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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Why Indian films don't need protection

Cinemimi [Wednesday, November 09, 2011]
Banning Hollywood films dubbed in Indian languages will ghettoise the industry and eventually kill the Indian film businessVanita Kohli-Khandekar / New Delhi
It is an idea straight out of a low-grade horror film. There is a demand for a ban on Hollywood films being dubbed in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bhojpuri or other Indian languages. There is talk of Mahesh Bhatt and other film makers lobbying the ministry of information and broadcasting. Their contention: dubbed films are eating into the Indian industry’s share of revenues.

Banning dubbed films is a dangerous path to tread. It is bad for both consumers and business. It is bad for consumers because it will kill variety, leaving cinema audiences with that much less to watch. More importantly, it will ghettoise the industry and eventually kill the Indian film business a la France and Italy. Here is why.

India is one of the most robust film markets in the world. It produces about 1,100 films every year and consumes all of them. Though not a very profitable industry yet, it is getting there. In the last five years corporatisation and the spread of multiplexes and digital cinemas have helped total revenues grow at an average of 15 to 20 per cent to hit Rs 14,000 crore in 2010.

It is also one of the few film industries in the world that have withstood the might of Hollywood; South Korea is probably the only other. After more than eight decades in India, Hollywood continues to account for five to seven per cent of box-office revenue. No matter how much the market grows, that percentage remains constant.

Remember that unlike France or China, there are no restrictions on showing any film in India from anywhere in the world as long as it meets Indian censorship norms. Even without any protection, industry status, proper financing or an organised structure, the Indian film industry has done a fantastic job through its 100-odd years of existence. That is because we like our entertainment in our language and context. We may aspire to become Western in our professional life, but in our cultural preferences – food, art, films and music – we remain steadfastly Indian. Nothing drives Indians to a greater frenzy than does a Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan release, a cricket match, a popular soap on TV or an item number. We enjoy Avatar in Tamil or Telugu, but that really is a one-off. Our heart, soul and money are captured, largely, by Indian films.

Why, then, is the film industry feeling threatened? It should be flattered — more so because India is perhaps among the handful of countries where the big global studios – notorious for not investing in local content – have ventured into production. They have realised that the only way to win in the Indian market is through local content. Therefore, in the last five years the studio arms of the major global media companies have either produced or acquired Indian-language films. My Name is Khan (Fox Star), Roadside Romeo (Disney-Yashraj), Do Dooni Char (Disney), Chandni Chowk To China (Warner Brothers) and Sanwariya (Sony) are some of them.

Whether they produce, acquire or dub films locally, all of it is good news for the Indian industry for three reasons. One, it means more variety for Indian audiences. So a Bhojpuri- or Tamil-speaking person is likely to enjoy a Spiderman much more because he finally knows what the masked man is saying.

Two, it opens up the global market for Indian films. The potential audience for Indian films is about 2 to 2.5 billion people spread across South Asia, West Asia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, the UK and the US. It is tapped patchily by a few Indian companies. What it needs is focussed distribution. This is where the global studios, which have started distributing Indian films abroad, come in useful.

Three and most importantly, the Indian film industry represents, in some ways, the idea of India. It is an inclusive, experimental, creative and liberal potpourri. That is what makes a successful film (or creative) business. Which is why the industry has survived Hollywood's smothering presence that has killed almost all local film industries in the world. Other countries reacted by trying to protect and ended up creating a white elephant. Most of the European film industry survives on government sops, not because audiences say “yes” with their wallets for local films, the way they do in India.

By not allowing any foreign film, not just from Hollywood, to be dubbed in India will ghettoise the serendipitous creativity that has defined the Indian film industry so far. It is the best way to kill the creative spirit of a resilient and strong industry.

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