Bollywood: 'Movies from the soul' that will rule the world
Can Bollywood really be box office? The head of London-listed Eros International insists to James Moore that it can – with no moral compromises
Sunday 08 June 2008
'The Aviator, The Shawshank Redemption, Ben Hur, Pulp Fiction and Harry Potter – I like Harry Potter." Bollywood movie mogul Kishore Lulla has to think carefully about his five favourite Hollywood films. All he can state for certain is his ambition that at least one movie from his AIM-listed company, Eros International, will feature in the top five of other film buffs before too long.
His company's shares have not had an easy time of it on the London Stock Exchange's junior market in recent times, losing half their value since 1997 despite eye-catching deals with Hollywood studios. But Lulla seems undaunted and says he plans to move them to the full list in the next couple of years.
"What we would like to do is find the Indian Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," he says, his eyes radiating enthusiasm.
The Chinese film is cited because it showed that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, English-speaking cinema-goers could be persuaded to turn out in huge numbers for a subtitled foreign-language movie – as long as the film was right.
Made for $15m (around £7.5m), it grossed $128m in the US alone and was no one-off, being followed by House of Flying Daggers and Hero (also members of the "wuxia" genre of chivalric martial arts films).
To be fair, Bollywood films such as Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) have attracted interest from beyond the South Asia diaspora in the UK and the US. And Eros itself scored a minor hit with Om Shanti Om.
But Lulla readily accepts that these films are not in the same league as Crouching Tiger, noting that they attracted "primarily an art-house crowd".
Eros, though, recently signed a deal with Sony that it hopes could change all this. Sony will invest $30m in four Eros movies that may have the potential to be distributed to Western audiences. Another deal, this time with Lionsgate, famous for the Oscar-winning Crash, will also get Eros's films into the US and Lionsgate's into India.
Lulla warms to his theme. The diminutive mogul sits up in his seat and, using expansive hand gestures, says: "I'll give you my strategy. The South Asian diaspora – that we have conquered, but look at Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Germany, Poland, Russia, China. All these countries consume Hollywood movies in a dubbed environment. But in the last 20 years we have seen all these countries embracing Bollywood in a big way, because Bollywood gives them a breath of fresh air. It gives them music. It gives them family values. It gives them something different from Hollywood. And we have seen a breakout success of many films into these markets."
He adds: "The future, as I see it, is a cross-pollination between Bollywood and Hollywood. I have tremendous respect for the Hollywood studios, but we are trying to do what they did in 90 years in 10. India is going global. Its food has gone global, its fashion has gone global and its movies will go global."
Well, maybe. The food was an easy sell and fashion is always on the look-out for the next big thing. Bollywood movies, though, are an acquired taste to those schooled on Tinseltown.
Still, to Lulla's mind, Hollywood can learn much from Bollywood. "Listen," he reiterates, "I have great respect for the Hollywood studios. But what we offer is family values, music and movies from the soul that appeal to the soul – not all about special effects, packaging, sex, violence. There should be a message also. Being a studio head, you have such a moral responsibility to send a message across to the population. I will never encourage a movie coming out of Eros that will give a bad message to the children."
But, well, Pulp Fiction, one of his top five from Hollywood, is a famously violent movie. "It's a personal liking – you have to appreciate it as art. But you know, I'm a 46-year-old person – I've grown up now. I know I'm not going to repeat what I see on screen. I'm not going to copy if I see some movie. If you put a movie out and a 15-year-old, 16-year-old watches ... A film maker has to show some responsibility.
"There are messages that come across from Bollywood, in a commercial manner: believe in yourself, believe in your karma. If there is some good I can do to the world by teaching them Hindu culture, that is what I would like Hollywood to learn from Bollywood. The law of karma – what goes around comes around."
Before anyone starts thinking Lulla is some kind of latter-day hippy, there is a cool commercial logic to his plans. "I think the new powerhouse of entertainment is going to be from India," he says. "With a population of 1.1 billion, with 400 million in the middle class and 40 million joining every year, you have so much disposable income.
"In India we have 13,000 screens and 700 multiplexes. We sold four billion tickets last year, compared to 2.9 billion tickets in Hollywood.
"Every major corporate is going into India. There are townships being built, malls being built. Within the next five years you will have 25,000 screens coupled with the 400 million having much more disposable income. We can sell five billion tickets, or more.
"There was a survey in India recently which found that Indians spent most on entertainment. The average cost of a film ticket is a dollar today, but in a few years it could be $3 and one film will gross $50m every weekend. If that happens, you will get the world's attention."
He continues: "Why are Hollywood films so successful? Because they gross $50m at the weekend and then suddenly every country wants to buy that. We can make a film at 10 per cent of the cost. If that happens, the powerhouse of the world will be a cross-pollination between Hollywood and Bollywood.
"Bollywood has gone global outside the English-speaking world," he adds. "The growth in Hollywood has plateaued out but the growth in Bollywood is 18 per cent."
So, given India's growing economic power, why didn't Eros list its shares in its home country? "There's nothing really like us in India," explains Lulla – "nothing comparable to us that has the studio model. London is an international market and the investors really liked our story when we came here. What inspired us was when a Hollywood executive –I won't say who –sat down and said he wanted to buy half of our company. He wrote me out a blank cheque."
Confident he may be, but Lulla does not stray into arrogance and does not get testy when I express a degree of scepticism, even though this has been his mission for over 20 years – a mission that has taken him around the globe and has seen him doing 16 hours a day on more than a few occasions. "When I was 20, I asked my father, who founded the company, to let me take it global," he says. "You just need to see one – you'll get hooked."
An associate sums Lulla up by saying: "He doesn't mind if people disagree with him – he just thinks he will have won the argument in 20 years."
Lulla comments: "I'll tell you my angle. If someone told you 30 years ago that the Japanese car industry would take over the car industry of the world, you would have laughed. There is no way someone could have even thought that. It's the same with Bollywood. We are going global."
And his five favourite Bollywood pictures? "Please don't ask me that. My favourite is the one we are producing at the time. I could not pick one. They are like my babies. I couldn't favour one over another."
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