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Bollywood writes comeback story

'Chalte' leads the pack with $7 million int'l gross

NEW DELHI The Bollywood film industry is back in the black after massive losses last year, and the best is yet to come in the second half of the year.

The 25 or so major films released in the first half of 2003 raked in 2.5 billion rupees ($50 million) in box office receipts, according to industry estimates. Budgets are typically $1 million to $3 million.

Leading the pack is what is being touted as the first hit in 18 months, “Chalte chalte” (Along the Way), featuring superstar Shah Rukh Khan. It earned more than $7 million internationally in the first month of release, according to director Aziz Mirza.

Produced by Khan’s company Dreamz Unlimited, “Chalte” was made on a budget of $3.2 million. The movie has traveled well internationally, with the English-subtitled version already taking more than $1 million in the U.S. and $1.9 million in the U.K.

Ronnie Screwvala, chief exec of the Bombay-based UTV Group which produced the movie, says the pic, a simple love story, did well because it was more philosophical than the standard Bollywood pic.

In 2002, producers were faced with the shocking realization that the over-tried and over-tested Bollywood formula was no longer working when, of the 132 Hindi-lingo films made during the year, 124 were flops incurring a total loss of some $58 million.

But analysts say Bollywood is learning how to deliver moneymaking pix by improving storylines to offer more drama and suspense, while at the same time exploiting merchandising, in-film advertising, better marketing and keeping to tight scheduling.

And with 35 low-budget films lined up for release in the next three months, analysts believe the slump may finally be over.