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The Crossover Complex

The Crossover Complex

June 14, 2010

Why does a crossover hit continue to elude Bollywood? The answer is in the writing.

Ever since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon struck gold at the box office in 2000, foreign filmmakers have been yearning for the level of “crossover” success achieved by Ang Lee’s Chinese language martial arts epic.

A rare commercial and critical hit, the film grossed roughly US$213 million worldwide and garnered four Academy Awards amongst an impressive tally of seventy three award wins and ninety one nominations. Not bad for a film reputedly made on a budget of a mere $17 million.

At the front of the crossover queue has undoubtedly been the India’s Hindi film industry (read Bollywood). Whether they care to admit it or not, Bollywood’s top filmmaking and acting talent have been desperate to make flashy Hollywood standard entertainers in an attempt to increase their exposure and appeal to new and wider audiences – and more recently their western peers. Why else would we see the likes of Shah Rukh popping up at the Golden Globes or Aishwarya Rai strutting down the red carpet at Cannes?

But trying to replicate a Crouching Tiger style crossover hit in which non Asian cinema audiences sit up, take notice and buy a ticket to a Bollywood musical has proven elusive. A decade on, despite averaging impressive opening weekend figures, films like Kites, My Name Is Khan and 3 Idiots and have failed to capture non-NRI audiences to any great extent.

The Khans, Bachchans, Kapoors and Roshans may get top billing in Asia, the Middle East and some parts of Africa, but when it comes to the western hemisphere, you’d be hard pushed to find a non-brown face who can recognise and name one of their films, unlike say Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat.

Why is this?

It’s not as though Indian filmmakers don’t have the budget, technology or know how at their disposal. And they certainly don’t lack the determination. What it comes down to is Bollywood’s inability to identify and appreciate something far simpler, and dare I say obvious - a good story.

I recently interviewed veteran Indian actor Om Puri who highlighted the lack of good scripts as the main reason he has become disillusioned with Indian cinema and sought work in the west. According to Puri, international films, particularly British and Hollywood, offer actors like him far more challenging and interesting roles as their stories tend to be more original and have a universal appeal. Anupam Kher, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan and Naseeruddin Shah all say the same.

Puri blames Bollywood for downgrading the role of the screenwriter and ignoring the vast treasure of Indian literature, history, social, political and cultural events from which filmmakers fail to take inspiration. Instead they opt for the easy route of rehashing classics or Hollywood hits.

But story isn’t the only stumbling block when it comes to Indian cinema reaching more diverse audiences. It’s the approach taken by many Indian filmmakers that also hinders progress. The current craze for action packed, special effects laden, glossy MTV pop video style rom-coms have failed to inspire western audiences. Hrithik Roshan flexing his bronzed muscles and wooing a Latino girl while being chased by gun toting baddies may wow the Indian masses, but it’s nothing new for us westerners. We saw Hollywood go through all that in the 90s.

Even when distracting songs are omitted in an attempt to shorten duration, and Hindi dialogues replaced with English (as seen in the new Remix version of Hrithik Roshan starrer Kites) these crossover attempts have failed to entice western audiences. They simply can’t relate to the melodramatic, escapist, camp fare us Indians have grown up watching.

Ask any film expert or critic how Indian cinema can be made more alluring to the western palette, and they will say the same thing. Indian filmmakers should stop pandering to the west and go back to basics. The modern breed of writers and directors need to create authentic, compelling movies the way the masters used to in the golden era of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s - a period when filmmakers had real stories to tell and when actors were interested in their craft, not commercial endorsements. A time when songs moved a story along, not provide a handy opportunity for foreign tourist boards and fashion labels to advertise their wares.

One of the reasons Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish or Brazilian films continue to impress and succeed on the international stage can be attributed to the fact that these industries aren’t as bothered about impressing foreigners – it’s the domestic audience that is their main concern. Somewhere in the mid 90s, Indian filmmakers started shaping their entertainers to appeal to the affluent NRI communities in the west and to this day continue to make films they think we want to see.

What many NRIs and westerner consumers like me actually want to see is intelligent, well crafted films with something new and entertaining to say about India past and present. The only films that have come anywhere close to that in recent years have been Lagaan, Iqbal, Dev D, Firaaq and Ishqiya amongst a handful of other small independent gems. Sadly these types of films (barring Lagaan) tend to get overlooked by distributers outside of India and ignored when it comes to representing India on an international stage.

Hollywood maybe joining forces with Bollywood on economic terms, but on a creative level the two industries remain oceans apart. A few years ago a Hollywood-Bollywood co-production like Salman Khan’s Marigold or Akshay Kumar’s Chandni Chowk To China may have seemed like a good idea, but their failure to capture the hearts of Indian and non-Indians has led to a back track. According to renowned movie mogul Ashok Amritraj, considered India’s Ambassador in Hollywood, “crossover” has become a dirty word.


  • James
    05.05.12 07:25 AM
    Bollywood sucks honestly. It's even losing appeal in South Asia now. Here in Bangladesh no one has that spark to watch Bollywood anymore. People have found other much better alternatives.
  • Bollywood
    02.04.11 01:48 AM
    and shahrukh khan didnt show up to the Golden Globes for the heck of it ot for publicity. He doesnt need it. He was invited by the organizers because he was shooting for My Name is Khan in LA and San Francisco. Same goes for Aishwariya she is invited every year because of her success.
  • Bollywood
    02.04.11 01:45 AM
    u just a dumbass who doesnt know shit, it not onlly bollywood trying to do crossover films its hollywood and slumdog is the perfect examples, a hollywood director wanted to be invloved in kites because he loved the movie, he didnt even take money for it. Hollywood directors have approached Shahrukh khan, hrithik, akshay, aamir, salman, they didnt approach hollywood film makers. Their talent speaks for them so dont go around spreading bullshit, being indian and putting down the indian film industry you should be ashamed.
  • Krunal Dave
    Krunal Dave
    23.08.10 09:54 AM
    Really good article.

    It makes sense that Bollywood should stick to the originality as it used to be in the eras from 40s to 80s.

    According to me, the core problem of the Bollywood is SCRIPTS. I still don't get why majority of the Directors are not coming-up with original ideas. However, I think there are 20-25% directors who try to make a brand new and fresh films such as Nagesh Kukunoor (Iqbal), all time great Shyam Benegal (Welcome to Sajjanpur) and Anurag Kashyap (Dev.D, Black Friday)

    Bollywood has got beyond mastery with cinematography, special effects, sound editing and direction. But one thing is seriously missing, that is original screenplay. That's the reason producers are not paying big money to writers. That's really sad because writers are the most creative part of the movie.
  • Jassi
    20.08.10 06:21 PM
    I completely agree with you there Chirag. Until writers are given the respect and freedom they deserve, Hindi film producers will continue to churn out the same old storylines to suit their own commercial requirements. Indian and NRI audiences have moved on but I think its the filmmakers who are finding it hard to let go of old formulas.
  • chirag shah
    chirag shah
    19.08.10 05:40 PM
    Do you know how writers are treated in bollywood? Like complete SH*T....They get paid very less even compared to technicians...Writing is seriously not considered very important in bollywood and that's why most people don't choose a profession in screenwriting. The thing is that there are probably many talented writers in the country but they don't get a chance to prove their worth since producers are obsessed with stars, foreign location, songs, etc. so they create some stupid story that could include all those elements. I'm a struggling writer in India and pitching an idea to a producer is so painful... They don't even listen of your story is original. So how can bollywood grow if the producers are against unique stories and different narrative techniques?
  • Shai Hussain
    Shai Hussain
    15.06.10 04:31 AM
    Good points Jas. Don't think it's the writers getting it all wrong. From my short experience of working in the industry, it's the star power of actors, who attempt to beef up their roles by changing the script, and unfocussed producers who ruin what might have probably been genuinely strong screenplays.

    There's a new type of masala flick - extended MTV music videos with handsome heroes, sexy heroines, explosive action sequences and romantic love stories. This would be fine if the heroes and heroines seemed a little more human (Dil Chahta Hain), the love stories were a bit more believable (DDLJ) and the action scenes were more plausible (I'm pretty stumped on this one for Bollywood.... otherwise Bourne?.)

    Generally, the golden rule of great screenwriting is to make the viewer get so immersed in the experience that they forget they're even watching a film. Yes, it is possible to do that even with Bollywood songs, which can even strengthen the film (most Yash Chopra films) but you can't just include some sexy music vid in the middle of some romantic flick which just puts everything off kilter (e.g. Fiza).

    I could go on about this forever, so I'll just stop. But great work Jas!
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    Jayanth Tadinada
    14.06.10 10:17 PM
    Totally agree... we people in India sometimes feel alienated looking at the pretentious NRI things that are constantly shown in the movies... No one relates to it anyways... All we can do is punish the bad movies and hope that the film makers will learn their lesson...
  • Lakshmi Rajan
    Lakshmi Rajan
    14.06.10 05:58 PM
    Bollywood believes in gloss n glamor plus star power but fails to understand that script is the vital ingredient for cross over success. They try to match hollywood technically but if the sould (script) is not there it goes down the drain...

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