Pics move toward more realistic plots

VENICE India is on the verge of a fresh influx of more Western-style narrative film, as social and economic changes in the subcontinent begin to work their way into popular culture.

With a strong presence at this year’s Venice Film Festival — where three Indian films screened and the director of two of them, Anurag Kashyap, served on the main jury — the shift is beginning to gain wider attention.

Midnight screenings of Kashyap’s newly released take on a classic story of love and self-pity “Dev D.” and political movie “Gulaal” — whose release had been held up for three years — along with an airing of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s tale of human evil “Delhi-6″ added a new element to the Lido’s more traditional mix of European and Hollywood fare.

Backed by UTV Motion Pictures, the films are a return to the arthouse Hindi movies of the 1970s, which unlike Bollywood films had realistic plots without dance numbers, although they did have songs. And with multiplexes, these lower-budget films can roll out in smaller metro theaters and still make money. Shot on a budget of $1.2 million, “Dev D.” cost considerably less than the $8 million-$15 million budget now common in Bollywood.Loosely based on “Devdas,” the classic 1917 Bengali tale of a pair of lovers driven apart by their own pride, Kashyap updated the story (made into nearly two dozen films in various Indian languages) taking a cynical look at the dejected protag who turns to alcohol.

The result was a 450-print release that was a hit with the under-25s — a key constituency in a country were 60% of the population is that age or younger — and which earned some $5 million in box office receipts since its February 2009 release.

“The film goes straight to issues dividing Indian society, with some critics giving it five stars and conservative commentators trashing it,” Kashyap tells Variety.

Meanwhile, “Delhi-6,” Mehra’s story of a young Indian man returning from America with his grandmother to Old Delhi, although more personal, also deals with social issues. The boy is the son of a mixed Hindu-Muslim marriage and his arrival ignites old hatreds.

Filming in a neighborhood that is one of the world’s most densely populated, Mehra cast the city as a character too — using its terrace gardens to dramatic effect for shots achieved with a camera swung below.

“The film is about the devil within, and provoked deeply divided reactions,” Mehra says. Unhappy with the original, he reshot and recut the film, which he screened at Venice as “Delhi-6 Redux.”

“The new version has a much darker tone than the original and starts with a voiceover where you are immediately aware that the character narrating the film is already dead,” Mehra says.

For UTV, backing films that have a different sensibility makes commercial sense.

“The new generation of under-25s is very different from their predecessors of 10 or 15 years ago,” says Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV. “The traditional Bollywood framework is not dead, but there is a new sensibility that is not restricted to a niche audience but has branched out into the mainstream.”

Adds Kapur: “India is now part of the global village — the Internet brings information and entertainment 24/7, and the young generation know what is popular worldwide. They are very integrated into world culture.”

While Indian media conglom Reliance Big Pictures may be best known in Hollywood for its deal with Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider to bank DreamWorks 3.0, as well as the company’s various development deals with the likes of Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Julia Roberts, Reliance execs also have been expanding their Indian arthouse productions.

The company has produced auteur pics such as Shyam Benegal’s “Well Done Abba,” Rituparno Ghosh’s “Abohomaan” and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s “Janala” this year alone.

In total, Reliance is aiming to produce 10-12 Indian pics a year that can travel to international festivals and markets, and reach a wider audience than simply Indians at home and abroad.

“We’re looking to get into nontraditional markets and achieve a sense of recognition for Indian film talent,” says Reliance CEO Mahesh Ramanathan. “It’s easier to get distribution for your films when they travel to festivals. It makes sense commercially.”

Reliance’s strategy is already paying off, with the company inking deals with distribs in South Korea, China, Israel and Malaysia.

In a country where several television channels are devoted to world cinema, telling stories in a way that moves beyond traditional formal structures has the potential to develop into a strong new business.

Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.

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