Vidhu Vinod Chopra straddles Bollywood, Hollywood

James Cameron’s “Avatar” may have recently become the biggest moneymaker in movie history, but there’s another film that’s quietly been breaking box-office records. That would be Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “3 Idiots,” which now tops the list of highest-grossing Bollywood films, bringing in more than $80 million worldwide.

Despite his film’s success, Chopra, a writer-director-producer, says he feels like “a kid out of film school.” Granted, few kids out of film school would be able to lease a large house in Beverly Hills, score representation with ICM’s Jeff Berg or greenlight projects in India over a cup of tea, as Chopra is inclined to do. But now, the man who sits atop a filmmaking empire based on the outskirts of Mumbai is looking to replicate some of that success stateside.

In India, Chopra, 53, wields the clout of a Steven Spielberg. He has written and/or directed about a dozen since his 1981 feature film debut, “Sazaye Maut” (“Death Penalty”), a crime thriller. His films have focused on terrorism (“Mission Kashmir”) and the turbulence of British-run India (“1942: A Love Story”). But he has also done successful comedic dramas, such as “Munna Bhai MBBS,” about a thief pretending to be a doctor to please his father. Whatever the genre, Chopra is known for bringing a sophisticated sentimental sensibility to his films, with a focus on family, honor and tradition -- elements that have historically resonated with Indian audiences.

“3 Idiots,” which was released internationally through Reliance Big Pictures on Christmas Day, earned more than $52 million during its first 10 days in theaters. Outside of India, the movie, which was made for $8 million, has brought in about $16 million, with a record-setting $6.5 million coming from the U.S., where it is currently playing in about 50 cinemas, including the Culver Plaza Theatres in Culver City.

Bollywood films have had patchy success in the U.S.; the 2009 broad comedy “Chandni Chowk to China,” the first Bollywood film to score major U.S. distribution through a major studio (Warner Bros.), made less than $1 million. Conversely, “Om Shanti Om,” the reincarnation comedy released in 2007, took in a respectable $3.5 million at the box office, about half of what “3 Idiots” has scored so far.

And now, a new release, “My Name is Khan,” could soon rival “3 Idiots’ ” domination for the stateside box-office record; since it was released Friday, it has brought in $2.2 million.

Nevertheless, “3 Idiots,” is holding its own. Audiences have connected with the story of three friends, students at a rigorous engineering college in India, who are forced to deal with academic pressures and familial obligations. The romantic dramedy is also something of a Bollywood bromance-road trip hybrid, set in the most scenic parts of the country and offering up concepts of ambition, desperation and family conflict in a satirical yet ultimately warm-hearted tone. The cast is anchored by Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars.

Chopra has since opted to make Los Angeles something of a second home, spending two weeks here every month. Now that “3 Idiots” -- which was inspired by the book “Five Point Someone” by Chetan Bhagat -- has found success, he has turned his attentions to his next project, “Broken Horses,” his English-language directorial debut about two brothers, one a violinist in New York, the other a hired gun, set against the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border.

As Chopra points out, “there is nothing Indian about the movie except the director. The heart of the movie is the relationship between these two brothers, but within that is a story about how we destroy what we love. It’s about the choices we make in life.”

Embarking on his first film in a language that’s not his native tongue feels somewhat daunting, says Chopra. Raised in the valleys of Srinagar in Kashmir, he didn’t speak English until he was 16, learning it by watching Hollywood films. He says he “was thrown out” of every class at the Film and Television Institute of India and walked away without a diploma.

But a short documentary he made shortly after leaving film school, “An Encounter with Faces,” about impoverished children in India, was nominated for an Oscar in 1979. He didn’t win, but says that his film school finally gave him his diploma.

“If I wasn’t nominated for an Oscar at that very young age, I wouldn’t be doing [‘Broken Horses’],” he says. “I want to reach out to more audiences. It’s that dream that remains unfulfilled. All my dreams in India are more than fulfilled. . . . This is the last dream that was left, so I thought, ‘I might as well chase it.’ ”