Foreign-language films make inroads in India

Arun Pathak settled into his seat at a multiplex cinema in a north Mumbai suburb to watch all 5.5 hours of French director Olivier Assayas' epic film "Carlos".

"I love cinema and where else do you get a chance to see these kind of films?" said Pathak, a chartered accountant in India's financial and entertainment capital.

"The theatres don't screen such films and I didn't want to miss it."

"Carlos" - about the the Venezuelan-born revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez better known as "Carlos The Jackal" - was shown last week as part of a French film festival, coinciding with a visit to India of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Assayas and stars including the British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who features in two of the seven films shown - "Crime d'amour" (Love Crime) and "Elle s'appellait Sarah" (Sarah's key) - were also present to promote the event.

"I went to watch another film, 'Of Gods And Men' (Des hommes et des dieux), and I couldn't believe it. The theatre was packed," added Pathak.

"Luckily I'd come early so I got a seat at the back, otherwise I would have had to sit at the front."

Original version or dubbed Hollywood movies have become increasingly popular in India in recent years but packed houses for what could be termed arthouse movies in languages other than English would once have been unthinkable.

Indian audiences, however, are gradually opening up to "world cinema," as disposable incomes among the middle classes increase, more multiplex cinemas spring up in cities and dubbing into indigenous languages grows.

Internet downloads, a greater choice of films available at DVD rental stores and undergraduate mass media courses, which include modules on world cinema, are contributing to the rising interest, say industry analysts.

Sixty foreign-made films were released in Indian cinemas in 2009, most of them from Hollywood, earning nearly 3.8 billion rupees (84 million dollars) at the box office.

The figure may be small beer compared with the overall 89.3 billion rupees in revenue taken by the hundreds of mainstream Indian-made films in the same period but analysts predict the market for world cinema will inevitably expand.

"It's very clear that a niche has been established but it's growing, albeit quite slowly," said Meenakshi Shedde, a Mumbai-based film critic and film festival consultant.

"There's a huge interest in cinema outside Bollywood and it can be monetised at some stage... People are willing to pay good money for good films, regardless of where they are from."

Unifrance, which promotes French cinema across the world, said the third edition of the four-day festival was designed to appeal to India's vast cinema-going public, who are still fiercely loyal to homegrown stars.

"We now wish to break into the mainstream commercial India market, just like Hollywood has," the state-backed organisation's executive director Regine Hatchondo told the Times of India newspaper.

Dedicated television channels, like UTV World Movies and Lumiere Movies, in which the Time Warner group has a controlling stake, are also helping to broaden the appeal of foreign arthouse films.

Clubs like the Enlighten Film Society, which shows classics of world cinema every week at two Mumbai multiplexes, are being set up across the country.

"Enlighten... wants to break the myth that artistic films are boring in nature," the group, which was set up by a number of Bollywood directors, says on its web site (www.enlighten.co.in).

"The culture of watching foreign language movies is missing in India hence we want to spread the culture among the people of watching these kinds of films, which will help them to understand various cultures."

Anurag Basu, who directed "Kites" starring Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, told AFP in an interview earlier this year that he had no opportunities to see foreign films growing up in a small town in central India in the 1980s.

But he became hooked on cinema after seeing the 1942 classic "Casablanca", starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

"After that I knew I had no other ambition but to direct a film," he said. "I feel if we get more and more films for audiences to watch, then better ideas and new talent will spring up in our industry."

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