Even now, Robert Miller describes the phone call he received from India two years ago with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction.
Indian director Shimit Amin called the Charleston resident out of the blue to say how impressed he was by Miller’s sports choreography in Miracle, the Hollywood ode to the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team.
He then asked Miller if he’d consider working on Chakde! India, a similarly inspirational tale about a women’s field hockey team. Though intrigued, Miller was certain the conversation wouldn’t come to much.
“I definitely thought we could bring something of value to the project,” says Miller, CEO of ReelSports, a Charleston company that specializes in staging sports action sequences in films. “But then again, part of me also felt that this was just one of those random inquiries you get in the business.”
Just over a year after that initial conversation, Miller found acclaim for his work on Chakde! India, which was hailed for its sports sequences, its positive portrayal of women, and for shattering Bollywood stereotypes of being about nothing more than romantic fantasies with lots of song-and-dance numbers. A massive, unexpected hit, the film won the Asian subcontinent’s equivalent of five Oscars and five Golden Globes.
But if Miller’s initial half-hour conversation with Amin proved to be a fateful introduction to Bollywood, the largest, most successful, and most well-known of India’s nine distinct movie-making hubs, it was also an invitation to join the growing wave of Western filmmakers looking to India.
While in years past the likes of Jean Renoir, David Lean, and Fritz Lang would use the subcontinent as a dazzling backdrop, Miller and others, like Charles Darby, the British special-effects expert whose work includes Titanic and The Matrix, have fully embraced the Indian film industry. Darby, in fact, has gone so far as to establish a permanent special-effects shop there — the nation’s first to be comparable to those in Western nations.
What’s fueling this fusion of East and West? Partly the desire of Westerners to seize the opportunity to work in an interesting and hospitable environment. Far more important, though, has been the desire of Bollywood to impress Western audiences and to make larger forays into savvy and lucrative Western markets.
Big foreign box office
The Indian movie industry, centered in Mumbai, is booming. It makes billions of dollars annually from producing more than 1,000 films a year.
Even so, it has found little traction in the United States.
Oddly enough, even in a market as mature and diversified as the United States, there’s little interest in Indian films, which tend to be formulaic affairs whose fates lie squarely on a small group of actors and directors.
Miller said that while the growing ties between India’s film community and Western countries is largely market driven, he also believes it’s the result of Indian filmmakers wanting to mature their industry and make more varied, higher quality films that will catch the West’s attention.
As it happened, Miller had the East, in his case the Far East, very much on his mind at the time of Amin’s call. The sports-action director for movies The Final Season, Spider-Man 3, and Mr. 3000, among other projects, Miller did the spadework for his current film career through a lifelong involvement in sports and by helping televise the 1996 and 2002 Olympic Games.
A native of North Carolina, Miller was responsible for planning and staging the aquatics, boxing, and cycling competitions for the 1996 Summer Olympics. After the 2002 winter games, Miller decided to move back to the Southeast, founded his own movie company, which is run out of his East Bay Street home, and take his television sports experience to the big screen.
“I was always interested in growing the company internationally,” he says.
Filmmaking with twists
Miller’s first day on the set was a crash course in just how different the Indian culture can be. Shortly after his arrival for the first day of work on Chakde! India, the young women who comprised the film’s field hockey team greeted him with a specially choreographed dance.
“A real you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment,” Miller says.
Then there was the arrival on the set of Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s biggest male stars, an event that stirred the kind of commotion one would expect to accompany the arrival of a head of state or Barack Obama.
“It was amazing how nervous everybody became when he arrived,” Miller says. “Over there he’s like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise rolled into one.”
His task was to ensure the game, locker room, and practice sequences were as technically correct as possible. The production crew spent four months filming in India before moving to location shooting in South Africa and Australia. For two of those months, the movie crew was at the mercy of monsoon season, a new dimension to Miller’s plunge into the Far East.
“There is a big difference between being a tourist and trying to accomplish something on a timetable,” Miller said. “Fortunately, the people I met in the Indian film industry were incredibly supportive.”
And hopeful that Miller will spread globally the Gospel of Bollywood.
Indian filmmakers have taken film crews to countries outside Asia for nearly a decade. Great Britain has been the backdrop for over 100 films, including a feature called Namastey, London. Back home, meanwhile, the Indian film community is growing its own breed of international dealmakers.
Ronnie Screwvala, a Mumbai-native, has grown his company, UTV, from a simple provider of cable television services into a media giant that produces everything from movies to music to video games.
Screwvala looks outside India for both technical expertise and investors. The Walt Disney Company owns 30 percent of UTV. Earlier this year, Screwvala joined Twentieth Century Fox to co-produce The Happening by director M. Night Shyamalan. He also co-produced the Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife. Published reports abroad say the company is negotiating with actor Will Smith about a string of future films.
In the meantime, India’s Reliance Entertainment is in talks with DreamWorks SKG to raise up to $2 billion to create a new movie venture; the company is likely to invest as much as $600 million in the deal.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Reliance stoked speculation when it said it would invest as much as $1 billion to develop and co-produce films with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Nicholas Cage, and Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures, the production company behind three of the Harry Potter movies. Last week, Sylvester Stallone’s signing of a contract to star in an Indian movie inspired the headline, “Bollywood calls in Rambo for strike on U.S. cinema.”
Even Snoop Dogg is intrigued. He’s featured on the soundtrack of a new summer comedy called Singh Is Kinng, and he’s already getting heavy airplay on the subcontinent. In a video, which was shot in Chicago earlier this year, Snoop wears a Sikh turban and an ornate long coat called a sherwani.
According to Adweek magazine, the Cashmere Agency, which connected Dogg and Bollywood, is banking on hip-hop tie-ins to help Western advertisers leverage the Indian movie industry and gain a foothold with Indian consumers.
Such high-profile forays onto Tinseltown’s turf, a proliferation of glitzy stars, and globe-trotting Indian film awards shows have begun to generate world-wide buzz about India.
“I think the Indian film industry is opening up,” Miller says.
For him, the immediate future includes flying to India to begin work on a movie about cricket, a sport he’s still largely unfamiliar with. Even so, he’s unconcerned, because “everyone I’ll be working with grew up with the sport.”
“I really got lucky,” he says. “Given the magnitude of deals that are coming out of India, no one knows where it’s all going to lead.”