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How Bollywood conquered London

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What’s behind the glitzy romance between Bollywood and London and what does it mean for London’s economy?

Follow me: @shrutitripathi6 and @LondonLovesBiz

From the financial capital of Europe to the fashion capital of the world, London claims a lot of triumphant titles.

But what you won’t hear anyone making a song and dance about is how London is fast-becoming the Bollywood capital of Europe (you read it here first). 

Bollywood is in love with London. Head over heels in love.

Scenes of brightly dressed Indian dancers shaking a leg at Westminster Abbey and Tower Bridge is what you see in practically every other Bollywood film.

In fact, when Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan decided to make the £21m Ra.One, the most expensive film in the history of Bollywood, he didn’t bat an eyelid before setting the story in the UK capital.

The Hindi film audience devoured scenes of Khan serenading Kareena Kapoor at Tower Bridge and chasing cars in Canary Wharf until eventually beating the baddie Arjun Rampal in the grand finale all with Battersea Power Station as the backdrop.

And that’s not all. Last year, around 10 big banner Hindi films like Housefull 2, Desi Boyz and London Paris New York were shot in the capital.

But what does Bollywood really mean to London?

“Bollywood has always conjured up images of colour, vibrancy, song and dance. But now it beholds glitzy premieres at places like Leicester Square and the O2,” says Ashanti Omkar, Bollywood editor for Cineworld and BBC London 94.9.

A whopping £900m is injected into the capital in total by film producers choosing to film in London (that’s all producers, not just Bollywood). The Cineworld cinemas in Feltham and Ilford are among the world’s highest-grossing cinemas for Bollywood films.

And with 75 per cent of the UK’s film industry already concentrated in London, now Bollywood producers are spending a significant amount of their total budget in the capital too. Ra.One alone is estimated to have spent £5m in London, the highest ever investment a Hindi film has made here in London.

How Bollywood came to London

Bollywood’s love for London goes back to the 1950s when Indians started migrating to the capital in search of a better life. This handful of Indians brought with them their love for Hindi cinema and they would screen Hindi films on projectors in Indian neighbourhoods like Southall, Hounslow and Upton Park.

Fast-forward 50 years and you find many Bollywood buffs among the 480,000 Indians, 215,100 Pakistanis and over a million British Asians living in London today.

On the Friday that a Hindi film hit screens, a London cinema looks no different from one in Mumbai. Whistles, claps and catcalls when the heroine arrives on screen are common sounds and, if you’re lucky, you might spot people throwing pennies at the screen after the hero has beaten the villain black and blue.

But why London?

“The links between London and India are deep and strong. They have a great amount of shared history, which provides a rich tapestry for storytelling and it is appealing to film-makers,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission

“London has some of the most experienced and talented crew in the world and our studios, locations and facilities are world-class. This is important for any production and in particular for large-scale and complex shoots, involving a number of cameras and lots of extras, something that Bollywood is renowned for,” he adds.

There are tax incentives too.

A Bollywood production can qualify as a British film if it fits three criteria set out by the Tax Relief policy in the UK. First, a minimum of 25 per cent of costs must be spent on filming activities (pre-production, principal photography and post production) within the UK. Second, the movie should pass the cultural test, i.e. characters should be depicted British in the film. Lastly, it must be made to be shown commercially in cinemas.

Meeting these requirements means that the producers can claim a rebate of up to 20 per cent of the production expenditure in the capital – a factor that lures Hindi film producers. 

“The rebate is a very attractive incentive for international productions and it has contributed greatly to making London and the UK a desirable and competitive filming destination,” says Wootton.

Amid all the song and dance numbers that it’s well-noted for, Bollywood also means serious business for film productions in London.

Lee Alliston, owner of Darkside Pictures, claims that 70 per cent of his business comes from Bollywood. Supplying full production services like filming permissions, accommodation, catering, crew, lighting packages and camera equipment, his company has assisted some of the biggest Hindi films made – including Ra.One and Housefull.

“Bollywood is my bread and butter,” explains Alliston. “I go to Mumbai at least four to five times a year to discuss requirements for locations, film schedules, accommodation, visas and all.

“This all results in me employing huge numbers of background artists and production staff – so it’s quite impressive how Bollywood puts so much into the capital.”

Bollywood tourism

Madhuri Dixit, Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit at Madame Tussuads

A bevy of Bollywood hotshots have unveiled their wax statues at Madame Tussauds. At any given time of day, you can find tourists hugging and kissing statues of Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan.

Bollywood fans across the world have grown up watching London’s classic tourist attractions like Big Ben, Westminster Cathedral, Hyde Park, Leicester Square et al – Brand Bollywood has definitely been a catalyst helping boost tourism in London.

Devansh Patel, a reporter for India’s most popular movie site Bollywoodhungama.com and for the Harrow Observer, thinks that London is the natural second home for the Hindi film industry. He spends his time between London and Mumbai and counts well-known actors such as John Abraham and Vidya Balan as friends.

“London and Bollywood enjoy a very revered relationship. Bollywood fans in India have grown up watching London in all its glory, and Bollywood fans in London savour Hindi films because it evokes a sense of home calling for them.

“Bollywood loves London, it always has and always will. I’ve never really come across someone who has a bad word to say about it,” says Patel.

And then of course there’s the very common dream amongst Bollywood fans that a stroll on Oxford Street or Bond Street might reward them a glimpse of their favourite Bollywood celebrities who are often seen shopping there. Failing that, you can use Film London’s dedicated Hindi film map, which pinpoints popular London haunts used by directors in various Bollywood hits.

Is London losing out to other UK cities?

London might be revelling in its Bollywood glory, but there could be yet another twist in the tale. Lengthy procedures, and delays in getting planning permissions, have led to film producers looking to Newcastle, Scotland, Manchester and Leicester instead.

“It takes ten full days to get permission to film in Westminster – as a producer it gets really frustrating,” says Alliston of Darkside Pictures. “To add to the misery, congestion and lengthy procedures to start filming delays the entire schedule.

“But if I go to places like Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle, I can start filming on the streets within two hours of giving a notice.”

Bollywood filmmakers are aware of the audience’s sweet spot for London. So if filming in the capital doesn’t look like a viable option, they take cutaway shots of London locations and use green screens to give the viewers the London experience.

Bollywood also has something of a reputation for unprofessionalism. Alliston says: “Whenever a director tells me that the shooting should begin at 8am, I ask him if he means English time or Bollywood time? Because Bollywood stars always arrive really late.”

This reputation can make local London authorities reluctant to grant filming licenses speedily, further delaying things. “Authorities often sham Bollywood,” Alliston says, “but what they don’t realize is that it’s one of the biggest film industries in the world.”

Will these stumbling blocks take away the Bollywood crown from London? Probably not.

Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif just finished a month-long shooting schedule in the capital for a big budget Yashraj Productions film.

Last weekend Housefull 2, a London-set rom-com, had a bumper opening at the Box Office. The London-based action thriller Agent Vinod is running strong in cinemas now.

London has nothing to worry about. Bollywood fans will always lap up London’s landmark locations and its cross-cultural mishmash. Bollywood ain’t going nowhere.

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