US firms are making big bets on Bollywood

Varun Dhawan salutes his fans in between dancers wearing traditional Indian dresses during The 18th edition of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards weekend event at Times Square on Thursday, July 13, 2017, in New York.
Andres Kudacki | AP

India's multibillion-dollar entertainment industry is quickly gaining a global audience, and it's not just because of the song and dance.

In hopes of expanding more in the West, for the first time ever, the IIFA awards show, dubbed the Indian Oscars, is being hosted in New York City this weekend.

But U.S. producers have already been paying attention to the robust growth in Bollywood — a colloquial term used to refer to Indian cinema.

In terms of revenue, the industry has gross box-office realizations of $2.1 billion. That is expected to grow at 11 percent compounded annual growth rate reaching $3.7 billion by 2020, according to research published by Deloitte India in 2016.

For years Sony, Disney, Fox and Viacom, among others, have been investing in Bollywood while also finding ways to partner with local Indian studios.

"Bollywood, as we call it, is larger than Hollywood and brings out so much more content, so if you want to play in India you really have to play with local partners to be able to get access to that content and that talent. I think it's just a no-brainer," said Anjula Acharia, partner at Trinity Ventures and manager to "Quantico" star Priyanka Chopra.

U.S. content makers are also getting in on the action.

"Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, whoever's entering the market, realizes that local content is king and people want content that is localized and resonates with them," said Acharia.

Amazon Prime Video this past week unveiled their first Indian web series, "Inside Edge," featuring prominent Bollywood stars including Richa Chadda and Vivek Oberoi. Amazon's move is seen as a way to produce short digital series while at the same time leveraging India's popular talent.

"A shift happened in television where the urban TV-watching audience got left behind with the kind of content that was being produced," said Chadda. "Now with Amazon's entry, we have better content for the urban Indian, the educated Indian, the global Indian, who travels, who knows what to watch and who has exposure to series of the West."

Chaddha also said that a web series like the one she worked on with Amazon — which focuses on the corruption behind cricket — has allowed actors like herself to experiment outside the traditional Bollywood movie storyline.

"With the current level of censorship in Bollywood films it's very difficult to make original content or anything experimental or creative. Language is a big issue, characters can't smoke on screen. If they do, there's a ticker. Things like that. So, with a digital medium a lot of censorship has not happened – yet. So we have freedom there. And people are exploiting it for however long they can because censorship is a huge issue and it always clashes with creativity," she said.

Amazon is not alone. Netflix too has been creating and investing in strategic content as it makes its push into India.

"India is hugely important to Netflix because it's one of the largest internet markets in the world and already we have seen strong growth compared to its Asian markets. Here is a pool of consumers with a great passion for entertainment and a diverse and vibrant entertainment landscape," said a spokesperson for Netflix to CNBC.

Netflix show "Master of None," featuring Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari, touches on the cultural nuances millennials face with parents who emigrated from an Asian country. The show has been seen as a wide-ranging success, and Ansari has already been nominated for an Emmy. Top celebrity blogger Malini Agarwal, known as Miss Malini in India, says Ansari's show is well followed by Indian millennials.

"He's actually breaking stereotypes with humor and being an American comic. So I think it's really easy now for people to say, like, 'Okay, I'm going to have an Indian actor come and audition for a role, and they're not just going to play the taxi driver,'" Agarwal said.

But the collaboration between Hollywood and Bollywood is two-fold.

In an effort to add more diversity to U.S. sitcoms and shows, networks have brought over talent from India. ABC recruited Bollywood titan Priyanka Chopra to play the lead role in "Quantico." Chopra's prominent role in a major U.S. show is a sharp contrast to what the U.S. media industry has typically seen in the past, when Indians usually played side roles.

"I think Priyanka's really mowed down the doors for everybody to come in and make a mark here," Acharia said. "And I think that her success is definitely telling network executives that they should be hiring more Indians, South Asians, into their shows, TVs, and movies."