There have been four major films that have tried to cross the Hollywood/Bollywood boundary in the last couple of years. The British-made Slumdog Millionaire won over critics on both sides along with the Western box office while the Hindi-dubbed version (Slumdog Crorepati) failed to win over the Indian audience. Hot on its heels was Chandni Chowk to China, which pleased nobody (except me - I think I am one of 5 people who liked it). This year has given us My Name is Khan and Kites - both films are set in the United States and both had two versions and both have had mixed responses. Critics on both sides mostly savaged MNIK for it's casual racism and hokey plot but the film caught on with the NRI and Muslim-world audiences. On the other hand, Western film critics have loved Kites and the Western box office was decent but Indian critics and audiences have given the film the cold shoulder.
As the flow of money between the two industries increases, for better or worse it's very likely we'll be seeing more crossover films between the two industries. I'd like to give my two cents on how they can make this new partnership work. (Consider this my audition to be a consultant!)
It's all about knowing your audiences...
Lessons for Indian producers:
1. Don't hype your films as being "like Hollywood."
This strategy is not only disingenuous, since I can guarantee you that your films are almost certainly pretty Bollywood in tone, but it also alienates your base audience. Neither the aam junta nor the NRI crowds are going to turn out for a film if they think wasn't made for them - it doesn't matter if the hero is usually a guaranteed draw like Hrithik Roshan or Akshay Kumar.
Actually, don't over-hype your films in general. I think the media saturation ahead of Kites and CC2C helped kill audience anticipation by crossing over into audience fatigue. If we feel like we've already seen the film before it comes out, we won't bother showing up.
2. Don't ignore your non-English speaking audiences.
While the multiplex viewers in Mumbai may be able to speak English pretty well, most people don't like to read subtitles. If you are making a film that has a lot of English dialogues, make a version dubbed entirely in Hindi for use in the home markets. This is without a doubt the thing that killed Kites for Indian audiences.
Or better yet, don't include a lot of English dialogues if you can help it. Kites kind of wrote itself into a corner with the English-Spanish cross cultural communication emphasis but with a little tweaking, the script could have worked with a Hindi-Spanish communication emphasis.
Let me tell you something, if you are aiming at popular audiences in either market - they will NOT read subtitles. They won't. Don't make people work harder than they have to.
3. Don't apologize for Bollywood tropes.
Any Westerner who wanders into a Bollywood film is going to expect certain things - namely songs and dances. So, give it to them - but be smart about it. You will need to get a music director who can do modern sounding fusiony songs (like A.R. Rahman) and make sure that the picturizations are tied directly to the narrative. Lip sync is okay but if you are going to do a fantasy Switzerland sequence, make sure that audiences know that it is a dream/daydream of a character. Western audiences will need to be handheld through the song sequences but the extra effort will pay off.
Think Rajkumar Hirani-style song sequences instead of Rajkumar Santoshi-style song sequences.
Lessons for Hollywood producers and distributors looking to get in on the action:
1. Mainstream America does not want Bollywood.
No matter how much you try, mainstream America is just not willing to accept Bollywood - just like they don't accept anime or Korean pop music. It's just too weird for them.
That shouldn't discourage you from bringing over Bollywood films, though, because there is a certain section of America who would love Bollywood if they got a chance to see it. The people who made hits of pulpy films like Night Watch and The Host are who you want to aim at - and they all go to art house cinemas.
Think Wired Magazine not USA Today.
2. You need to educate American journalists about whatever film it is you are trying to bring over.
Part of the problem with these films coming over is that the journalists writing about them for the mainstream press do a really terrible job. They don't understand the conventions of Bollywood and try to compare everything to Slumdog Millionaire. It's hard to whip up audience enthusiasm for a film when the review in the local paper calls it "Slumdog Millionaire but with better looking people."
An easy solution would be to have a Bollywood expert from the US write the promotional material rather than trusting the Indian team to do the job. Provide your American reviewers with talking points they can use in their reviews instead of leaving them to their own uninformed devices.
3. Get the music industry on board.
Want some free promotion for your film? Work with the music wing of your company to get a popular act on the soundtrack. Not only will it bring you soundtrack sales but you also get a video to air on whichever MTV offshoot airs videos and a hook for entertainment journalists writing stories.
While Britney Spears is probably too expensive, try thinking outside the box - maybe an indie band would be excited to be onscreen playing while a dance number happens at a club. Or maybe a B or C list American actress is willing to get up and lip-sync a song like they do in Bollywood. Either way, it's a great opportunity. Just look at how well the Twilight soundtracks have sold.
Cross-marketing is good for everybody.
Note from Filmi Girl:
I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.
If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.
xoxo Filmi Girl