Bollywood flirts with going global

Indian actress Aishwarya Rai had a simple anecdote to offer when asked whether she thought India's film industry now had a global reach.

Visiting the 15th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in the South Korean seaside city of Busan, Rai told how a question and answer session had begun earlier in the day.

"A Korean lady got up to ask the first question and she asked it in perfect Hindi," said Rai. "I was so surprised but I guess that shows that these days Indian culture is everywhere - and so are Indian films."

Rai has been at Asia's premier film festival to promote her latest productions, the action blockbusters "Raavan" and "Raavanan", along with her husband and co-star Abhishek Bachchan and the film's director Mani Ratnam.

Talk inevitably turned to the Indian film industry, the world's largest in terms of annual production numbers with more than 1,000 new films hitting cinemas each year.

The international film industry as a whole has been wondering when some of those lavish productions might be able reach out to the world.

The Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) - set in the Mumbai slums and featuring an Indian cast - certainly showed that there was global interest in India and Indian stories, but the Danny Boyle-directed production was British funded, scripted and produced.

Ratnam, responsible for 22 films during a 27-year career, among them some of the country's biggest domestic box office hits, said the time had come for Indian cinema to go international.

Indian cinema had remained "not totally-Hollywood-ized", said Ratnam, and audiences appreciated the fact.

"You have this wonderful opportunity to be able to go abstract, to convert to something very emotional and to an abstract form and then come back to the logical direction again," he said, referring to the fact that Bollywood productions often veer off into the unexpected, like song and dance routines.

"So it just gives you freedom not to be restricted to a very strict dramatic form."

Ratnam's latest film - about a woman who falls in love with her kidnapper - has picked up an international distribution deal.

Also in Busan this week is John Cooper, scouting Asian films in his role as director of the annual Sundance Film Festival, held in the US state of Utah.

He is heading the jury for PIFF's Flash Forward award, which looks at films from first- and second-time non-Asian directors.

Sundance has become synonymous with independent cinema - and with unearthing films from the far reaches of the cinematic universe.

Cooper believes that global success for any film industry comes once films from that particular industry are no longer simply filed under "exotic."

The cinema world has been looking to Asia for a number of years, he said.

"I think when it comes to attracting a major audience it all comes down to familiarity," he said.

"An example of this is the San Francisco Indian Film Festival. Their crowds doubled in size after 'Slumdog Millionaire' simply because people saw that film and wanted to know more about India and so more about what was happening in Indian cinema."

It was curiosity that first led 26-year-old Brazilian director Beatriz Seigner to India and, after travelling there, she immersed herself in the country's culture - and its cinema.

So much so that her first production, "Bollywood Dreams", has just become the first-ever co-Brazilian-Indian film production.

It, too, has been screening in Busan this week and Seigner revealed that there might be plenty more on the way after the recent signing of a co-production agreement between the film industries of the two countries.

"My experience was certainly unique," said Seigner, whose comedy follows the exploits of three Brazilian women who try to break into Bollywood.

"But even at home in Brazil we are finding more and more people want to watch Indian films and more people know about the Indian film industry."

"Bollywood Dreams" will be released in Brazil in February and Seigner has hopes for success, even though her domestic industry is struggling.

"It is hard to make money through films in Brazil," she said. "But we think we have something different - it is certainly different - and I think that is what interests people about Indian films too."

Considering the amount of money available in the domestic box office some have questioned whether Indian films really need a wider audience.

But Bachchan thinks it is inevitable - simply, he says, because India makes good films.

"To think, one out of six people in the world is Indian, I think we are pretty globalised," he said.

"But I don't think the question is about global domination. It's about taking your work and getting it shown to as many people as possible, who would believe that it's something worth watching."

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