Indian movie makers eye worldwide sales

By Helen Rowe, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 25 2013 10:38 AM | Updated as of May 25 2013 06:38 PM

CANNES, France - When actor Eliyas Qureshi swapped Bollywood for Hollywood 15 years ago, the only roles for Indian actors were "cab drivers, doctors and terrorists".

Since then, the 42-year-old New York-based actor says he has played every south Asian stereotype in the book, from a would-be suicide attacker in Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" to Michael Douglas's taxi driver in "Wall Street".

Although things have started to change "drastically for the better" in parts of the industry, many roles for south Asian actors remain just "caricatures", Qureshi told AFP this week at the Cannes Film Festival.

Faced with permanent typecasting, Qureshi has taken matters in his own hands and joined a growing army of businessmen making money from selling Indian films to the rest of the world.

"The industry is a superficial industry and it becomes problematic when you end up doing the same roles time after time," he said.

"Denzel Washington dealt with stereotyping in his career and he broke it. I will break it by making my own movies and producing and acting in content that tells stories that appeals to a wider audience," he said.

US-based film producer and distributor Raaj Rahhi said the old days of Indian film being too India-specific for overseas markets beyond other south Asian countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan were long gone.

Indian movies have been popular in Russia for many years and actor Rajnikanth has long been a huge star in Japan, he said.

"I find film from India can be sold in Latin America, in Europe, in parts of the world we never thought of before because human emotion and drama are the same everywhere," he said.

For decades Bollywood, the name given to the state of Maharashtra's movie industry, religiously churned out song and dance routines wrapped up in predictable melodrama of little interest to anyone except South Asians and the diaspora, said producer Debasish Bhattacharjee.

"We were very loyal to our audience. We knew exactly what our audience wanted to see and have been delivering it for a very long time," he said.

"If it was mindless it was probably because you can't take the poor man -- who has saved up to go the (cinema) theatre for something opulent where the underdog strikes it rich and marries the wealthy guy's daughter -- back to his own world."

Now, however, a "new generation" of directors, often from other Indian states, who didn't come up the traditional Bollywood route had emerged and were making films about different subjects that could be sold to the rest of the world, he said.

These filmmakers were typified by the four directors of "Bombay Talkies", the anthology film released to mark the 100-year anniversary of Indian cinema earlier this month and which was also shown at Cannes.

One of the films tackled the subject of gay relationships, a massive taboo in India.

"The film schools brought about a revolution. The students got exposed to international cinema, they learned the language of international cinema and they adapted Indian stories to be told in a much better cinematic language," he said.

"That is how the 'parallel movement' (of new directors), as we call it, happened. That was also supported by a huge number of theatre actors like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah who were not glamorous enough to fit into Bollywood but were brilliant actors."

Together these actors and directors were making films that could be sold around the world.

Non-Indian companies were eyeing both the opportunity to sell movies to India, which has a large English-speaking population, and to work with Indian companies selling Indian films abroad, said Ajit Andhare, CEO of Viacom18 Motion Pictures which has a tie-up with Paramount to distribute its films in India.

"The (domestic) market is heavily under penetrated, for a population of 1.2 billion. If you compare us with some of the developed markets we're only beginning to consume cinema," he said.

With Indian films increasingly saleable abroad and at home multiplexes springing up and a host of new technologies coming down the line, Indian movies would soon be offering even more opportunities to profit-hungry investors, Andhare added.

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