How an American Screenwriter Broke Into Bollywood

Sri Rao - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of CAA

"They don’t call it an industry, they call it a film fraternity," says Sri Rao, who wrote 'Baar Baar Dekho,' of the traditionally closed nature of the Bollywood community.

Sri Rao grew up loving Bollywood films like the Romeo & Juliet-inspired Ek Duuje Ke Liye and the epic romance Umrao Jaan. But, as an American raised in suburban Pennsylvania, he never dreamed he’d be able to work in Bollywood.

Now the New York-based writer has done just that: He’s become the first American to pen a major Bollywood movie. Baar Baar Dekho (Look Again & Again), a time-traveling love story starring Katrina Kaif and Sidharth Malhotra, opens around the world in September. It’s already getting plenty of buzz: The first song from the film broke the record for most YouTube views in 24 hours for any Indian movie in history and the trailer was No. 1 on iTunes India just hours after it was released.

But it wasn’t an easy journey: the $2.32 billion Bollywood industry is an infamously closed community. “They don’t call it an industry, they call it a film fraternity,” says Rao, whose parents are from India. “The major directors, writers and actors all were born and raised in the industry.”

It took Rao years to break in. After working on General Hospital: Night Shift and producing Bollywood films, 2009’s New York and 2010’s Badmaa$h Company, he decided to write the script for Baar Baar Dekho. “I wanted to explore what happens after happily ever after,” says Rao of the story. “I was thinking about getting married myself at the time that I wrote the script, and I was curious about what my life with my husband was going to look like over the course of our lives together.”

He took the Hindi-language script to India in 2011, but was met with little interest. “The response that I got was that it’s a really interesting story, but it feels really American,” he says, adding that the time Bollywood was still very much shying away from anything that felt too “Hollywood.” But when his CAA agents shopped it around a couple years later, two of India’s biggest production studios, Excel Entertainment and Dharma Productions, signed on to produce it. 

But there were still hurdles: The Bollywood studios had never worked with an WGA writer before. “In India they have no concept of this idea that writers are represented by a union and that they have minimum wages and you have to pay them residuals, so it was something that they were just not interested in doing,” says Rao.

It took nearly a year for the WGA East, Rao and his agents to hammer out a deal. Plus, Bollywood writers are traditionally paid much lower rates for their work (between $15,000 and $25,000 for some of the biggest studio projects in India), so Rao’s agents had to also negotiate a rate that would be comparable to what writers make in the U.S. (a spec sale to a studio usually starts at about $100,000 and can go up to $1 million if  there’s a bidding war).

Rao, is returning to India in September for the premiere, says that his success in Bollywood is an indication that the industry is open to allowing more diverse stories as the country’s growing middle class and younger generation become more interested in Hollywood projects. “There’s a large population in India that are weaned on American films -- they’re watching Hollywood films in theaters and they’re watching Netflix and Amazon,” he says. “I think now there’s a desire from the major studios in India for a wider variety of ideas.”