Hollyworld: Mumbai goes from Bollywood to Hollywood

Performers dance at the 10th International Indian Film Academy awards, otherwise known as the Bollywood Oscars, in Macau on June 12, 2009.</p>

Performers dance at the 10th International Indian Film Academy awards, otherwise known as the Bollywood Oscars, in Macau on June 12, 2009.

Editor's note: "Hollyworld" is a semi-regular series covering Hollywood's impact on the world and celebrity culture around the globe.

MUMBAI, India — “Take that truck,” Khushboo Benani said, pointing out the car window to one of Mumbai’s ubiquitous pickup trucks painted in bright oranges, reds and yellows. “If you want to hang it from our studio, you can do that.”

It may not sound like much, but for a film studio in India, a high load-bearing capacity may be just the thing to propel it into the big time.

“If you try and hang a truck from any other studio [in Mumbai], it will probably fall on your head,” said Benani, senior manager, corporate communications for Reliance MediaWorks.

In fact, Benani's company aims to go far beyond hanging cars from the ceiling. It will transform moviemaking in India, she said.

In an effort to improve the production quality of Hindi films and attract Hollywood filmmakers to India, Reliance MediaWorks has embarked on an ambitious project to build the country's first so-called Hollywood-benchmarked studios. The company, owned by Anil Ambani, is building eight stages, spread across a seven-acre plot, in accordance with Hollywood-compliant design specifications. They will be India’s most modern and well-equipped studios.

India’s domestic movie industry produces about 900 films a year — nine times more than the United States — but it has lacked the infrastructure capabilities to keep up with Hollywood.

"I feel we have always had the technicians and the talent in our country. Some of the infrastructure has been missing. I think it’s things like this which are going to start to bridge that gap," said Parvan Dabas, a Mumbai-based actor who starred in "Monsoon Wedding." "When you have a studio like this, a creative person can dream a little bigger."

During a recent tour of the studios, which are now partly opened, Ashish Chakravorty of Reliance MediaWorks showed off one stage’s 55-foot-high ceiling, huge floor space and so-called elephant doors that allow trucks and trailers to bring equipment directly onto the set.

The studios will have sync-sound capabilities, and filmmakers will not need to dub their movies like they typically do in India.

Chakravorty pointed to the fluorescent yellow fire lane bordering the stage and said the studios will follow the same safety and fire precautions that filmmakers in Los Angeles must adhere to. The safety measures are another feature to allure American and European producers.

“In India, it’s unheard of,” he said, referring to keeping a fire lane clear. “We want to bring in Hollywood to come and use this facility.”

Reliance MediaWorks estimates that the studios will help Hollywood filmmakers cut production costs by up to 15 percent. Series like "Harry Potter" and "Mission Impossible" could save money by using these studios to film their technical shots that do not require the big-name stars, the company said.

Reliance MediaWorks also hopes to attract domestic films, television shows and commercials with large budgets. In 2010, more than 50 Indian films had a production budget of more than $2.2 million.

The tour continued with a stop at the different makeup rooms for the stars. The suites, which are intended for the biggest names, feel like modern hotel rooms, complete with a flat-screen TV, leather sofa set, fresh flowers and private bedroom and bathroom.

There has been a mixed response from filmmakers to the new studios in Mumbai. While some welcome the new technological possibilities they will offer, others lament what they see as the commercialization of Hindi cinema.

Increases in bureaucratic delays, unpredictable costs like various permits and difficulties controlling crowds have made shooting on the streets of Mumbai more expensive than in the past, said Neerja Narayanan, head of development at Fox Star Studios India. There is therefore a need for more quality studio space in Mumbai, she said, and this project will help address that.

“It’s more efficient to have more options for shooting floors in a city known for film and cinema,” she said.

Some writers and independent filmmakers, though, worry that while the quality of the studios might be stellar, the rise in expensive films is hurting smaller, alternative cinema.

“The multiplex cinema is killing alternative cinema by charging such high prices,” said writer and filmmaker Jaideep Varma.

When moviegoers must spend more than 200 rupees ($4.40) for a ticket at a multiplex cinema, they are less likely to take a risk on seeing a smaller film, he said. This forces moviemakers to only invest in commercial films with big name stars.

“What’s happening in our country is only the big budget film will survive,” he said. “What India really needs is for our own voices to flourish.”

Sidharth Bhatia, an Indian journalist who has recently written a book on the history of Hindi cinema, said that the studios will enhance the technological capabilities of filmmakers and provide better facilities and efficiency, but they are not likely to influence Bollywood to suddenly start making Hollywood-style movies.

That, he said, is already happening. Bollywood has been taking inspiration from the West in terms of themes, story ideas and techniques for decades.

“Bollywood is not suddenly going to wake up and say, ‘We have a studio here let’s get some ideas from Hollywood,’” Bhatia said. “Even without this studio, Bollywood’s been inspired by Hollywood for the past 60 years.”

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