by Cheryl Bentsen

Don’t Call It Bollywood: IT in India’s Film Industry

Dec 01, 20006 mins

When I asked the concierge for a taxi to go interview film director Subhash Ghai at his studio in Mumbai, he sized me up with new respect and summoned a Mercedes instead of the usual Fiat. “Mr. Ghai is the greatest showman in Bollywood,” he says. “And he is clean!” This was not a reference to hygiene; India’s $1.3 billion movie industry is notoriously riddled with mob interests.

But with Mukta Arts, India’s first publicly held movie production studio, Ghai is aiming for corporate respectability. He hopes to capitalize on what many see as India’s almost unlimited potential to provide competitively priced, quality content, animation and special effects for the IT-driven entertainment world. “No one could miss the importance of content in the America- Online-Time-Warner deal,” he told me. “This is where IT meets the movies.”

Last year, for the first time, the Indian government—anticipating software and content opportunities in the convergence of the Internet, communications and entertainment industries—the “ice age,” Indians call it—recognized the movie business as a legitimate industry, qualifying the studios for bank loans and tax breaks. Since April, videos, like computer software, are exempt from export taxes.

India is already the globe’s largest producer of films, annually cranking out some 800 titles. Exports earned $100 million last year, a tenfold increase since 1990. This year’s earnings are estimated at $250 million. Management consultant Arthur Andersen predicts Indian exports will expand by at least 50 percent each year, earning around $3 billion by 2006.

India’s IT software and engineering savvy is spilling into India’s fast-growing reputation as an outsourcing center for high-quality, low-cost animation and special effects. (Indian companies typically charge 75 percent less than U.S. companies.) India’s Pentamedia Graphics did the 3-D animation for the U.S. film Sinbad and will do the same for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The company also has deals in France and Japan. Arthur Andersen forecasts that Indian animation exports alone will reach $2 billion in 2003.

The evening we talked, Ghai was working late in a recording studio dubbing a film score. The equipment was impressive—the Fairlight MFX-3 Plus-equipped digital audio workstation is the first of its kind in India. But the building had no air conditioning and was located at the end of a rutted, unpaved road. Mopping sweat from his brow, 57-year-old Ghai took a break and described his plans to expand his setup at nearby Filmcity (a Bollywood production center) into a Hollywood-style studio with state-of-the-art production and post-production facilities for features, advertising, TV films and serials. Some 2.3 million Indians work in the movie business, including technicians, engineers and animators. Employment is expected to grow 70 percent in the next five years.

Ghai is also building a software library with the purchase of video, cable and satellite rights to a dozen movies. “We expect the Internet to come through TV in India,” he says. “And the domestic demand for content—films, serials, interactive programming—will be enormous.”

An astute businessman with an eye on popular taste, Ghai winced when I referred to Bombay’s movie industry as Bollywood. “The BBC invented the term about 10 years ago, as if we were aping Hollywood,” he says. “It is scoffing, somehow demeaning. You’ve seen what India has done with IT. We’ll make the same leap with Indian cinema. Our boys are very interested in webcast, interactive TV, animation.”

Of Ghai’s 14 films, the most successful was the blockbuster musical Taal (“Rhythm”), starring a former Miss World. The story: A billionaire’s son falls for a plucky village girl who sings her way to the top of the pop charts. In one of the strongest debuts ever for a Hindi film in the United States, Taal grossed $788,000 from 44 venues the weekend it opened in 1999 and was ranked 20th on Variety’s box office charts. The record for Indian exports is Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (“Something Happens”), which has earned $23 million since 1998.

They Are the World

Across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Japan, the United States, Fiji and even in Russia, Indian movies have become a potent box office draw. The growth in exports is partly fueled by India’s diaspora. Some 20 million Indians live abroad. United States-based Indians take their kids to Indian movies to reinforce cultural values. Weak on plot, the movies promote respect for seniors and the benefits of arranged marriages. Two satellite channels based in England and the Arab Gulf—Eros International and B4U (Bollywood For You)—offer nothing but Indian movies.

“Cinema in India is largely escapism,” says Pritish Nandy, a writer, TV producer and media personality who is also a member of India’s parliament. “It is all about what you want life to be—candy floss, larger-than-life heroes, gorgeous heroines. It is not about real people, real things, but that is India.”

A Fistful of Rupees

With new funding opportunities, such as the stock market, Ghai believes the industry will overcome its gangster rep. Since going public in July, his Mukta Arts studio has listed at a premium on both the Bombay and National Stock exchanges. “Mukta got the response it did in the capital markets because we’ve had a clean record for 21 years,” he says.

Still, the work is hazardous. Extortion plots are so common that top directors employ bodyguards. Last year one of India’s major film producers, Raksh Roshan, was shot and wounded outside his Mumbai office after refusing to give a gangster overseas distribution rights. At least two other producers have been murdered since 1997, and many more have survived attacks.

For Indians deeply preoccupied with movie culture, the kidnapping in July of film icon Rajkumar, a star of more than 200 movies, was shattering. The 72-year-old actor—India’s answer to John Wayne—was watching TV with his wife and valet at his remote farm, 140 miles south of India’s high-tech capital, Bangalore, when the notorious jungle bandit Koose Muniswamy Veerappan and a dozen men in combat fatigues burst into Rajkumar’s living room brandishing AK-47s and whisked the actor off to a forest hideaway.

Veerappan, who has eluded authorities for 15 years and twice escaped captivity, is India’s most wanted outlaw. In early October, as Veerappan’s demand for the release of 51 jailed allies was still unmet (India’s Supreme Court barred their release), the actor’s whereabouts and fate were still unknown. And the best source of information about the case was, naturally, the Internet.