When the Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, an expansive conversationalist, was in Australia in 2007 promoting Elizabeth: The Golden Age, his period sequel to 1998's Elizabeth, he mused that the era of directors looking to Los Angeles or London for financing and subject matter would eventually fade. The future, based on population size and demographic change, was the east. Blockbusters, he believed, would eventually be made for the Indian and Chinese market, with America and Australia as ancillary territories.
Four years on and not much has changed – Hollywood remains the last true colonial power, filling multiplexes around the world – but there are signs that both the size and commercial aspirations of India's film industry are making it think beyond the nation's borders. A new film, the digital effects heavy Bollywood adventure RA. One, looks to match the blockbuster mentality of superhero franchises such as Iron Man.
Written and directed by Anubhv Sinha (Tathastu, Cash) and starring leading Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan in the dual roles of a video game designer and harried father and his creation, G. One, a coded force of good who enters real world alongside the game's evil titular antagonist (Arjun Rampal), RA. One had the largest budget yet for an East Asian production, approximately $37 million.
Like many recent Hollywood hopefuls, RA. One had a post-production conversion to 3-D, a decision that only added to the screen counts when the movie opened simultaneously worldwide around October 26. With the Hindi version dubbed into Tamil, Telugu and German, as well as English subtitles, the picture is playing on over 5,500 screens this week, and earnt approximately $36 million in its initial five day window.
While some western critics have been more receptive than their Indian counterparts, the mix of CGI battles and song, family melodrama and action is not meant to rewrite genre rules, but rather establish Bollywood as an equal. “Through this film,” explained Shahrukh Khan, “I want to prove that Indian superheroes can also be as cool as the international ones”.
As a country asserts itself internationally, in economic and military terms, its domestic film industry becomes part of the national identity. But for now it appears that India's thriving film industry is moving forward faster than China's. And the producers and creators of RA. One certainly have one field where they are equal to any established rival: marketing and commercial tie-ins.
In a campaign that's run for most of 2010 and threatened to become monolithic by release date, the movie has been promoted by video games, soundtracks in multiple languages, social media campaigns for Indian expatriates, fast food meal deals, and promotional tie-ups with companies such as Coca-Cola and Nokia. Maybe Kapur was right after all, and while we don't see the change yet, the money already does.