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Bringing Bollywood to Leicester: Reasons to be cautiously optimistic

JAIDEEP MUKHERJEE, from the Centre for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester, has researched the benefits of engagement between Indian cinema and organisations in the region, on behalf of East Midlands Media. Here he outlines plans for the realisation of these ‘Bollywood dreams’.

Last month, Leicester MP Patricia Hewitt backed a funding initiative led by a group of Asian entrepreneurs to raise a reported £37 million for investment in Indian films, featuring Indian and British Asian talent, likely to be filmed in the region. 

With over 17 million people watching Indian films everyday in cinemas or at homes worldwide, and annual revenues exceeding an estimated £800 million, Bollywood - as India's creative industries are referred to - is seen as a cultural and commercial force that can compete with Hollywood. 

Thus the launch of any initiative that presents opportunities to engage profitably with Bollywood would predictably be met with much fanfare and media attention. But what makes Bollywood such hot property in these parts and this current boom be sustained? 

Last year, the East Midlands Development Agency (emda) funded the Leicester: European Capital for Indian Cinema project to explore partnerships that organisations in Leicester and the East Midlands region could forge with India's film and creative industries. 

The project extensively surveyed locations and facilities in the region and interviewed over fifty individuals connected with films in India and the UK, including Indian filmmakers who had shot films in the UK and Europe. 

An advantage that this region had was the presence of large and economically active communities of South Asian origin, which were heavy consumers of Indian films, film-inspired media and live events. 

Leicester is now a competitor to London and Birmingham as a key producer for Indian film-related content like TV software, music, DVDs and video; as well as an offshore platform for distributing these in Europe and the USA.

Indian filmmakers have in the past decade come to realise the enormous commercial opportunities in directly addressing the South Asian communities in the UK, Europe and America. 

Earlier Indian films only used locations abroad for adding picturesque glamour to films; and Asian impresarios taking live-shows featuring top Indian talent around venues like Wembley Arena, Royal Albert Hall, NEC, Sun City and Madison Square Garden supplemented that. First video and then satellite television opened up a global market for Indian cinema and resulted in widespread impacts for culture and commerce, which has lessons for the East Midlands. 

It created opportunities for the stories of the South Asian people and its diaspora to reach an audience beyond those of Asian origin. It also inspired many more individuals of South Asian origin worldwide to pursue careers in different aspects of the creative industries. 

From Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, to Gurinder Chaddha’s Bend It Like Beckham and from the popularity of the local MATV to the Leicester Haymarket Theatre’s Bollywood Jane were all fuelled by the infusion of ‘home-grown’ talent with ‘crossover’ appeal. 

Indian cinema also began to attract funding from diasporic communities, which led to American, Canadian and British Asian investment beginning to bankroll a substantial proportion of film finance in India. 

Also, foreign locations used in Indian films became virtual magnets for tourists of Indian origin for whom visiting these was akin to trips by Elvis fans to Graceland or by Beatles buffs to Abbey Road. Castles in the Scottish Highlands, chalets in the Swiss Alps, the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent and Longleat in Oxfordshire are now signposts in the travels of the Bollywood buff. 

The leisure and tourism sectors of these areas took advantage of this trend by promoting these Bollywood links. Yet, to ensure variety in the ‘look’ of a film, directors never hesitate to shift locations once they are considered ‘over-exposed’. 

On top of that is the ongoing battle of undercutting between the tourist sectors in countries like Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa and Canada, to attract productions there by offering part-finance, tax-breaks and cheap access to locations and facilities - all geared to position their tourist hotspots in films seen worldwide. 

As things stand, Leicester could easily host Indian film and television production teams visiting the region, providing them with familiar food; subsidised accommodation through the many hotels, B&Bs or available-in-summer University housing; easy access to beautiful countryside, manicured parks, stately homes; use of an emergent body of talented actors, dancers and skilled technicians; and, even in terms of a way in to, and back from, Europe thanks to all the international airports nearby. 

In 2001, the University of Leicester hosted the first Bollywood film to be shot in the region. De Montfort Hall has held Bollywood-style live concerts before and the Walker's Stadium is in consultations to become a venue for bigger open-air, summer concerts, particularly during English football's off-season. 

The facilities are all there and it's been used effectively in the past, but what guarantees exist which ensure that filmmakers keep coming back to continue filming and investing here? 

Instead of celebrating the yet-to-be-realised-success of an incubating business plan, what we might need to do is get together to develop and articulate an unambiguous and farsighted, strategic vision for cross-sectoral engagement with India’s creative industries, that clearly maps long-term cultural and commercial benefits for Leicester and the region. 

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Last updated: 23 March 2004 10:55
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