How Hollywood Is Finally Finding Success at the Indian Box Office

Illustration by Dan Woodger

U.S. studios are seeing success by pivoting away from conventional Bollywood spectacles to making films with diverse, socially engaged subjects: "The idea is not to play safe, but to play smart"

After more than a decade of trial and error in the Indian film sector, Hollywood studios are finally beginning to find their groove. And their success is coming from a rather unexpected slice of the market: diverse and offbeat stories, rather than the standard Bollywood tentpole.

The Indian box office made a roaring start to 2018 with the release of the Viacom period epic Padmaavat, a project that spurred protests for its controversial depiction of an historic Indian queen but nonetheless went on to earn about $46 million (3 billion rupees). Soon after, Sony Pictures rebooted its Indian slate with the offbeat dramedy PadMan, a film about female hygiene issues featuring local superstar Akshay Kumar that brought in an estimated $12 million (810 million rupees). Sony’s latest, which opened May 4, is the similarly unconventional father-son comedy 102 Not Out, starring Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan as a centenarian and Rishi Kapoor as his 75-year-old son.

Ajit Andhare, COO of local outfit Viacom18 Motion Pictures, says the studio has found its footing by working with top talent to create socially relevant films, resulting in a “marriage of critical and commercial success.”

The company’s 2017 release, family comedy Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, also starred Kumar and focused on the improvement of sanitation conditions in rural India as a means of bettering women’s lives. And its next title, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, is the biopic Manto, directed by actress Nandita Das and based on the late author and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto, who challenged the status quo with his controversial writings in the 1940s. Although it’s a period film, Andhare says Manto “is very reflective of what is going on in society today” and that the studio expects it to resonate broadly.

The diverse, socially engaged subjects of these films are in sharp contrast to Hollywood’s initial, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts in India. In 2007, Sony became the first Hollywood studio to produce a Bollywood movie, the romantic musical Saawariya. Warner Bros. followed suit with the comedy Chandni Chowk to China (2009). Both films were conventional Bollywood spectacles but were critical and commercial disappointments, which led Warners and Sony to scale back plans for further local productions, though both still distributed the occasional local title.

The allure of the large Indian market eventually drew other big players into the game, such as Fox Star Studios, which made a splash with My Name Is Khan (2010), toplined by superstar Shah Rukh Khan, while other hits included last year’s romantic drama Badrinath Ki Dulhania. In 2012, Disney made up for lost time by acquiring a controlling stake in Indian entertainment major UTV, which runs TV broadcasting, film and other media businesses. Viacom launched its Indian film unit in 2008 and tasted early success with Singh Is Kinng and the two-part epic drama Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), which premiered at Cannes.

“The market has matured into a sensibility that accepts different kinds of content,” says Jehil Thakkar, a consultant at Deloitte India. “You may still have the formulaic blockbusters, but you also have more script-driven films, and this is a sensibility that the Hollywood studios are more comfortable with — as are filmmakers in India.”

Adds Vivek Krishnani, managing director of Sony Pictures India: “There is more diverse content and a larger amount of risk-taking. The idea is not to play safe, but to play smart.”

The need to go local stems from the fact that India is one of the few major territories in the world where imported Hollywood films claim a small minority share of the market — about 13 percent — while local fare dominates the box office. It’s not just Hindi-language Bollywood that holds Hollywood at bay, but also the robust regional sub-industries churning out films in Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and other languages that draw big crowds.

In 2017, India's film ticket revenue totaled $1.47 billion (96.3 billion rupees), up from $1.30 billion (85.6 billion rupees) in 2016, according to Ernst & Young India. Hollywood films released theatrically last year in India earned $122 million (8.01 billion rupees), a modest year-over-year improvement from $121 million (7.95 billion rupees).

But over the longer term, there has been an undeniable upswing. Analysts estimate that Hollywood films claimed a market share of just 8 percent a decade ago. The dubbing of major tentpoles into various local languages in recent years has helped films like The Jungle Book and Marvel titles achieve previously impossible local performances.

The renewed focus on local production also has seen the U.S. studios mining their libraries to broaden their slates with remakes co-produced with local partners. In what is being seen as a comeback for the studio, Warner Bros. has announced a Bollywood remake of Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed by Martin Scorsese) to be co-produced with Mumbai-based banner Azure Entertainment. Fox Star Studios India has a remake of The Fault in Our Stars in production. And even before opening its Mumbai office this year, Lionsgate had co-produced Brothers (2015), a Bollywood remake of the Tom Hardy-starrer Warrior.

The trend of official remakes is replacing the much lamented local industry practice of producing plagiarized rip-offs of overseas films. “The Hollywood studios bring the material, and we have the ability to develop it for the local market,” notes Sunir Kheterpal, founder and CEO of Azure Entertainment. He predicts that collaborations “are here to stay and will become stronger — not only between international and Indian studios, but also within the local industry.”