Actor Anil Kapoor: Taking Bollywood to a Worldwide Audience

The Indian film industry is huge. In terms of the number of movies produced, it is the largest in the world. The next step, however, is finding a way to market films made in India to a worldwide audience. Actor and producer Anil Kapoor, who played game show host Prem Kumar in the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire and president of the fictional country of Kamistan on the U.S. TV series “24,” is doing just that. In an interview with Wharton operations and information management professor Kartik Hosanagar at the 2010 Wharton India Economic Forum, Kapoor explains why India and China will be the biggest players in the global motion picture industry by 2050. Efforts to create films with broad geographic appeal are already visible — but there is still some way to go.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Kartik Hosanagar: First of all, congratulations on your recent international success, starting with Slumdog Millionaire and now the series “24” on American television. What has helped bring about your transition in terms of receiving global attention and gaining access to global audiences?

Anil Kapoor: Well, I think [the work] is exactly the same but the audience and the scale are different. Obviously, the scale [in the United States] is much larger in every way and the numbers are larger. Otherwise, it is the same camera, same directing. The acting is the same. The language is English. Both Slumdog Millionaire and “24” were in English. I have been doing films for the past 30 years in India in Hindi — my national Indian language.

Hosanagar: How did it start? Was Slumdog your first foreign international film?

Kapoor: Yes.

Hosanagar: How did the opportunity come about?

Kapoor: I think it was just destiny. [Slumdog director] Danny Boyle must have come to India to cast this role. He must have done his research as to who was the right person. And they got in touch with me. To be honest with you, I didn’t know who Danny Boyle was. My son told me he was a director. I was aware of his films, but not of him. Sometimes it happens. So I just did the film. And the film became huge; well, its history now.

Hosanagar: What do you think accounts for the movie’s success? Why was it so successful in reaching to so many different audiences?

Kapoor: It hit a chord worldwide and that’s the reason I have spoken often of it. I think everyone has spoken a lot about Slumdog Millionaire. But … it is a once-in-a-century film … [It is] a film that not only generates critical [praise] but is also a commercial success. So I think, worldwide, in its own way, it just hit a chord everywhere. Wherever I go — every country — people just love the film.

Hosanagar: Do you think that the attention that the Indian film industry is now getting thanks to Slumdog Millionaire could have a significant impact? Or do you think life goes on and movies get made the same way, targeting the same audiences?

Kapoor: Well, the majority [of movies] are the same. Most of the films are being made the way they used to be made. But when there is such a success, there are people who want to make a difference, [who] want to do films the way they want to and they believe passionately in the way they want to do it. So, definitely, the numbers have increased. There are a lot of people who are making films, which they expect to appeal to a global audience. The effort is there. But we have a long way to go.

Hosanagar: I believe the term that the industry uses for this is crossover cinema, right? Where you make movies in India and you are trying [also] to reach audiences elsewhere? Do you see in your conversations with either actors or filmmakers a greater effort to try and cross over — to try and reach audiences in the United States?

Kapoor: I’m sure everybody wants that. Who doesn’t want global recognition? I can see sincere attempts to do that and I’m sure — I’m very positive and optimistic — that it will happen sooner or later.

Hosanagar: Do you believe that films in India are trying to connect to both Indian and U.S. audiences, for parallel release in these markets? Is that a sustainable trend? Or is that just a reaction to Slumdog Millionaire that will go away in a couple of years?

Kapoor: I don’t think anything is going to go away in a couple of years. It is going to happen, it is definitely going to happen, of course it’s going to happen.

Hosanagar: You’re a producer in addition to an actor. When you produce movies, what is driving your decisions about which kinds of movies to make and which ones not to make?

Kapoor: It depends. When I made Gandhi, My Father [a movie about the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his son], I obviously had the global audience in mind. I wanted the film to appeal to people worldwide. That’s the reason I made the film in Hindi and English. We did our best to make a film that could aesthetically and technically stand on its own with films made anywhere in the world. That was my sincere effort with my director…. I used to make films with my brother, mainstream, Bollywood masala [mixed genre] films, which I still make. I make them independently now. The reason I do that is obviously because I love those films and they do well in the Indian diaspora. And that’s the way I [pursued] my acting career. I would do both kinds of films. Some films were masala Bollywood films, entertaining films, mainstream films, which appeal to the general masses and the majority of the people in the country. The other films I would do for myself to satisfy my creative instincts.

Hosanagar: It is interesting that you didn’t mention anything about return on investment or any of those things. When we talk to studios in the United States, their green-lighting process [a rigorous feasibility analysis] involves an analysis of the potential market for a film, how many people it can reach and what are the potential audiences.

Kapoor: I never do that. I have never done that.

Hosanagar: Why is that?

Kapoor: I think that’s [the studio’s] job, and obviously my job also as a producer. But first and foremost it is [about] the content. It is [about] the material I get, and then I get passionately into it. Now I am slowly learning to be slightly more aware of the potential market and the potential numbers and the returns. Otherwise, I just used to make films and that’s what my father did and my brother did and I did — [we] just made films from the heart and never bothered about what the budget for the film is going to be. I love making films. It is part of my life. It is not really [about] thinking through things that might completely go topsy-turvy where a budget is concerned, or where numbers are concerned. There might have been no return. When I made Gandhi, My Father I never really thought about what my returns were going to be, or when I was going to get my investment back. But I was fortunate that I did get my investment back. I think I’ve been fortunate as well in other films.

Hosanagar: As you were talking about your decision process you also mentioned your brother, your family and how you have grown up in a cinema family.

Kapoor: Yes, it is a family business in a way.

Hosanagar: What is it about the film industry that keeps people plugged in through multiple generations?

Kapoor: I don’t know. Is it fame? Is it the thrill? Is it creative satisfaction? It is a great medium. You get addicted to it. Like my children, for example. My wife and I tried our best not to discuss films, not to get film magazines to the house and have no business talk about films or entertainment. We kept them away. They studied abroad. And ultimately all three of them are in films.

Hosanagar: Your daughter is an actor. Hasn’t she had a couple of movies come out recently?

Kapoor: Both my daughters. My eldest daughter is an actress. My younger daughter is a film producer. And my son is studying film at Chapman University in Orange County, California.

Hosanagar: Is that the third or the fourth generation of film folks in your family?

Kapoor: Third generation.

Hosanagar: Do you think the industry is just as accessible to people from the outside?

Kapoor: It’s up to the individual. It is such a big pie. I think this is an option for everybody. It is up to the individual, and how passionate he or she is about making it.

Hosanagar: [The Indian film industry] is clearly a big pie and has grown a lot in the past 10 or 20 years. Why has this industry taken off the way it has?

Kapoor: The numbers [of films being made] are going to increase in India and in China. These are the two countries I feel will have the maximum [revenue] numbers by 2050. At the moment the United States — North America — and the films made in Hollywood do the maximum business [in terms of revenue]…. Japan is second, and then come the other countries. By 2050, China and India — China will be Number 1 and India Number 2 — [will account for] the maximum revenues. I am very, very positive about it. I think by next year there will be about 1,000 [additional] screens in India. In China, the [number of] screens are growing every day. Looking at the population and the consumer market in both these countries, I think these two will be the focus of all the studios and everybody [in the future].

Hosanagar: Do you think there’s something that other industries can learn from the Indian film industry? Is there something that the filmmakers in the United States and elsewhere can take from India?

Kapoor: Yes, of course. The first thing they can take is that we don’t use lawyers so much [because] everything is [based on] trust. There is a good side to it and there is a bad side. But a lot of time and energy and effort can be saved with trust. That’s the old school, which is always the best school. When you trust, you do a deal just by shaking hands. That’s the first thing [other industries and filmmakers can learn from India]. That would be great. There is a lot for us to learn from them. They are much, much ahead of the game.

Hosanagar: What is your reaction to the entry of corporations into the Indian film industry? Do you see that as a positive trend or a negative trend?

Kapoor: Until now it’s a negative…. It has not been good because the corporates don’t really know how to [run the business]. Films made in India and the film industry and everything is completely [unique]. You cannot just learn it — to make films and how to go about it and how to deal with people and coordinate people, creative people. You can’t buy them with money. There are other things which are also important. But they did everything with the power of money. It just doesn’t work like that. Somewhere, I think people got deluded about what exactly their actual value was and they overvalued themselves because of the corporates. Everything was hyped up. There was an artificial bubble created by the corporates. … It is bad for the industry. It is bad for the corporates. Whatever happened was just artificial.

Hosanagar: What do you see in the future for Anil Kapoor the actor, the filmmaker, the producer? What is the next phase for you?

Kapoor: It is a journey in which I am just going with the flow. I don’t know where it is going to take me. But I’m enjoying myself. It’s the best phase of my career. I am relishing it every moment. I am soaking into it, traveling all over the world, working and juggling both worlds. I was working in the U.S. I am working in India. So it is great.

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