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.