A passage to Indian cinema

Mike Walsh

India, with its huge domestic audience, has long had the world’s most prolific film industry. The recent international prominence of Bollywood films signifies the country’s rising influence in world cinema.

In Australia we’ve seen Bollywood films, with their flamboyant mixture of music and melodrama, begin to cross over from diasporic audiences into arthouses. Recent successes include the Beginners’ Guide to Bollywood series which showed at various cinemas in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth late last year. This is a reflection of the situation in the UK and America, where Indian films consistently feature in box office charts.

From Australia’s point of view, there are significant advantages in exploring regional connections with the emergent Indian powerhouse. To foster these links, the Australia-India Film, Arts, Media and Entertainment Council was formed in Sydney at the end of 2003, under the umbrella of the Australia-India Business Council. The Council is headed by Anupam Sharma, and enjoys significant co-operation from AusFilm and several state film agencies.

An increasing number of Indian films are now being shot offshore. This allows productions to contain costs as crews of 35 can be substituted for the 140 typically employed on a shoot in Mumbai. Stars are more likely to be available to work uninterrupted on offshore shoots. Foreign locations add to the cosmopolitanism of the films while also appealing to diasporic audiences.

Australia is a prominent location with over 80 projects shooting here in the past 5 years. Sharma attributes this to a combination of varied locations, skilled crews and lower costs relative to Britain or North America. Many of these projects have been TV commercials, though the list includes several feature films, most notably Dil Chahta Hai (Heart’s Desire) from 2001, which was partly shot in Sydney.

Sharma line produced another major feature, Janasheen, in Australia last year. He believes that the Australian film industry must develop a global perspective: “It has been proven again and again that as the world becomes more global so does cinema. Imagine all the film professionals in Australia working on at least one Australian story related to their culture/origin (for example Ireland, Greece, India, or Korea).”

One of the Council’s goals will be a co-production treaty between Australia and India, so that Australian filmmakers can take advantage of tax concessions when working in India. Sharma also wants Australian immigration and trade authorities to be more welcoming to Indian filmmakers and encourage the use of Australian locations. He is organising an Australian delegation to the Frames film market in Mumbai in March, and promises Australian audiences a “comprehensive, official, and spectacular festival of Indian cinema” during the year.

This last aim is one to savour. The debate over the effects of a Free Trade Agreement on Australian film tends to revolve around the polarised alternatives of Hollywood dominance or maintaining an exclusionary national identity. There is an important third way—regional cinema alliances. The profusion of Indian cinema we’ve seen here in the past year demonstrates the richness of Indian film culture and the benefits Australians have to gain from engaging with it.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 18

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004
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