In an interesting tête-à-tête, Johar takes on Amritraj to deliberate on different aspects of the Indian film industry and what Indian producers can do to penetrate the North American film industry.
You forayed into a highly competitive area like North America and made a mark for yourself. This is quite an achievement. Was it difficult given all the discrimination that we hear and talk about?
In 1981, when I got into the film business, I thought it would be easy, but it was not to be. Then it was a sea of white faces, it was not as multi-ethnic a culture as it is today. It’s a very different world today.
Let’s talk about crossover – it’s not a term that makes any sense to me personally, but what does the term mean to you?
I don’t think they have happened yet. It just seems to be a generalised termed for movies with Indian actors that are shot in English. Majority of them don’t even have a release in the US. Many of them play on the Indian screens and play to the NRI audience, but certainly nothing has become a ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ or a ‘Life is Beautiful’, which were truly crossovers.
I understand that movies like ‘Crouching Tiger...’ haven’t done well in domestic markets. Do you believe that we have to change our formats to cater to the West?
Right now, Hollywood cinema and Indian cinema are running on parallel tracks. It is very difficult to make an Indian movie that caters to the Indian audience and at the same time address a western audience, because it very difficult for them to understand the Indian value systems. So, you have to skew it a little bit, but then worry is that you lose the domestic audience.
Which is the question that I ask everyone - barring of course factors like distribution - do we need to go that way?
Always great to penetrate the global market, certainly there is more understanding of Indian culture today than there was 10 years ago. I do think the window is open and it is going to grow. I don’t think that you have to go all the way and make a 'Kramer vs Kramer', but I think you can get to a point where people can understand that there is a world out there. I do think it is there, but mainstream Indian cinema that is doing well in India and in other global markets are still played only in the Indian theatres and not yet in the AMC or the Regal, and I think part of this is just not lack of understanding!
Indian films haven’t been able to penetrate the North America theatrical network at all. The UK has been very receptive but North America has just blocked out our films and not opening at all. Is there any way we can change that?
I had a number of discussions with the studios there, who, to a great extent, have these deals with the theatres. Part of the problem is that the studios there have not been able to figure out how to sell an Indian movie to the audiences. Also the print and advertising cost for an American movie is so high in just the first weekend that when you get any one of these titles, you don’t know what to do with it. I think things are changing. Many of the studios are looking at India for production.
Are they just looking at us or doing something about it?
They are looking.
Is there anything you are personally looking at doing with India?
There is a project - ‘The Other End of the Line’ - which will be developed 50-60 per cent in India and the rest in San Francisco, but the cast has to be finalised.
What is your perception of the standard of our cinema?
Almost like anywhere in the world, you have four or five great movie makers. I think what stands out in the Indian cinema is photography at amazing costs. But, I think you are greatly lacking in story. Sorry.
No, that’s fine. I totally agree. There is a desperate need for writers.
Yeah. Even when I am here, I get pitched by directors and producers, but never by writers.
There aren’t any, we have to eventually resort to writing ourselves. But I think what is also happening is that we have a lot of directors doing their own writing, who don't really give writers a chance. There has to be a window to let writers in...
... And they have to be developed. I think, one of the great things about Hollywood movies is that I can make a lot of different kinds of movies rather than doing the same stuff.
How do the people there look at you because you represent a different ethos, mental framework?
I have seen a huge change in the last 10 years in the curiosity factor around India and the fact that you can't miss India anywhere in America today. The back office stuff, technology and every other thing – jewellery to mehendi – is finding spotlight in American news, George Bush was in India. I think you got them shit scared with all the stuff that is happening. India is suddenly that global giant.
Yash Chopra, are you listening...
would your advice be to someone like Yash Chopra, who has the infrastructure
and the network? If there has to be a marriage, what would your advice
For the first time I have heard about a studio in India that is comparable
to anything in the world. That in itself is a huge step. He is vertically
integrated today. He has production, financing, distribution - getting
very close to the studio model. He is one of a kind here and probably
there would be more, which then goes to the next step - that is increase
distribution revenue and gain access in new markets. I think markets like
Germany, France and some other European markets will offer better access
than the US, which is still a tough market. With these co-production treaties
being signed, you can probably keep some of the production dollars for
distribution and get a better theatrical penetration.