Can Bollywood Beat The Mob?

Bombay filmmakers try to break from organized crime

The smash hit film of the season in India is Tell Me It's Love (Kaho na, pyar hai). This hothouse romantic drama stars Hrithik Roshan, whose chiseled features, green eyes, and impressive physique have made him India's matinee idol of the moment. The film's a family affair, too: The flick is directed by Roshan's dad, Rakesh Roshan, a former movie star himself.

But this Bollywood success story has a gruesome side to it. Soon after the film started playing, members of Bombay's underworld demanded extortion money from Roshan's father. He refused--and got shot on Jan. 21 as he left his office. The senior Roshan survived, but Bollywood--as India's film world is called--is in terror. If the government doesn't crack down on the underworld fast, local producers threaten to move their business away to safer locales such as Hyderabad in the south.

The attempted rubout is the latest sign of Bollywood's struggle to shed an unsavory past and secure a more legitimate future. India's studios churn out 700 movies a year and take in almost $850 million in box office revenues--peanuts by Hollywood standards, but big money in the Subcontinent.

HAZARDOUS WORK. Yet for years, India's left-leaning governments wouldn't grant moviemaking official status as a legitimate industry, which means banks refused to lend to producers. So movies were either bankrolled by rich merchants or by the underworld, which lent at usurious rates of up to 50% and demanded swift repayment, even if a film flopped. Understandably, organized crime's debt-collection techniques were nasty, and the job of film producer in India has proved hazardous indeed (table). No wonder Bombay's producers were ecstatic when the government last year granted official industry status to the film business, qualifying the studios for legitimate bank loans and, eventually, tax concessions.

The mobsters are not giving up that easily. The loan-shark business may be drying up, but plain old extortion still looks like a good bet. And there's more money to extort, now that Indian films are finding new customers and profits overseas. The 20 million-strong expatriate Indian community can never get enough of these Indian pix. Non-Indian audiences in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and even Japan have also acquired a taste for Bollywood's zesty menu of dramas, thrillers, and musicals. In all, says Amit Khanna of India's Film Producers' Guild, India earns $100 million in film exports annually, a figure that's growing by 50% a year. So the gangsters, many of whom live and operate overseas, are now especially targeting foreign receipts when they lean on Bombay's producers.

Bollywood's producers may yet find an ally in their fight with the underworld--Hollywood. Sony Columbia TriStar, Universal, Warner Bros., and Twentieth Century Fox are looking to distribute and even produce Indian films. These companies won't say which deals they are cutting. But industry analysts say the L.A. studios are talking with successful film figures, such as comedy producer David Dhawan, Sanjay Bhansali, a maker of musicals, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who's known for his thrillers. Hollywood wants to distribute and produce Bollywood films both for Indian and foreign audiences. At the same time, inking Bollywood deals may uncover directing and acting talent that Hollywood could tap for its own U.S. productions.

WATCHDOGS. Obviously, Hollywood isn't doing all this to crack down on Bombay's hoods. But Bollywood tycoons are hoping that a strong tie-up with Hollywood would have the side benefit of limiting the gangsters' room to maneuver. A fully professional, U.S.-run distribution network, complete with high-powered lawyers and accountants to act as watchdogs and backed by legitimate financing, might prove a lot more resistant to extortion than would some Bombay producer acting on his own. "If the Hollywood boys come in and provide confidence, it'll be O.K.," says Ravi Gupta, director of Eros International, a Bombay distribution house.

Whatever happens, erasing the mob's influence in Bollywood will still take years. Officials are promising action. But jaded film wallahs wonder how many local politicians and police officers are involved with the mob. It's an unsavory tale--and it's not just happening in the movies.

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