BANGALORE, India — Take a Bollywood film where the protagonist is named Jai (meaning victory) so he can pass off as Jay in Los Angeles, where he lives. Add some racy bits, chop off a song or two, mix in some Hollywood sound and then shrink its final length by a third.
Behold, the first true-blue attempt at a Bollywood-Hollywood crossover.
"Kites" is a big-budget potboiler, much-hyped by a profuse publicity budget and extensive, worldwide distribution. But the Mumbai film industry is now trying to figure out whether it will now be counted as the world’s first crossover box office dud.
Despite an attempt to straddle both desi (Indian) and global audiences, the film has failed to light up the box office either in India or in North America. Given the cinematic distance between a Bollywood movie and a Hollywood flick, the right question might be whether "crossovers" are even a realistic possibility.
"Kites" is neither Bollywood nor Hollywood so its failure holds no surprises, said New York-based Bollywood critic Aseem Chhabra. “Some call it a bad Bollywood movie trying to be a bad Hollywood movie,” he says.
Indian audiences haven't responded to the dialogue and characters of the film, said Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Nair. “Unlike the typical expat Indians portrayed in Karan Johar, Vipul Shah or YashRaj films, Kites’ characters do not talk or observe Indian customs or mannerisms,” said Nair.
The "Kites" fiasco comes at a time when Hollywood’s movie industry is waking up to the size and power of India’s wild-about-the-movies audiences. The two brawny filmmaking centers are increasingly moving together. Two big-budget movies Saawariya and Chandni Chowk to China were financed by Sony Pictures and Warner Bros., but were both box office disasters.
Indian money is backing a David Duchovny-Demi Moore film "The Joneses." Mumbai’s Reliance Big Entertainment has a partnership with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks and has production deals with the likes of George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
Non-Indian films earned just over $108 million in India in 2009 and even "Avatar," the highest grosser, made only $22.4 million. Compare that with the $74.5 million made by "3 Idiots," last year’s highest earner in India, and it is clear which films rake in the moolah.
So "Kites," the big hope at cracking the Indian and global audiences simultaneously, opened in 2,000 screens worldwide. That included 200 in the United States alone, the splashiest opening by any Bollywood movie so far. But the film has only grossed $1 million in North America in the first weekend of its release, less than recent Bollywood hits "3 Idiots" and "My Name is Khan," which had far less marketing and distribution muscle.
The movie stars Indian immigrant Jai played by Indian pin-up Hrithik Roshan, and Mexican immigrant Linda, played by Mexican star Barbara Mori, who are both hustlers looking to marry wealth. Roshan is a Salsa teacher in Los Angeles who makes extra cash by marrying girls in need of green cards. The two realize they are in love, get drawn into an ugly world of gangsters and flee through Mexico.
The story cut thin with Indian audiences. One reviewer on the popular Rediff.com likened "Kites" to a plate of bhel puri (Mumbai’s favorite street snack) with an unappetizing salsa dressing. He said it left him with an unpleasant aftertaste.
Many movie-crazy Indians said they simply could not identify with the mix of English, Spanish and Hindi dialogues. “The Hindi was almost an afterthought,” said avid Bangalore film-goer Ashutosh Jatin. “The movie would have sunk had it not been for Hrithik Roshan’s appeal.”
The movie's poor showing proves it is not easy to make a Bollywood film with universal appeal. Hollywood studios can spend fistfuls of dollars but as long as they are all mixed-up about the ingredients and audiences of Bollywood cinemas, Indian production houses will rule.
There might be one bright side to "Kites," however. Bollywood idol Hrithik Roshan, with his chiseled good looks and stupendous dancing skills, is wowing many Americans. Maybe something can be retrieved from "Kites" after all — not a crossover film but, perhaps, a crossover star?