Bollywood Works Its Charm as India Globalizes

An interesting article in Bloomberg News about the spreading reach of Bollywood globally.

It was a Saturday night at the bar in a five-star hotel and Erik Morandarte, a 19-year-old Filipino singer, was belting out the hits.

Visiting South Korean businessmen were flailing about on the dance floor, trying to keep up with the younger local patrons, even as a group of young British guests swayed to the rhythm from the safety of their seats.

Most nights, some variation of this plays out in Asian cities that rely on Filipino singers to cater to the demand for popular English-language music. There was, however, something different about the show at the Starboard lounge in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel last Saturday.

Morandarte, a computer animation student by day, was singing Bollywood songs — in Hindi.

The increasing acceptance of Bollywood — shorthand for India’s burgeoning film industry — in the mainstream of international entertainment is a telling commentary on India’s reintegration with the world after more than five decades of self-imposed isolation.

Just last week, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp., told Bloomberg News he would bring Bollywood entertainment to the $3.6 billion casino-resort he plans to build in Singapore if he wins the bidding for the project.

It isn’t a coincidence that the forces propelling the globalization of Indian popular culture are gaining momentum just as the economic potential of the nation and its market of 1 billion people is capturing the imagination of overseas investors.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

As Hong Kong was emerging as an Asian Tiger in the 1970s, kung fu fighter Bruce Lee was becoming an icon of global youth. In 1980, when the Japanese economy seemed unstoppable, audiences in the West were getting better acquainted with the land of samurais through “Shogun,” the hit television series. In 2001, the year China joined the World Trade Organization, the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” picked up four Oscars.

Bollywood movies, especially their catchy song-and-dance sequences, are the new flavor, making their presence felt at the World Economic Forum this year in Davos, Switzerland. The changing global image of India is, in turn, shaping how Indians assess their chances of success in an interdependent world.

Nowhere is the optimism of Bollywood — most movies end on a happy note with the boy getting the girl — more evident than in Mumbai, the home of the Indian movie industry.

Financial Hub

Even five years ago, it looked like the city formerly known as Bombay was slipping into a permanent recession. It’s now dreaming of becoming, among other things, the London of Asian finance. If there’s a place in the world economy for Indian computer geeks and Indian-made cheap AIDS drugs, for yoga and Ayurvedic massages, for Indian-born steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal and now for Bollywood music, then perhaps there also is room for an Indian financial industry of global caliber.

To test that hypothesis, Uday Kotak, a billionaire Indian banker in Mumbai, recently bought back the 25 percent stake Goldman Sachs Group Inc. had held in his brokerage and investment banking companies for 10 years. After paying Goldman $75 million, Kotak wants to compete with it, and with Morgan Stanley, and not just on home turf.

“India, Indian institutions and Indians can have a shot at the world today,” he told the Business Today magazine this month. “These opportunities were not there 5-10 years ago.”

Some of the enthusiasm has also rubbed off on the government. An advertisement by Mumbai’s urban planning agency talks about the mandate of “transforming Mumbai into a world class city with a vibrant economy and a globally comparable quality of life.”

Poor City, Rich People

Mumbai is a city of stark contrasts. It is home to 11 people who placed on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires — and that doesn’t include the wealthy Bollywood stars. Amid these riches, the airport is prehistoric; the roads are narrow, potholed and congested; and, thanks to archaic rent-control laws, once-beautiful, colonial-style buildings are in serious disrepair.

After decades of civic neglect, change might be on its way. A $29 million project to clean up and remake the waterfront at the edge of the central business district was inaugurated yesterday. If Mumbai does indeed become what planners say it could, the city would be a magnet for talent, and not just from within India.

The average number of Filipino workers hired annually in India between 2002 and 2005 was 37 percent higher than in the previous four-year period. Among them are what the government in Manila calls “overseas performing artistes.”

Superstar Libra

And this doesn’t include the musicians on SuperStar Libra, operated by Malaysian-funded Star Cruise Ltd., Asia’s largest cruise operator. The guests on the luxury liner, which I boarded last week in Mumbai for a two-night trip to Goa, were almost entirely Indian; the crew was international, the band Filipino.

The 1,200-strong crowd, which included 400 currency traders, was ecstatic. Not only were the more religious-minded given the choice of vegetarian food, the music they were served was very much their old familiar Bollywood.

Filipino entertainer Morandarte, who has been in India for more than two years, is excited. One of his compatriots, he says, got a break and now works as a choreographer in Bollywood.

“If I get an opportunity like that, I will stay,” he says. Bollywood’s charm works like magic.

To contact the writer of this column:

Andy Mukherjee in Singapore at amukherjee@bloomberg.net.

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