Superstar actor — and up-and-coming director — Aamir Khan is reaching out to American companies in the hopes of forming new marketing relationships. Specifically, Khan wants to start marketing his movies in the U.S. as “art” films, similar to the way other foreign-language films are marketed.
Currently, Hindi movies are dropped into theaters with little promotion or fanfare. Indian production houses rarely screen their movies in advance for critics, so few get reviewed for newspapers. Fans in the U.S. must seek out information on upcoming releases themselves.
Without any promotion, mainstream American filmgoers likely scan past the names of Hindi movies on the theater marquee. At times, theaters may unintentionally steer people — especially those not obviously of Indian descent — away from Hindi movies. On several occasions, I’ve attempted to buy a ticket to a Hindi movie only to have the cashier say, “That’s a Bollywood movie,” or “You know that has subtitles, right?”
The shift to marketing at least some Hindi films like other foreign films is long overdue. U.S. theaters lump all Hindi movies together under the “Bollywood” label, evoking images of 3-hour epics full of romance, drama and action punctuated by flashy dance numbers.
Of course, those types of movies don’t make up the whole of Hindi cinema, even if they remain some of the most profitable. Just as the Indian film industry is shifting to producing more genre-specific films and away from all-encompassing epics, the industry is also producing films that American distributors would consider art movies if they were produced in other countries.
Some Indian directors, like Mira Nair, already have their films marketed in this way. But many of these Indian art movies, such as Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, are primarily Canadian productions.
Khan is a natural choice to forge this new marketing path in America. His recent efforts behind the camera have focused on smaller stories about specific issues, rather than mainstream blockbusters. Taare Zameen Par, which Khan directed in 2007, is about a boy with dyslexia. Peepli Live, which opens on August and is produced by Khan, is a black comedy about destitute farmers driven to suicide.
If Khan is successful, it could pave the way for other Indian directors to reach a much larger American audience. There are a few directors in particular whose films deserve this kind of treatment.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies are tailor-made for American fans of arthouse cinema. Westerners could consider Bhardwaj an Indian Kenneth Branagh. He’s already adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays into modern Indian stories — Maqbool and Omkara (MacBeth and Othello, respectively) — and he’s currently adapting a novel by Ruskin Bond for the big screen.
The criminal underworld of Uttar Pradesh provides the perfect setting for Bhardwaj’s updated classics. And since he broke into the industry as a composer, his have excellent soundtracks.
Bhardwaj’s frequent collaborator, Abhishek Chaubey, recently directed his first film, the atmospheric and charming Ishqiya. I can only assume that Chaubey’s future efforts will also deserve the arthouse promotional treatment.
Another obvious choice is director Mani Ratnam. His films are known for heartbreaking stories and stunning visuals. In keeping with tradition, he includes elaborate dance numbers in many of his movies, which add a surreal element.
Though it may take extra effort on the part of American distributors to determine which Indian movies are art versus simple popcorn flicks, it’s past time to stop grouping all Hindi movies under the Bollywood umbrella.