A Rebuttal to The Wall Street Journal’s Bollywood Coverage

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In the wake of the success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the American movie industry, also known as Hollywood, has begun to really wake up to the large movie watching public in India. Not only has 20th Century Fox won a copyright infringement lawsuit against BR Film’s Govinda-starrer Banda Yeh Bindas Hai, which was allegedly inspired by My Cousin Vinny but both Warner Brothers and Sony have both financed major films – Chandni Chowk to China and Sawaariya. Both of those films may have flopped but Hollywood isn’t giving up yet. Reliance Big Entertainment is hoping Kites will be the perfect synthesis of Hollywood money and Bollywood film making.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a profile of Amit Khanna, the chairman of Reliance Big Entertainment that unintentionally highlighted some of the attitude problems that the American film industry has toward its Hindi language counterpart. When explaining how Bollywood operates, Eric Bellman, the author of the Wall Street Journal article dismissively says, “The Indian movie business has long been dominated by mom-and-pop shops that make films without the budgets, schedules or story boards that are the norm in the U.S. industry.”

Mr. Bellman never reveals his source for this ridiculous bit of misinformation and passes it off as common knowledge. I’m sure Vishal Bhardwaj, whose film making processes were meticulously detailed in Stephen Alter’s fantastic book “Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief”, and indeed included storyboards, budgets, and schedules, would be shocked to hear that The Wall Street Journal thought he made his films by throwing some glitter, dancers, and a big pile of cash in front of a video camera.

And despite the fact that Hollywood films routinely fail to place in the box office top ten in India, Hollywood seems to feel that it holds some secret key to success. Mr. Bellman trumpets the fact that Amit Khanna of Reliance has embraced “the Hollywood modus operandi of big budgets, publicity spending and wide distribution.” But savvy Bollywood industry watchers know that those factors contributed in no small part to the box office disaster of Warner Brothers produced Chandni Chowk to China. Bollywood audiences prefer the personal touch in publicity, like Salman Khan showed before the release of Wanted, by performing at charitable events and walking the ramp for a designer-friend at Kolkata Fashion Week.

Even more disastrous is the news that Reliance is planning on releasing Kites in two formats – one with songs and one without. While it may please American industry insiders, blithely chopping the songs out of a Bollywood film implies that the songs are superfluous and shows a deep misunderstanding of the nature of song picturizations and everything they can convey. Leaving aside the necessity of including item numbers, however much we love them, would Dil Chahta Hai have been the same film minus Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s laconic anthem ‘Dil Chahta Hai’? Would Lagaan have had the same impact without A.R. Rahman’s powerful ‘Chale Chalo’?

Songs are an essential part of the Bollywood narrative and to cut them out for the international market is shortsighted at best and deeply foolish at worst. Let’s not forget that countries around the world from Russia to Thailand to Nigeria adore Bollywood film songs. Why is the Western fear of music wedded to story now so important?

While this profile of Amit Khanna shows that the Indian audiences are now firmly in Hollywood’s sights, it also shows that Bollywood producers have nothing to be worried about. Americans may be muscling in on their turf but Yash Raj, Dharma, and the rest can just sit back and wait for the Americans to throw big piles of money at films that will flop badly because they don’t understand their target audiences.

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