Sunday, January 18, 2009

Of Slumdogs and Success

Slumdog Millionaire Director, Danny Boyle

With the runaway success of Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches flick, Slumdog Millionaire, Hollywood is hungry for an encore. There are rumors that Will Smith is eager to collaborate with Danny Boyle in a future Bollywood-inspired drama. Also, Creative Artists Agency, whose clients include Kate Winslet, has signed a contract with "Slumdog" star, Freida Pinto.

This is a windfall for Bollywood, whose offerings of formulaic, melodramatic musicals, have been shunned by Hollywood for decades. Recently, Indian Roller Correspondent, Itinerant Little Leprechaun (ILLE)


had a chance to talk to Nikhil (Nick) Mukherjee, President of Amrutraj Films, a movie-production company with links to studios in Mumbai. His company recently signed a five-year contract with Features Development, Zeitgeist Beacon Group, a Hollywood entertainment studio based in Signal Hill, California to option Bollywood-style dramas to be marketed in the U.S.

ILLE: What do you make of the success of Slumdog Millionaire in the U.S.?

Mukherjee: In terms of unraveling the key to the success of Bollywood films in the U.S., Slumdog Millionaire is the Rosetta Stone of Bollywood films. It has given us the clues to translate Bollywood films into instant, Hollywood hits.

ILLE: What are those keys to the success if you can share it?

Mukherjee:'s simple, really. You take an ordinary, run-of-mill Bollywood masala movie, like Slumdog Millionaire, and make it with newbie actors like Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. This keeps the budget really low. But the key to success is hiring Westerners, such as Danny Boyle, to direct and Simon Beaufoy to write the script. Because, in order to appeal to Hollywood audiences, you have to have directors and writers who are more attuned to the taste of Hollywood audiences.

ILLE: So, you think that having Indians exercise creative control in a Bollywood film can actually hurt the success of the film in Hollywood?

Mukherjee: Exactly. Any Bollywood masala film has to have a Westerner at the helm if it expects to do well at the Hollywood box office. Bollywood fare with all-Indian crews, for example, such as Taare Zameen Par or Chak De India, have been blockbusters in India but they couldn't even manage to last more than a few weeks in the U.S. And while Slumdog Millionaire is being celebrated at the moment, Taare Zameen Par (which won numerous awards in India) was rejected from consideration as Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Oscars ceremony. You realize that these movies are doing poorly in the U.S. because they had no Westerner at the helm exercising creative control over the product.

ILLE: How does distribution and scope of release affect the success of a Bollywood film in the U.S?

Mukherjee: Well, distribution does affect the number of audiences who will see a film in the U.S. But a large, nationwide release of a Bollywood film is still no guarantee that it will reap the dividends at the U.S. box office. Take the example of the comedy, Chandni Chowk to China, which was distributed nationwide by Warner Bros. It was a dud because it had no Westerners directing it or writing the script. You see, an all-Indian film crew will carry little heft with the Hollywood audience or the Hollywood media. Even the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the agency behind the Golden Globes, is looking for names, such as, Danny Boyle, that they are familiar with. An all-Indian film crew carries no cachet among Hollywood media circles.

ILLE: What about the stories and the characters portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire? Do they tell us anything about the movie's success?

Mukherjee: What the success of Slumdog Millionaire tells us is that Bollywood movies must reinforce the impressions of India that Westerners already have -- a poverty-stricken, corruption-ridden, under-developed land that is also filled with colors, hope, mysticism, and exotica. And they have to be made by someone from the West as films such as Salaam Bombay! or Parinda were never as successful. Even films such as 1947 (released as Earth abroad) or Water, which were on serious topics and made for a global audience were never as popular because they had an Indian crew.

ILLE: So, is there a Bollywood story formula that works for Hollywood?

Mukherjee: Yes, that's what I meant by masala...A masala is an Indian word that means spices but it also could mean a "recipe", or a "formula." The Bollywood masala that would work in Hollywood is the Capra-esque triumph of a poor, hapless romantic over his star-crossed circumstances. Or the triumph of a great leader such as Gandhiji which was already the subject of the western film, Gandhi. Bollywood's interpretation of our great leader, the blockbuster Lage Raho Munna Bhai, remains unknown in Hollywood.

The work of the talented Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray comes to mind. His films were often without a happily-ever-after endings and although they did well in some parts of Europe, out here in Hollywood, all his films were never recognized even though many feel him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

ILLE: Is there a sequel planned for Slumdog Millionaire?

Mukherjee: The details are sketchy now but whatever we do will be written and directed by Westerners with an all-Indian cast working to realize the director's creative vision.

ILLE: So, you see Western supervision as a prerequisite to success?

Mukherjee: Absolutely. No matter how you spin a Bollywood saga for Hollywood, if you want it to succeed, it will need a Westerner, like Danny Boyle, at the helm. No question about it.

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