LOS ANGELES — India has a population of more than 1.1 billion, and South Asians make up one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States. The country’s thriving Bollywood movie business, however, has not yet exploded in mainstream American theaters — something “Kites,” in an unusual two-pronged release plan, hopes to help change.
On Friday, India’s Reliance Big Cinema will release the traditional cut of the romantic drama, a two-hour-plus movie filled with extended dance sequences, enough melodrama to fill a season of “Gossip Girl” and plenty of lingering close-ups of bare-chested star Hrithik Roshan (think a Hindi-speaking Fabio, with better hair).
A week later, on May 28, Reliance will introduce a much shorter “Kites: The Remix” recut by “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner, a fast-paced, more Westernized rendering focusing on the film’s central romance (between characters played by Roshan and Uruguayan-born soap opera star Barbara Mori) that largely excises the creative indulgences that distinguish many Bollywood productions.
“The story — a cross-cultural romance between an Indian boy and a Mexican girl — lends itself to a very wide release,” says Reliance’s Sanjeev Lamba, who says the first “Kites” film will premiere in more than 200 domestic theaters, a record North American opening for a Bollywood movie (the remix will debut in about 50 theaters next week). “We are trying to look at staging it in the widest possible manner.”
The film ultimately will open theatrically in about 60 countries. “That includes a lot of nontraditional territories that don’t typically take Indian films,” Lamba says.
Directed by Anurag Basu, one of India’s most innovative filmmakers, “Kites” was shot in a number of American locations (Las Vegas, New Mexico, Los Angeles) and is performed in English, Spanish and Hindi. Made for a comparatively rich budget of $30 million, “Kites” might not have much sex, but it showcases many of the other staples of American cinema — car chases, shootouts and even a “Thelma & Louise” plot twist.
The dual release strategy aims to give the South Asian movie-going diaspora a familiar Bollywood movie with Friday’s version, and perhaps use the remix to lure new audiences — specifically, second- and third-generation Indian Americans and Latino Americans — that might have shunned the genre in the past. “What we are trying to say,” Ratner explains of his remix, “is that this isn’t your father’s Bollywood movie.” Says Lamba: “It has all the soul of the original film, but it has a different beat.”
Reliance isn’t the first to experiment with such a Bollywood release scheme.
Earlier this year, Fox Searchlight released two editions (a longer and shorter cut) of “My Name Is Khan” in domestic theaters. The movie, made by Fox International Productions, did huge business around the world for the genre (about $41 million, with $22 million coming from India) and grossed about $4 million domestically, a very good result for a Hindi-language production (last year’s foreign-language Oscar winner, Japan’s “Departures,” grossed just $1.5 million domestically).
From a marketing perspective, Bollywood releases can be tremendously attractive, as they can be sold with very targeted advertising and hardly any television spots.
Reliance’s buddy comedy “3 Idiots,” released theatrically in 2009, grossed $6.5 million domestically with a prints and advertising budget of about $500,000, says Mark Urman, whose Paladin Film is consulting on the release of both versions of the “Kites” films. “It’s unbelievably cost-efficient,” says Urman, who is promoting “Kites” with online advertisements, billboards and free publicity, using co-star Mori to court Spanish-speaking patrons. The remix will be released in some cities with sizable Latino audiences, including Dallas and Houston.
Yet it won’t be easy getting reviewers to take notice of even one version of “Kites,” Urman says. “We have such a hard time getting critics to see some of our movies once,” he says.
Ratner, who has a production deal funded by Reliance, hopes that his remix can do to Bollywood movies what “Rush Hour” did for star Jackie Chan — take one genre (in the case of Chan, Hong Kong martial arts movies) and Westernize it to the point that it escapes its limited niche. In shortening “Kites” by more than a third, Ratner excised almost all of the film’s dance scenes and narrative subplots and redundancies — “Instead of saying things eight times, they say it twice,” he says — and added new, hipper music cues and dubbed some of the film’s dialogue.
“The best part of the movie for me was the chemistry between the two leads, the love story,” Ratner says. He cut down a subplot in which Roshan and Mori’s characters were driven to marry other people for money, not love. “It didn’t make them likable,” he says.
More than anything, though, Ratner tried to give his cut some energy and a more even narrative tone, unlike the longer version, which swings from torture scenes to dance numbers without blinking an eye. “I want to introduce people to a genre of film they’ve never seen before,” he says. “I tried to keep the movie the way it was, but just make it more accessible to Western audiences.”