By Douglas Hanks
For The Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Bollywood plans a Miami encore this spring.
Less than a year after two of India’s favorite actors decamped for Miami to film a romantic comedy, Bollywood mega-star Shahrukh Khan is preparing to make the same trip to shoot one of his country’s first big budget superhero movies.
“Ra.One” promises to bring imaginary mayhem to South Florida as Khan’s character, a Miami software engineer, accidentally gives life to a video game villain. And while the movie’s announced $3 million local budget is modest by Hollywood standards, local production officials see Bollywood’s quick return to Miami as a milestone.
Just nine months ago, production officials were touting Miami’s first major Bollywood movie, “Dostana,” the comedy starring Abhishek Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra that went on to blockbuster status in India.
Now there’s another Bollywood production coming — this one with a larger budget and an actor Newsweek last year dubbed the world’s biggest movie star.
And though “Ra.One” won’t start shooting until February at the earliest, another Indian movie crew this week was filming in Miami — a far smaller production with an estimated budget of about $300,000 that officials still see as part of an encouraging trend.
“We used to joke that we were Hollywood East,” said Graham Winick, Miami Beach’s film coordinator. “Now we’re Bollywood West.”
Like “Dostana,” “Ra.One” won’t bring the kind of windfall a Hollywood feature delivers to South Florida’s production industry. India makes movies for far less money than the United States does, and “Ra.One” plans on bringing crews from Mumbai to avoid the higher wages demanded by many of Florida’s unionized production workers.
“Ra.One” does plan on some local hires for its cast and crew of about 80, and the hundreds of extras needed for scenes will come from South Florida, producer Prashant Shah said.
Tourism officials hope the biggest payoff will come not from the production dollars, but from its audience.
With a rapidly growing middle class, India vies with China as the travel industry’s favorite emerging target.
And given India’s famous devotion to its movies, placing Miami as a backdrop in two Bollywood blockbusters is seen as a global marketing coup.
Past studies credit the “Bollywood Effect” for bringing Indian travelers to obscure destinations in Europe and the Pacific picked as locations for Indian films. Now, with India’s 1.1 billion population increasingly producing affluent families, the Bollywood Effect is seen as more lucrative.
“Bollywood becomes a virtual form of tourism, and always has,” said Itty Abraham, director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. “The difference now is people have the income to travel to different places.”
Before this year’s budget cutbacks, Miami-Dade’s tourism bureau pursued India as a new market for Miami vacations.
Part of that campaign included special screenings of “Dostana” for Indian travel agents, and a meeting with Bollywood producers in Mumbai to encourage more use of Miami as a backdrop.
“It’s a huge market and language is not a barrier, as it is in China,” said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is mostly funded by county taxes on hotels. “The fact that we’ve got this movie that’s going to deliver more media impressions than I could ever afford to buy, even in the best of times — the timing is extremely fortunate.”
Bollywood blogs are already buzzing about “Ra.One” and its Miami plans. Most of the attention centers on Khan, a Bollywood mega star often described as a cross between Brad Pitt and George Clooney in terms of fame and popularity.
“He’s known as the king of Bollywood,” said Amanda Sodhi, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who writes for various Indian movie sites, including PlanetBollywood.com.
“Anything starring Shahrukh is a big deal.” ♦