Q&A with Jennifer Hopfinger, Editor and Publisher of The Bollywood Ticket
Published on August 10th, 2010 | by Ryan Wells1
The Bollywood Ticket: The American guide to Indian movies is launching a free monthly newspaper in September that will be distributed to Bollywood movie theaters and Bollywood dance studios throughout the U.S. as well as to South Asian retailers and restaurants throughout metropolitan Chicago. Cinespect sat down with the Editor and Publisher, Jennifer Hopfinger, to discuss their new product and the Bollywood scene at large.
Congrats on the new monthly newspaper. Tell us about it and what you’re hoping to accomplish?
Thank you. We’re launching a print version of our Web site in September. The free monthly newspaper will be distributed to movie theaters that show Hindi films and dance studios that teach Bollywood dance as well as to South Asian retailers and restaurants throughout metropolitan Chicago. We plan to eventually increase the frequency and expand to other cities.
The Bollywood Ticket was launched online [at www.thebollywoodticket.com] in September 2009. We look at Hindi films from an American perspective, helping U.S. fans—Desi and non-Desi alike—explore Indian cinema with relatable news, reviews, and commentary.
The Bollywood Ticket targets South Asians as well as other Americans with a strong interest in South Asian culture and entertainment. Our readers are a very underserved demographic.
Hindi cinema is so popular with the South Asian diaspora that Bollywood often makes movies specifically for this lucrative market (South Asians are the wealthiest ethnic group in America). And yet, no American media outlet covers Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world, in any significant way—until now.
Where do some of your writers hail from? Are they US-based or in India? Or both?
All of our writers live in the U.S. Some were born here; some were not. Some are of South Asian origin; some are not. In that sense, our writers are a reflection of our readers.
Who’s your audience you currently have, and who do you hope to reach?
I hope to reach anyone who loves Bollywood. Originally, I set out to reach people like me–non-South Asian fans of Bollywood who need guidance in exploring Hindi film. I still aim to reach those people. But as I heard from more and more South Asian readers, it dawned on me that South Asians in the U.S. have the same perspective on Hindi film that I do. We’re all Americans with the same cultural viewpoint.
What I find fascinating is that The Bollywood Ticket is read all over the world, on every continent. About half of my readers are in North America, and the rest are in the UK, Japan, Australia, Brazil, you name it. I have a lot of readers in the Middle East, particularly the UAE, and of course in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan.
I love the fact that readers in other parts of the world appreciate our unique Western perspective on Hindi film. And we are a source of very high-quality content, which sets us apart from much of what you find on the Web.
What outlets are out there for everyday Americans who want to get into Bollywood cinema? (i.e. TCM, etc.)
Netflix is a God-send. Nearly every Bollywood film is available on Netflix. There are also cable channels. I have Comcast here in Chicago, and they offer Bollywood On Demand. Dish Network offers all kinds of Hindi programming. The AMC movie theater chain routinely shows Bollywood movies at its theaters in select markets, like Chicago and New York. There is also a large Indian movie theater chain in the U.S. called Big Cinemas. They have locations all over the country. (Big Cinemas is also the largest movie theater chain in India.)
Do you think there will be a trend where there’s a place in Hollywood where Bollywood actors/actresses can star along side their Hollywood counterparts without being reduced to the ethnic side kick?
Absolutely. We’re already starting see it. Bollywood star Anil Kapoor (of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame) had a significant role on the last season of the TV show 24. And he got great reviews from U.S. media. Aishwarya Rai has been in Hollywood productions, including “The Mistress of Spices” (2005) with Dylan McDermott, “The Last Legion” (2007) with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, and “Pink Panther 2″ (2009) with Steve Martin. Mallika Sherawat is starring in an upcoming Hollywood political comedy, “Politics of Love,” opposite an African American actor. Sherawat will play a volunteer coordinator on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who falls in love with her counterpart on John McCain’s campaign. Sherawat is also appearing in another upcoming Hollywood film, Hisss, along with Irrfan Khan.
It’s actually working both ways. Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards made cameo appearances in the Bollywood film Kambakkht Ishq in 2009. British actor Sir Ben Kingsley appeared in a Bollywood film, “Teen Patti,” in 2010.
A trend we’re seeing is that Bollywood leading ladies’ career life span usually ends much sooner compared to their male counterparts. Do you think this’ll change, opening up more roles for more middle-aged actresses in leading roles?
It’s not that much different than it is in Hollywood. American actresses have much shorter careers than American actors, or they’re relegated to limited roles with age. A woman George Clooney’s age playing leading romantic roles the way he does? Extremely rare. And I don’t see that changing in Hollywood anytime soon.
Actually, the trend in Bollywood right now is that leading ladies are enjoying much longer careers than ever before. Until fairly recently, it was customary for Indian actresses to retire once they got married. The thinking was that they couldn’t be sex symbols to male audiences anymore. But that thinking applied to actors as well. There are male stars today who hid the fact that they were married when they started out because it was regarded as a handicap to their career.
That thinking has changed dramatically for both men and women. Superstar Aishwarya Rai married superstar Abhishek Bachchan in 2007 and the two of them are as big as ever.
In fact, some middle-aged female stars have recently come out of retirement post-marriage. Two examples are Madhuri Dixit and Kajol. Kajol has a major release coming out September 3rd called “We Are Family” (it’s a remake of Hollywood’s 1998 “Stepmom”), and she’s currently eight months pregnant with her second child.
While male actors in Bollywood have longer careers than actresses, the clock ticks for the guys, too. The three biggest male stars are Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan, and all three are in their mid-40s. There’s a great deal of speculation about how much time they have left and which 20-something actors are going to replace them.
When did Bollywood fall on the radar of US audiences; was there a particular film that really struck a chord with Americans?
I’ve been a huge film buff my whole life, and I’ve always loved foreign cinema (particularly French), but I had never even heard of Bollywood until the 2001 Hindi film “Lagaan” was nominated for an Oscar. (That was only the third time in history that an Indian film got the Best Foreign Film nod.) I think that was Bollywood’s first big splash in the U.S.
I think Bollywood has gotten more attention in the West in recent years because South Asians have become more prominent in the West in recent years. They’re one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in America today, and they’ve largely been very successful in integrating into mainstream America while maintaining a distinct cultural identity that is expressed, among many ways, in love of Hindi film.
On a side note, what sort of reception does Hollywood movies get in India in comparison to their home grown counterparts of Bollywood?
Hollywood films generally don’t do well in India. In many ways, Hollywood films are as alien and inaccessible to Indians as Bollywood films are to many Americans. We’re talking about very different film conventions, and audiences have very different expectations.
American films capture as small a market share in India as foreign films do in the U.S.—a fact Hollywood would love to change, given the size of the Indian market, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to do it. Even Avatar (2009), which broke box-office records for an American film in India, still grossed much less in India than the Bollywood film 3 Idiots (2009), which released around the same time.
Hollywood’s efforts to produce Bollywood films for the Indian market have also failed. Warner Bros’ “Chandni Chowk to China” (2009), Disney’s animated “Roadside Romeo” (2008), and Sony’s “Saawariya” (2007) all fizzled. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand that you can’t take the Hollywood formula and dress it up like an Indian film. There are much more than superficial differences between the two.
How does the Indian censorship board’s guidelines work? Have they become more lenient in recent years? How does audience reaction play into this (e.g. “Fire” had a rather hostile reaction from audiences, not really the censors when it came out in the nineties)?
Interestingly, India’s censorship board originated with the British Raj, just as the movie rating system in the U.S. originated with the Catholic Church–both are products of Christian prudery, you could say. It really doesn’t work that much differently than it does in the U.S.–if filmmakers want certain ratings, they make certain concessions. The same thing goes on here in the U.S.
Of course, though, standards are different in India. There is no explicit sex and no nudity in Indian films. Even kissing is rare. I think it goes beyond social taboos, though. I think it’s largely a matter of artistic choice. What is suggested in Hindi film is incredibly titillating. Bollywood movies are far, far sexier than any Hollywood picture. Indian audiences expect drawn-out seduction and exquisite tension, and their filmmakers deliver. Hollywood, unfortunately, doesn’t know the first thing about foreplay.
What are some of your favorite must-see Bollywood films?
I’d say for those just getting starting in Bollywood, you couldn’t go wrong with these:
“Raavan” (2010): In every Bollywood film, there’s a kernel of the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic about Lord Rama and his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by Raavan, a 10-headed demon king. The influence of this foundational narrative on Indian cinema cannot be underestimated. Director Mani Ratnam’s latest, Raavan, is a full-blown adaptation of the Ramayana.
“Kites” (2010): “Kites” was specifically made to appeal to Western sensibilities—it’s not the first Bollywood film to try to crossover, but it is the first to succeed at it, and it does so while remaining true to the essence of Hindi cinema. Kites looks like an American film, but it feels like an Indian one. By stripping itself of the typical trappings of Hindi films, it reveals the heart of Bollywood—a beating, bleeding operatic heart.
“Kaminey” (2009): Director Vishal Bhardwaj—best known for his film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Maqbool) and Othello (Omkara)—breaks new ground in Bollywood with his latest creation: a violent, convoluted, Tarantino-esque trip through the mean streets of Mumbai—stellar soundtrack and all.
And finally, what’s a Bollywood film currently out Americans should be seeing right now?
“Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai” – a retro-70s mob fable based on real-life characters. A real gem.