Why doesn't Bollywood produce more sci-fi films?

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May 2, 2017, 11:01 AM EDT (Updated)

Superhero movies and sci-fi genre films have been dominating the Hollywood movie machine for years. From Star Wars to Marvel movies, these films have been grossing incredible amounts of money, and there's no end in sight. Their popularity isn't limited to "blockbusters," though; in 2016, two of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were, in fact, science fiction films.

This trend isn't limited to the United States; after all, the majority of Hollywood's revenue now comes from overseas receipts. You might assume, then, that non-U.S. based movie markets would be trying to make as many science fiction films as possible. But the strange case of Bollywood tells us otherwise: With the exception of a few high profile successes (Krrish) and failures (Ra.One), science fiction and superhero movies haven’t taken off in this movie market.

To understand why that is, let's take a closer look at Bollywood, the films it produces and the audiences they're aimed at.

What is Bollywood?

When non-South Asians mention "Bollywood," they're often referring to the Indian movie industry, but the term is actually much narrower. India is a country of many different cultures and languages; its film industry reflects that. Just as Hollywood is an English-language industry, Bollywood is Hindi. Not all Indians speak Hindi (only about 40% of the population declares Hindi their native language), though, along with English, it is a national language of India.

There are many films produced in India outside of Bollywood. Tollywood, for example, is the Telugu-language film industry, while Kollywood is the Tamil-language film industry. According to a 2014 study, Bollywood is the largest film industry in India in terms of gross revenue. However, it doesn't even account for half the country's box-office receipts; just 43% of total movie industry office revenue comes from Bollywood. The rest is divided among regional and international cinema industry.

In this article, I am specifically discussing Bollywood's productions, not Indian national cinema as a whole, focusing on the overwhelming mass market films. There are also many traditional and cultural expectations that I haven't taken into account in this piece. India is a dynamic and vibrant place with many different cultures, and as a result, it's difficult to generalize (though necessary to write a piece of this scope).

Why doesn't Bollywood produce more sci-fi movies?

A huge chunk of the reason that science fiction films aren't more widely made in India is because of special effects. Special effects are expensive. They drive up the budget of a movie significantly. Hollywood movies can recoup this cost by distributing worldwide; they usually can count on massive international audiences and thus can justify a very expensive movie. Bollywood doesn't have that assurance and producers aren't willing to risk bankruptcy to ensure a movie is made.

So why won't Indian audiences go to see a science fiction movie? Well, if it's a good movie, there's no reason they wouldn't. But Bollywood works differently than Hollywood. Specifically, high-concept movies generally don't do well in India. Part of this is certainly because studio executives have a tendency to underestimate the intelligence of their audience. They think people won't go to see a high-concept movie, so they take a complex idea and try to dumb it down, and the result is often unwatchable.

It's also true, though, that films are designed to appeal to as many people as possible, with highly varied education levels. The socioeconomic and educational stratification of the Indian population is stark; attracting as many people as possible, across income, class, and education levels, to a movie isn't easy. Box office receipts have shown that creativity, complexity and innovation in storytelling don't pay off. In general, the Indian moviegoing audience has shown a preference for straightforward stories with little moral complexity. They want uplifting, happy stories.

The fact is, a Bollywood movie can be made or broken by the music contained within. The general rule is you cannot make a Bollywood movie without songs. There are many people who will choose to see a movie solely based on whether or not the songs are appealing. It's what audiences expect, especially those from a lower socioeconomic status. But more than that, the licensing from songs is a crucial source of revenue. Filmmakers literally cannot afford to not have songs in their movies. Of course, people can and do make sci-fi movies that also have songs in them, but it can take away from the overall concept.

ra one
Bollywood movies are also dependent on who is attached to star; Hollywood audiences are much more willing to take a chance on unknown actors and actresses if a plot looks good. Bollywood is less forgiving in that regard. Without songs, and a bankable star in the lead role, a Bollywood movie is very likely to tank at the box office. Even with these, there’s no guarantee: Ra.One, a robot superhero movie, had Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood megastar in its lead role, and a hit song in "Chamak Challo", sung by Senegalese American rapper Akon, and yet it still flopped at the box office. Though it was the third-highest grossing Bollywood movie in India the year of its release, 2011, the expensive special effects meant that, at the end of the day, the filmmakers did not recoup their investment. The movie is considered a failure.

It all comes down to money: Bollywood just doesn't make the kind of money that Hollywood does, the money that gives the American film industry the ability to make such expensive films. Bollywood just churns out films, many more than Hollywood (1,602 vs. 476, respectively, in 2012). It also sold double the number of movie tickets in the same year, yet its box office grosses were 1/10 the size of Hollywood’s ($1.6 billion vs. $10.8 billion). Those slim margins mean that Bollywood executives and filmmakers are less willing to take risks. When a movie is a big success in India, they will plug that plot into movie after movie, creating a formula until the story is done to death (and then some). They are so risk-averse that they have little desire to innovate, and as a result, Indian audiences are not comfortable with the science-fiction genre because they just haven’t seen much of it.

"But science fiction doesn't need to be high-budget to succeed," you might say, and you're right. But when those who control Bollywood are convinced that sci-fi movies require expensive special effects and that a high-concept movie is unlikely to do well, it doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, for Bollywood to start making genuinely good science fiction, whether it's high or low budget, those in charge need to be open to new ideas and fresh perspectives. And so far, that hasn't been the case.

That's not to say that the superhero and sci fi-franchise movies that Hollywood is making over and over again are particularly new or exciting. How many times have we seen a Spider-Man origin story in the past 10 years? We're more familiar with the deaths of Martha and Thomas Wayne than we are with those of close family members. But within that seemingly endless cycle, there are still fresh and new genre movies being made. Bollywood will reach that point as well, but for now, they're set in their rom-com ways — and, to be honest, those romantic comedies are pretty great.

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