine.

Allen's ultimatum lead Indian director Anurag Kashyap to challenge the government's anti-smoking disclaimers in court, ahead of the release of his upcoming film Ugly.

The Indian New Wave Gains Momentum -- With a Little Help From Cannes
If there was one premier highlight of Indian cinema's centennial year, it was the arrival of a new independent cinema, which had been gradually building momentum in recent years.

Cannes continued to play an important role in introducing the world to the new Indian wave, such as Amit Kumar's Monsoon Shootout and the year's breakthrough, The Lunchbox. Ritesh Batra's feature debut won over critics and triggered a buyer frenzy with its subtle portrayal of a lonely housewife (upcoming actress Nimrat Kaur) and her accidental romance with a retiring widower (Irrfan Khan) via Mumbai's famous dabbawala lunchbox delivery service.

In a first of sorts, the indie scene found mainstream Bollywood support as top director-producer Karan Johar boarded The Lunchbox as a co-producer and helped boost its box-office take (estimated at about $3 million). Similarly, acclaimed filmmaker (and star Aamir Khan's wife) Kiran Rao passionately promoted another directorial debut, Anand Gandhi's festival favorite Ship of Theseus. Another small film that tackled an offbeat subject was debut director Ajay Bahl's B.A. Pass, a bold tale of a young man's affair with a sexy cougar housewife (Shilpa Shukla).

Without question, the year's biggest disappointment was The Lunchbox being passed over as India's Oscar entry. The Film Federation of India sent Gyan Correa's The Good Road instead, sparking an intense debate in the industry. At one point, the FFI demanded an apology from Batra for his strong criticism of the FFI selection process (Batra did retract his comments). But the fact that both films were co-produced by the government-backed National Film Development Corporation proved that the body's attempts at promoting a new cinema sensibility were bearing fruit -- which only continued to boost NFDC's annual Film Bazaar event in Goa as the focal incubation platform for the next potential breakthrough.

Bollywood Goes Global 
A different breakthrough of sorts also occurred as Indian talent and stars gradually began to find some footing in Hollywood. Former Miss World turned actress Priyanka Chopra continued to build on her aspiring international music career with a new music video, "Exotic," featuring Pitbull. The CAA-signed talent also became the first Indian to model for Guess, photographed by none less than rocker Bryan Adams. In between, Chopra also found time to voice Ishani, an Indian character in Disney's animated feature Planes.

But it was Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan's fleeting but well-received appearance in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby that proved Indian talent was indeed going global. Bachchan also shared the spotlight at the film's Cannes premiere and opened the festival with a Hindi speech, accompanied by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Behind the scenes, veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films' L.A.-based offshoot YRF Entertainment expanded its Hollywood slate by optioning Seducing Ingrid, based on Ingrid Bergman's romance with celebrated war photographer Robert Capa. The project is the next after YRF's upcoming Nicole Kidman-starrer Grace of Monaco.

And as exclusively reported by THR, Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn forayed into Hollywood with a specially created partnership with Brillstein Entertainment that  aims to produce independent cinema with universal appeal.

The end of Bollywood's big year was marked by the booming success of Dhoom 3, starring Aamir Khan, as the film pulled in $10.17 million during its opening weekend abroad -- the biggest international opening ever for an Indian film. At home, the third installment of the action franchise from veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films crossed the 1 billion rupee ($16.7 million) in its first three days, giving it the biggest domestic opening weekend ever as well.

Looking ahead, 2014 will begin with a trip to the past as, in a first of sorts, the 3D version of the iconic 1975 film Sholay will be released in January. Also in the pipeline is Bang Bang, Fox Star Studios' Bollywood reworking of the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz starrer Knight and Day. And all eyes will also be on acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap's ambitious Bombay Velvet, starring marquee actor Ranbir Kapoor.

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