Market Focus : India's Film Barons Take a Drubbing From Dubbing : Bombay's 'Bollywood' is losing out to Hollywood's flood of high-tech movies. So why not join forces, one producer suggests.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Nothing comes close!" the advertisements in the newspapers promised. On the movie screens of India's capital, Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of "True Lies," was machine-gunning his foes from a U.S. Marine Corps jump jet.

India's film barons, leaders of the industry that is the world's most productive in terms of titles cranked out, might have sympathies with Schwarzenegger's targets. These days they feel they are being hunted by a big-biceped foreigner bent on wiping them off the home turf.

Two dozen Hollywood productions, the most at one time in Indian history, are now being dubbed into Hindi and other local languages for release in the Indian market. The 1994 Hindi-dubbed pioneer "Jurassic Park" was a blockbuster success, and the Indian film industry is bracing grimly for the onslaught.

By March, "Baby's Day Out," "Schindler's List" and "The Mask" should follow the beefy Arnold into one of the world's largest movie markets, where the number of films in Hindi and other Indian languages reached a world-record-setting 948 feature-length films five years ago. "The Indian film industry is in no position to counter this (dubbed foreign-film) threat," said producer-director Prakash Mehra. "A new era has opened."

Some of Mehra's colleagues disagree with his gloomy assessment, but India's Bombay-based cinema industry, nicknamed "Bollywood" in tacit tribute to its older and much richer American cousin, clearly has neither the technology nor the finances to make films that match Hollywood's in terms of slickness and special effects.

So Mehra is hoping that India's filmmakers can join forces with the Americans.

"The time is now ripe to go in for collaboration; combining their action and our emotions, we can make a truly good product." he said. The alarm about the invaders from Hollywood may be premature, however. True, "Jurassic Park" ran last year for 25 weeks and grossed $6 million, an enormous sum in a country where a theater ticket may cost the Indian equivalent of just 18 cents.

But the dubbed U.S. productions that followed had more trouble clicking with the Indian public. "Speed," a Los Angeles-based action flick about a maniacal explosives expert, was, appropriately, a bomb. Walt Disney's "Aladdin," an animated yarn based on old Arabian tales that are widely known by India's children and adults alike, was pulled from the screens of many Indian theaters after two weeks.

"Aladdin's" woes highlight the problems of venturing into the Indian market. First there's the matter of taste: Indians are apparently not yet used to the idea of an animated feature-length film. Then there was the delay. By the time Disney and its dubbers figured out how to translate Robin Williams' wisecracking genie and the rest of the characters into Hindi, two years had gone by, and pirated cassettes of "Aladdin" were freely available in all Indian cities. And in major cities, where a number of Indians speak English, there is a small share of the Indian movie-going audiences that takes in undubbed films.

But these problems may be nothing more than teething pains. Uday Kaushish, north India distributor for Paramount, MGM and Universal films, thinks the drawing power of dubbed Hollywood films is basically strong.

"There is now a boom of good quality product and more choice for the screen," the Delhi-based Kaushish said. "'Jurassic Park' had tremendous pulling power; it brought back the people to the cinema halls . . . not only the masses but the middle- and upper-middle class viewership who had stopped coming."

To turn Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of a cast into flawless Hindi speakers, Indian dubbing studios charge from $20,000 to $45,000 a film. The process takes from one to 2 1/2 months. The original flavor of the movie has to be retained, but dialogue and humor must be adapted to suit Indian tastes.

"A film comes to us directly from the producers along with the English script which is rewritten in Hindi," explains Neela Ghosh, dubbing coordinator at Bombay's Aradhana Sound Service, which dubbed "Jurassic Park" and "True Lies" with India's corps of professional dubbing artists. Its latest project, a Hindi-speaking "Schindler's List," was just completed. After the new vocal tracks are recorded, they go to London or Los Angeles for mixing, Ghosh said.

India's venerable cinema industry, now in its 81st year, churns out a very different product from Hollywood, and this is why some Indians are unsure that U.S. films with a Hindi voice track can ever be a regular crowd-pleaser on the Subcontinent.

"The audience in this country is very fickle-minded, and may not like the whole concept," said Ajay Bijli, managing director of the Priya group of theaters in India's capital.

But, he added, "if the films are consistent, then five years hence they can carve out 10% of the market."

Even the U.S.-educated Kaushish, a product of the University of Pennsylvania, allows that when it comes to cinema-going, Rudyard Kipling's old observation about East and West (" . . . and never the twain shall meet") may still be valid.

"(American) films are a well thought out, well-structured and well-conceived product of the West," the Indian movie distributor said. "But we must also take into consideration the fact that this product comes from a totally different social and cultural ethos which the people might or might not accept."

If not, the Indian public can go back to watching the typical celluloid masala (mix) of songs, violence and mushy romance that the average Indian film boasts. Some Indian movie makers think this unique melange, impossible for an outsider to duplicate, is the reason they don't need to fear Arnold, "Jurassic Park's" hungry raptors and the rest of the foreign invaders.

Music may be the Indian cinema's life insurance policy. An Indian film, on average, carries five to seven song-and-dance numbers. If the tune takes the public by storm (like the recent "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha"--"I Saw a Girl"--from the film "1942--A Love Story," it soon will be on the lips of hundreds of millions of people.

Even if the film bombs, as "1942" did, the Indian producer can recoup his production costs through cassette sales of the music.

"This is one area where we score on them (the Americans)," Mehra said.

In any event, the invaders from Hollywood seem not to be banking on instant acceptance by the 900-million-member Indian public. "The players (American film exporters) are not worried about the returns at this point of time," said Bijli, the Priya group official. "It is surely a long-term market and the main objective is to get established here."

Aiming for a piece of the action, Bijli's company is doing the Hindi dubbing of "The Mask." The Priya group also intends to bring another Western form of moviegoing to India: the multiplex theater.

Under a joint venture that Priya signed with an Australian company, Delhi's first multiplex is scheduled to open by the end of this year.

The arrival of the Americans may prove to be a blessing in disguise for India's movie industry, which is not in the pink of health. Last year, 105 Hindi-language films were released, but only 18 managed to recoup their costs. A 17% success rate has turned Bombay filmmakers into a worried lot, and many have moved to television.

Dwindling box-office receipts have also forced some theaters to shut. "The number of screens has decreased over the years in relation to the increase in population as the quantum of returns has declined," said Kaushish, the film distributor. And the paltry revenue stream means technology is often antiquated.

"The film-makers in India are still using obsolete equipment from the forties and the fifties, generally held together by chewing gum, baling wire and hope," Kaushish said.

New U.S. competition may force a change in governmental policies--including elimination of a tax on tickets--to aid the country's home-grown movie industry, which also includes Tamil-language studios in Madras, Bengali production companies in Calcutta, and Hyderabad's Telugu-language movie makers. Such, at any rate, is the hope of some of India's film magnates and professionals.

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