Rise of multiplex, expats splinter Bollywood market

A Hindi film in which the hero proposes marriage to the heroine as she lies in a delivery room, sweaty and unattractive, is clearly not standard Bollywood fare.

But “Salaam Namaste,” a romantic comedy about a live-in relationship and unexpected pregnancy is one of Bollywood’s biggest hits this year, raking in over $13.75 million worldwide in its first five weeks.

In India, the film drew crowds to multiplexes in bigger metros such as Mumbai. The smaller towns, what the industry calls B- and C-class centers, didn’t seem to enjoy the couple’s transgressions as much. But the film was dubbed a multiplex hit.

Until a decade ago, the Bollywood market was largely thought of as a pan-Indian monolith. What worked in Mumbai was just as likely to work in smaller towns such as Patna and Jaipur.

But over the last decade, that has changed, and the last couple of years have solidified this slow trend. The Bollywood market is highly segmented, divided by demographics, income and geography.

“Multiplex hit,” “overseas hit,” “interior hit” are just some of the phrases used to describe successful films in India. So the year’s first smash, “Page 3,” a scathing look at Mumbai high society, drew full houses to a suburban Mumbai multiplex but did not sell out in a single-screen theater less than a mile away.

“Black,” an evocative but grim film about a deaf-mute girl, worked in cities and Southern India, but not in the interior, while “Bunty aur Bubli,” a zany caper film with a decidedly small-town feel, did better business in big cities than small towns.

The multiplex has been a driving force in this segmentation. According to a May report prepared by Yes Bank and the Film & Television Producers Guild of India, there are 73 multiplexes with 276 screens operating in India. This number is expected to increase to 135 multiplexes by the end of 2006. On average, plex prices are double that of single-screen venues.

Multiplexes have altered release patterns and introduced a Hollywoodlike opening-weekend scenario in Bollywood. A-list movies are sometimes screened as many as 10 times a day at a single multiplex. Initial weekend numbers are so big that producers recover their investment quickly.

The Yes Bank report states that even though multiplexes constitute 0.6% of the approximately 12,000 cinema halls in India, 28% to 34% of B.O. for the top 50 films in 2004 came from multiplexes.

Given the higher ticket prices, multiplexes draw more affluent, educated and urbane viewers, who are receptive to nontraditional stories and styles. Says director Shaad Ali, “It gives me freedom because I have fewer people to please.”

Indeed, several filmmakers are tailoring stories specifically for multiplexes. Films such as “My Brother Nikhil” (a gay love story), “White Noise” (extramarital affair) and “My Wife’s Murder” (an unhappy marriage that ends in a slaying) are examples of more edgy Bollywood fare.

In July, filmmaker Subhash Ghai, famous for big-budget extravaganzas, launched shingle Mukta Searchlight.

Ghai says the aim is to “create a platform for rising directors with new concepts and low budgets.”

The company’s first production, “Iqbal,” about a deaf-mute boy who struggles to become a cricket player, was a critical success and earned back its $685,000 budget in five weeks.

However, these nonformulaic titles don’t play overseas.

The Indian diaspora is pegged at 20 million — this is a critical market, which can account for as much as 50% of a film’s budget recovery. And that huge audience demands stars. They want traditional Bollywood stories that are big on brand names, songs and family values.

“Nonresident Indians are still a little regressive and want to hold on to their roots and an India they left behind,” says Avtar Panesar, of Yash Raj Films, one of the biggest distribs of Hindi movies.

For instance, “Veer-Zaara,” an India-Pakistan romance with superstar Shah Rukh Khan, grossed $10 million overseas in 2004. But “Page 3,” despite stellar reviews and awards, went straight to DVD overseas.

Filmmakers are scrambling to woo the metro and overseas audiences because that is where the big money lies. “The interiors of India are waiting to be grabbed but unfortunately nothing major has happened recently,” says distributor Shyam Shroff.

With so many different constituencies demanding satisfaction, the global blockbuster is nearly extinct. “I want the whole world and their mother to see my film but this is a difficult task,” says director Farah Khan.

Bollywood’s creative and commercial toppers are hoping that at some films will be able to cross the increasing audience divide and work from Bhopal to Boston.

“There can be a connection. After all, human emotions are the same everywhere,” says Khan.

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