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India's Smaller Films Going Up Against Hollywood Productions This Summer

The small- and medium-budgeted productions are using sexy fare to take away some money from the star-fueled Bollywood films in the box office.

MUMBAI — India’s producers of small- and medium-budgeted films are going all Hollywood this summer to take on the big boys.

And while these feisty Davids may not be able to take the head off the star-fueled Goliaths of Bollywood, they’re using sexy fare to swipe a few bucks out of their box office pockets.

In addition to the handful of star-powered titles, more than 15 small budget films without major stars will be trying out their luck at the box office hoping to break through with unique storylines — and some bold sex — challenging the formulaic nature of typical Bollywood song and dance dramas.

In the spirit of full disclosure, sex in an Indian movie is pretty tame — like Disney tame. A kiss between two young girls is scandalous. People kissing in a prone position, well, whew.

But it’s a sign of the times and the smaller producers are taking advantage of it.

“What excites me is that audiences are now ready to accept films which are challenging the norm,” says Viacom18 Motion Pictures CEO Vikram Malhotra.

Viacom18 Motion Pictures is a joint venture between Viacom and leading broadcasting group Network18. It also runs MTV India and other TV outlets while its recently revamped film unit just tasted success with the medium budget romcom Tanu Weds Manu.

Viacom18’s upcoming slate includes the edgy drama Shaitan (Devil), the directorial debut of Bejoy Nambiar, who won in the Gateway To Hollywood TV talent show on Sony Entertainment India’s SET PIX channel in 2008. Nambiar’s prize included a stint at L.A.-based Hyde Park Entertainment, owned by the show’s mentor Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj.

“I had originally written Shaitan as an English film set in Mumbai to be produced by Hyde Park,” Nambiar said. “But for some reason Amritraj couldn’t do the project so I returned to India and rewrote the script in Hindi.”

Nambiar finally co-produced the film with Viacom18 and writer/director Anurag Kashyap, a trailblazer for the new wave of indie films thanks to the success of his 2008 release DevD and last year’s Cannes entry “Udaan.”

The trailer for the youth-driven Shaitan includes a fleeting kiss between two young actresses, a rarity in typical Bollywood fare proving that new directors are also pushing the envelope.

Recently released horror thriller RaginiMMS generated buzz for its voyeuristic hidden camera sex footage revolving around a couple on a weekend tryst who are haunted by a ghost. Suggesting a cross between Paranormal Activity and an apparent take on a real-life controversial mobile MMS sex video, RaginiMMS was produced by Mumbai-based Balaji Telefilms via its “alternative” banner Alt Entertainment. Alt produced last year’s edgiest release, director Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (Love, Sex And Betrayal) which explored India’s changing sexual mores.

“Small films are as risky as big films despite the difference in scale,” Balaji Telefilms CEO Tanuj Garg said. “While a big film can still take a strong opening weekend, even if it tanks later, a small film can die an instant death unless it builds traction through strong word of mouth.”

In its first week, RaginiMMS grossed an estimated $2.2 million (Rupees 98 million) according to Garg, who adds that the film’s “encouraging” overall box office run will recover the $1 million (Rupees 45 million) production budget.

The downside of this glut of small films is a high casualty rate: one weekend in May saw eight titles opening together, with observers reckoning that most of them performed below expectations, though independent box office data is hard to come by.

But when they click, small films are a viable proposition. Viacom18’s Tanu Weds Manu grossed north of $9 million (Rupees 400 million) while Alt Entertainment’s LSD collected about $1.8 million (Rupees 80 million).

Industry estimates reckon that small- to medium-sized films are budgeted anywhere from $1 million to $3 million, a viable amount given a strong theatrical run further boosts other revenue streams such as television, home video and music rights. With typical big budget films costing more than three times that much, it’s no wonder that major banners are floating specialty indie units.

Veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films recently launched its youth-focused banner Y Films, Viacom18 Motion Pictures unfurled Tipping Point Films, and more than two years ago, major player UTV Motion Pictures was a pioneer of sorts with its indie unit Spot Boy Prods.

Avoiding the obvious does-size-matter cliché, its safe to say that small films can have big aspirations. “This is a great time to be a filmmaker in India,” Malhotra said.