`Bollywood' Breaks Into The Big Time

A top a misty hill, rain falls, turning the heroine's sari into a clingy wrap. She lip-synchs to music while the hero, in a billowy shirt and tight pants, chases her playfully across the grass. They dance provocatively, and he clasps his arms about her. She slithers away.

Such a scene takes place in almost every Indian movie. And there are a lot of them. With 800 produced a year, India churns out at least twice as many films as Hollywood, and revenues top $1 billion a year. Yet India's Bombay-based movie business--nicknamed Bollywood--has long been known for schlocky films, an army of independent producers, and a barely functioning distribution system.

Now, Bollywood is undergoing a dramatic face-lift. Spurred by competition from dubbed versions of such flashy Western hits as Jurassic Park and Speed, Bollywood is rushing to enter the era of high-tech films. Producers are founding new companies, boosting their marketing, and seeking new sources of financing.

One of the key new players is Amitabh Bachchan. A superstar actor during the 1980s, he launched a new film and entertainment company in March. Star cachet helped him pull in $10 million from financial institutions--something no one in the Indian movie business had done before. Now, others are following in Bachchan's footsteps, turning tiny production and postproduction houses into legitimate corporations.

SOFTWARE. Meanwhile, cameras are rolling for the first Bollywood high-tech films. CMM Ltd., an 18-month-old special-effects company backed by such stalwarts as State Bank of India, has bought more than $1 million worth of software and hardware from Silicon Graphics Inc., the Mountain View (Calif.) computer company whose special-effects equipment is used by nearly every Hollywood studio. The technology is key to a still-untitled film featuring Indian megastar Shah Rukh Khan in a double role, allowing him to appear with himself in the same scene. Silicon Graphics is lining up other clients in India as well.

To earn more money on its products, Bollywood is revamping its distribution system. In the past, producers have sold their films to a large number of distributors for a flat rate, sharply limiting their income. Now, Modi Films--owned by the Indian conglomerate of the same name--is creating a distribution system that will provide producers with a share of the box-office take. The company is learning from its venture to distribute Disney films in India.

The first big success of the new Bollywood is Who Am I to You?, a musical that focuses on two weddings. Thanks to its untraditional plot and effective marketing, it's India's biggest hit ever. Playing for nearly a year, the film has grossed more than $30 million, a phenomenal amount in a country where the average moviegoer pays 65 cents admission and the average movie makes about $3 million--barely what an art-house film makes in the U.S.

Who Am I to You? abstains from the bloody violence of most Indian films. To boost attendance, the producers decided against releasing it on videocassette. So, many moviegoers have seen it three or four times. The producers also chose the best movie halls to show the film and had them specially decorated. Some theaters even gave out flowers.

Audiences appreciated their efforts. India's 13,000 theaters have long been known for their litter, broken seats, and horrendous sound. But with the release of Jurassic Park last year, "everything changed," says M.K. Ramakrishnan, a partner in R&S Electronics, Indian distributor for Dolby Laboratories Inc., which provides stereo sound systems to theaters. R&S has sold 50 Dolby systems and expects to nearly double that by yearend. Meanwhile, Modi Films, in a joint venture with United Artists Pictures Inc., is spending more than $75 million to build 10-screen cineplexes in 23 major cities.

As a result, movie audiences are on the rise after declining for a few years after the advent of cable TV. Foreign films may be popular, but Bollywood is bent on grabbing at least 90% of the market. So along with lip-synched love scenes, Indian audiences will soon see high-tech adventure and science-fiction tales, too.

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