The Great Gatsby rakes it in: Why Hollywood is going the Bollywood way

Speaking at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, director Amit Kumar said, "If you use the term Bollywood, it really represents the song-and-dance, credibility-stretched story kind of film. We need to portray Indian cinema as more international and I hope our presence at Cannes will make the world realise that Indian cinema is most than just about Bollywood."

Kumar's film Monsoon Shooutout is part of Un Certain Regard and is the only Indian film that's been officially invited to Cannes Film Festival this year.

Un Certain Regard has been a platform for a number of off-the-beaten-track films from India, like Udaan and Miss Lovely (the latter is yet to have a commercial release at home). There hasn't been an Indian film in the festival's competition section since 1994, when Shaji Karun's Swaham was nominated for the Golden Palm. The fact that our commercial blockbusters are not the films selected by festivals like Cannes is usually interpreted as an indication that the West would like to see Indian cinema that breaks the shackles of Bollywood.

A poster of the film The Great Gatsby.

A poster of the film The Great Gatsby.

Directors like Kumar may feel warm and fuzzy at the idea of the West greeting non-Bollywoody Indian cinema with hugs and kisses, but here's an inconvenient truth: not only is Bollywood India's best-known export, Hollywood is going the Bollywood way.

And considering how well The Great Gatsby, which was the opening film at Cannes Film Festival, has done both in cinematic and financial terms — $90 million in global earnings, and counting — Sanjay Leela Bhansali and gang better watch out. At this rate, Hollywood is going to beat Bollywood at its own game.

The West's love affair with desi spectacle has been bubbling in Hollywood studios for a while. Remember Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (2007)? The film was meant to be a tribute to The Beatles, which is why there were more than 30 songs in the soundtrack. Plus, strengthening the parallel with Bollywood, the film's plot held together about as well as wet toilet paper. In case you were wondering, many critics loved this song and dance extravaganza.  The New York Times was charmed by its " oh-wow aesthetic" and declared that "during the time it lasts, the intoxicating passion ... [of the film's lead pair] convinces, for a moment, that love is all you need." Which is what audiences have been saying about Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge for almost two decades.
Choreographed dances, Bollywood's signature statement, have shown up with increasing regularity in Hollywood films. In Enchanted (2007), Amy Adams sang songs in Central Park and had backup dancers. Recently, Mirror Mirror (2012) ended with a Bollywood-inspired number that was absolutely unnecessary. Baz Luhrmann's fondness for our dhinchak aesthetic was evident when he used "Chamma Chamma" in Moulin Rouge (2001). His newest film, The Great Gatsby is precisely what you'd expect a Bollywood film to be if it had an estimated production budget of $127,000,000. It's big, brash, superficial and spectacular.

The kinship between Bollywood and Hollywood in recent times is more than skin deep. Rather than songs and terrible plotting, the hallmark of commercial Indian cinema is the collective worship of the blockbuster and this is the new trend in Hollywood.

"All the studios have decided that big-event movies are a better business," said Doug Creutz, the senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, to The New York Times. This year, between May and August, Hollywood will see the release of 19 blockbusters. Usually, American summers see nine or ten big budget films.
The traditional thinking of Western cinema has been that the earnings from expensive top grossers filter down and encourage humbler, more independent cinema. This isn't happening quite as much because every studio and its investors have their gazes focussed upon the blockbuster.

This is similar to what happens in Bollywood where most of the time, the earnings from a big film are channelled into another big film. Very few producers take a chance with films that are not obviously commercially viable, although they've become a little more liberal in terms of their choices. Zombie flicks (Go Goa Gone) and films about SEZs (Shanghai) stood no chance of being funded till a few years ago.
But where does Hollywood's Bollywood thinking leave the smaller films that have been American cinema's pride and whose success has given hope to indie filmmakers all over the world? Speaking at the San Francisco Film Festival, director Steven Soderbergh summed it up like this: "You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie. That’s hard. That’s really hard." Soderbergh also said, "Cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience." He distinguished cinema from "movies", defining the latter as something whose chief characteristics are generic or arbitrary. Which sounds like how critics have described Bollywood films for decades. According to Soderbergh, the current trend of backing blockbusters is "pushing cinema out of mainstream movies".
So, as encouraging as it may be for Indian independent cinema to show up in Un Certain Regard, the idea that "intelligent" or "alternative" (read: low budget) Indian films will find a receptive bunch of producers and promoters abroad is a pipe dream. Hollywood likes Bollywood, and it likes our mainstream cinema for its spectacle, exotica and superficiality. That's what they're looking to incorporate into their own films and the fact that we've been raised on a diet of such movies is what Hollywood studios hope to tap into. Their strategy is working. English blockbusters are no longer niche releases in a few multiplexes. They're dubbed, sent to theatres all over the country and they're giving many Bollywood films a run for their money.
It turns out Rudyard Kipling was wrong after all. East is East and West is West, but it seems the twain can meet, at the movies.