To an international audience, the plot of the newly released Indian film, Chameli, will seem familiar. An agonized investment banker meets a prostitute whom he tries to rescue. The script distantly echoes the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. But unlike the Hollywood blockbuster, Chameli took only 30 days to make and cost just $66,000. Since opening on Jan. 9, it has been playing to full houses and has already earned $55,000.
The success of low-budget hits like Chameli has caught the attention of India's movie Establishment. It made a star out of actor Rahul Bose, who plays the lead role; he has received 30 film offers since its release. It also emboldened the studio that made the film, Pritish Nandy Communications Ltd., to plan seven new movies this year. Indeed, small studios producing ambitious films such as Chameli are the next big thing in Bollywood. That's partly because the standard fare of escapist musical extravaganzas is losing its appeal. Instead, young, urban filmmakers with fresh ideas are finding it easier to raise cash and find audiences for their movies. The sums involved are minuscule by Hollywood standards. But these new entrants are setting new standards for professionalism in the industry.
Chameli is just one of about 30 such success stories to brighten up Indian movie theaters since early last year. Other recent hits include Jhankaar Beats, written by 35-year-old first-time screenwriter Sujoy Ghosh, and Joggers Park, a romance that brings together a retired judge and a 25-year-old working woman.
REALISTIC PLOTS. Behind the scenes, it's the financing that makes the new crop of films sustainable. They're made for well under $100,000 each and are mostly funded by the family and friends of the filmmakers. In contrast, a typical Bollywood blockbuster can cost as much as $8 million. These low-cost flicks feature lesser-known stars -- some of them from India's television and modeling worlds -- who work for a fraction of what the big stars make. Urban audiences increasingly like the realism of these plots, as opposed to the escapism of traditional Bollywood fare. To keep distribution costs down, the films play in small cinemas located in new multiplexes, nearly 30 of which opened across India last year. "The next 18 months will see the industry start to grow and go global," predicts Sunir Kheterpal, head of media and entertainment for Rabo Bank International's India operation.
This is just the ticket for Bollywood, where a series of flops pulled down revenues from $1 billion in 2001 to just $780 million in 2003. Of course, the classic Hindi formulaic movie isn't about to disappear. An all-star Bollywood cast can still draw big crowds -- and big bucks. Among the top hits last year was Kal Ho Naa Ho, a film about Indian immigrants in New York that has raked in some $4 million since its November, 2003, release, and is still filling theaters.
Yet Bollywood's biggies may just take their next cue from the new crop of filmmakers. The big studios are noticing how the small players come in on time and under budget, and how they can provide a fresh source of badly needed revenue. Producer Yash Chopra, one of India's old-guard moguls, used to make one film a year, but this year he has four movies in production -- three of them farmed out to young directors. Production giant Mukta Arts Ltd., which also makes small films, now plans to distribute its new fare across India. "Everybody wants to make a movie in India these days," says Sidhartha Jain, a 29-year-old Bombay producer. Increasingly, anyone who wants to, can.
By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay