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Bollywood


New money is also coming into film production itself as small producers start incorporating their family-owned businesses. The country has seen a half-dozen public offerings for film-related companies in the past two years, although they all trade at less than half their opening price. Even titans such as $8 billion Tata Group and $13 billion Reliance Industries Ltd. are eyeing the industry. "Corporations may not know about films, but they do know about professional management and processes--and that is what the film industry needs now," says Amit Khanna, chairman of Reliance Entertainment. Proper management, he says, could cut costs by 30%.

The new money is desperately needed to end Bollywood's lingering dependence on mob financing. In the 1980s, as television began to eat into movie audiences and film budgets got ever larger, producers found ready cash from the underworld. Until last year, 40% of the industry's finances came from organized crime, police say. "It's a seduction process," says Shridhar Vagal, joint commissioner of crime for the Bombay Police. "The mob offers money, gets friendly, then all sorts of things happen."

It was an offer Bollywood should have refused. Thugs often dictated story lines and stars, which further eroded the appeal of films. Then the mob started losing money and began to extort funds from successful producers. In the past five years, dozens of producers and directors of megahit flicks have been threatened, and five have been killed by mobsters. Producer Ajit Devani, for instance, was gunned down outside his Bombay office in July, 2001. Heartthrob Hrithik Roshan travels with gun-toting security guards--a precaution he adopted after the mob tried unsuccessfully to assassinate his producer-father.

Fortunately, the flow of new, legitimate money, plus a police crackdown and the mob's own financial reversals, have started to loosen the underworld's grip. Police estimate that mob money is backing just 10% of Bollywood films these days.

That has created an opening for younger producers who want to raise Bollywood standards. For instance, Sunny Deol, a 41-year-old actor, producer, and director, thought his Vijayeta Films was run too haphazardly ever to make the big time. So he hired Bombay-based Universal Consulting to help professionalize the operation. Universal has since put Vijayeta's schedule--once maintained in a tattered notebook--on PCs. Directors now order props and supplies from a list of approved vendors instead of dispatching a subordinate to pick things up at the last minute. Details on each scene are now entered onto a computer, and Deol logs on daily to check progress and budgets. The result: Vijayeta Films has trimmed its production costs by some 6% and expects to streamline more. "We have to rescript the way Bollywood companies run," says Amit Dakshini, a consultant with Universal.

Bankers are getting in on the act, too. Insight Productions and iDream Productions--both offshoots of local investment banks--believe they can earn a profit by imposing hard-nosed business methods on Bollywood's chaos. IDream distributed Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham, a hit by Indian-born British director Gurinder Chadha about a soccer-mad girl--and made money on both. The two companies are modeling themselves on so-called independent U.S. studios such as Miramax Film Corp., owned by the Walt Disney Co. (DIS ), shunning blockbusters in favor of films costing no more than $2 million.

Now, Hollywood is having its own Bollywood dreams. Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group distributed Lagaan and Mission Kashmir and has a dozen more Bollywood movies lined up. Twentieth Century Fox has signed a deal with popular Bollywood producer Ram Gopal Verma to market and distribute his next three films in India--and perhaps even internationally.

Then there's Hyperion Pictures' Marigold, complete with flamboyant song-and-dance sequences in Hindi and English and $10 million in American funding. Producer Tom Willhite and Director Willard Carroll signed up the stars a year ahead of time--close to a miracle in chaotic Bombay. But despite the uncharacteristic level of organization, he promises the film will be unapologetically Bollywood, with "lots of big emotion, something U.S. audiences crave."

Bollywood, of course, craves something else: respect. And profits. Until it gets them, this plot will be a cliffhanger.

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