From Hindi to Indie

A new generation of Bollywood filmmakers is ready to take a walk on the wild side

When the Indian drama "Dev.D" opened recently with the credit "Special thanks to Danny Boyle," it was a clear sign that times are changing in Bollywood.

Just as Boyle drew inspiration from the work he saw in India, so a whole group of independent Indian filmmakers is drawing inspiration from him and from the indie movement that has flourished elsewhere. Many, like the man behind "Dev.D," are just waiting to get the kind of international recognition that Boyle has received.

Directed and co-written by Anurag Kashyap -- one of India's most adventurous filmmakers -- "Dev.D" offers a radical contemporary take on the classic Indian novel "Devdas," which has seen various big-screen adaptations over the years. Hoping to give his film the kind of edgy visual brio that Boyle brought to his global crowd pleaser "Slumdog Millionaire," Kashyap decided that the best course of action was to go straight to the source.

"I met Danny to exchange ideas, as I was especially interested in the visual style he used for 'Slumdog Millionaire' in a particular sequence," he recalls, adding that Boyle suggested he try a special digital still camera that creates a unique stop-motion effect by shooting 11 frames per second. The result propels audiences through a dizzying sequence in which "Dev.D's" protagonist descends into a wild, drug- and booze-fueled binge after his childhood love is married off to an older man.

With its potential for over-the-top melodrama and aching romanticism, it's the kind of sequence that a traditional Bollywood filmmaker would relish. Kashyap, however, says the time has come to try a different approach.

"Indian cinema has finally changed and this is the breakthrough year," he declares. "There is a brave new generation of filmmakers who have been chipping away at the establishment in recent years and now is their time."

But after decades of lavish song and dance extravaganzas, some locals wonder if so-called "multiplex movies" -- edgy, indie-style pictures largely aimed at upscale urban audiences -- can hold their own against the steady supply of traditional Bollywood epics that still command the boxoffice.

"There is no doubt that the new wave of indie films is here to stay, but only if it can be commercially viable," writer-director Taran Adarsh says. "I personally liked 'Slumdog,' but I really wonder how many people in the slums saw that movie? Those masses will always prefer their fix of Bollywood fantasies to escape their daily grind."

With admissions on the subcontinent somewhere in the region of 1.5 billion annually, according to a new report by U.K. boxoffice analyst Dodona Research, insiders say the Indian film market is large and healthy enough for traditional Bollywood fare and this new generation of upstarts.

An explosion of theaters has helped deliver these filmmakers' work to mass audiences. With 1,350 multiplex screens compared with just 80 at the end of 2002, Dodona estimates that total theatrical boxoffice will reach $1.3 billion by 2012, representing a 25% increase vs. 2007 figures. Additionally, owing to higher ticket prices than traditional single-screen cinemas, multiplexes will account for more than 50% of boxoffice receipts, compared with less than one-third in 2007.

"You have to have a realistic parameter to judge films that don't conform to formula by not comparing them with typical blockbusters," says Vijay Singh, the newly established CEO of Mumbai-based Fox Star Studios, which distributed "Slumdog" locally.

While there is no independent source for boxoffice figures in India, industry estimates show local audiences won't be abandoning the traditional Bollywood tentpole release any time soon. Recent blockbuster hits have included December's romantic comedy "Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi" (God Made This Couple), which grossed roughly $22 million, followed by an even bigger hit in the thriller "Ghajini," which estimates show has grossed more than $32.6 million in the three weeks since its release in early January.

But the success of "Slumdog" playing to non-English-speaking audiences in India bodes well for further indie films.

According to FSS, "Slumdog" grossed about $5 million in its first three weeks of release on roughly 250 prints, of which 25% were in English. "Our figures indicate that in the first week the Hindi prints contributed about 44% of revenues, which went over 70% by the third week, proving that the film is appealing to a section of the mainstream," says Singh, adding that "Slumdog's" boxoffice run compares favorably to recent nonformulaic Indian releases like "Dev.D."

Mumbai-based banner UTV Motion Pictures claims "Dev.D" has collected about $2 million since its opening weekend this month. While UTVMP is a Bollywood powerhouse, via blockbuster hits like last year's historical epic "Jodhaa Akbar" which collected $30 million worldwide, CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur believes the industry has evolved to a level "where both edgy and formulaic fare can thrive." Through its specialty division, UTV Spotboy, the banner has recently tasted success with a string of such smaller independent movies as the terrorism drama "A Wednesday" and the low-budget heist film "Welcome To Sajjanpur," both of which saw grosses in the $4 million range.

Kapur notes that while lower-budget Indian films are increasingly faring well, their niche audience has discerning taste and needs a bit more prodding than your typical Bollywood moviegoer.

"These are script-driven stories devoid of superstars, which means audiences are willing to accept such films only if they are well-executed," Kapur says. "Most importantly, these films need to be marketed really strongly. We spend almost the same amount on prints and advertising as on the total cost of production" -- not huge by Hollywood standards because these films have an average production budget of less than $3 million.

Many Bollywood veterans are rooting for the indie films to succeed, especially if they can undercut the star system that had a stranglehold over Mumbai.

"The days of insecure filmmakers who don't even have a script and run after stars to guarantee a hit are over," Kashyap says.

Among other indie releases, FSS is hoping to hit paydirt once more with an adventurous film slate that includes the quirky "Quick Gun Murugan," a comic spoof in the vein of "Borat." Devoid of any major stars, "Quick Gun" revolves around a South Indian "karmic cowboy" who considers it his duty to protect cows. "Our slate reflects how Indian cinema is changing, including both experimental and mass appeal films, which proves Indian audiences are becoming (diversified)," Singh says.

With moviegoers and filmmakers ready for something new, "Dev.D" director Kashyap clearly relishes the possibility of more onscreen experimentation. That's the kind of experimentation that already helped has "Slumdog."

Kashyap reports that, as part of his research for "Slumdog," Boyle studied a selection of Indian films, most notably his own 2004 release "Black Friday," a thriller about the 1992 Mumbai terror attacks. The opening scenes of "Slumdog" show a group of slum kids being chased by cops through the teeming slums, with some shots similar to those in a chase scene in "Friday."

"Danny actually shot some of the scenes in the same location where I shot 'Black Friday,' " Kashyap marvels. "Creativity flows in both directions."