Move over Bollywood, here's Bhojpuri
By Amarnath Tewary in Patna
Bhojpuri cinema has an audience of 200m.
Bollywood is having to take a backseat as the hitherto little-known regional Bhojpuri film industry steals the show in India.
The industry, catering to 200m people who speak the Bhojpuri language - a dialect of Hindi - and live in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is raking in cash like never before.
Sticking to home-grown Indian family melodramas and throwing in some glamorous faces and slick foreign locations for a contemporary feel, Bhojpuri films are often outperforming Bollywood biopics at the box office these days.
Take, for example, two of the Bhojpuri mega hits of 2005, Sasura Bada Paisawela (My Father-in-Law is Rich) and Daroga Babu I Love You (Dear Policeman, I Love You).
Both did more business in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh than the A-list Bollywood releases, Bunty Aur Babli, a version of Bonnie and Clyde, and Mangal Pandey - The Rising, about the 1857 Indian mutiny.
Made on a modest budget of $65,000, Sasura Bada Paisawela took in over $3m at the box office. Daroga Babu mopped up nearly $900,000 on a similar budget.
Many Bhojpuri movies take about 10 times their costs
With a success rate of almost 100% it is not surprising that Bhojpuri cinema is wooing Bollywood players like never before.
Superstar Amitabh Bachchan, presently recovering from surgery, and star actress of yesteryear, Hema Malini, have signed up for a Bhojpuri film together.
Other actors who have appeared in or are about to appear in Bhojpuri films are Ajay Devgan, Juhi Chawla, Raj Babbar, Rati Agnihotri and starlet Nagma.
That's not all - Bollywood's top choreographer Saroj Khan is directing a Bhojpuri movie, director Tinnu Verma is remaking a Bollywood hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village, My Country), in Bhojpuri, and Bollywood singer Udit Narayan is producing a Bhojpuri film called Kab Hoi Gauna Hamar.
The four-decade-old Bhojpuri industry is attracting foreign talent too.
Ukrainian model Tanya has already played a Russian girl in love with a Bihari boy in Firangi Dulhania (Foreign Bride). Now 24-year-old Cambridge-educated British actress Jessica Bath has signed for two Bhojpuri films.
The Bhojpuri industry is buzzing as never before - with some 30 films this year, double the number of previous years.
So what makes Bhojpuri cinema tick?
Bhojpuri cinema is like home-cooked food
Ravi Kishan, actor
For one, the film-makers have astutely targeted the Bhojpuri-speaking audience at home and abroad - a substantial expatriate population in places such as Mauritius, Fiji, Surinam and the West Indies.
With Bollywood productions increasingly targeting the urban middle and upper classes in India's cities, Bhojpuri directors have cashed in by churning out home-grown local fare.
The industry also has its own stars now - Manoj Tiwari and Ravi Kishan are the biggest male actors, while an actress from Mumbai (Bombay) Rani Chatterji - originally Sabiha Sheikh and renamed after Bollywood actress Rani Mukherjee - is the most popular actress.
Tiwari, who began as a small-town crooner, now has more than a dozen films to his name and charges as much as $90,000 per film.
Kishan charges as much. He has been quoted on an Indian website as saying Bhojpuri cinema is like "home-cooked food".
Bollywood hits are now also being dubbed into Bhojpuri
Vinod Mirani, an editor of a Bollywood trade journal, said on the same site: "Bhojpuri movies are not about Technicolor fantasies. The thrust is towards home-grown subjects. The concerns are largely to do with marriage and family. There's lot of emotions."
Clearly, the formula is working.
"Bhojpuri cinema has finally got its identity and real worth. Now its commercial success is making everybody sit up and take notice," says Raghuvansh Babu, chief of the Bihar Motion Pictures Association.
Bhojpuri movies also make eminent business sense.
"Most Bhojpuri films are made on small budget of usually $50,000 to $60,000 and usually gross 10 times their costs at the box office, which is much higher than any Bollywood hit," Bollywood trade analyst Taran Adarsh says.
Bhojpuri film-makers now claim they are pushing the envelope with themes.
Manoj Tiwari says Bhojpuri films are being made around "gender themes and even a political satire is in the works".
To exploit the industry's potential, there is also a rush now to dub 40 Bollywood hits, including films like Sholay and Deewar, into Bhojpuri.