By Priyanka Khanna
New Delhi : Even as the who's who of Hindi film industry basked under the glare of global media in Yorkshire at the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards ceremony, back home a couple of low-budget films, "Swami" and "Dharm" that can raise the profile of Indian films internationally, released without fanfare.
In yet another edition of the IIFA awards, the usual bunch of glitterati descended on the symbolically environment friendly green carpet.
Actors and directors, who have contributed to increasing Indian cinema's share in foreign markets, were recognised. But yet again independent filmmakers, who have had more success in international film festivals than the combined might of Bollywood, were forgotten.
From the effervescence of Satyajit Ray's movies to the current century, Indian movies have again started to exert its originality. But the moneybags in Bollywood are yet to throw their might behind them.
Typically, among this week's releases the most publicised movie was "The Train" which is a virtual copy of Hollywood dud "Derailed", while the least promoted was "Dharm".
"Dharm" by journalist-turned-director Bhavana Talwar was shot with second-hand camera equipment and borrowed lenses but was among the few Hindi films chosen for screening at last month's 60th Cannes Film Festival.
The film features Pankaj Kapur and his wife Supriya Pathak in the lead roles. It is a story about a staunch Hindu who finds out that his adopted child is a Muslim and delivers a powerful, internationally relevant message against communalism.
The other low-key release was choreographer Ganesh Acharya's directorial debut "Swami" starring Manoj Bajpai and Juhi Chawla which tells the tale of a simple couple and their devotion to one another. Though it is impossible to predict what will work on international marquees but both films have immense global appeal.
"Local is global. That is what people want to watch, internationally. But in Bollywood the first thing that producers ask is who is the star in the film rather than the script," states Ashvin Kumar, filmmaker whose "Little Terrorist" was nominated for the best short film Oscar. He further states, "We don't make films. We make posters."
This could be the reason why films from China, South Korea and other Asian countries, all with far smaller domestic industries, have broken through in the West, but only a handful of Indian films have done so.
Often, the only international audiences for Bollywood are members of the Indian diaspora, who live in Britain, the US and elsewhere.
In spite of films like "Rang De Basanti", "Munnabhai M.B.B.S" and "Lage Raho Munna Bhai" making waves abroad, actor-director Naseeruddin Shah, who starred in "Monsoon Wedding" (2002), is unimpressed.
"Countries like Iran, (South) Korea and Mexico are producing the most incredible movies and we are still plodding on with our boy-meets-girl, safe, old formula," he said. "That is the reason I think our films aren't taken seriously."
Such claims are disputed by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan who maintains that Indian cinema had been "considered infra-dig" in recent years, but global media coverage of the awards showed "the progress that Indian cinema has made through several years of hard work and toil".
Film critic Aruna Vasudev remarks that a good script needs to have a right push through good promotion and marketing if it wants to do well at international awards.
"Rang De Basanti" made $9 million outside India, and Ronnie Screwvala, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures which produced the film, attributed the export success to the new approach.
In the past, Screwvala said, Indian filmmakers spent only about five percent of a movie's budget on marketing, leaving the work to distributors who were good at getting films into theatres but often out of touch with consumer tastes.
On "Rang De Basanti", marketing spending was raised to 40 percent of the budget, comparable to Hollywood levels, and the change has helped make the film more palatable to Western audiences, he added.
Bhuvan Lal, president of the entertainment division at Mcorp Global, feels strongly against equating Indian cinema with Bollywood. He said: "Regional cinema comes out with some very good movies yet the focus is on Bollywood films."
But changing movie economics is making the need for Indian cinema to go global ever more pertinent. Low domestic revenues may be one reason why the industry wants to promote itself internationally.
News reports say that in 2005 the total turnover for Bollywood was $575 million compared with $23 billion in Hollywood. In India, domestic ticket prices average 30 US cents, whereas globally the figure is $4 and 70 cents.
Besides bankruptcy of ideas, the growth plans may be hampered by the industry's "weak financial base" and fragmentation of production, distribution and exhibition functions.
Whether pushed by economics or by desire for international acclaim, future looks hopeful for Indian cinema.
Accelerating Indian cinema's march towards global acclaim are new ventures between Hollywood and Indian studios.
With Hollywood studios joining hands with Indian directors, the day is not far when India finds its own crossover hits comparable to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) and "House Of Flying Daggers" (2004), which put China on the global movie-making map.
Sony Pictures Entertainment has one film in the works, while Walt Disney's Buena Vista division also recently set up a shop in India. Coupled with the fact that several Hollywood majors – Paramount and Sony Pictures among them – are eyeing India as a production base.
Hollywood executives say these ventures are aimed primarily at the domestic Indian market. Clearly, interest in films with Indian themes has been fuelled by foreign productions with US and British financing and actors and directors with Indian roots.
"Bend It Like Beckham," by British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha, about an Indian girl in Britain whose interest in soccer causes tension in her family, was a surprise hit in 2002, earning more than $100 million globally on a budget of only $4 million.
Mira Nair, a New York-based Indian filmmaker, also has achieved some international success with films like "Monsoon Wedding," about an Indian family wedding in New Delhi.
Bollywood studios are exploring new territories in attempts to make movies in a more international style. Adlabs and UTV Motion Pictures are trying to globalise their business points, news reports say.
UTV, which is already in partnership with Fox Searchlight for Mira Nair's "The Namesake", has now entered into a formal co-production deal with the Hollywood company to co-produce more movies.
The company has also inked an agreement with actor Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment and Sony Pictures for the production of films for worldwide distribution.
Planman Motion Pictures, a Mumbai-based studio, is working on a film called "London Summer", to be set in Britain around the time of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla. The story, about a fictional Indian nobleman and his mistress, features an Indian cast and director, Rituparno Ghosh.
One attraction of filming outside India is the public financing, including tax breaks, that Britain and other European countries offer but do not exist in India.
Britain and India recently signed a film co-production pact that is aimed at making it easier for films with mixed Indian and British financing to realize these benefits, while opening the doors to British filmmakers to do more work in India, where costs are lower. A similar pact was signed with Brazil as well.
Whether Indian cinema can capitalize on the recent interest in our movies remains to be seen.