1) People are far more aware of bad Bollywood movies than they are of good ones.
Why is that? Well, for one because word of mouth seems to work really well with trash: "Hey, I saw this unbelievably bad youtube video with this jeep crashing into a helicopter, it was Bollywood (no, it wasn't, but let's not even go there), here, you watch it too!". Or "Dude, I read that the most expensive Bollywood movie ever made is with this guy who turns into a robot and then turns into a CGI snake. We should get high and watch it, it's gonna be so trippy." Or "OMG check this out: this guy is rapping in English but it's not English and it's really really bad, it got like a million hits. Watch it, it's Hi-larious!". I could go on but you get the idea.
So naturally, when that's the kind of stuff that goes viral, it's hard to blame people for assuming the worst.
But that said, you really can't control what goes viral and what doesn't. So then where is the part that you do control? Well, sadly, it doesn't get much better there either. Distribution. Which brings us to...
2) Banking on only the big heroes is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What movies get good distribution overseas? The ones that are guaranteed to bring in the moolah from existing audiences, of course. So regardless of the quality or subject matter of the movie, if it stars SRK, Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan, it'll be in every theatre known to Indians. Now here's the problem with that: none of these heroes make movies that are going to change someone's opinion about Bollywood. They think the acting is crap... well, I doubt Akshay will change their mind on that. They think Bollywood movies are full of nonsense and ridiculous shit. Uh... yeah... I love Dabangg but it IS full of nonsense and ridiculous shit. They think Bollywood movies are there just to justify the song and dance routine and some silly love-story. Hm... something like Ra.One won't exactly make a case for plot over shiny dance sequences with the heroine looking hot, wind blowing in her hair. And at least if the dancing were still top notch, then maybe, just maybe the audience of such films as "Step Up" and "Save the Last Dance" would be tempted to go for it. Sadly, apart from booty-shaking, there's not a whole lot of good dancing coming out of the big productions in Bollywood these days (not you, Munni, you still rock!).
But I digress. To further complicate matters, these are exactly the type of movies that, because they are built around star-power, come in assuming a body of knowledge that the North American audience doesn't have. It's fun when you're in the know to get all the inside jokes and all the references to other Bollywood movies or other heroes, but it's no fun to sit there hearing the rest of the audience roar with laughter and have absolutely no clue what just made that scene so funny. So the movies that get the widest distribution are also the ones guaranteed to alienate any potential non-desi movie-goers.
You see how this argument will now start going in circles: good distribution is assured for actors who already appeal to the desi masses because that's who's going to bring in the money. These actors will be watched and enjoyed by the same people every time, which ensures that the next release will also come to town. And so the world turns. And the people who are NOT already on the SRK batmobile or the Salman Khan bandwagon? Oh those guys... well, they can go watch Harry Potter.
This part of the problem also gets mirrored on the media side of things. What does the radio cover? What movies will get an article in The Star? Whose arrival did you see on TV during IIFA? Guess! Why? Because that's what sells the paper, that's who people want to hear about, that's who they already know and love. How do you break this vicious cycle when none of these mass media outlets have any interest in reaching that part of the audience that *doesn't* already know about Bollywood? God only knows...
3) On the other side of the distribution coin, movies that could appeal to non-desis never even get marketed to them.
I remember being completely dumbfounded that Shor in the City didn't screen anywhere in Toronto. Here was an opportunity to introduce a movie with an actor that North American non-desi audiences were already familiar with (Sendhil Ramamurthy), banking on the success of the TV series Heroes, and thus potentially gaining yourself a new audience. My friends had no way of knowing if the movie was any good (and nor did I), but they would have gone to see it just for Dr. Suresh. How crazy would it have been if that movie ended up changing people's minds about Bollywood (because it actually is pretty damn good)? We'll never know...
Or take another little piece of good cinema, Dhobi Ghat. Would people who watch foreign movies from Europe be interested in seeing this and loving it? Most likely. And yet its entire marketing campaign was aimed at convincing existing Aamir Khan fans that this is not your typical Aamir movie. (Which by the way led nowhere because those Aamir fans still went in expecting another 3 Idiots and they still bitched about the movie being crap, so a wasted effort if you ask me). Not only that, but despite the very cool website and the dozen of "making of" featurettes, the film only had one trailer, and that trailer didn't really say anything about the plot (not saying it's easy to make a trailer about this movie without giving away the plot, but if I hadn't already been interested in the director, that trailer wouldn't have convinced me to see it). So with this in mind, what potential did Dhobi Ghat have to attract that audience that would have given it its due? Almost none. It was people like me who already love Bollywood that went, loved, wrote and... that's it.
Not really Bollywood, but I can think of a few people who would have really appreciated the Pakistani movie Bol... if only they had known about it. But even I discovered it by fluke during the one week when it played in the city. This type of film would have made the film fest circuit, I think... but it never seemed to even try even though it came out right around TIFF. I know I would have gone to it at TIFF instead of Chatrak.
And fine, forget these off-beat movies, they probably don't get much of an audience even in their home country, it's unfair to ask their producers to spend more on marketing when they're likely to not recover their money even at home (though that argument lacks vision completely, but whatever, let's accept it for argument's sake). Then what about some true blue Bollywood like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or even The Dirty Picture? Not technically your typical Bollywood blockbuster (although these days it's very hard to say what IS your typical Bolly blockbuster), but in my opinion a good enough combo of Bollywood pizzazz and a good story line. Not too much thinking required, mostly full-on entertainment with a few misty-eyed moments here and there. Certainly neither of them a perfect movie, but enjoyable enough for an evening out. Did either of them get promoted outside the desi-verse? If they did, I never saw it.
Let's go even further with this: do we really think that those legions of teenagers who flock to the theatres to sigh and swoon their way through Edward and Bella's love story would not be interested in watching something fun like Mere Brother Ki Dulhan? Is there any valid reason why they would not also fall in love with a Bittoo in Band Baaja Baarat? Because other than the fact that they're required to read subtitles, I really can't think of a reason why they wouldn't be a perfect audience for this type of movie coming out of Bollywood. Why, then, is this audience not targeted when clearly they love the genre?
Now I'm not saying I know how to really reach these audiences with a marketing campaign, because if I did, I'd move to India tomorrow and hit up Aamir Khan Productions for a job. But what I do know is that I saw posters for Cooking with Stella all over downtown Toronto when that movie came out. I know that Videsh (Heaven on Earth) was shown in theatres that had never seen a Bollywood movie before. And I know that Breakaway was allegedly the most watched Canadian English-language movie of the year. Now they could all have something to do with the fact that some of the big names involved in the production are Canadian citizens. Still... maybe worth studying what it is that they are doing right.
Though I will say, one thing that would really help and it's beyond me why it's not happening, is instead of making movies in English, how about putting some subtitles on those youtube trailers? And hey, while we're at it, if you're releasing the songs as a promo, stick some subs on those as well! It's nice that you want people to appreciate the music and the visuals for themselves, but you know what, a lot of times the beauty of a song lies precisely in the way the lyrics match the music and the moment, and if you don't understand the lyrics, that moment is likely to pass you by. Not to mention that a trailer with subtitles is more likely to be disseminated on Facebook, Twitter and all those magical places where friends of friends would now have a chance to actually understand what you're so excited about as opposed to feeling like an idiot for having to ask so many questions about what you just posted. The internet is the strongest marketing tool right now. USE IT! But I am wasting my breath, I know...
|This screencap stolen from cinemagupshup.com|
Without getting into Bollywood's Hollywood complex which I find ridiculous anyway, I really wish Bollywood producers would explore the concept that maybe they don't need to change Bollywood to make it more marketable, it might be enough to just... market it properly!
Last but not least, and this is the one point where the biggest changes can be made...
4) Bollywood is such a self-centered industry.
Why not come out of its comfort zone and do some cross-pollination? I'm not just talking about Anil Kapoor being in the last Mission Impossible movie, or Aishwarya Rai being in the Pink Panther, or bringing in the awesome Poorna Jagannathan for Delhi Belly, although that's not a bad start. I'm talking about doing some joint projects, getting some experience elsewhere, bringing in some talent from abroad, just engaging with others. How many Hollywood actors have been in European movies? All the good ones. How many Hollywood directors watch Asian and European movies on a regular basis. Judging by what they list as their favourite movies, I'd say a lot. How much traffic is there back and forth for production staff across the continents? Enough. Sure it took decades to get to that kind of interaction, but Bollywood needs to come out and play already. Building itself a little fort of self-righteousness from which it scoffs at the other film industries while secretly wanting to be them will never be the way to go. National pride is nice and all but when Zoya Akhtar and Kiran Rao are the only two directors (that I can think of) who list non-Indian movies as their all time favourites on a regular basis, you know there's something rotten in the state of Denmark.
If people here were exposed to some Bollywood actors, cinematographers, plot-lines through this cross-pollination, their tolerance and curiosity for the real deal would probably increase substantially. And then it might go beyond Slumdog Millionaire and "that guy who won the Oscar for the soundtrack". Then you'd hear things like "Let's go see this Bollywood movie, it's with that girl from [insert title]. I love her!" and "Check it out, remember that awesome choreography from [insert title]? The same guy did the choreos in this movie". Or better yet "Wow, I LOVE this song. Here it is with subs. Hey wanna go see the movie it's from?". Sigh... Instead, actors from Bollywood would never be caught dead saying they'd like to be part of a foreign movie, the Indian actors who ARE part of international productions, such as Freida Pinto, are scoffed at, and whenever choreographers, singers and actors from North America do get involved in Bollywood projects, the enthusiasm is always one-sided and it's not on this side of the Pacific.
Until one or several of the above elements changes drastically, I will keep having to fight with friends to prove that Bollywood does *gasp* make good movies, while Indian films will continue to be this alien entity that holds nothing familiar and hence nothing of interest.
To end on an anecdotal note, I'll leave you with the best example that was given me last night during this discussion. Bollywood is like the Blackberry Playbook. It can do all these totally neat things, it's powerful, it's capable, it's reliable. But when it came out, it lost a lot of ground because of unfavourable comparisons to the iPad. Did anyone bother to look at what makes the Playbook different? Nope. All everyone wanted to see was how it fares next to the iPad in all the features that could be compared. And what about the areas that the iPad never even touched? Well, those don't matter and Blackberry certainly never bothered to highlight them. So in its own world, the Playbook is this awesome little product that will never get its due because its marketing campaign let it down. I don't have an iPad so I won't start comparing which one is better (and I don't really care, so please feel free to NOT start a debate over this), but the point is, just like with Bollywood, most people won't even give the Playbook a chance because it allowed itself to be positioned as Number 2 from the get-go. Why would I get the Number 2 product when Number 1 is readily available?
Ah... but what if Number 2 was not a number at all? What if it was just... say... the letter A?