Film

Bollywood, may we have this dance?

Mumbai — Special to The Globe and Mail

Bollywood director Mira Nair once joked that she would simply never stay at the JW Marriott Mumbai. The reason, explained the woman behind such cinematic hits as Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!: She couldn’t walk two feet across the hotel’s opulent lobby – a networking hot spot for film-industry bigwigs and wannabes alike, in a city that functions as India’s Hollywood – without someone practically accosting her with a script.

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And so the Marriott’s Ganga Room provided an ideal setting on a recent balmy Monday morning for an eclectic gathering of Indian and Canadian filmmakers, there to hear each other’s stories – and, they hoped, cultivate greater co-operation between the Canadian and Indian film industries.

Canadian producer Paul Stephens, whose credits include the Genie-winning Such a Long Journey, based on Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s Mumbai-set novel, pitched a cinematic project on 17th-century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the man behind the Taj Mahal. Indo-Canadian producer, director – and his own hunky leading man – Srinivas Krishna ( Masala) scouted for a partner for a doc he is planning on the national elections set to unfold in India in 2014. And Indian director Sanjiv Sivan spoke about his own documentary films, including one on people, very much alive, who have been declared legally dead.

If this were a movie, it would be called Mission to India. And in fact, though it will be appearing on movie screens nowhere, that was the name of a just-completed 10-day series of exploratory workshops and other cinematic gatherings. Organized by the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) in partnership with Telefilm Canada, the mission was timed in part to ride the tails of Toronto’s fantastically successful hosting of the International Indian Film Academy Awards this past June.

Throughout their visit, 10 Canadian producers, accompanied by officials from those government agencies, immersed themselves in Bollywood. Along with cultural evenings and film-centric parties, there were down-to-work visits to Film City, a sprawling government-owned studio on the outskirts of Mumbai; and to Prime Focus, a leading Bollywood postproduction company. The visit ended with a visit to Film Bazaar, a buzzing development market held alongside the annual International Film Festival of India, in the southwestern state of Goa.

“We are not hoping at this point to go home with a whole lot of deals in our pocket,” a still-jet-lagged Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of the OMDC, said in an interview. “This is the beginning of what we hope will be a long-term relationship.” (Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine could hardly have said it better.) “There were hundreds of meetings,” added Thorne-Stone, who felt that she and her fellow delegates did “a good job of introducing Canada and the advantages that Canada brings to the Indian industry.”

The first such officially orchestrated outreach of its kind, the just-completed mission was only the latest overture by Canada in what is becoming stepped-up courtship of India and Bollywood. Visiting India in 2009, Canada’s Prime Minister not only met with popular Bollywood star Akshay Kumar (who has since been named the Canadian Tourism Commission’s ambassador for India); Stephen Harper even headed onto the floor of the popular reality show Dance Premier League, where he and his wife Laureen clapped along to a boisterous Bollywood dance number.

Harper turned that soft-shoe into a two-step this past March when he initiated the Year of India in Canada, an ongoing cross-country feast of Indian dance, music and literature. Two months later, Telefilm Canada played host to 150 attendees at the first-ever networking session of Indian and Canadian producers at the Cannes film festival.

Then, in June, came the International Indian Film Academy Awards. A three-day extravaganza of stars, song and dance, the Bollywood awards brought an estimated 40,000 visitors into Toronto. “I imagine that $40-million in tourist revenue was generated as a consequence of IIFA,” says OMDC chair Kevin Shea. “We’ve been trying to do this mission for a year and a half, and it certainly made our job easier when we saw the power of that whole Bollywood story.”

It’s a story evidently not lost on British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. Earlier this month, from Mumbai’s Film City, Clark (on her own government’s trade mission) announced B.C.’s bid to host the 2013 awards in Vancouver.

There’s no denying the major benefits to be gleaned from closer ties with Bollywood: India has the largest movie industry in the world, producing over 1,000 films annually. Of those, something in the neighbourhood of 200 come from Bollywood, one of the world’s truly global brands. Canada’s indigenous film industry, by contrast, struggling in the shadow of Hollywood, produces roughly 50 films annually. “We live next door to a giant, and we have been competing forever,” notes Shea. “The beauty of competition is that sometimes you go and find a partner.”

Certainly there’s room for creating tighter ties: Although Canada has co-production treaties with 53 countries, from Algeria to Ukraine, there is no such treaty with India – although the two governments are currently negotiating one, and Thorne-Stone says she hopes that “something will be in place in 2012.” Meanwhile, OMDC records show that only seven Indian films have been shot in Ontario since 2007.

According to Ajay Virmani, president and CEO of airline Cargojet, and co-producer of this year’s hit film Breakaway (which his son Vinay wrote and co-starred in), those numbers are so low for a simple reason: Canada, he says, has too much “bureaucratic red tape.” Adds Virmani, “To bring in a Bollywood crew, you have to have permission from three to five different unions, who then have to send the applications to immigration, who more often than not reject their visas. Bollywood producers won’t bite because the system in Canada is so unfriendly and unwelcoming.”

And, yet, bursting with potential . Breakaway was the top-grossing English-language film in Canada this year. The story of a Sikh boy who leads an all-turbaned team to ice-hockey stardom, the Indo-Canadian venture, which also featured Rob Lowe, Russell Peters and Drake, has made close to $2-million – far above what most Canadian films take in.

Its success has been no doubt due in part to the fact that more than a million Canadians are of South Asian heritage. “The impact of Indian migration in politics, culture and economics is huge,” says filmmaker Krishna. “In a sense, [Mission to India was] a response to that. It’s the impact of Indians in Canada that has brought Canada to India.”

With success stories like that in mind, Sheila de la Varende, director of national and international business development at Telefilm and a member of the recent mission, advocates a three-pronged approach to getting Bollywood to put Canada in its sights: “industry development; creating conversations; and exploring opportunities between actual practitioners, producers and producing countries.”

Among those advocating such greater co-operation is Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival and a long-time Bollywood champion. “Bollywood can teach Canadian filmmakers how to get more from a dollar and how to amp up the emotion and colour of our cinema,” says Bailey. “Canadian filmmakers can teach Bollywood all about more structured and regulated production practices.”

Adds Bailey, “I’m not sure this is actually going to happen. ... In the end, the most I hope for is that the filmmakers continue to talk to each other and see each others’ films.” And, perhaps, nourish a made-for-the-movies masala of two film industries with much to gain from sitting down at the same table a little more often.

With a report from Gayle MacDonald

Special to The Globe and Mail

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