A Bollywood love affair
It wouldn’t be extreme to compare a Bollywood film with a stage musical production. In fact, the viewing experience is very similar – opulent settings, dramatic plots and an abundance of song and dance. The growth of Bollywood in the local market shows that this is clearly a winning formula and it seems more and more South Africans just can’t get enough of it.
Only a few years ago, most South Africans would have been forgiven for not knowing much about Bollywood films. Big-budget Hollywood blockbusters have long dominated local cinema, but in the last decade, the popularity of Bollywood has grown enormously.
The term ‘Bollywood’ refers to the largest and best-known part of the Indian film industry, and is a blended word combining “Bombay” (the old name for Mumbai) and Hollywood, the heart of America’s film industry. Thobashan Govindarajulu, Marketing Manager at Ster Kinekor, explains that whereas South Indian films draw niche audiences, Bollywood or North Indian films are more commercialised and have star casts, giving them a global appeal.
Many people would assume, although incorrectly, that Bollywood movies would be most popular with Indian people in South Africa. But Govindarajulu says that a large segment of the audience consists of Afrikaans and Portuguese-speaking viewers. So it seems that one of the reasons for the industry’s growth is the cross-cultural appeal.
As is the case with Hollywood movies, Bollywood also offers escapism, but what they represent is quite different. “Generally the movies promote wholesome family values with clean content, no nudity or sex,” Govindarajulu says. The movies are big on colour, spectacular song and dance and somewhat elaborate plots, but it is the good clean fun that appeals to both young and old in South African families.
Their musical style has played a significant role drawing in audiences, but according to Govindarajulu, even this has been adapted to suit a more westernised market. In the newer films, there are fewer extended song and dance sequences.
The value of a good formula was evident, particularly when Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a Hindi romantic comedy, was released in 1998. It achieved the highest attendance ever received for a Bollywood film in South Africa, according to Govindarajulu. The formula worked and it featured big stars like Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. Rakesh Maharaj, a line producer with Kingdom Productions, points out that although Bollywood had always enjoyed some support outside of India itself, this film really helped to put the industry on the global map.
The movies also seem to have quite a following on television, offering viewers at least three hours of entertainment on a weekend afternoon. Maharaj says that television screenings as well as subtitling have made the movies more accessible. Lisa Martin, General Manager and Director of Amazing Spaces, a film locations agency, expects that growth in Bollywood will continue, particularly as up-and-coming directors start getting funding for their movies.
What is also unique about these films is that viewers seem to watch them over and over again. Whereas the average romantic comedy isn’t often watched more than once, it is Indian custom to watch the film at least three to five times, Govindarajulu explains. The tried-and-tested formulas such as family social dramas, love triangles and the good old favourite tearjerkers are the most successful.
South Africa has also become a preferred location for shooting Bollywood films. Specifically, it is places such as Cape Town and Durban that are considered affordable by Indian filmmakers and the reliable warm, sunny weather beats most foreign locations for shooting outdoors.
Martin has noticed an increase in the number of productions facilitated in South Africa in the past two years. Cape Town is popular as it offers a wide variety of locations within a short travelling distance. “Within a 40 km radius you can film a beach, city centre, urban street, rural area, exclusive mansion villa, commercial or restaurant scene,” she says. In the past 18 months, Maharaj of Kingdom Productions, has worked on six Bollywood film productions in Durban.
Bollywood productions ensure that millions of Rands are spent on accommodation, catering, equipment and vehicle rental and location hire. The employment market also benefits whenever filmmakers employ local crew. Tourism is another positive spin-off and according to Maharaj, the middle-class Indian tourist market is ranked amongst the largest in the world. “Many of these tourists take their lead from locations featured in Bollywood films,” he says.
Those in the know are confident that the Bollywood industry in South Africa can only grow further. Currently, Bollywood and Indian content is mainly viewed as a niche market. Govindarajulu believes it will remain that way unless the mass media include it in their mainstream content. “The market should grow, as they [the media] will become a lot more familiar with the stars from Indian cinema, understand the culture, and hopefully appreciate the feature films,” he says.
Story by Wilma den Hartingh
Pic © Ster Kinekor