There can be few people in Britain who are unaware of "Bollywood" movies - the exotic fruits of the prolific Indian film industry which traditionally combine a heady cocktail of action, adventure, comedy and romance with (most importantly) extravagant musical numbers. In the past few years, Bollywood films have made regular appearances in the UK box office top ten, with titles such as Kal Ho Naa Ho peaking at number six last year. In December 2002, the acclaimed Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . . took £2.5m in the UK, a figure that would put many mainstream Hollywood productions to shame. As for the crossover hit Devdas, a high-profile unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival helped it become a money-spinning, Bafta-nominated hit here in the UK.
The influence of Bollywood extends beyond the cinema: from the stages of London, where the musical Bombay Dreams is now in its second sell-out year despite some disparaging (and frankly baffled) reviews, to the concert halls of Birmingham, where the show's legendary composer, A R Rahman, recently led the city's symphony orchestra in two nights of Indian film themes.
Yet one area that still appears to be operating a cultural apartheid regarding Bollywood cinema is mainstream British film criticism. Despite the huge financial success of movies such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . . and Kal Ho Naa Ho, reviews of these films have often remained absent from the pages of many of the UK's leading magazines and newspapers. If you want the lowdown on the latest Bollywood arrivals, you need to turn to such specialist Asian publications as Eastern Eye, Stardust, CineBlitz or Filmfare, or to internet sites such as radiosargam.com, which (I am reliably informed) offers excellent coverage of forthcoming treats.
So why have British critics been so slow to review Bollywood fare? The simple answer is that very few Bollywood films have been screened for the English- speaking press by their distributors, which have usually considered their readership irrelevant to the films' success. As Tim Dams, news editor of the industry paper Screen International, points out: "Companies like Eros and Yash Raj, which distribute these films in the UK, have developed a fantastically successful niche market which has in effect bypassed mainstream English-speaking audiences and reviewers. These films achieve excellent screen averages by targeting publicity to their core audiences." As a result, many British reviewers (myself included) have found out about the films only when they have shown up in the Screen International chart. When the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw wanted to review Lagaan in his influential weekly column, for example, he had to wait until it opened at a north London multiplex, then queue up to buy a ticket.
Now, however, the situation seems about to change. Last month Eros, which has scored notable hits in the UK with Chalte Chalte, Khakee, Baghban and Devdas, became the first major Bollywood distributor to join the Film Distributors' Association, the industry body that co-ordinates the "National Press Shows" at which critics view each week's releases. According to the managing director of Eros, Kishore Lulla: "The FDA is an excellent forum through which we can influence the cinema industry on subjects as diverse as relationships with exhibitors and piracy. We also want to take advantage of its services such as the National Press Show schedule."
For critics, this means future Eros releases will be screened in a timely fashion that facilitates their inclusion in the weekly film review columns. Mark Batey, the FDA chief executive, is clearly delighted. "Eros has been very successfully distributing Bollywood movies for the past 25 years," he says. "I think the reason it is joining us now, after all this time, is that it wants to move up to the next level - to fully enter the mainstream of UK cinema." Lulla agrees. "The FDA is the recognised trade body of the cinema industry," he says, "and we believe that membership adds stature to Eros."
A question mark remains, however, over who Eros is hoping to target with its forthcoming releases. Rana Johal, key examiner of south Asian movies at the British Board of Film Classification, suggests that it is not just new white audiences which may be attracted by mainstream press coverage, but also younger south Asian viewers.
"One of the things about Bollywood movies is that they are a great transmitter of culture," he explains. "The kids want to see them to make that cultural connection. But many of them do not necessarily speak the language of their grandparents. As a result, we've started to see a marked rise in subtitling in the past few years.
"I think the cachet of having reviews in the mainstream press will also appeal to those younger Asian viewers. As a great fan of these movies, I think anything that causes Bollywood cinema to be taken more seriously can only be a good thing."