By Laya Maheshwari
(BBC) In India, a film can often face pre-release hurdles. The censors board may take umbrage with scenes in the film; certain social groups may unite to protest the on-screen depiction of their ilk; or a political party may force the producer to donate to the armed forces for daring to work with a Pakistani actor. Even in a long list of colourful controversies, the story of Bollywood romance Chori Chori Chupke Chupke stands out.
The film had been financed by Mumbai’s notorious mafia.
A few months before the release, in 2001, of this drama starring superstars Salman Khan, Preity Zinta and Rani Mukherjee, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seized the film’s prints and arrested two of its producers. The reason? The film had been financed by Mumbai’s notorious mafia.
It had been among India’s worst-kept secrets for a while that Bollywood, arguably the country’s most potent cultural export, was also an ugly venue for illicit financing and collaborations. Mafia figures would funnel their criminally-obtained funds into wholesome family entertainment, use threats to force industry heavyweights into working on their project (or delaying a competing release), and even attack film professionals if needed.
This was facilitated partly by the lack of ‘industry’ status for Bollywood in Indian law. Banks and other white-collar financial institutions wouldn’t lend to it; film-making in the country remained a largely insular, shady business. According to government intelligence, there was a time when about 60 per cent of Bollywood films were financed by the mafia. All of this changed in 2001, when Bollywood at last was legally deemed an industry; production in the world’s most prolific film-making country finally opened up to legitimate financial channels and partnerships.
Hollywood had been paying attention. Until then, Bollywood was famous for amusing musicals and infamous for brazen plagiarism. But now, the volume of its ticket sales (which routinely eclipsed those of Hollywood) and, more important, its rising global reach helped draw in Hollywood studios to either set up branches in India or partner with existing players. By 2008, Disney, Viacom, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures had all finalised deals for their India offerings. With their global expertise, these media behemoths heralded a new era of film-making in Bollywood: budgets could go higher, promotions could be more extensive and expensive, adaptations would be licensed instead of lifted, etc.
Things did not get off to a good start. The grand unveiling of this chapter was in 2007 with Sony’s Saawariya, an atmospheric and moody romance that was an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights. Saawariya was directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a maverick known for the opulence of his films but with a hit-or-miss commercial track record. The decisive factor turned out to be that Saawariya was to be released on the hypercompetitive Diwali weekend and clash with Om Shanti Om, a surefire blockbuster featuring the country’s leading superstar, Shah Rukh Khan. Not only was this bad decision-making in and of itself, no one at Sony saw a finished version of Saawariya until a few days before release. Once the internal screening ended, executives in the room knew they had a lumbering, occasionally stultifying drama on their hands that was the exact opposite of a festive weekend’s entertainment.
Saawariya tanked. Sony shut its India production arm soon after (to give us one of the saddest IMDb pages ever). Roadside Romeo, Disney’s first Indian title, an animated comedy co-produced with local behemoth Yash Raj Pictures, was released in 2008 and flopped miserably. Warner Bros didn’t fare better either; their first attempt, Chandni Chowk to China, a martial arts comedy, released in 2009 to largely empty theatres. Why was this grand experiment failing?
There were numerous reasons behind this – and art is by definition not science – but remembering the maxim ‘bigger is not always better’ is a good place to start. Film-making is a capricious industry, and Bollywood’s profitability is particularly dependent upon the whims of the Indian middle class. Foreign studios came in with a certain model of business that wasn’t necessarily germane to the Indian box-office, filled leadership roles with people who weren’t necessarily creatively perceptive in the circumstances, and deployed their financial largesse in a way that the Indian marketplace couldn’t support. The inflow of stratospheric amounts of money unleashed an arms race through acquisitions and fees and promotional budgets that simply wasn’t tenable in a country where the average multiplex ticket costs roughly $3 (£2.29).
This is not to say that the foreign studios uniformly failed while homegrown producers ruled the roost. There were expensive disasters on the latter’s side too. But domestic studios such as Yash Raj Pictures (which produced Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge) or Dharma Productions (which made Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham) still struck gold on numerous occasions, be it with launching industry-dominating talents, striking multiple-picture deals with promising directors or realising tried-and-tested formulas with panache.
Today, Warner Bros has shut its India production arm. Disney has also abandoned film production in the country. Ironically, after a string of flops, one of Disney’s last Indian productions was the 2016 wrestling drama Dangal, which made more than $300m (£229m) worldwide and is the highest-grossing Indian film ever. Dangal grossed twice as much in China as it did in India, perhaps the first global phenomenon from the country. Fox still survives but, tellingly, its savviest commercial move has been inking a 10-film deal with the aforementioned Dharma Productions.
As with anything related to the creative industry, these collaborations have not been a one-way street. Indian financiers are increasingly flexing their muscles to extend beyond the subcontinent’s shores in order to prop up US and British productions. The most prominent example of this is the Reliance Entertainment Group, which is a co-founder of and owns a 20% stake in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, which includes DreamWorks Pictures. In the eight years that Reliance and Spielberg have worked together, they have reaped the benefits of Academy Awards, with Lincoln, and endured through a horrendous misfire with The BFG. Despite moves such as this, the impact of Indian money on international film financing is still nowhere in the realm of that of Chinese production companies. Perhaps the biggest way in which Bollywood has begun to resemble Hollywood today is that both of them are the target of Chinese business interests.
However, there is something more fluid and arguably far-reaching than money: talent. No one can deny that Hollywood has a serious diversity problem, but the industry has indisputably made progress in the last few years. One upside to this development has been the increasing number of Indian faces and names in Western media. From Bollywood stars such as Deepika Padukone featuring in the latest XXX movie to actors such as Irrfan Khan amassing a varied filmography (A Mighty Heart, The Darjeeling Limited) to someone like Ali Fazal headlining an Oscar-bait drama such as Victoria & Abdul, Indian actors are more common and in the foreground today than ever before.
This is all before mentioning Priyanka Chopra, the most prominent Bollywood export today. When she’s not playing the larger-than-life antagonist in the Baywatch reboot, she’s starring in Quantico, her own show on ABC, now starting its third season. Chopra is also developing a sitcom for ABC on the life of a different Bollywood star, Madhuri Dixit. When it comes to Indian stories and presence, we have come a long way from Bend It Like Beckham being the only game in town.