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Bollywood booms in U.S. and overseas

Bollywood action thriller "Dhoom 3" is an international hit.

"Dhoom 3" -- the word in Hindi means "blast" -- has set U.S. and worldwide box office records for Indian film since it opened in late December. The Bollywood action-thriller, set mostly in Chicago, has made more than $83 million at the box office internationally, and more than $8 million just in the U.S., according to Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com.

"Dhoom 3" has all the ingredients for a Bollywood hit: top stars (including Aamir Khan, one of the top three male leads in Indian film, known collectively as the ‘three Khans’), big musical numbers, fast cars, sexy circus performers, ruthless bankers and tough cops.

Pandya consults with Indian film companies, and he says the South-Asian immigrant audience continues to grow. It now tops 3 million. The Indian company Big Cinemas has purchased over two hundred screens in the U.S. since 2007 -- many of them rundown movie theatres in mid-sized markets -- and renovated them to show films aimed at this community, which includes Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and people from several language-groups in India.

Pandya says immigrants (as well as the generation of Indian-Americans born here) closely follow what movies are released in India and go to see them in the U.S. as soon as they can. They also listen (and dance) to song sequences and music videos that are released to promote the movies, and are often played as remixes in dance clubs. All that extra marketing and promotion creates a consistent, engaged, lucrative market for movie houses. “You’re going to see more of the American multiplexes start to devote a screen or two to these Bollywood films,” he says.

But, aside from rare crossover hits like "Slumdog Millionaire," most American movie-goers don’t see, and wouldn’t understand, Indian movies, says Aseem Chhabra, a freelance journalist in New York who writes about film for the Mumbai Mirror.

“The market still remains predominantly South Asian,” says Chhabra. “And there’s a reason for that -- because for Bollywood, there’s a particular kind of formula for the songs and dances.”

Those song-and-dance numbers appeal to the huge audience in India and across the Indian diaspora, from the U.K. to the Middle East to the U.S. Midwest. It’s an audience that, in 2009, bought 1 billion more tickets than did audiences for Hollywood movies (3.6 billion tickets compared to 2.6 billion, according to Bloomberg). And even the biggest-budget Bollywood movies are much less expensive to make than Hollywood blockbusters (by a factor of 10).

All this, says Chhabra, means that Bollywood production studios are under no pressure to change up their entrenched formula of action scenes, romance, and music numbers, along with an intermission mid-way through the show, just to attract a bigger American audience and make more money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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