As rupees roll into Hollywood, India is opening up on all fronts

If you're looking for proof that globalization is transforming the international film business, look no further than Bollywood.

Whether it's Mexican actress Barbara Mori starring alongside top Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan in the upcoming "Kites"; Indian money co-financing Hollywood productions like the recent $10 million David Duchovny-Demi Moore starrer "The Joneses"; or Reliance Big Entertainment's production deals with such A-listers as Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney--the world's biggest film industry is engaging with the West in ways never seen before.

In the year since RBE chipped in about $325 million for its partnership deal with DreamWorks, Hollywood studios have been aggressively expanding an India presence that began with Sony's 2007 release "Saawariya," the first Hollywood-produced Bollywood film. That paved the way for Warner Bros., Disney and recently Fox to unveil their own India co-productions, including 2008's animated comedy "Roadside Romeo," a Disney co-production with iconic Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films, and Fox Star Studios' upcoming "DumMaroDum," co-produced with Ramesh Sippy Entertainment.

While there have been more misses than hits from the studios in India, Hollywood is clearly adopting a long-term view of this potentially lucrative market.

"The studios' India entry cannot be judged on boxoffice performance alone since they first wanted to announce their presence, test the market and build their brands," says Pricewaterhouse Coopers India entertainment analyst Smita Jha. "It was more of a qualitative approach."

"My Name is Kahn"

Certainly, from a quantitative point of view, outsiders' presence in India is relatively small. Total revenue for non-Indian film in this country was a mere $108 million last year, according to a recent report, "Economic Contribution of Indian Film and TV Industry," prepared by PwC India for the MPA's India office. Compare that with an estimated $2.7 billion in total revenue from production, distribution and exhibition for the entire Indian film industry.

Even "Avatar" made only $22.4 million in India, a startlingly low figure but the highest gross for any Hollywood movie released in India in 2009. (The second highest was "2012"with about $20 million.)

But dispiriting as those numbers might be, they also show how much room there is for growth here from the point of view of the U.S. studios, which not only have long-term plans for local production but are also tasting success with dubbed U.S. releases.

Fox Star Studios' debut Bollywood production, the February release "My Name Is Khan," is an encouraging early case study, with FSS reporting that the film is the highest-grossing India title overseas so far, collecting $17.6million globally, while the India take was $23.1million. (The most successful Indian film of all time, 2009's "3 Idiots," earned $16 million overseas, while its India take was $74.5million.)

"Khan" revolves around the impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on a San Francisco-based Indian Muslim who embarks on a journey across the U.S. to meet President Obama just to tell him "My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist."

" 'Khan' has been the most successful Indian film in the U.K. (collecting $4.2 million) andespecially the Middle East ($4.1 million), where we targeted mainstream audiences, given (star) Shah Rukh Khan's appeal," FSS India CEO Vijay Singh says. "For the first time, an Indian film had a day-and-date release in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, thanks to Fox International (the film's overseas distributor)."

FSS is now launching its second marketing phase for an edited version of "Khan," dubbed into English and other languages, to be rolled out fromApril to July in 20 countries, including Poland, France, Italy and Germany.

"What 'Khan' has shown is that content-based marketing strategies, especially to reach nontraditional markets, can be implemented better by Hollywood studios, given their global reach," PwC's Jha adds.

The potential for an Indian title to set new records overseas was equally demonstrated by the Reliance-distributed "3 Idiots," which became the highest grossing Hindi film in North America in December, collecting $6.5million.

Industry members here are now waiting to see the potential crossover gamble "Kites," produced by veteran filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and directed by Anurag Basu. Roshan showed the film--which will be distributed worldwide by Reliance in May--to "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner who, Roshan says, "liked the film and offered to reedit it and remove the songs for mainstream (U.S.) audiences. He feels 'Kites' could do for Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori what 'Rush Hour' did for Jackie Chan." Ratner already has ties to Bollywood through a financing deal with Reliance that includes three upcoming Hollywood projects at various stages of production.

Financed by Roshan's veteran banner Filmkraft, the $20 million "Kites" was shot entirely in the U.S. and was designed to have cross-cultural appeal from the outset. "The film's message is that love has no language," Roshan says. "So you have a Mexican girl who doesn't know English falling in love with an Indian boy in the U.S.who speaks English and Hindi."

In a first of sorts, "Kites" will see a dual release of its English and Indian versions, with the English edition receiving a special edit instead of merely being dubbed. "Regardless of how the film performs, with 'Kites' I have pioneered a new kind of Indian cinema with global ambitions," Roshan says.

Those global ambitions ultimately will be tested by the appeal of some of India's stars.

"Slumdog Millionaire's" Freida Pinto has already become an international celebrity, while costar Anil Kapoor has signed with ICM and the movie's Irrfan Khan has signed with Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Kapoor recently appeared on Fox's "24," and Khan will feature in the upcoming season of HBO's "In Treatment."

Globalization of the Indian film sector will likely continue to evolve--as long as Hollywood is a willing participant. And, as Steven Spielberg indicated when Reliance announced its partnership with DreamWorks, he for one is onboard.

In a conference call with Indian media, he urged Reliance chairman Anil Ambani "to introduce me to the writers and directors of the Indian film industry. For our projects, I will not exclude or preclude any story idea, either set in India or otherwise."

Crucially, he added, "The stories should have the potential for a global audience."