Indian film cashes in on creative risk

Report predicts Indian film biz will hit $4.4 billion by 2012

NEW DELHI -- Women's hockey and a romance between a 60-something chef and a woman half his age are not the usual recipes for boxoffice success in India. But last year, these were precisely the films that won the hearts of critics and audiences alike.

Produced by Yash Raj Films, "Chak De! India" (Come On! India) featured superstar Shahrukh Khan as a women's hockey coach. In "Cheeni Kum" (Less Sugar), Amitabh Bachchan played the eccentric chef who falls for a 30-something woman (Tabu).

The fact that these unconventional films featured top talent shows that the industry is opening up to filmmakers willing to push the creative envelope.

Business is booming commercially as well. In 2007, the film industry reached the $2.4 billion mark, growing 14% over 2006, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers India and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The report also predicts that the film business will hit the $4.4 billion mark by 2012, at a compound annual growth rate of 13%. Burgeoning international interest by Hollywood majors such as Sony, which unveiled its Bollywood debut "Saawariya" (Beloved) last year, Warner Bros., Disney and Fox will inevitably fuel some of this growth.

"There is a lot of money floating around, and this can be both good and bad for the business," says Rajeev Masand, CNN-IBN film critic and entertainment editor. "Demand for the handful of top stars is skyrocketing and so are their prices, which could (undermine) the viability of the business. On the other hand, there are hordes of newcomers waiting for a break, but there aren't many financiers who can take creative risks."

Screenwriter Jaideep Sahni got his lucky break with the 2006 comedy "Khosla Ka Ghosla" (Khosla's Nest), starring veteran actor Anupam Kher as the head of a middle-class Delhi family at odds with the land mafia. "When I was pitching my script for 'Khosla,' potential producers wanted to know if the story could include 'masala' (spicy) Bollywood elements, such as a glamorous song, to make the film more salable," says Sahni, who also wrote "Chak De!"

More established names are also taking risks with tricky subject matter. UTV Motion Pictures' "Jodhaa Akbar," a $10 million film by Oscar-nominated director Ashutosh Gowariker, posed a major risk given that historical films haven't worked here for a long time. Some states issued temporary bans as protesters challenged the historical accuracy of the story of 16th-century Mughal Emperor Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) and his Hindu Rajput wife, Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai). But "Akbar" went on to gross three times its budget worldwide and won a court ruling to lift the state bans, though the film didn't open in the western state of Rajasthan.

While UTV offers mainstream Bollywood fare such as 2007's football caper "Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal" and risks like "Khosla," it recently launched a separate banner, Spotboy Motion Pictures, which is planning a slate of low-budget projects. "Our idea is to offer a variety of films, be it big-budget Bollywood or opportunities to work with new talent, which is what Spotboy is doing," says UTV CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur. "This is not to say that Spotboy won't produce a big production if there is a creative fit."

Sometimes creative surprises can emerge from unexpected quarters, as was the case with 2007's "Khuda Ke Liye" (In the Name of God), which, this April, became the first film from Pakistan to get an official release in India and featured Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah. Despite a common cultural bond, Pakistan's struggling film industry has never had strong product to offer here, while Indian films have been officially banned there for four decades. But Pakistan is slowly allowing Indian films to be released there, as seen in recent titles like "Race" and "Goal." Furthermore, well-known Indian actress and 2005 Cannes jurist Nandita Das will be seen in the upcoming "Ramchand Pakistani," by Karachi-based director Mehreen Jabbar. Following the impact of "Khuda," its director, Shoaib Mansoor, says he is "getting strong offers from

Indian producers," a reaffirmation that creativity does transcend borders.

Still, observers feel that Indian films have a long way to go before making creative inroads on a global level. "To give you an example: Despite all the hype, India hasn't made a significant impact at Cannes recently," says Masand, pointing to the 2002 Out of Competition screening of the romantic musical "Devdas" as an exception. In February, its director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, made "Padmavati," an adaptation of French composer Albert Roussel's opera inspired by his visit to India in the 1920s.

One roadblock to India exerting international creative influence is its insufficient number of film schools. Existing academies like the government-backed Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune (near Mumbai) is in need of a makeover. This prompted one of Bollywood's most successful filmmakers and FTII graduate Subhash Ghai to establish a private academy, Whistling Woods International, in Mumbai. The school has international affiliations with Australia's Deakin University, the Norwegian Film Institute and Canada's Seneca College, among others.

Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj has also done his part in promoting new talent with his reality show "Gateway to Hollywood," broadcast on Sony Entertainment Television's PIX channel. Filmed at Whistling Woods, the show features selected Indian contestants competing for the chance to direct a film for Amritraj's Hyde Park Entertainment. "I don't know if Indian films can cross over, but I am confident that Indian talent can," Amritraj says.

But looking ahead, this year's slate seems to indicate that big-budget formula films are still a safer bet, given the trend for slick action capers such as UTV's "Race" and Yash Raj's "Tashan" (Attitude). Eros Entertainment, the first Indian company to list on London's AIM exchange, is prepping two special effects fantasy outings, "Drona" and "Aladin," as part of its 35-film slate. Similarly, Adlabs Films, owned by Mumbai-based Reliance Big Entertainment, will offer the sci-fi romance "Love Story 2050," starring Priyanka Chopra, and the comedy caper "Singh Is Kinng," starring superstar Akshay Kumar.