The Times, August 2008, News feature
It must be galling. At home they are treated like royalty, shrines are set up to worship them and millions follow the minutiae of their daily their lives. But while the stars of Bollywood cinema are adored by the Indian diaspora the world over, the majority of non-Indians remain oblivious to their fame.
Which is why Bollywood is on a mission to expand its reach, with its biggest, most bankable stars – Indian cinema’s first family the Bachchans – leading the assault.
Since July, the head of the clan, 66-year old Amitabh Bachchan, aka Big B, his son Abhishek and daughter in-law Aishwarya Rai have been touring the world in a Bollywood song and dance extravaganza called the Unforgettable World Tour.
Showcasing the cream of Indian performing talent, and marking Big B’s return to the stage after more than 20 years, the multimillion pound tour will eventually reach 28 cities in five continents including dates in Switzerland, Kuwait and South Africa.
If anything was going to raise international awareness of Bollywood’s unique brand of magic, this should have been it.
But as the first leg of the tour – taking in cities in the USA and Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, and this weekend London – draws to a close, hopes for world domination appear frustrated. For while the shows have been filled with committed fans from the Indian sub-continent, they have failed to draw in the Western crowds.
According to Shekhar Ravjiani, one half of the musical duo Vishal-Shekhar who are part of the show, to date 85-90 per cent of audiences have been from the diaspora, leave at most 15 per cent Western audiences.
Bollywood cinema is India’s foremost artistic export, so the narrowness of these audiences is striking. It’s hard to imagine a Bolshoi world tour playing to 90 per cent Russian émigrés or the Berlin Philharmonic appealing exclusively to German expats.
Part of the problem could be financial. Promoters have been charging as much as £250 for a ticket, and with credit crunch sliding towards recession on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not surprising only the most die-hard fans are prepared to fork out.
Even the Bachchan’s greatest admirers in Trinidad and Tobago were shocked at the prices they were being asked to pay. Local promoter Mahendra Persad complained that even with the inflated ticket price, the exorbitant cost of accommodating the Bachchans, with their vast retinue and extravagant props, had rendered the venture financially unviable.
In Toronto, it was dubbed the Unaffordable World Tour. And in Vancouver, the planned show was cancelled when it failed to sell out. A failure, the tour’s producer Wiz Viraf Sarkari, was yesterday blaming on the local promoter.
There are also still tickets available for Sunday’s London show. And while Viraf Sarkari was stating confidently that it would sell out, a spokesperson for the O2 Arena refused to reveal how many seats remained unsold but said the target was to reach 15,000 – 2,000 short of the venue’s 17,000 capacity.
Yesterday, at a media event to hype the O2 show, Amitabh Bachchan was distancing himself from the tour’s commercial management.
“We don’t look into that aspect,” he said. “We are contracted to go and perform. The pricing, and the ticketing and the sales are all done by promoters.
“Yes we would love to have as many people as possible but sometimes it’s restricted because of the venue and the costs that are involved.”
Bachchan also claimed to be unaware of the makeup of audiences during the North American leg. “The lights are so bright we never get to see who’s sitting in the audience and who they are,” he said
And he denied there were ever ambitions to find lucrative new Western audiences.
“I don’t think we set out with that intent,” he said. ‘It wasn’t to gather more people to come and watch our films. It was more us wanting to meet our audiences – just an opportunity for us to come and meet the fans and to give them the opportunity to see us live. And that’s about it. The fact that they come out in large numbers is sufficient endorsement that Indian cinema is reaching out to so many people.”
Although when pressed he admitted, that “yes, of course” the family wanted to widen its appeal, “there’s always that factor”.
Despite his denials, the global ambitions of India’s film industry are well documented. To continue to thrive it knows it must expand beyond its domestic market. And with Hollywood poised to move in on India, Bollywood will soon find itself competing on home ground too.
Bachchan Sr acknowledged that change was on the way. “There’s a lot of interesting things happening,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of investment coming in from the Western part of the world, there are joint ventures, there are production companies joining hands. With the spread of Indian cinema so rapid and because of its uniqueness it bodes very well for us.”
For the London show on Sunday, the Bachchan’s will be joined on stage by fellow Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Though less feted than the Bachchans back home, in the UK Shetty has become a household name, propelled into the public eye after her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother and her fallout with Jade Goody in the infamous racist bullying row.
Asked if any of them might adopt a similar high-octane strategy to boost their own UK fame, all three Bachchan’s were unequivocal.
“No, I don’t see myself doing that,” said Ashwarya Rai-Bachchan.
With Abishek Bachchan adding: “I think we’ve all kept very busy with our film work. We don’t have time to consider options like that. I don’t think any of us would have the guts to do something like that.”
Although bringing Shetty on board for a special appearance suggests a bid by the family to capitalise on her crowd-pulling quality among non-Indians, Abhishek Bachchan feigned surprise that for most of the broader British public she is now the pre-eminent face of Bollywood.
“Really?” he said pointedly. “That’s very good. We’re happy for her. She’s a member of the fraternity and we’re happy for her.” His magnanimity, a touch unconvincing.