Why mainstream Bollywood becomes 'niche' market in West

KOLKATA: SRK and the Big B might be big hits in London when they are performing live, but few Londoners watch their films.

The revelation came from renowned British film scholar Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, who was in the city to deliver an interactive talk – titled ‘Italians in New York, Indians in London: A Journey around Global Film Audiences’ – organized by the British Council in association with Jadavpur University’s Media Lab.

The scholar took time out from his schedule to talk to TOI. He wished that Indian films were promoted better in the West and “given a little boost” by the government. “The niche White-skinned viewer, so to say, has watched the masterpieces of Ray and Ghatak, and would happily bracket them with the great international masters. But it’s only Indians, Pakistanis and people from the Arab countries in the UK who watch Bollywood,” he told TOI.

“With someone like Shah Rukh Khan, you could get an auditorium in London filled to capacity and make a lot of money. The Indian actors sell as themselves, so do their films, but strictly with Asians. In contrast, look at Ray’s ‘Mahanagar’, which was released on DVD last September and was a huge success in London. Bollywood is a completely separate world for the European audience. It’s a bigger niche, maybe, but only Asians figure in this niche,” he explained. The “niche” relating to Ray and Ghatak could be smaller, but included more Londoners and quite a few Europeans, he added.

The 70-year-old also made clear his interest for Kolkata. “Of all the major Indian cities, this is where I wanted to come to. It was the British colonial capital. Kolkata fascinates me as an Anglo-Indian city,” he said.

The scholar said Kolkata meant a lot to him as the seat of “Indian art cinema”, the place where the legendary trio – Ray, Ghatak and Sen – worked from. “In trans-national cinema, India is obviously a major player and of particular interest to Britain because of the historic ties between the two countries and the number and nature of people of Indian extraction living there, some of whom like Bollywood while others form part of the ‘art cinema’ audience,” he said.

“Bollywood doesn’t get reviewed in the newspapers, so Londoners don’t get to know about the films. Yet Asians living in London are spoilt for choice these days. Keep pressing the buttons and Bollywood is there on at least five television channels,” he said.

Taking a leaf out of what he discussed with JU students on Monday, Nowell-Smith said: “We talked about Italian neo-realism and how it was taken by the world as a model of non-Hollywood film-making.” He began with London in 1950, when Ray was sent by the advertising agency he worked for. “For five months he watched 99 films. By Ray’s own account, it was Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thief’ that impressed him the most and inspired him to create ‘Pather Panchali’ in April, 1955,” the film scholar said.

According to him, the story of a poor father searching post-World War II Rome for his stolen bicycle, without which he would lose his job, inspired Ray for the “minimum glamorisation” it reflected. “His friends had dissuaded Ray, but he thought if the Italians could do it, why couldn’t we,” Nowell-Smith smiled.

Ray, he said, had much government support. “Those days the (Indian) government was more supportive. The first film is showed in London but they don’t come back. Apart from the masterpieces we don’t get to see many Indian films. A bit more marketing could turn the tide,” he added.

Before signing off, he mentioned ‘Sholay’, one of the few well-marketed Indian mainstream films. “The Spaghetti Western-influenced Bollywood flick is still my favourite. Saw it on television when Channel 4 television bought it in 1985. Many Londoners watched it, too.”