Sunday, October 21, 2007

Actor leads India's rising film industry

CHENNAI, India - Waiting in line to see the most expensive film in Indian history, a young woman searched for the right words to describe the movie's star, an aging, slightly paunchy actor who goes by the name of Rajnikanth.

"He is a god," Deborah Rekha Jeyasekar, 21, finally declared. "We accept that."

This isn't necessarily hyperbole in a land where celebrities are treated with something close to idolatry. When Sivaji - The Boss opened June 15, fans poured milk over cardboard cutouts of Rajnikanth in a Hindu rite of worship. Others sacrificed an entire week's wages to buy scalped tickets to the first screening.
Fueled by the actor's megawatt star power, the film, with its Robin Hood story line and an estimated budget of $18 million - huge by Indian standards - appears to be enjoying a blockbuster run at the theaters, though box-office figures have yet to be released.

But Sivaji is not a Bollywood production, and Rajnikanth is not a Hindi-speaking Bollywood heartthrob. The movie was shot in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and the dialogue is in Tamil, a language spoken by more than 70 million people.

The strong success of Sivaji has highlighted the fact that the Indian film industry, often considered synonymous with Bollywood, is actually far more diverse. A country of more than a dozen official languages, India has several different "ollywoods" scattered across the subcontinent, churning out movies that cater mostly to regional audiences.

Indeed, although Bollywood's colorful song-and-dance spectacles generally boast the biggest budgets, the biggest stars and the biggest domestic and international penetration, the Hindi film industry in Mumbai accounts for only about a quarter of the 1,000 or so movies produced in India annually.

Almost as prolific are "Kollywood," the Tamil film industry based in Tamil Nadu, and "Tollywood," its Telugu-language counterpart in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Combined, the two entertainment powerhouses released nearly twice as many feature films last year as Bollywood.

"Everyone thinks Bollywood is the biggest in India, but it's actually the South Indian movie market that is bigger than the Hindi market," said Hetal Adesara, editor of (Hindi is the dominant language of India, spoken by more than 300 million people, concentrated mostly in the north.)

The growth in regional filmmaking, along with India's overall economic boom, has helped spur optimistic forecasts of the potential of the country's movie industry.

A report this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry pegged India's film business at $2.1 billion in 2006. That figure will more than double by 2011, the report projected.

Last year's highest-grossing movies in India were Bollywood creations, led by Krrish, starring the highly bankable Hrithik Roshan as a caped superhero. The movie, which made it into a handful of American theaters, raked in about $20 million worldwide, more than triple its initial investment. (In India, tickets at even the best cinemas in big cities never cost more than $5.)

This year, Bollywood has struggled to match 2006's record at the box office. Several high-profile films with big-name stars have flopped.

Still, Bollywood's global reach is not in any doubt. Its films do brisk business in other parts of Asia and in the West, especially in nations with significant South Asian populations, such as Britain. Same-day premieres around the world have become more common, and reviews of Bollywood flicks now appear in American newspapers.

But some non-Bollywood films are making inroads of their own. Rajnikanth, a bus conductor turned actor, has a devoted following in Japan, and ardent fans in Malaysia rioted and set one cinema on fire when the first screenings of Sivaji were delayed by a few hours.

In India, the highly anticipated film - the actor's first in two years - is exhibiting strong staying power, boosted by a months-long publicity campaign by its maker, AVM Studios. Three weeks after the movie's premiere, even weekday morning shows here in Chennai were sold out, attended by screaming moviegoers of both sexes.

Industry scuttlebutt has it that Rajnikanth's fee for Sivaji was $5 million, plus a share of the profits, making him India's highest-paid actor.

The movie follows a well-worn populist story line in which the title character brings down a corrupt rich businessman and builds hospitals and schools for the poor. But Indian critics are in near-unanimous agreement that the plot is largely irrelevant. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Rajnikanth to reel off one-liners, perform Matrix-like stunts and strut around.

That's why, analysts say, the film has traveled so well outside of Tamil Nadu. An inability to understand Tamil is no barrier to figuring out what's happening on screen. (A non-Tamil-speaking American reporter, who sat through all three hours and 20 minutes of Sivaji, can attest to this.)

The movie also underscores the importance in India, more so than in Hollywood, of a big-name star for launching a blockbuster. An Indian film with an A-list actor can certainly flop, but a film without one almost never becomes a hit.

"Rajnikanth is an amazing star who sort of bypasses all age groups," said film critic and analyst Indu Mirani. "He's about 60-plus, but . . . he's so flamboyant on screen that he appeals to everybody."

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