Indian epics scale up

Mumbai readies to compete with Hollywood

When you have the Dalai Lama’s explicit blessing for your movie, the sky’s the limit.

That is the unique trump card being played by telecom mogul B.K. Modi, who is readying “Buddha,” a $120 million English-language biopic of the Buddha through his M Pictures. Even more ambitious is “The Mahabharata,” another retelling of the epic tale that is a major tenet of Hinduism, which producer Bobby Bedi is pitching as a historical actioner akin to an Indian “Lord of the Rings.”

While it is easy to regard mega-projects such as these — if they ever fly — as oversized exceptions to the rule that says Indian films are for Indian or Indian diaspora auds, that ignores the growing global ambitions of several Indian players.

Just as Bangalore-based Infosys has become a world leader in software, and in steel Tata and Mittal have acquired old-world leaders for billions of dollars, so the Indian entertainment industry is beginning to set its sights on a world market.

Charge is being led by companies including UTV, Nimbus Communications, Eros (see separate story), Yash Raj Films and Adlabs, the laboratories-to-multiplexes operation that is part of Anil Dhirubhai Ambani’s conglom Reliance, which also spans telecom, finance and energy.

“Recently it seems a handful of Indian companies have just got it,” says Bhuvan Lall, himself a former journalist and consultant who has recently accepted a senior job with Modi. “Companies now have a world vision and most are trying to walk before they can run.” For some firms, that means filling in the gaps within their home territory and while also eyeing international horizons. For others it means emulating practices in more developed markets, or even enlisting producers with experience assembling global blockbusters.

For example, Modi has corralled the talents of Hollywood-based producers Michael Shane and Anthony Romano (“I, Robot,” “Catch Me if You Can”) for “Buddha.” They will package it for global distribution either through a studio or the indie route. Production is skedded to begin at the end of this year.

For his part, Bedi has called on “The Lord of the Rings” producer Barrie Osborne to manage the three-part “Mahabharata” while he oversees the two separate TV series, the allied publishing activities and the game spinoff that is now being set up with Electronic Arts’ Hong Kong division. Even with lensing in low-cost India, budget will be deep into nine figures.

Veteran financier Ashok Wadhwa, CEO of Ambit Finance, says firms enjoyed an influx of coin as the government removed investment restrictions in 2001, but that many used the money badly. “Now the ‘India Story’ has re-emerged and we need to be different this time,” he says. “Companies need to scale up and to aggregate.”

“The next 10 years will belong to Indian media,” says Sameer Manchanda, joint managing director of TV 18 Group offshoot GBN. “India’s film industry has a turnover (revenue) of $1.8 billion; the U.S. is $39.6 billion.” Comparing ad spend as a proportion of GDP, he says India with 0.34% has a long way to go to catch the U.S. with 1.7% or Hong Kong with 2.7%.

UTV, which was once part-owned by News Corp., has reinvented itself as the go-to company for Hollywood studios to test the waters of local Indian productions. But it has quickly set its sights higher. Company recently paid $30 million for two games businesses — one Indian, one in the U.K. — and is launching Bindass, a youth TV net, and a world movies channel.

In film, UTV recently co-financed Chris Rock vehicle “I Think I Love My Wife” and is co-financing M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening,” which it took to Fox. Neither project has any Indian specificity (except that Shyamalan is of Indian descent) and “Happening” will not shoot far from Shyamalan’s beloved Philadelphia.

Talent also is looking outward. Last couple of years has seen changes to the dramatic structure of Indian films — often shorter and with fewer song-and-dance routines — combined with willingness to tackle grittier subjects. Dubbed the “Indian new wave,” for some observers this movement is symbolic of Indian entertainment industry’s new-found openness to foreign ideas — a stark contrast to protective China.

For others, though, it hints at a brain drain. “All the top 10 directors are looking at buying property in L.A.,” says one insider.

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