Oz auds are bullish on Bollywood

Pics starting to appeal to non-Indian auds

SYDNEY — Just four years ago in Oz, Bollywood films were available on video but rarely seen on the bigscreen. Now they regularly pop into the theatrical top 20 list, following a trend in the U.S. and the U.K.

Although Australia has a large immigrant Indian population, the pics are starting to appeal to non-Indian auds as well.

Pics are released narrowly (on about a dozen prints) to a national circuit of mainstream cineplexes, each of which has established a reputation for screening these “masala” movies. And they regularly open with double or triple the per-screen averages of new Hollywood releases.

“Don,” an action pic starring one of India’s biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan, opened in late October at No. 15 with about A$13,000 ($10,000) per screen at a dozen engagements.

That result was double the per-screen average of Mick Molloy’s comedy “Boytown,” which opened the same week at No. 3 on 202 screens. “Don’s” screen average also was 50% ahead of the week’s top-ranked film, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

UTV’s “Don,” a remake of a hugely popular 1978 pic, is about a regular guy (Khan) from Mumbai, recruited by a policeman to masquerade as the leader, or don, of an international gang of smugglers.

It’s the latest in a string of Bollywood films released to considerable success in Australia and other English-speaking countries including New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K. About a dozen Bollywood pics will be released Down Under this year, and a third of them will perform as well as “Don.”

What is also remarkable about their success in Oz and, increasingly, New Zealand is that they fly largely under the mainstream radar. The films are not advertised in or reviewed by mainstream media, but are touted through the film distributor’s Web site, in cinemas and in places such as Indian nightclubs.

But Marcus Georgiades, CEO of MG Distribution, which has been releasing these titles since 2002, claims a fifth of his audience is non-Indian.

“When we started it was only about 3%,” he says. But the mainstreaming of Indian films has been helped along by Gurinder Chadha’s successful Hollywood hybrids such as “Bride and Prejudice” and Hollywood titles such as “The Guru,” which borrowed heavily from Bollywood. The growing sophistication of Bollywood filmmaking also has made them more accessible to Western audiences.

Only a decade ago, the 800 or so masala movies produced each year were similar-looking song-and-dance-laden, star-driven, Hindi-language romances that stretched for at least three hours. While they may have been (poorly) subtitled in English, songs were rarely translated, leaving non-Hindi speakers half in the dark as the songs often drove the plot.

That format remains largely intact, but younger directors are making somewhat shorter films in which they frequently employ computer effects, subtitle songs and use a lot of English dialogue.

Only the cream of this immense crop is released internationally. Georgiades, who decided to launch MG Distribution after observing the popularity of the pics in the U.K., says he’s continually impressed by Bollywood’s growing sophistication.

Genre is even crossing over to non-Indians, including the camp-loving gay community and families seeking lively entertainment.

“Three years ago a blockbuster for us was $77,000 at the box office. Now we regularly gross $230,000-$300,000,” Georgiades says. “Kabhi alvida naa kehna” (Never Say Goodbye), a three-hour drama about star-crossed lovers, has grossed $430,000 since its release in August and “Fanaa” (Annihilation) earned $250,000 in May.

Bollywood has returned the favor, setting pics such as “Salaam namaste” in Australian locales.

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