Amitabh Bachchan, arguably the most famous man in India, stepped out of his trailer into the bright afternoon Californian sun, en route to a dentist's appointment. But he was stopped in his tracks by a gaggle of impeccably dressed Indian women who had traveled from Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and Palos Verdes to the San Pedro set where his new movie is shooting to have their photograph taken with him.
Bachchan was in and around Los Angeles for most of the last 40 days working on "Kaante" (the literal translation from Hindi is "Thorns"), the first Bollywood film to be shot entirely in the U.S., using an American crew and Hollywood technology.
Bachchan, or A.B. as he is often called, is an actor of legendary status on the subcontinent, generating the kind of reverence that the British hold for the late Sir Laurence Olivier or Americans for Marlon Brando or Paul Newman.
He has been a star in Bollywood--as India's film industry is commonly known--for more than 30 years, most often playing the good-guy hero who always gets the girl. Last year, his renown spiked further when he was named India's answer to Regis Philbin, the host of the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But for all his experience, fame, power and wealth, Bachchan had never been involved in a project quite like this.
"It's wonderful, working with an American crew for the first time: the efficiency, the planning, watching the way in which they make movies here," Bachchan said in his famously gravel-toned voice. He was unusually dressed down in jeans and slippers, a bandanna around his neck.
On the grassy open-air San Pedro set, a catering truck served ribs and hot dogs to the dozens of American crew members and extras while the Indian participants indulged in lentils, curried vegetables and rice served by an Indian cook. The women who had driven there to have their photographs taken with Bachchan then moved on to the various other stars, most of whom had been up since daybreak filming a scene with a couple of exploding cars.
Apart from Bachchan, none of the other stars was locked away in a trailer. For the Indian cast, it was an uncommonly open and accessible set, the actors evidently content in the knowledge that, unlike in Mumbai, they would not be mobbed by fans.
"Kaante's" producers--among them Raju Patel, whose first career milestone was the Tom Hanks vehicle "Bachelor Party" in 1984, and his longtime associate, Larry Mortorff--had also lured several other major Bollywood names to star in "Kaante." The objective is a high-quality Hindi film (although a second version, featuring English subtitles, will be cut for international release) that will be made with state-of-the-art production techniques and Southern Californian locales yet still showcase the talents of India's biggest film names.
Patel, whose repertoire has also included "The Jungle Book" and "The Adventures of Pinocchio" and who is working on a visual effects-laden version of the Tom Thumb fable, said he is enthusiastic about the prospects for "Kaante" because of its "international flavor in terms of its content and the fact that it delivers international standards."
Patel and his team have pitched it to BBC Films and Film Four in England for distribution in that part of the world and are talking with 20th Century Fox in India about international sales. In the U.S., they intend to target Miramax and Fine Line, companies Patel described as "specialized distributors who seem to support these kinds of films."
Bollywood is the world's largest producer of movies, making 800 commercially released films a year, significantly more than the output of Hollywood. Much of it, however, is formulaic fare--melodramas featuring blighted love matches, dreamy song-and-dance sequences and unconvincing fight scenes--in two-to three-hour features fed to vast numbers of viewers in India, Pakistan, the Gulf states and South Asian communities around the world.
With "Kaante," the filmmakers say, the idea is to break out of the mold. This is a hard-edged heist movie, a tale of six men who meet in prison and decide on one final criminal fling before becoming model citizens. One production source likened it to "an Indian 'Reservoir Dogs."' They all agree that it will be interesting to see how Indian audiences respond to a film that is considerably more sophisticated and intelligent than most of the material coming out of Bollywood.
Associate producer Sanjay Sippy said the movie is scheduled for release in India next April before moving on to international markets.
"We are making history here," Sippy said. "No Hindi film has done pre-and post-production in Hollywood, basically everything beginning to endThis is the American way of making movies."
Some of those behind the venture admit, however, that they are also going out on a limb in terms of the story line.