After US debut, Bollywood aspires to new standard

AFP, Monday 28 Apr 2014

In throwing its first awards night in the United States, India's prolific film industry has shown aspirations to hold its own on quality standards on Hollywood's home turf.

To be sure, Saturday's gala at Tampa, Florida's 66,000-capacity American football stadium was not up to Oscar standards with videos played at wrong times, a late start and a five-and-a-half-hour duration that left all but the most enthusiastic fans ready to depart when it closed after 3:00 am.

But while Bollywood's famously flamboyant and sensual mass dances still dominated the awards ceremony, industry insiders said that India is increasingly seeing a new generation of movies that steer clear of rote plotlines.

Filmmakers pointed to the success of "Lunchbox," a romantic film about a mixup in Mumbai's legendary delivery system for home-cooked meals.

The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and has been praised by Western critics, while also faring well at the Indian box office.

Anupam Kher, best known in English-language cinema for roles in "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Silver Linings Playbook," said that the shift started a decade ago when many Indians gained access to a wide range of international television programming, raising expectations of standards.

"I can easily say that now Indian cinema is in its golden phase," he said on the sidelines of the International Indian Film Academy awards in Tampa. "You can make the kind of films you believe in and yet they can do well."

India churns out over 1,100 films a year, more than any other country.

Kher said that he was one of the few trained actors when he entered the industry 32 years ago and that most of his 450 films did not even have scripts, with filmmakers informally discussing each movie with him and paying him after it was in theaters.

Kher said that Indian actors were increasingly trained and signing formal contracts. Previously, jobs were handed out based on connections and Kher said he would know every worker on the set personally.

He credited Hollywood with ensuring higher standards in part through studios' willingness to fire actors.

"We may become very professional in the coming years but we may lose the human touch, which I think was the hallmark of Indian cinema. But I think it's something that when you gain you have to lose something," Kher said.

Screenwriter Pubali Chaudhari, whose "Kai Po Che!" about three men's turbulent relationship premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated in Tampa, said that India was seeing the rise of an indie cinema scene.

"Of course in the mainstream film industry, we love our big film stars and big spectacle cinema, but smaller stories are there and audiences are open to watching and appreciating them," she said.

Big-budget Indian films have also gone the way of Hollywood by investing in visual effects.

Nominees for top picture in Tampa included "Dhoom 3," an action film set in Chicago considered Bollywood's most expensive production ever, and superhero flick "Krrish 3."

The first US edition of the awards also looked to expand cooperation between stars. Bollywood has held its annual event outside of India each year to showcase its global clout but had never held it in the United States before.

John Travolta said he was considering taking a lead role in "Paani," a movie planned by director Shekhar Kapur that examines conflict over water.

"He can't imagine doing it without me, and of course anyone who feels that way about me, I have to dive in," Travolta told reporters on the ceremonial carpet.

Travolta, who made his name with "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," said he felt a natural affinity with Bollywood.

"This is my life. This is what I've built the foundation of my career on -- musicals," he said.

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