Bollywood wows Morocco, dreams of America
For once, the storytellers, snake charmers and food stalls were gone from Marrakech's main square and in their place pulsed a crowd of thousands of people waiting to see a legend of Indian cinema who has attained superstar status here in Morocco.
"Shahrukh Khan! Shakrukh Khan!" the young men and women chanted in the chill night air, waiting for the 47-year-old Indian screen legend to make a brief appearance as part of the Marrakech International Film Festival's tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema.
Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, may still be struggling to make its mark on American and European audiences, but its trademark hours-long epics filled with the riotous spectacle and glamorous stars have enchanted audiences in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Indian actors and directors attending the Marrakech festival, which began Nov. 30 and ends Saturday, expressed surprise over their rapturous welcome in Morocco, even as they talked of one day spreading that same appeal into Hollywood by altering the tried and true formulas of Indian film.
"Marrakech is quite surprisingly into Bollywood. It's amazing," said director Prakash Jha, known for films tackling serious social issues with the Bollywood tactic of big stars and musical numbers. "We just attended one of my films, "Chakravyuh," and I was surprised at the number of people there who knew us and were into Indian cinema."
Moroccans have enjoyed Bollywood for decades, first in inexpensive theaters showing Arabic-subtitled Hindi films in low-income neighborhoods, then via pirated DVDs available in bazaars.
On Friday night, there was no doubt about the devotion among the seething crowd in Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna square with tough looking young men yelling "I love you" as Khan lip-synched and danced to some of the hit tunes from his 75 movies before plunging down to the crowd to shake people's hands.
In 2011, he was the guest of honor at the Marrakech film festival, which this year celebrated 100 years of Indian cinema, according to festival director Melita Toscan du Plantier.
She said Moroccans adore Indian movies and were celebrating the centennial one year early to get the jump on other festivals. "It is a cinema which speaks about love without nude scenes and is colorful and joyous and makes people dream," she said in an interview.
This year's festival, including a tribute delivered by legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, included more than 30 names from Bollywood, including at least half a dozen big stars such as elder statesman Amitabh Bachchan, 70, who has helped popularize Indian cinema around the world.
The industry produces more than a 1,000 films a year, with about a third of that coming from the Hindi-language Bollywood, and sells about a billion more tickets than Hollywood - though annual revenues are only about 10 percent of Hollywood's $30 billion annual revenue.
Indian audiences are vast but pay little for their tickets, leaving Indian studios eager for overseas audiences, such as Indian diaspora communities abroad that appreciate the action flash and spectacle.
More lucrative than North Africans and Middle Eastern audiences are those from America and western Europe, which so far seem to be immune to the lush charms of Indian cinema.
There have been a few American movies by Indian expatriate directors that have done well, such as Mira Nair's 2001 "Monsoon Wedding" and English director Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning take on Bollywood, "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2008.
But for the most part India's blockbusters aren't making it into Western theaters in any great numbers - something that many in the industry hope is set to change.
"Especially now, it is changing times for Indian cinema. .... We are on the threshold of being able to do some stuff internationally vis-a-vis our films, without changing them too much," Khan told journalists. "I feel we are on the verge of something really wonderful."
Khan admitted that Indian movies can be a difficult sell for some audiences, given their lack of coherent plots and linear story development. But he said that could be helped with more Western input.
"A lot of people in India would criticize me for it, but I think you need a huge amount of Western writing help to get the form. The creative should be the same, Indian creative," he said.
Bollywood is entering a new phase featuring better and more diverse films, said Mumbai-based film critic Aniruddha Guha - even as it continues to make the traditional three-hour "masala" blockbusters featuring, song, dance, adventure and romance to appeal to a broad Indian audience.
"The difference is in that the number of good films being made each year - and by good, I mean films that attempt to tell a story without falling for conventional traps, (and) which are technically sound and largely display good acting - have been going up," he said.
He said Hollywood has both the massive blockbusters, which are often of questionable artistic value, and well-crafted smaller films that appeal to a different kind of audience.
"Bollywood needs to strike that balance," he said.
"If you want to be attractive to European or American audiences, you have to be more than just traditional culture," said actor Abhay Deol, known as a rebel in the industry for often bucking the standard Bollywood approach. "I don't think until we break that traditional mold, we will be able to break into that crossover."
Director Jha, who began his career in India's small alternative film sector, has made a name for himself by making controversial films about daily problems, including the trademark song and dance.
His 2012 film "Chakravyuh," which also starred Deol, focused on the crushing poverty that has sparked a Maoist revolt in central India, yet still had the love story and the songs - including one that ran afoul from the censor board for its ridicule of country's biggest business family names.
"There are two Indias. One is bright, shining and developing into heaven, and there is a whole big India that is suffering," he told The Associated Press. "The battle in the forest has now spilled into the neighborhoods."
He admitted that to make his films work commercially he has to tone down the criticism and the realism, but at least they get the ideas out. India's Maoist rebels actually praised the movie for trying to tackle the issues, though they quibbled about some aspects of it.
For now, India's classic song and dance fantasies continue to enthrall crowds in Marrakech and elsewhere, but the world may soon be seeing a different face to Bollywood.