Indian cinema trades songs for international audiences

World meets Bollywood, world falls for Bollywood, fade to happy ending.

That was the plan, anyway. But the predicted crossover for Indian cinema has yet to happen. Indian movies, with their three-hour running time, songs and dances and melodrama, just didn’t attract the non-Indian crowd. Some observers thought they never would.

Instead Hindi cinema started to change. Several Indian filmmakers tweaked or outright changed the long-standing formula of having a half-dozen songs, a love story with bits of comedy and melodrama.

This year, Eros released Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “Eklavya: The Royal Guard.” Running time: 107 minutes; only one song. Other films, such as Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Dor,” Vishaal Bharadwaj’s “Omkara” and Mani Ratnam-directed “Guru,” had songs but little else common with traditional Hindi cinema. And yet they attracted auds.

Lokesh Dhar, VP of UTV Communications, which handles U.S. and U.K. distribution for parent company UTV, says, “Audiences are evolving. In the ’80s we had typical Bollywood films, but since then India has gone through tremendous change.”

“Eklavya” director Chopra sees a growing trend. “I think cinema from India is coming of age. As for me, I make a film for a global audience, not only for India. For instance, ‘Eklavya: The Royal Guard’ was called that so that non-Indian audiences could understand the title. I’m sure it helped that the film is only 100 minutes long.”

Chopra found the response at a recent unspooling of his film followed by a Q&A co-sponsored by UCLA gratifying. “It is also one sign that Western audiences are ready for films from India.”

Helmer Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who directed the UTV-released “Rang de basanti” (Patriotic Colors), which was India’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar in 2006, agrees that Indian film is changing.

“We have no choice in the matter,” he says. “Well, there’s a choice, but do you want your movies to grow outside the South Asian diaspora or not?”

Since making movies is a commercial business, producers want it to grow “tenfold or twentyfold,” he points out.

But that doesn’t mean aping the West, Dhar says. “They are very Indian, the topics, the subject they are dealing with, the environment is very Indian. When you have something that people appreciate, it transcends all barriers, so if you are making good cinema, it will cross.”

Dhar says in the ’70s there was a trend of successful filmmakers who strayed from the formulaic Bollywood path but they didn’t find acceptance outside the metro areas, let alone abroad.

“At that time we didn’t have that kind of influence, our films didn’t travel across the shores,” he says. “Now with Indian companies going abroad, things are traveling faster. There were great movies in the ’70s but didn’t travel; now every Indian film is selling abroad.”

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