Bollywood: trade and balance
By: Prakash Belawadi
The news story that Bollywood movie star Katrina Kaif turned down an offer of Rs25 million from a Karachi millionaire for a single show is, perhaps, apocryphal. Whether such a deal was offered or not, what is important to note here is that the actress could not possibly have risked it. The problem for her, I submit, is not the situation in Pakistan, but in India. The Bollywood narrative creates the conflict and compels her to play the part off the screen, too.
It is true Ms Kaif seems to be flavour of the year in Pakistan. She was the subject of contention in May, when it was widely reported in India that some Pakistani activist groups felt a print and television advertising campaign for a beauty cream featuring her was morally inappropriate. Earlier, in April, a gossipy item speculated that Ms Kaif was denied a Pakistani visa to attend a fashion show because she refused to take up the offer of a private dinner with a minister. And then, again, was another false tittle-tattle that Ms Kaif and fellow Bollywood star Salman Khan would dance at the Lux Style Awards in July.
The only story anyone could confirm is that the Kaif-Khan starrer Ek Tha Tiger, due for an Eid release, was banned by the Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors. The implausible plot has a scientist accused of selling forbidden missile technology to Pakistan and an Indian secret agent is in pursuit and so on, which, one might say, is basically asking for it. In that sense, Bollywood, now awake to a big market in Pakistan, faces a real dilemma. Should it stay true to the traditional Indian bromides or get real?
Until 10 years ago, the average Bollywood film was made with an average budget of five crore rupees. Three out of four films flopped, but the producers continued to make 125 films a year because the losses, too, were not enormous. In 2009, the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Devdas was promoted as a Rs50-crore production. The third-time remade movie declared a profit of Rs20 crore. The Indian movie industry was electrified. Now, suddenly, the Indian film industry is beginning to talk in terms of budgets in excess of Rs100 crores (one billion). The Khans of Bollywood are not only the kings of entertainment in India, but in widening markets overseas. Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), other South Asians and traditional Bollywood markets in Africa, the UK and the US yield a third of all box-office revenues. The industry believes this will now grow to 50 per cent in the next few years.
But markets have their own sensibilities and sentiments. Trade always dulls strong faith and sharp prejudices. It was easy in the past to frame the villain and send the fighting hero to beat him. But now, Bollywood has to be mindful of the new audiences. Increasingly, it will need to put in the virtues of tolerance and communal harmony into its productions. The sensibilities of the overseas markets have so strongly influenced Indian cinema that it is now commonplace that true love is found only in the character playing bride or boy from overseas.
Take the Kaif-Akshay Kumar starrer Namaste London, for instance. It has it all: good, traditional Punjabi boy and overseas with-it-but-confused Punjabi girl. He has a soft heart, but beats the Brits at rugby. He proceeds to wreak the patriotic portfolio on the English snob, but the producers will also have the scene where he offers sage counsel to the now familiar Muslim friend to respect his own Islamic traditions of the sub-continent. This is good market secularism and should work for the swelling South Asian populations overseas, especially in the US. They buy it.
But Pakistan poses the greatest challenge. The industry forgot to tweak the plotline and so put at risk two big-budget productions this year, Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger, both of which have been banned for offensive portrayal of parts of the Pakistani establishment. Ever since Pakistan lifted its 40-year ban on Indian films in 2006, the Pakistani market for Bollywood has grown at an amazing rate — more than threefold in four years. For Ms Kaif to get an offer of Rs2.5 crore for a single show would not be a great surprise. She is a star in Pakistan too and could gain in this market by a big, live show. However, a negative publicity campaign by fringe activists back home, querying her religious faith or horror of horrors, even national loyalty, could seriously compromise her career. Even the great Khans of Bollywood would not risk such a thing.