The capacity crowd watches politely. The screen follows Shah Rukh Khan’s decision-challenged single parent trying to woo Kajol, the Khan character’s equally wishy-washy childhood bosom buddy. A large screen. Air-conditioned cinema. Multitrack digital soundtrack. Deep, cushioned seats. Prerequisite accoutrements for Hindi moviegoers in Johannesburg, San Francisco, or Ahmedabad. But look closer. This theater showing the 1998 box office juggernaut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is located in Tel Aviv, the cultural and commercial capital of Israel and at the heart of a global cultural crossroad. The film ran in Israel for six weeks. Hindi film music, fashions, and the crossover appeal of Hindi film stars are increasingly making Hindi films more accessible to a wider audience than ever before.
A 1990s trend of the crossover popularity of some Hindi soundtracks may have started with box office smashes like Hum Aapke Hain Kounand Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, followed by Raja Hindustani andKuch Kuch Hota Hai. By the time Kuch Kuch Hota Hai premiered, its trendy score had already captivated diverse markets ranging from suburban, mostly white, British youth to the vibrant ethnic enclaves of Hong Kong and Singapore. In Britain, Hindi film music’s association with the so-called Asian Underground music helped the crossover appeal of Hindi films and it’s explosive presence on the London nightclub scene. While the Anglo-Bhangra music style is predominantly a fusion of synthesized techno beats supported by heavy Punjabi-inflected dhols, it didn’t take long to associate that beat with popular Hindi film scores.
While no statistics are available, anecdotal evidence has highlighted more than a few incidences of groups of white youth entering cinemas showing a Hindi film only to catch their favorite songs and leaving as soon as their favorite tracks ended.
To the delight of Hindi filmmakers, this phenomenon coincided with Hindi titles climbing higher and higher on the weekly box office rankings in both the U.S. and Britain. In Britain, most major Hindi releases now routinely make the weekly top 20 charts. While their presence on the box office charts is not as common in the U.S. as in Britain, American audiences may also be coming around. Starting with 1999 moneymakers such as Taal, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanamand Hum Saath Saath Hai, Hindi films started their climb in the American charts. In Britain, a wide release like Taal may open on 20 screens but have twice as many showings to capture roughly the same opening weekend take as a 40-screen opening in the U.S.
The wider appeal of Hindi films has in no small part been furthered by the increasingly popularity of Hindi film stars. The prosperous Indian expatriate populations in New York and London now commanded enough clout to attract several non-India based film awards programs for Hindi films. In the two years that the New York-based Bollywood Awards have been handed out, the event has successfully headlined frontline film personalities from India. When Hong Kong megastar Jackie Chan jointly appeared with Akshay Kumar at a recent New York Hindi film soirée, they signaled not only pan-Asian cultural solidarity but also a mutual respect that the two biggest Asian film capitals-—Bombay and Hong Kong—-have for each other.
Historically, male Hindi film stars such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and even the young Amitabh Bachchan acquired prominence in large part because of their acting abilities. Over the last decade or so the Hindi filmdom has given increasing importance to ideal physiques. Hence the more recent rise of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and Abhishek Bachchan has put a premium on good looks. That has given rise to a new global audience of teen Hindi film groupies that would have formerly been recruited by Hollywood.
Near Chicago recently, a 40-something middle school teacher, herself recently won over by Shah Rukh Khan’s youthful exuberance, had a small pinup of the popular Indian star on a classroom wall. A shy 14-year old female student gingerly approached the teacher and asked the name of rock star whose picture graced the classroom wall. Hearing about Indian film and the name of the star opened up a whole new world of pop trends for the 14-year old. In similar fashion, scores of other trend seekers have recently followed mega-trendsetter Madonna’s example after the diva was spotted in both a bindi and henna.
The progress made by Hindi films, the most popular films in India, has also provided a stepping-stone for regional Indian films to gain beachheads overseas. In larger, international desi communities, suburban multiplexes now occasionally screen Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Bengali films. The number of Indian films released overseas, however, is far outnumbered by India’s total output of films each year. Still the world-leader in the number of features released, the South Asian regional superpower in any given year puts out hundreds of films. After 1990s banner year of 948 features in languages as diverse as Assamese, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Nepali and Manipuri, in recent years the number has plateaued at around 800, with roughly a quarter in Hindi and Tamil each. Andersen Consulting estimates that the Indian film industry’s worth in the next several years will likely be in the double-digit billion-dollar range. These numbers only hint at the international marketing potential of desi films.
By the mid-1990s, budget minded Hindi film fans interested in watching a Hindi film at home had to settle for dollar-a-day, badly transferred VHS tape of questionable origin. At top end, they could plop down anywhere from $40 to $100 for a higher quality, but limited-use, Laserdisc release propped up by a fairly expensive Laserdisc player.
That scenario was given a brilliant technological makeover in the late 1990s with the arrival of the DVD. The DVD has resuscitated interest in Indian films by making exceptional film quality available at a relatively low cost. Viewed on anything larger than a 27-inch TV, hooked up to a properly calibered DVD player with digital surround sound capability, experiencing a late model Hindi DVD at home can be a treat for the eyes and ears. Advances in the technology have now made it possible to price out a complete home theater system for less than $1000.
DVDs can be coded to have subtitles. This important capability has helped boost interest in Indian for non-Indian audiences. Although not all DVD releases have subtitles, English subtitles are by far the most common. A choice few Indian DVDs also go a step further. The dozen or so volumes of the DVD release of the mega-popular TV serial
Mahabharat, in addition to English, also sport Spanish and French subtitles. Adding to the DVDs attraction is the ability to go online to buy or rent DVDs from home. In the U.S. many dotcoms sell Indian DVDs (www.hindi-music.com, www.bollywoodstore.com,www.anytamil.com
), both sell or rent (www.godesigo.com, www.panindia.com) or only rent (www.netflix.com).
The introduction of digital TV channels in the 1990s has also provided new avenues for accessing superior quality Indian entertainment, for which Indian movies comprise the bedrock foundation. Additionally, the availability of digital TV channels has opened a 24×7 access to not only Indian cooking shows (watch your favorite star mix their favorite recipes), serials (mostly named after successful Hindi films), song videos, Hindi language game shows (Amitabh Bachchan hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati, an Indian spin on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”), regional language news, and more song videos.
One-year old B4U, the London based digital channel, is a prime example. Using eight globe-circling satellites, B4U’s $200 million investment has expanded to beam into 100 countries on four continents and boasts 150,000 subscribers in Europe, North America, the Middle East, India, East Africa, Mauritius, and South Africa. B4U added to the list of digital channels where older standbys like TV Asia, and Zee TV made inroads earlier. India-based Zee TV, started in 1992 as a “complete family entertainment channel,” claims a viewership of 180 million. Zee TV’s dominance has declined somewhat since 1995 when Sony TV entered the lucrative domain of digital Indian entertainment. The wave of the future, however, just may be what London-based Reminiscent Television Network (RTN) is about to undertake. In 1998, RTN launched two channels: Lashkarain Punjabi and Gurjari in Gujarati. Recently, however, RTN expanded to 8 channels with specialized Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali, and Urdu services. By beaming to 30 South Asian countries to start with, RTN eventually intends to reach an astounding 200 million households in Australia, North America, Europe and countries in South Asia. Increasing choices, hopefully, will translate into more cost effective, quality programming.
Since it’s humble beginnings in Bombay in 1896, the Indian film industry has made roughly 27,000 feature films, far more than any other country. In the hi-tech driven, globally integrated and wired world of the new millennium, new Indian films continue to pave a potent path to gain footholds in ever-farther corners of a suddenly smaller digitized world. By piggybacking on to new delivery systems and taking advantage of new technologies, Indian films have entered an exciting new phase.
To the delight of some and chagrin of others, Hindi films have in many circles become India’s unannounced ambassadors in spreading the gospel of Indian culture. That may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Disclaimers: “Hindi” and “Indian,” while not interchangeable, have been used to convey genres rather than ethnic categories. The inclusive “Indian” is used to quantify, while the exclusive “Hindi” denotes a language sub-category.
Lifelong cinephile Aniruddh Chawda lives, works, and writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast. He also freelances for
www.netflix.com also scored a publicity windfall for producer/director Subhash Ghai when it became the first Hindi film to be shown on an IMAX screen in the U.S., while Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam this year became the first mainstream Indian film screened at the respected Berlin Film Festival. For Hum Saath Saath Hai, both the $750,000-plus U.S. opening weekend and the 59-screen U.S. release set a record for a Hindi entry’s non-Indian single-market opening. In 2000 so far, Kaho Na Pyar Hai, Josh, Refugee, Fiza, Dillagi, and Junglehave all charted in the U.S. on 40-screen shows, with Josh placing the highest when it nailed No. 16 on opening weekend. Some late-2000 big banner releases such as Yash Chopra’s Mohabbatein, Vindhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir, and Aamir Khan’s Lagaanwill most likely add to this equation.