“Let’s Talk is not in a regional
language—it’s in English. It doesn’t have
songs and
it doesn’t operate from the melodramatic rules of opera
like Bollywood.”

Bollywood is in trouble. Mafia
scandals are up, profits are down. Despite some international successes,
the industry is losing money faster than Lagaan star Gracy
Singh can shake her hips. It’s difficult to get exact figures, but Filmfare —one of India ’s foremost movie magazines—rated
2002 as one of the local film industry’s worst-ever years. Of the
top 65 movies, only nine recovered their money. The top 10 grossing
films collectively pulled in profits of just 430 million rupees
(about $8.6 million), a 55 percent drop from 2001.

While the plot twists in Bollywood’s own story have
been getting ever more outrageous (a recent one has a producer accused
of plotting with gangsters to bump off a major star), audiences
have been finding the movies’ old formulas stale. “Audiences are
looking for innovative themes and story lines,” says Sanjay Bhutiani
, head of Leo Entertainment, a major distributor which, like many,
has suffered in the downturn. “These films are rarely different
and they’ve failed miserably.”

The industry consensus is that Indian audience tastes
have changed. An emerging urban middle-class, widespread access
to cable television and the more frequent dubbing of foreign movies
into Hindi has created a strong demand for greater novelty and realism. Lagaan is now considered a turning point, the first Indian
movie to tap into audiences’ desire to see higher production values
and new stories.

“Formula films are being rejected,” explains Filmfare editor Shashi Baliga . “More and more audiences are getting
to see Hollywood-quality films where the production values, the
story lines—the whole sensibility—is different.” Films that have
borrowed elements from foreign films have been the most successful.
This year, Kaante (Thorns) , a heist-gone-wrong
movie shot in the United States , borrowed its story and style heavily
from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and has been a
big hit in the major urban centers. “In Kaante , the language
and the cinematography are clearly from a different genre,” says
Baliga . “The dialogue is full of realistic, street-level Hindi—profanities
and all. It’s unprecedented in Hindi cinema.” Almost out of desperation,
producers and distributors are now much more willing to be experimental.
Another recent release, Jism (Body) , borrows
from Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and has been both hailed
and condemned as India ’s “first erotic movie.”

Prakash Belawadi’s Stumble and
Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante are two recent success stories
that illustrate India’s newfound taste for realism-driven

Another major side effect of the 2002 slump has been
that the industry has started to target specific audiences for the
first time. The days of what used to be called the “universal hit”
appear to be numbered. Only two movies, Devdas and Raaz , managed nationwide appeal last year, while most just
managed to hit-and-miss in regions across the country. It’s an upset
for an industry that Filmfare once proudly called “the
one unifying factor in an otherwise diverse land.” Now, the need
for producers and distributors to target audiences, plus a desire
to take chances on unusual stories, has given rise to a new breed
of realistic films aimed at an audience that has grown rapidly since
India’s economic liberalization in the early ’90s: the urban middle

Two excellent examples of these films— Let’s Talk and Stumble —grabbed attention at the fifth annual Mumbai
International Film Festival in November last year for ditching masala clichés in favor of fresh, down-to-earth stories about
middle-class life. Let’s Talk is about a comfortably married
young Indian woman, Radhika , who becomes pregnant and doesn’t know
if her husband Nikhil , or her lover Krishna, is the father. Set
entirely inside an upscale apartment in Mumbai, the film consists
of a series of imaginary episodes, many of them humorous, as Radhika
tries to figure out how her husband will react when she tells him.

“The couple in Let’s Talk could be in Manhattan,
they could be anywhere,” says its director, Ram Madhvani . “ Let’s Talk is not in a regional language—it’s in English. It
doesn’t have songs and it doesn’t operate from the melodramatic
rules of opera like Bollywood .” Unusually in India , it was shot
on digital video, and at 95 minutes it’s about half the length of
the average Hindi flick.

The film isn’t remarkable just for its smart and sophisticated
theme and style, but also for the fact that it’s in English. Madhvani
believes that the highly educated middle and upper classes in India,
once embarrassed at being “westernized” and for speaking and thinking
in English, are feeling confident in their sense of identity—and
their language—for the first time. “There’s a whole audience that
one can target that wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago. There is a
new money class, there are new cars on the road and there is a certain
sensibility that existed before, but wasn’t articulated, that says:
‘I am happy that I am like this.’”

“You mea, I can make a film about people living in
Malabar Hill?” Madhvani asks rhetorically, referring to an upscale
Mumbai neighborhood. Yes, why not? I can talk about people that
I know and I don’t have to be embarrassed about it.”

After an excellent reaction to its first screening
at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the film was picked up
by big-name distributor Shringar and reverse- telecined onto 35mm
film for a theater release in India ’s major urban centers. It had
a short run in January to rave reviews. No box office figures were
available at the time of this writing, but ticket sales have been

Shot in Los Angeles, Gupta’s
borrowed its story and style from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and has already proven to be a big hit
in the major urban Indian markets.

The other success story of November’s film festival,
Prakash Belawadi’s Stumble , was quickly snapped up by distributor
Star Entertainment for an urban theater release in February. The
story, straight out of Indian news headlines, is about the Indian
IT slump and its devastating impact on a family in Bangalore, India
’s software industry capital. Like Let’s Talk , it contains
no songs and it’s in English. “It’s a big city film,” says the movie’s
executive producer, Tushita Patel. “The market is urban middle and
upper class India . After the screening, we had very emotional reactions.
We had people coming and saying, ‘This happened to me.’ Money is
a very emotional thing; it’s the middle class unifier.”

Enthusiasm for the films has been palpable. After
the festival, Times of India film critic Meenakshi Shedde
wrote: “Realism has stumbled out of the closet and into our movies
at last. We now have films for audiences who are not embarrassed
if their brains tag along to the movies.” After a year of punishing
losses, distributors—who take the biggest share of the risk in the
Bollywood system—are finding the low cost of middle class-targeted
films very attractive. Whereas a mainstream Bollywood film can cost
anywhere from $1 million to $10 million, Stumble , for example,
cost just $150,000.

Shringar’s Shyam Shroff sees a big future in India
for films tailored to niche audiences, especially urban audiences.
“To be a national box office hit, one has to cater to the taste
of audiences in the interiors, and that’s a very tricky problem,”
states Shroff . But there is an audience in metro cities for these
kinds of films—not a huge [audience], but sufficient enough.
 With multiplexes opening all over the country, we now have
the right kind and size of outlets. The trend is growing and there
will be bigger audiences in the future.” No one is really sure how
big the niche is, but it’s estimated that about 200 million people
in India speak English.

If that isn’t big enough, Shroff believes that these
Indian English-language films could also be a way of reaching
untapped foreign markets. “That’s the day I’m waiting
for,” he admits. “Indian films are watched in the U.S. but are restricted
to Indian audiences. Some of the filmmakers here have potential
and great promise. I give them four years—you’ll see some great
Indian cinema happening all over the world, especially in America

But others, including Ram Madhvani , are skeptical.
He gave fellow moviemaker Shyam Benegal a copy of Let’s Talk to show American students at the University of Chicago in May last
year, and the reaction he got surprised him. “They said they didn’t
think it was an Indian film,” says Madhvani . ” Shyam told the students
this was how he thought Indian cinema would be in the future, and
they said, ‘What’s the big deal? Shouldn’t this film have been more Indian?’” MM