With another slate of highly anticipated Indian-themed films coming to the Toronto International Film Festival, many will be hoping for a repeat of Slumdog Millionaire's stunning success story.
That film of poverty, pain and joy in Mumbai came to the festival last year looking to attract some press and industry attention. It gained it in droves, and soared to world popularity, earning multiple Academy Awards.
This year, there's the Indian-financed Hollywood film The Joneses, starring Demi Moore, as well as the world premieres of two traditional Bollywood romantic comedies and musicals, My Heart Goes Hadippa (Dil Bole Hadippa) and What's Your Raashee? There's also the premiere of Canadian Dilip Mehta's Cooking With Stella, shot in New Delhi and starring Toronto native Lisa Ray - who is well-known to festival fans, but an even bigger celebrity in India.
However, many in the industry will be looking to Road, Movie, an Indian-based film geared toward an international market, to generate the kind of little-movie-that-could buzz that propelled Slumdog Millionaire. Produced by two non-Bollywood producers, Susan B. Landau and Ross Katz, the film is already drawing high expectations, stemming partly from the news in May that it was picked up by Fortissimo Films, a leading sales company. This is the first time Fortissimo is representing a Hindi-language dramatic feature.
A road movie, as the name plainly suggests, it follows a young man on a trek to get away from a life working for the family business. TIFF's co-director and Indian film specialist Cameron Bailey has described it as a "new Cinema Paradiso," suggesting a film likely to please a wide selection of moviegoers, as Slumdog Millionaire did.
But let's pause for a moment: Before anyone gets carried away on the Bollywood-meets-Hollywood buzz, which had started building well before Slumdog Millionaire, Bailey has a word of caution.
"I think one of the great crimes you could commit against a film would be to lay the expectations of Slumgdog Millionaire on it. That film was a real marvel, the exception, one of those things that only happens once every several years," Bailey said. "Having said that, there's no doubt that many films coming out of India will bear those expectations this year.
"You hope people come to these movies with fresh eyes. Road, Movie is a great movie. You shouldn't compare it to Slumdog Millionaire. What's nice about it is that it does also have an international sensibility. The director, Dev Benegal, has worked all over Europe and the United States, so he has an outward look as well.
A lot of films that are made in India are made very specifically for the Indian audience. This is one that I think will work internationally too," Bailey added.
Indian filmmakers, actors and producers have, for years, been eyeing non-Bollywood markets. Commercial Bollywood films are popular globally for their escapist appeal. Yet there's still a perceived division between that market and the Western, Hollywood-dominated market.
When the Bollywood war correspondent film Kabul Express, starring Indian actor John Abraham, had its world premiere at TIFF in 2006, both the star and director Kabir Khan spoke at length about the push into traditionally non-Bollywood markets.
In 2007, Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan and leading actress Preity Zinta came to Toronto for the gala premiere of their English-language feature The Last Leer. The film was aimed at an artier, more Western sensibility than typical Bollywood hits, and it too was described in terms of international, crossover potential.
And the list continues. Zinta returned to TIFF last year to promote the comparatively tiny budget film Heaven on Earth by Canadian director Deepa Mehta. Her role in the film was daring. Normally, she plays assertive, independent women in Bollywood films. For Mehta, she played a young, helpless bride trapped in an arranged marriage in Canada.
During the festival, the actress could be found sitting unassumingly by a hotel cocktail bar conducting interviews. It was startlingly casual. In India, she attracts hordes of fans at every appearance. Yet in Toronto, she wasn't sequestered in a hotel room like some Hollywood stars, who often command a much smaller global fan base, nor did Zinta insist on that kind of treatment. The openness of Indian actors and filmmakers, and the cross-pollination of Indian and non-Indian artists outside the Bollywood system, is easy to see.
It's the same for Bollywood financial backers, reaching beyond their typical territory. The Joneses at this year's festival is entirely Hollywood looking with Hollywood actors, and an American story in an American setting. But the money behind the film is from India's Vistaar Religare Film Fund.
"It's an Indian-financed production. It wouldn't exist without Indian money. So there is this crossover that's happening now, both on the financial side and on the creative side," Bailey said.
TIFF has been an obvious conduit in this growing interest outside of the Bollywood market in Indian-made and Indian-themed movies. (There's a difference - remember, Slumdog Millionaire was shot in Mumbai, but it was a British production.)
TIFF's ties to India have been steadily growing over the years, a fact that has worked particularly well to the festival's advantage this year following the Bollywood producers' strike; a profit-sharing dispute between producers and multiplex cinemas in India earlier this year that shut down production for two months.
"I'd say we lucked out in a way," Bailey said. "On the one hand, we had done our due diligence, and we have been programming these films for many years.
"But on the other hand, the strike meant that there were a lot of films that didn't get released in the first part of the year in India. And the companies who are now able to release them are looking for the right platform. And in these two cases, things just came together."