Bollywood Oscars 2008
BANGKOK, June 8, 2008 - In this year's Bollywood film "Bombay to Bangkok," an Indian man tries to woo a Thai woman even though they speak different languages.
That's much the plot of this weekend's "Bollywood Oscars," as the International Indian Film Academy holds its annual awards in Bangkok, hoping to bridge the cultural divide and expand its 2.3-billion-dollar industry.
As Indian studios form partnerships in Hollywood and the competitive east Asian markets, industry experts say filmmakers are trying to balance Bollywood's individuality with the tastes of global audiences.
"It's about how well do these Indians move out of their comfort zones and take some risks?" said Rajinder Dudrah, a scholar of Indian cinema at the University of Manchester.
"Bollywood is becoming internationally savvy and these potentially untapped audiences could transfer into box office returns."
With a population of about 1.1 billion and some of the world's lowest movie ticket prices, India already has the planet's largest film-going audience.
The Indian film industry grew 14 percent last year to 2.3 billion dollars, with international markets contributing nine percent. That's still a small fraction of what Hollywood earns, but PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the Indian film industry's value will nearly double by 2012.
"Bollywood has undergone a change with a lot of big-budget, Hollywood-type movies with modern themes," said Amita Sarkar, director of the Federation of India Chambers of Commerce and Industry's entertainment division.
The keys to growth will be merchandising and international growth, Sarkar said.
Bollywood has long tried to reach beyond its borders. The International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards were launched in London in 2000 as an international marketing tool for A-list studios and talent.
After the first show, Hindi cinema ticket sales grew 35 percent in Britain over the following six months, according to the IIFA.
The gala travels to a different city every year to increase exposure. In Bangkok, the awards are moving into a country that tends to prefer local films, Hollywood blockbusters, or Korean dramas.
At the Friday premier of "Sarkar Raj" -- a film filled with blood, shadows, deep drum beats but no dance routines -- actress Sophie Chaudhary said the awards show the world there's more to Bollywood than melodrama.
"Our films are changing. We've got films without songs, believe it or not, we've got thrillers, we've got drama, we've got really trendy films," Chaudhary said.
Despite the pomp this weekend, Indian films still struggle for international recognition -- only three have ever been nominated for a best foreign film Oscars, and they've never quite made it into the top tier at Cannes.
Still, some Indian choreographers are making headway in places like China, and studios are shooting films all over the world and breaking into Western genres.
A handful of deals trickling in from Hollywood companies like Fox Searchlight and Disney are generating a buzz.
UTV Motion Pictures is shooting its first solo Hollywood film, "Ex-terminators," with stars Heather Graham and Jennifer Coolidge.
"It's seeing how far we can go. We don't really want to rush into it because we're still getting familiar with the mainstream audience," the company's CEO Siddharth Kapur said.
"What has maybe held us back is the length of our movies and our grammar -- the song and dance -- but if we change our style, we take away what makes us unique."
The structure of the industry also needs work, Dudrah said.
The Indian government only officially recognised film as an industry in 2001, and studios are still shaking off the lingering red tape, taxes and rumours of black market financing.
Dudrah said the A-listers have adopted global standards, but independent producers need to boost efficiency and visibility.
"Indian cinema works almost in Caribbean time: 'Yeah, relax, we'll be casual. We'll fix that later,'" Dudrah said. "There's still a shoddiness that makes international producers ask if they want to be a part of this."
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