When WikiLeaks went public with diplomatic cable 248355 last April, it revealed that even the Americans weren't too optimistic about their chances of breaching one of the last bastions against them: "Unfortunately, all of the joint Hollywood-Bollywood productions released thus far have been unsuccessful at the box office, signalling that a successful entry into Bollywood is not easy," some unsparing bureaucrat had written. Perhaps there was also a note of admiration there, for another country with a formidable popular cinema (about a 90% share of its own market), and a deep resistance to watching anything foreign.
But Hollywood isn't quitting yet. This week sees the release in India and the UK of the latest Hollywood wolf in Bollywood clothing, 20th Century Fox's Ekk Deewana Tha. A glossy-looking romantic drama with a pair of extremely winsome leads in real-life couple Prateik Babbar and Miss England finalist Amy Jackson, it's following Hollywood's current worldwide mantra of conquering from within. Traditional US blockbusters, hobbled by being so culturally alien, had been struggling to gain more than a 5% clawhold in the Indian market during the noughties. Efforts at assimilation, like adding Hindi songs to Casino Royale (but unfortunately not forcing Daniel Craig and Eva Green into a dance sequence on the Eurostar), haven't had much impact. So by late last decade, most of the Hollywood majors had decided to make Hindi-language movies.
Returns, as the cable said, have been mixed. Sony's first effort, the pricey romantic drama Saawariya, based on a Dostoyevsky story, was steamrollered at the box office in November 2007 by the Bollywood dream-team musical Om Shanti Om. Roadside Romeo, Disney's first Indian animation, bombed. Warner Brothers India tried to talk up the international credentials of its wuxia-masala hybrid Chandni Chowk to China, but it performed indifferently. Only 20th Century Fox, through its Fox Star India imprint, has come close to the big time: with crime thriller Dum Maaro Dum, which took a respectable $11m in India, and Shahrukh Khan vehicle My Name is Khan – the "desi Forrest Gump" and Hollywood's one palpable hit ($16.4m in India/$44m worldwide).
Why the disappointments? It is Indians, through local companies, who are making these films, so there's been nothing culturally off about them. Hollywood is simply suffering more than most from the law of averages in cinema because it's not investing anything like as seriously as it needs to if it wants to break into this vast territory. In 2009, Warner Brothers India promised Rs200 crore (about $40m) for Hindi-language projects. That's enough for about four big-budget films by Indian standards, but it's unlikely all of them would make a splash. In another WikiLeaks cable, Siddarth Roy Kapur, the CEO of the studio UTV, estimated that only 5% of all Bollywood films made any kind of profit. The Americans are going to need more than a thin scattering of films to sow this terrain sustainably.
It doesn't help that the newcomers don't have a deep understanding of how things function in India – at least according to an executive at Reliance Big Pictures quoted in the cables: "US studios need to reorient their strategies, rescind control and empower local people if they want to succeed in India. The Indian film-making process is not organised, and, unlike the professionalism in Hollywood, dealing with creative talent in India requires tact and flexibility."
And at the end of the day, Hollywood remains the competition – the communiques also highlight how reluctant Bollywood studios are to partner with American ones. Which leaves boardroom belligerency as the only remaining way of breaking in, as with Disney's recent acquisition of the controlling stake in UTV (and, of course, Indian studios are busy looking for the same opportunities in the States, like Reliance Big's financing of DreamWorks).
One thing could make this suspicion dissipate: China, and its repeated attempts to give an adrenalin shot to its own blockbuster production, something Reliance Entertainment chairman Amit Khanna has said he follows with "enormous attention". The area in which Bollywood can really learn from Hollywood, the cables suggest, is global marketing and distribution; if Bollywood has to shed its traditional insularity in order to stay competitive with Chinese films, it might have to learn how to apply a little American-style snake oil. It was 20th Century Fox that pushed My Name is Khan into the global mainstream, carefully exploiting Shahrukh Khan's star glow, the pertinence of its 9/11 plotline and the huge Indian diaspora. Bollywood's trade-off for a full apprenticeship in these ploys might be helping Hollywood with its dance moves, and holding the door of Indian box office open to it.
The WikiLeaks cables show that governments really do think along these strategic lines about the entertainment industry. They call it soft power. Let's hope that they don't forget that someone – Hollywood, Bollywood, or Chinese – is supposed to be making the next generation of classic films at the same time.
This article first appeared HERE.