Ring, Ring, Bollywood Calling!

A young company seizes its chance in the craze for Indian movies and music

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Sheri Manson for TIME

America Saavn's co-founders from left Vinodh Bhat Paramdeep Singh and Neal Shenoy in New York City office

In 2006, long before Slumdog Millionaire awakened U.S. moviegoers’ inner Bollywood, three Americans of Indian heritage nurtured an instinct that digital Bollywood content would become a hot ticket in the U.S. market.

Today, three-year-old Saavn (an acronym for South Asian audiovisual network) controls global distribution rights, outside India, to a massive number of Bollywood films, songs, albums and music videos, all downloadable to iPods, MP3 players, cell phones and computers. And if consumers in America are captivated by the song-and-dance extravaganzas of Bollywood — the umbrella name for Mumbai’s film industry — Saavn believes its offerings will be attractive marketing tools for U.S. companies. (See pictures of Saavn and its stars.)

Last year Saavn posted revenues in the low seven figures — five times its 2007 numbers — with the largest spurt coming from its music enterprise. The company expects 2009 revenues in the low eight figures, “growth north of 500%,” says Neal Shenoy, one of Saavn’s co-founders, who manages the three other media companies within Saavn’s parent company 212Media. (Saavn is co-owned by Indian company Hungama, a competitor turned partner.) “We had no idea how quickly Bollywood and India would penetrate American culture,” Shenoy says.

Shenoy and Saavn’s two other founding partners — CEO Vinodh Bhat and managing director Paramdeep Singh — had witnessed popular media’s gradual but certain infatuation with Bollywood, whose revenues account for roughly 80% of India’s $2 billion film industry. In 2003, rapper Jay‑Z sampled London DJ Punjabi MC on the Bollywood-flavored track “Beware of the Boys.” Bombay Dreams launched on Broadway the following year. The infectiously danceable “Chaiyya Chaiyya” played over the opening credits of Spike Lee’s film Inside Man in 2006. And last year even Snoop Dogg got into the act by creating a rap song for the Bollywood movie Singh Is Kinng, “helping put the film and its music on the map in the U.S.,” says Bhat. Warner Bros. recently released its own Bollywood film, Chandni Chowk to China, whose sound track Saavn distributes for downloads.

And then there’s Slumdog.

A.R. Rahman, a 20-year Bollywood veteran — he wrote “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and hundreds of other songs — and the composer of Slumdog‘s Oscar-nominated score, concedes that the film’s music, with vocals sung in English rather than Hindi, is not true Bollywood. Nevertheless, the movie has been a dynamic conduit for Saavn’s business — even if Saavn distributes only one Mumbai-produced song from it. “Slumdog‘s sound track has elevated the entire Bollywood genre and brought us a new customer base wanting to explore similar music,” says Bhat.

Saavn’s offerings — more than 90% of all Indian music is film music — are available at digital music stores, while mobile carriers offer Bollywood ringtones, ring-back tones, single tracks, music videos and Bollywood graphics. “Since the release of Slumdog, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the sales of Bollywood ringtones, ring-back tones and songs,” says Ed Ruth, director of V Cast Music at Verizon, which offers more than 1,200 Bollywood ringtones and ring-back tones and more than 30,000 songs.

Powered by Bollywood, Saavn has already conducted a brand-marketing campaign for Verizon. Half a dozen major U.S. companies are now in discussion to use Saavn’s content to pursue the same market. The wealth and education level of South Asian consumers in the U.S. make them a desirable target, says Nirmalya Kumar, a professor of marketing at the London Business School and the author of India’s Global Powerhouses: How They Are Taking On the World. The best way to reach them emotionally, he says, is through the music and movies they love. As for Saavn’s platform, “You can’t market today without including the digital world,” says Jerry Wind, a professor of marketing at Wharton.

Americanized Bollywood hybrids could help Saavn expand. “Whether it’s Slumdog or Snoop Dogg, future media collaborations will inject Bollywood further into the mainstream,” says Shenoy. “And when fans want to experience the real Bollywood genre, they’ll come to us.”

TIME’s Coeli Carr talks about the music behind Slumdog Millionaire, and the style, stars and business of Bollywood