Britain falls under Bollywood's spell with attendances hitting record high

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The Friday night queue at a West End cinema included the usual assortment of European tourists, Australian backpackers and British film fans.

But the film for which they were queuing was no Hollywood blockbuster. Instead it was the latest Bollywood offering - Fanaa, a three-hour Hindi language extravaganza subtitled in English for a rapidly expanding non-Asian fan base.

Industry experts say the large number of non-Asian Europeans in the queue at the Cineworld in Haymarket is a reflection of the huge number of "white Bollyphiles'' that have mushroomed in recent years.

Such is the crossover appeal of Hindi musicals spawned by the Bollywood industry in Bombay that the UK now has the second-largest fan base in the world outside of India.

Bafta is launching a three-day celebration of contemporary Bollywood cinema next month, while the promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, is set to bring The Merchants of Bollywood, a touring theatrical show, to Britain this October.

The Indian film star Shahrukh Khan came to London this week to release his current film, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye), a week ahead of its release in India, as a nod to growing numbers of Western Shahrukh fans.

Bollywood's equivalent to the Oscars are also set to be held in Sheffield, whichtriumphed over New York, Rome, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Melbourne and Hong Kong to be named the venue for 2007. The International Indian Film Academy Awards will be beamed to an audience of 300 million across the world.

Experts say greater distribution to London's biggest cinemas, which usually run films that are guaranteed to be box office hits, has helped to create the new breed of non-Asian fans. The Empire in Leicester Square and Cineworld in Shaftesbury Avenue regularly show Bollywood films.

Mr Khan said a substantial amount of the fan mail he receives is from Polish, Germany and Russian women. When he turned up in France for "Bollywood Week in Paris" in April this year, he was stunned to see that many of the 600 people who turned out to see him on the Champs-Elysées were Europeans who knew his film history, and even the names of the Hindi songs in them. "I have a theory for why so many Europeans enjoy Indian films - because they act as a button to allow you to cry," he said. "Our films are a lot more raw. Our fantasy in films is about having a nice car and living happily ever after with a nice girl. India is a storytelling country and a lot of Bollywood films say,'It's special to be ordinary'."

Asjad Nazir, the showbusiness editor at the Eastern Eye newspaper, said 2001 was a watershed year for Indian films. The film Lagaan raised the profile of sub-continental cinema after it was nominated for an Oscar that year.

"The Indian film industry has bucked a worldwide trend in the past 50 years when it has grown," he said. "Every other film industry is being crushed by the Hollywood juggernaut."

Bollywood themes were also reflecting Western pre-occupations, including infidelity, and pregnancy outside marriage, said Mr Nazir. "They're tackling more daring subjects and directors are definitely influenced by intelligent, international audiences. Indian audiences used to be very simple and films had to spoon-feed them. All that has changed now."

Bollywood Babylon

Additional research by Jonathan Dryer

* The Bollywood film industry is the biggest in the world in terms of viewers, with an average audience size of a billion in India and more than three billion worldwide, compared to Hollywood's 2.6 billion global ticket sales.

* The most expensive Indian film was Sanjay Leela Bansali's Devdas but this is set to be topped by the producer-director Shekar Kapoor's film Paani (Water), a sci-fi adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with a budget of $20m.

* The Bollywood actor Amitabh Buchchan was voted Star of the Millennium in a BBC poll, ahead of Marlon Brando.

* Ten years ago, Bollywood films were getting around 10 prints released in the UK per movie. Last year, there were 90 prints released forThe Rising.

* The film Kabhie Khushi, Kabhi Gham, starring Shahrukh Khan, left, was the first Bollywood film to enter the top five box office charts for its opening weekend in the UK.