- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2010

MUMBAI | “Hey, Obama — We Are Trapped.”

Millions of people around the world feel that way in the wake of the global recession, but the sentiment includes a small-budget Bollywood comedy with that quirky title (“Phas Gaye Re Obama” in its native Hindi).

With a story line inspired by President Obama, his economic policies and the U.S. “global export” of the recession, “Phas Gaye Re Obama” hopes to cash in on the world economic downturn and the U.S. president’s upcoming visit to India.

The film also is part of an increasing trend of American-themed Indian films, including “Tere Bin Laden” and “My Name Is Khan.”

“Phas Gaye Re Obama” was to have its world premiere at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York on Monday night, before a planned commercial release in India and worldwide at the end of the month.

Director Subhash Kapoor said the film is about an Indian-American businessman who loses all his wealth in the U.S. recession and returns to India to sell off an ancestral property in his small hometown. The businessman is kidnapped by the town’s recession-plagued criminal band.

“In the film, the gangsters want to know from where this disease called ‘recession’ comes from and they were told it was sent to India from USA by plane,” Mr. Kapoor told The Washington Times before leaving for the U.S. premiere of the film.

The gangsters aren’t recession-proof and endure such comic woes as brandishing guns and using getaway cars for which they can’t afford bullets or gasoline, and having to lend money to their own extortion victims.

Though it was made in the Mumbai-based Bollywood film factory, “Phas Gaye Re Obama” is a small-budget niche film that Mr. Kapoor said he hopes will be able to cash in on Mr. Obamas India visit.

“The gangsters urge Obama to take corrective action because only he can bail the world out of this problem. The film takes a lot of potshots at U.S. policies, albeit satirically,” Mr. Kapoor said.

Mr. Obama arrives in Mumbai on Saturday and will spend three complete days in India — the agenda includes a visit to the site of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, celebrations of the Diwali festival, a speech to India’s parliament and a state dinner — before he departs for Indonesia on Nov. 9.

Whether the attempt by “Phas Gaye Re Obama” to cash in on the U.S. president’s summit visit is successful, it’s an example of another form of U.S.-India cooperation — the way Hollywood and Bollywood studios are increasingly collaborating on production and distribution.

“Phas Gaye Re Obama” is being distributed by Warner Bros. in India. The big-budget “My Name Is Khan” was co-produced by Star India, a part of Fox Entertainment Group, and is about ethnic profiling in the United States. The protagonist in “Khan” crisscrosses the U.S. to tell Mr. Obama personally that he is not a terrorist just because of his Muslim surname.

“My Name Is Khan” grossed about $4 million in the U.S. and $5 million in Britain, contributing to a total non-Indian gross more than twice the amount of any previous Indian film.

“The idea is to push the boundaries and see how far we can take Bollywood,” Vijay Singh, CEO of Star India, recently told reporters, adding that his company’s film “has raised the bar for Indian cinema.”

These two films aren’t even the first time in the past year that a U.S. president and/or American foreign policy has inspired a Bollywood film.

In 2009, director Kunaal Roy Kapur released “The President Is Coming,” a comedy mock documentary about six 20-something Indians vying to represent “the New India” to President George W. Bush during his 2006 visit.

Earlier this year, another small comedy “Tere Bin Laden” (“Without You, Bin Laden“) by Abhishek Sharma satirized U.S. foreign policy by having a Pakistani man try to win a U.S. visa by becoming a star reporter. To gain that stardom, he hires an Osama bin Laden look-alike for a fake news scoop, bringing him the unfortunate attention of the U.S. military and the CIA.

The gold standard for Bollywood co-productions is the British film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which grossed $140 million in the U.S. alone and won eight Oscars, including prizes for such Indian talent as sound man Resul Pookutty and musicians Gulzar and A.R. Rahman. In an irony of mutual influence, the film’s central story conceit is an appearance on the Indian version of a British-origin game show known to U.S. viewers as “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

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