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When Bollywood Comes Calling

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Last year, cinema attendance reportedly dipped to 20-year lows in Western markets. Piracy and home-viewing are profoundly changing the way people consume visual media. But not so it seems in India, home to Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry by output, where the near-invincible sector is clocking in double the number of theatre-goers in North America.

Whether a function of India’s perennial love affair with the silver screen or a result of the ultra-modern digital multiplex theatres mushrooming in metros all over the country, Bollywood is thriving and is estimated to have been worth $2.28 billion last year.

For South Africa, this means more opportunities to service Indian film production houses increasingly searching for cost-effective locations offering all the comforts of home such as skilled support staff and quality equipment.

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA had the opportunity to meet up with the production crew of Ishq Forever, a Bollywood romantic comedy filmed in Cape Town in April-May this year.

Ishq Forever, or ‘love forever’ in English, stars Bollywood veteran Javed Jeffrey and Indian-Canadian actress Lisa Ray, as well as newcomers Krishna Chaturvedi and Ruhi Singh. The film is a production of Friday Cine Entertainment, a three-way partnership between Ajay Shah, Harry Gandhi and Shabbir Boxwala.

It isn’t Boxwala’s first production in South Africa. In 2003, he co-produced the romantic drama Dil Ka Rishta, starring Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Cape Town. Like Boxwala, Shah has been producing Bollywood films for over 20 years. The final member of the trio, Gandhi – the CEO of Unique Maritime Group headquartered in the Middle East – is a film industry newcomer but has been a film enthusiast for a long time.

“I have seen first-hand how much the local industry has changed over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Boxwala.

What was once a small scale and inwardly-focused sector is now world-class and attracting sizeable foreign investment. The growth comes from two directions.

The first is locally-produced and directed films telling South African stories – during the five years leading up to 2003, local releases averaged just three a year; 10 years later, the number is closer to 15.

The second, and significantly more powerful growth lever, is the increase in international productions, such as Ishq Forever filming on location in South Africa.

As a whole, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) in South Africa estimates the industry contributes close to R3.5 billion ($282 million) to South African GDP each year and that number is growing at a rate of 14% per annum.

The location of choice is Cape Town and it’s safe to say that pretty much anyone who has visited South Africa’s Mother City can vouch for its natural charms.

Mountains, farms, beaches, oceans and semi-arid moonscapes are all within an hour’s drive from the city center, which comes with its own unique attractions in the form of the diverse architectural structures. During the summer months, Cape Town averages close to 15 hours of daylight and very limited rain – a further pull factor for overseas film productions.

Cape Town hasn’t ridden on its looks alone though. The Western Cape Provincial Government has invested close to R20 million ($1.6 million) into the sector and justifies the expenditure by means of a conservative projection of 30,000 skilled and unskilled jobs that have been created as a result of its efforts.

The majority of Bollywood films shot in South Africa use locations in Durban, the country’s third largest city, home to the largest concentration of people of Indian descent in the country and characterized by sub-tropical vegetation allowing for an easier set replication of Indian backdrops.

Ishq Forever is different – the film was shot in Cape Town and surrounding areas – such as sleepy coastal town Hermanus.

Ishq Forever really celebrates South African culture. The action takes place in Cape Town where the young heroine (played by Singh), the daughter of the prime minister of India, is attending university. It’s a coming of age romantic comedy with lots of plot twists and chases,” informs Boxwala.

“We caused quite a lot of excitement when we filmed in Hermanus. I don’t think the locals had experienced a Bollywood film before. When we were leaving, the mayor thanked us and we have promised to come back and arrange a public screening of the film at an open air cinema.”

At present, the majority of the international films being filmed in Cape Town are American productions – most recently The Giver and TV series Homeland Season 2 – which benefit further from exchange rate gains as a result of the woeful decline in the value of the local currency against the US dollar.

The NFVF approximates that it is on average 40% cheaper to make a film in South Africa than in the United States or in Europe.

 

Not Wooing Bollywood Enough

But where does that leave Bollywood? Not in an entirely favorable position, says Boxwala.

“As Bollywood film productions, we simply can’t afford to pay the rental fees which are charged to the big US productions. We just don’t work with those kind of budgets because our revenue streams are limited,” he says.

According to statistics portal Statista, Bollywood films grossed a modest $1.2 billion in 2012 against a $10.8 billion gross revenue from US productions. The numbers may not seem surprising at first glance – Hollywood is wholly more pervasive in the global popular culture – however, consider them against the fact that during that same year, Bollywood churned out a prolific 1,602 features versus Hollywood’s 476.

“A Bollywood production – even a mega blockbuster – will have significantly fewer distribution opportunities than its Hollywood equivalent, which rides on the virtue that Western productions are enjoyed by a wider audience,” says Gandhi. Ishq Forever, for example, was filmed on the relatively modest, all-inclusive budget of $2.5 million.

Gandhi says that the opportunity to attract more Bollywood productions to South Africa simply through widening the accessibility of local services is glaring. Boxwala recounts that the stock of basic equipment available for rent in South Africa during the filming of Ishq Forever was fairly limited and the resultant demand determined prices prohibitive to non-dollar earning filmmakers.

More than two thirds of Bollywood features are shot outside of India. The most popular locations are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Malaysia and Eastern Europe. South Africa could be losing out on Bollywood opportunities, say Boxwala and Gandhi, due to the high local prices, the red tape related to the obtaining Department of Trade and Industry rebates and the fact that there are no direct flights between Johannesburg and Mumbai – the heart and soul of Bollywood. Having no direct flights complicates the transportation of filming equipment, which forces crews like Boxwala’s to rent locally and brings the problem back to the high rental rates set for US customers.

“We want to work here though,” says Gandhi. “It took us 40 days to film Ishq Forever. During that time, we hired 20 local technicians and created close to 900 short-term, low skilled jobs. We invested roughly $1 million into the local economy over the production time.”

“The locations here are fantastic and the level of skill is world class. We believe that South Africa could become an even more popular film destination for Bollywood films if it works on the negatives and builds on the positives.”

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