Thursday, February 13, 2003

bollywood blunders

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 2003).

For decades, the success of India's Mumbai-based movie industry was as predictable as the plot lines of its song-and-dance spectaculars. Churning out hundreds of movies a year to fanatically loyal audiences, Bollywood could do no wrong.

Lately, things have turned sour. Last year, just one in 25 Bollywood films made a profit, analysts estimate, and the industry racked up losses of more than 3 billion rupees ($63 million) on an investment of 10 billion rupees. Even Devdas, a love story based on a much-filmed novel that was one of only two big hits from Bollywood last year, failed to match the success of previous smashes, according to Amod Mehra, a Mumbai-based film industry analyst.

What's gone wrong? "Every film does the same thing," says Mumbai-based film critic Deepa Gahlot, echoing the belief of many that audiences are tiring of the same old formulas. "Everyone speaks the same way, wears the same clothes, the writing is terrible. They are completely capable of screwing up a great idea."

Bollywood, though, is in no mood to innovate. In recent years, the industry has seen an influx of new investors determined to shake up this traditionally disorganized business and milk it for all it's worth.

"Creativity went out the window and it became a cash-flow game," says Shravan Shroff, director of distributor and multiplex operator Shringar Films. "Instead of making one good film, they made five terrible films."

Audiences are striking back: Rising ticket prices and local-language soap operas are keeping television viewers glued to their sofas. And if they do want to see Bollywood's latest, they need only tune into cable TV, where new releases often show up--illegally--within days of their big-screen release.

Against such a background some analysts say 2003 will be a make-or-break year for Bollywood. Says analyst Mehra: "If we don't have at least four big hits this year, we are finished."