NEW YORK (Reuters) - Millions of moviegoers in India recognize the neon signs of Times Square as easily as the Taj Mahal, due to the growing popularity of “Bollywood” movies shot in the United States, particularly in New York.
By making movies in one of the world’s most expensive cities, producers risk big losses but can score big rewards by appealing to India’s fascination with foreign worlds.
Despite its high costs, New York, more than any city outside India, offers easy access to resources such as Indian extras, trained Indian dancers and Indian production teams, say experts on Bollywood, the $2 billion-a-year industry known for movies featuring elaborate music, costumes and sets.
The term Bollywood combines the names of India’s commercial and Hindi film capital Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, and Hollywood, the global center of commercial movie production.
Such films have occasionally been made in cities such as Miami, Johannesburg and Sydney, but nine mainstream Bollywood movies have been shot in New York since 2003, eight of them since 2006 alone. Two more are in the offing.
That number is significant, given that the scripts are based on stories that could have just as easily been shot at home, experts say.
Coming this month from one of India’s largest production houses is a movie titled “New York,” which capitalizes on the city’s instant recognizability, director Kabir Khan said.
“One shot of New York, and you know this is New York,” he said.
Big-budget Bollywood productions, using distinctive backdrops such as the Brooklyn Bridge or Grand Central Terminal, cost between $12 million and $15 million. This is expensive by Indian standards, but just a fraction of the cost of a mainstream Hollywood film, which often tops $100 million.
A similar movie made in India would cost half of that or less, said Atit Shah of New Jersey-based Bollywood Hollywood Productions, which provides crews, equipment, extras and vendor agreements for U.S.-based Bollywood shoots.
One of the earliest hits shot in New York, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” or “Tomorrow May Never Come,” cost about $7 million to make, according to director Karan Johar, a pioneer of New York-based Bollywood dramas. The movie made about $13 million.
“Kal Ho Naa Ho” featured a Hindi rendition of Roy Orbison’s 1964 classic song “Pretty Woman” shot in the New York Borough of Queens, with dozens of local Indians as extras. The ethnically diverse Queens is home to more than 50,000 Indians.
Bollywood movies typically have a half dozen songs, and filmmakers look for Caucasian rather than Indian dancers to reinforce the foreign locale, said Pooja Narang, founder of a New York-based Bollywood Axion dance company.
“They usually ask for white dancers trained in a variety of styles, including Indian,” she said.
Narang provided dancers for “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna,” or “Never Say Goodbye,” which included a disco sequence at a New York nightclub, and for “Jaan-E-Mann,” or “Sweetheart,” which included a song sequence in the streets of Manhattan.
“Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna,” also directed by Johar, cost about $12 million to make and earned about $19 million.
While earlier Bollywood movies shot in New York could have been set anywhere, newer ones such as a big-budget film by Johar to be released this fall work the city into their stories.
“The trend is now evolving into one where we shoot in New York because the city is integral to the script,” Johar said. “It wasn’t like that with my other two movies.”
New York City Film Commissioner Katherine Oliver traveled to India in October to meet with key members of the film industry and promote the benefits of filming in New York.
“The success of films like ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ and ‘Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna’ ... shows that Indian audiences are eager to see the real New York City on screen,” she said.
Most Bollywood stars and crews stay at the Radisson Lexington in New York, a hotel run by Sam Bhadha. He has ties to the Indian film industry from working at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in the 1980s.
“I knew the fathers of these actors and producers then,” he said. “The fathers were the celebrities. These people were just kids.”
Additional reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Walsh