India was until recently considered to be one market that was holding fast against the global (and old) onslaught of Hollywood cinema. Not that American movies were not popular there, but they were still not able to claim top spots in competition with domestic productions. Last year, however, witnessed a breakthrough – or at least some flux in the market. One financial benchmark used in India of establishing whether a movie is a hit is checking whether it has joined the “100 crore club,” that is, whether it grossed more than 100 crore rupees. Since a “crore” is 10 million, the benchmark can be readily translated as the “billion rupees club” (a billion rupees being just less than $15 million). Last year, that club’s new members included, among others, Fast and Furious 7 and Jurassic World.
This was recently the topic of a discussion between famed Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan and Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. “Thankfully, unless they have six songs in the films, they’re not competing with us” – King Khan said (half?) jokingly about Hollywood movies – “which I’m sure is not going to happen.” But he quickly added that there are indeed concerns about Hollywood movies overtaking Indian productions. A general question, therefore, is whether a movie’s success would be enhanced by “Indianizing” it – in terms of cast, in terms of content, such as Indian landscape or an Indian actor, or in terms of method, such as adding a song or making it similar to a masala genre – or rather if it is instead better off retaining its “Hollywood” character (however that is defined) and marketing it as such. In another words: Is the Indian audience attracted to a movie because it partially caters to Indian tastes or because it gives them a taste of something different?
In China, for example, the strategy of some producers has been to shoot part of the movie in China. That was at least the case for Transformers: Age of Extinction. However, while India and China are the world’s two most populous countries and the Indians are a nation of voracious cinema-goers, the Chinese market is much more important for Hollywood revenues than the Indian one is, so the comparison may be of limited use. In recent years the China grosses of works such as Avatar or Furious 7 were several times greater in China than they were in India. Recent films that have featured Indian landscapes, even when it wasn’t really that necessary for the story were The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Supremacy and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In most other cases, India was integral to the story, as in Jobs (and in Zero Dark Thirty locations in India stood in for Pakistani cities).
Another option may be to rope in an Indian star. According to gossip, a famous Indian actress was considered for a role in Fast and Furious 7 and now the same is being said about the eighth installment of the franchise, which may include Deepika Padukone. Eventually, Furious 7 did have Ali Fazal, though not in a leading role. Yet Indian movie stars are gradually making headway into American cinema, as well as television. Anil Kapoor appeared in 24 and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Priyanka Chopra plays one of the leading characters in Quantico and is expected to appear in Baywatch. In the same interview Shahrukh Khan made reference to Quentin Tarantino’s remark that “the reason for […] local movies to survive is stardom. […] it’s like watching a football match. You want to see stars. […] So I think as long as the star system is retained in this country, it will be sometime before international cinema takes it.” By that logic, including an Indian star in the leading cast of a Hollywood production should help it to gain new ground in India. On the other hand, however, Khan also notices the growing popularity of foreign actors in India. Ali Fazal is more dismissive: “Tom Cruise can’t come and replace Salman bhai [Salman Khan, another major Bollywood star]. He will be welcomed if he does a cameo in Dabangg” [one of Salman Khan’s blockbusters].
It is often said that everything that comes to settle in India must become at least partially Indianized. Like the tea that is usually consumed with spices and boiled in milk. On the other hand, don’t we sometimes go to a foreign restaurant to eat something exotic? Foreign movies don’t “settle” in India – they are a pastime, not routine. Moreover, trying to make an “Indian” movie means going up against similar Indian genres which the local audiences watch anyway (and presumably have more of than they need). The above list of the most successful American movies in India in 2015 does not prove that the films with “Indian” accents fare better. Those on top were typical Hollywood blockbusters. Similarly, if IMDB’s list is to be trusted, the highest grossing American productions in India to date have been: 1. Fast and Furious 7; 2. Avatar; 3. Jurassic World; 4. Avengers: Age of Ultron; 5. Spider-Man 3; 6. 2012; 7. The Amazing Spider-Man; 8. Amazing Spider-Man 2; 9. Life of Pi and 10. Titanic. Apart from Life of Pi (and noting the origins of the name Avatar), I don’t see anything particularly “Indian” about these films.
The recent Hollywood hits in India were adapted to Indian realities in a much simpler way that had nothing to do with the movie as such: They were dubbed in more than one Indian language. An Indian middle-class audience is expected to be sufficiently competent in English to be able to follow the story with no support. For instance, the particular Star Wars: The Force Awakens show that I watched in Kolkata’s posh shopping mall last year did not even have Bengali subtitles, let alone dubbing. Dubbing the movie liberates it from the middle-classes’ English cocoon. Dubbing an Indian movie in another Indian language or remaking it in that language is also a typical way for a film to travel between the biggest cinematic industries of India, such as Bollywood (Hindi), Tollywood (Telugu) and Kollywood (Tamil). Last year, Universal Pictures introduced dubbing in Tamil and Telugu languages for Furious 7 and Jurassic World, and it was notably those works that enjoyed the most success in the Indian market. “By dubbing their films in regional languages such as Tamil and Telugu, most studios have taken Hollywood content to the common man. What were once considered films strictly for multiplex audiences, cater to even people in B and C centers today,” according to critic Shreedhar Pillai.
Hollywood movies do face some hurdles in the Indian market, among others piracy and censorship. Dubbing , it must be added, is bound to increase the problems with the latter as the dialogue will be accessible to more people. For example, Deadpool’s Tamil version included some particularly vulgar vocabulary (which didn’t stop it attracting crowds in Tamil Nadu). However, translators may soften the rough edges of heated exchanges by choosing somewhat more acceptable language. In a way, even the translation introduces an Indian accent, as the idiomatic expressions, jokes, puns, slang and dialect forms must be converted into the realities of the other language. I still remember how in X-men: The Last Stand Wolverine’s harsh and straightforward manner of speaking was expressed through slang forms from Bambaiya Hindi. It did not, of course, matter that much for the overall impression but added a nice flavor.
On a more general level, however, the entire Bollywood-Hollywood categorization is to a degree artificial. Film industries have always influenced each other. And it is not just Hollywood ideas and methods that are being copied; American industry has been borrowing from other regions, such as East Asia, for a long time. A recent box-office hit was Tollywood’s Bahubaali: The Beginning which, though set in an Indian reality, was adorned with all the glamor of Hollywood’s para-historical blockbusters. And some time ago India had its masala Westerns, a twist on the American versions. There are no property rights on genres: they travel freely through the cinematic world but often appear in a slightly different form when directed at other audiences. This brings us back to the “Indianization” issue. If Western audiences watched The Departed rather than the original Internal Affairs, will the Indians continue to prefer a work set in an Indian idiom, regardless of how much it might otherwise be similar to the Western version?
One difference is that some of the recent Hollywood hits in India have represented genres hitherto less explored in that country – and came with special effects on a level that is hard to match. The cost and technology that go into producing a space opera or sci-fi movie on the level of Star Wars or Avatar mean that they may not face much competition outside Hollywood. Perhaps some of these films are just enjoying a niche market until the Indian industry begins producing something similar. Yet irrespective of how many new dishes or ingredients we assimilate in our cuisine, we still crave something more exotic from time to time. Perhaps it is possible, then, that the tastes of the Indian audiences are indeed changing and they will now increasingly watch Hollywood films along with domestic productions.