Tuesday, October 26, 2010

India: Turning point for democracy?

An election in India's so-called backward state may herald a new politics of accountability.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 26, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — The odds are good you didn't hear about the state elections this past weekend in Bihar.

But had you been paying attention, what you would have read about happening in this dusty, impoverished outpost in eastern India might just wind up signalling a shift toward better governance for the entire country.

Bihar state, located on the Nepal border and long derided as a basket case, closed the second phase of its six phase state assembly elections Sunday on an unusually optimistic note.

Yes, Maoist rebels succeeded in torching a poll booth and abducting three officials. But the insurgents' routine call for a boycott failed to stop voters. In the first two phases of the election, voter turnout exceeded 50 percent — marking a nearly 10 percent increase in voting from 2005, the last time the so-called backward state held polls.

The reason: Nitish Kumar, the state's reigning chief minister, has rekindled optimism by slowly building a functioning government and squashed fear by jailing notorious, politically connected criminals. His re-election — likely but not guaranteed, when votes are counted on Nov. 24, experts said — could therefore mark a turning point in Indian politics by ending the revolving door of "anti-incumbency" and proving that good governance can trump caste- and creed-based rhetoric.

"This election will be a benchmark election, because it has completely new parameters," said Shaibal Gupta, head of the Asian Development Research Institute, based in Patna, Bihar.

What that means is that a state that has always been ruled by identity politics — with voters choosing candidates based on their caste or religious community — has now begun a substantive debate about development and its economic future.

"Every election is a referendum, but this election assumes a greater character because so many steps have been taken that had never been taken earlier," Gupta said. "We have never had a functioning state, so we had to create new benchmarks."

Bihar was once the seat of the powerful Maurya Empire, which spread Buddhism throughout Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. But for a couple thousand years since then, with a breakneck acceleration over the past 20, it's been steadily marching into ruin.

After the British let feudal landlords run rampant, a series of peasant movements made Bihar instrumental in India's freedom struggle. But once India gained its independence, those movements stagnated, and powerful landlords hamstrung any efforts at land reform until a new political
formation of lower caste herdsmen and laborers raised Lalu Prasad Yadav to the chief minister's chair in 1990.

The victory for the oppressed, far from ushering in a golden age of fairness and prosperity, instead accelerated Bihar's descent into chaos. Open warfare prevailed between the militias of upper caste landlords and lower caste tillers, and Lalu, who ruled virtually without rival for three consecutive terms, despite widespread allegations of corruption, used his power to patronize his caste and install his relatives in positions of power.

By 2004, when he was finally defeated by Kumar, the state was barely functioning — unable to disperse funds for ordinary projects like maintaining roads — and most of the rural hinterland was under control of career criminals. Highway travel was out of the question after dark, and even in the capital, Patna, violent crime ensured that the shops closed and the streets were deserted at 8 o'clock.

Finally elected in 2004 after voters finally grew disgusted with Lalu — a charming Falstaff with a brilliant knack for politics — Kumar started Bihar on the path to a turnaround with a risky gambit. Instead of encouraging his own flunkies to get their own forelegs firmly planted in the government trough, he declared an end to the politics of patronage by ending the "transfer industry" that sold coveted bureaucratic posts to the highest bidder and cracked down on criminals that had long enjoyed political protection.

Setting up fast-track courts and hiring ex-soldiers to speedily fill vacancies in the police, he jailed some 40,000 criminals over his first term — more than four times the number of convictions during Lalu's three terms in power. By re-establishing a functioning government, he also increased government spending on building roads and training hundreds of thousands of primary school teachers dramatically.

From $320 million in 2001, government spending rose to $1.2 billion in 2005-2006, Kumar's first year in office, then rose to $2.2 billion in 2007-2008 and $3.5 billion in 2008-2009, raising economic growth from a laggard 3.5 percent under his predecessors to around 11 percent — the second-highest of any Indian state.

There is, of course, still a chance that Kumar might lose. Elections are notoriously difficult to call in India, and not everything has changed in the troubled state. The number of candidates with criminal antecedents — or those who themselves are facing serious charges — remains as high as 40 percent.

And in some constituencies a new trend has emerged in which relatives are standing against each other for rival parties to ensure that power remains in the family's hands, according to Himanshu Jha of the National Social Watch Coalition, a group that monitors politicians and government performance.

Worse still, despite the progress the state has made, the living conditions for most Biharis remain miserable — leaving open the possibility that the very poor may vote against progress in exchange for the promise of sops.

But so far it appears voters are going to the polls this time convinced that there's more to democracy than simply expressing their displeasure with a venal and incompetent government or making sure the candidate from their own caste or religious community comes to power — though all the major political parties are still fielding candidates based on caste- and creed- formulations.

For example, the controversial Sept. 28 verdict [2] that granted ownership of the disputed site of the destruction of the Babri mosque to Hindu groups, which might have galvanized triumphant rightwing Hindus or disappointed Muslims, has played little role in the campaign. Instead, the debate has centered on issues like building roads and providing reliable electricity — new ideas for politics in Bihar.

The real turning point, though, promises to come after the election — if Kumar wins a second term as expected. Kumar pushed an anti-corruption bill through the state assembly in 2008 that has in recent months been approved by the central government. In his campaign speeches this round, Bihar's sitting chief minister has promised to progress from establishing basic law and order to taking on graft, saying, "The first time, I went after criminals. Next, it will be the turn of the corrupt." And, like his crackdown on crime, the promise could well prove to be more than election rhetoric.

Called the Bihar Special Court Bill, Kumar's new law for the first time empowers government investigators to confiscate assets of bureaucrats and politicians accused of corruption — which was previously impossible even after a conviction. And it sets the stage for fast-track courts like the ones he used to jail 40,000 thugs in four years.

In a state where government funds have always been siphoned off before work could begin, rather than while it was actually underway, the impact could be huge. Indeed, if Kumar wins, the money he confiscates alone might send the turnaround state's economic growth rocketing past his first term's 11 percent.

Moreover, because the Special Court Bill is unique for India, it just might make India's most backward state an example for the rest.

"If a couple of hundred people get punished, and their property gets confiscated, it will send out a message all over the country," said Gupta. "Things will be different."

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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Case for Going Rogue

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 23, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Sarah Palin isn't the only one with a case for going rogue.

With U.S. President Barack Obama scheduled to come courting next month, Mother India might think about giving it a try, too.

Consider the evidence.

The U.S. today announced a $2 billion military and security aid package to Pakistan, a country widely suspected of harboring top leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban — including Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, by some accounts. In recent weeks, dozens of American fuel tankers bound for soldiers in Afghanistan have been blown up.

Coming on the back of a $7.5 billion package of economic aid announced in 2009, the new package brings the total since Sept. 11, 2001, to nearly $15 billion — double the amount of aid Islamabad received from Washington during all of the 1990s.

And the bulk of that money — about 10 times the amount of U.S. aid to India — came after 2004, when Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed to providing Iran, Libya and North Korea with designs and technology to aid in their nuclear weapons programs, receiving a pardon after maintaining, unconvincingly, that Islamabad had no role in his activities.

What did New Delhi, supposedly America's natural ally, get out of the deal? In December 2001, Pakistan-based terrorists attacked India's parliament, killing six policemen and one civilian, leading to a fraught standoff between the two nations across the disputed Line of Control in Kashmir. Then, in November 2008, a well-trained team conducted more than 10 coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, killing some 170 people and injuring more than 300.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was allegedly implicated by phone intercepts and the testimony of David Headley, who confessed to helping to plan the attacks on Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel and other locations. And new revelations from ProPublica suggest that America not only kept its knowledge of Headley's activities from India, but also that the former Drug Enforcement Agency informant may have been a double agent for the Central Intelligence Agency and the ISI.

When Obama visits India the first week of November, he'll have some explaining to do.

"The timing of this could not be worse," said Indiana University political scientist Sumit Ganguly. "With 16 days to go before the Obama visit, to announce this [aid package] was absolutely thoughtless. Of course, I don't know if announcing it after the visit would have been any better."

Though the U.S. has gotten precious little bang for its buck and India has been left out in the cold, for Pakistan the effects of going rogue have been positive. On Sept. 11, 2001, the value of the Karachi stock exchange's KSE 100 index stood at 1255.99 points. In 2002 alone, it doubled in value. By Friday's close, savvy investors have watched the formerly lackluster and volatile index march steadily past 10,000. Far from making Pakistan a stalwart ally or a liberal democracy, the lucrative gravy train has made it clearer than ever to many here that America's foreign policy establishment can be played.

"It has convinced the Pakistanis that America is so desperate for their support that they can get away with anything, including burning your supply trucks and doing precious little of what [America] wants," said Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, India's ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2000.

From India's perspective, U.S. military aid to Pakistan is disproportionate to the actual cost of fighting terrorism — the ostensible justification for the funds — and Islamabad spends the bulk of the money on preparing for a possible future war with India.

This increases the risk of an escalating arms race in South Asia, implied Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony in discussions with U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not long after Pakistan received the first three of 18 F-16s — fighter jets that are ill-suited for ferreting out terrorists hiding in the caves of Waziristan.

Moreover, while America's military aid generally comes in the form of free or subsidized hardware from U.S. suppliers — acting as an economic stimulus for the U.S. defense industry — India believes that as much as half of the cash, paid as "Coalition Support Fund" reimbursements for expenses incurred supporting the U.S. war effort, is easily routed to make other purchases.

"The bulk of that [aid money] has gone to purchase Chinese weapons, because it goes as coalition support funds," said Parthasarathy. "So, militarily you are in effect promoting a Chinese-Pakistan relationship."

Over the past two decades, China has supplied Pakistan with everything from tanks to frigates, and aided the development of its nuclear program while under U.S. sanctions. But several big ticket purchases have come after the U.S. ramped up reimbursement payments. Pakistan signed a deal to buy four 2,500 ton F-22P frigates from China for $750 million in 2005, for example, and its navy recently expressed interest in buying some larger, 4,000-ton ships.

Meanwhile, under the ongoing JF-17 fighter project, speculated to be worth about $5 billion, Pakistan is expected to add some 250 jets to its air force by 2015. And, according to Farhan Bokhari, the Pakistan correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly, it's difficult to compare those sums dollar-for-dollar, because China offers Pakistan deep discounts and concessionary payment terms.

The present government in New Delhi is convinced that the road to greatness runs through Washington, so India remains keen to wolf down whatever scraps Obama is prepared to offer to add substance to what both nations call a "strategic partnership."

That means India is less likely than ever to go rogue — by taking a firm stand to back neighboring Iran's nuclear ambitions, for example, or by funneling an expected $10 billion in defense purchases to its longtime supplier Russia instead of the U.S., even though some commentators here have pointed out that money will go into Pakistani pockets.

But Washington should be concerned about the other rogues in the audience, for whom the attractions of bad behavior just keep getting bigger. While Obama tries to keep Iran from seeking nuclear weapons, for example, the contrasting fates of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan demonstrate to many here that they are necessary for a seat at the big kids' table — so much so that an Indian general described the message sent by America's first invasion of Iraq as "get nuclear weapons as fast as possible, unless you want to be invaded by the U.S."

"I'm certain that any number of squalid dictators across the world will now infer that if you are suitably difficult and you have certain things that the U.S. desires, then squeezing the U.S. works," said Ganguly.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Disneyland meets Bollywood at Indian theme park

A new theme park offers a Bollywood fantasy version of India, minus the dirt.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 18, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — From a distance, the new Kingdom of Dreams theme park outside Delhi looks and sounds like one of the amber-colored, sandstone palaces of Rajasthan.

At the ticket booth, turban-clad musicians sit, horns blaring, beneath a life-sized stone elephant, and the middle-class patrons shuffle between great stone pillars before passing through a metal detector — just like the ones omnipresent at Delhi's new, posh shopping malls — that punctures the illusion.

Opened this August, the Kingdom of Dreams is arguably India's most ambitious entertainment complex yet. Combining a retail-and-restaurant complex called Culture Gully, an outdoor stage for productions of the Ramayana and wedding shows, and a palatial 800-seat theater, it's Disneyland meets Bollywood. And this month, it's pioneering the country's first live Broadway-style musical — a fusion of the aesthetics of Hinduism's mythical epics and Bollywood's tearjerkers called Zangoora: the Gypsy Prince.

For the promoters — which include the Apra Group and Wizcraft International Entertainment, the firm behind Bollywood's International Indian Film Academy awards — it's a huge gamble. Apart from productions of mythological plays associated with the Hindu holidays and a small, insular art scene in Delhi and Mumbai, India has no tradition of live theater. Tickets for Zangoora range from around $25 to $150 — well out of range of the majority of local residents. And according to local press reports, the show will have to run eight times a week for two to three years in order for producers to recover their investment.

"Theater in India has never gone to the scale that Wizcraft and Apra have taken it," said Hussein Kuwajerwalla, the veteran television actor and Indian Idol host who plays the title role in Zangoora. "When I saw [the complex] in front of my eyes, I thought, these guys are going big. Big and how."

So far, the novelty of live action appears to be satisfying the crowd, thanks to the show's high production values — three cinema screens complement the sets with 3D animation, and in one underwater sequence aerial dancers hang from wires to twirl and somersault above the audience. The house was about half full for the midweek showing that I attended, and company officials say it's packed on weekends.

"What attracted me to this was the largeness of it," said television soap veteran Kashmira Irani, who plays opposite Kuwajerwalla. "When I came to this place, I was, like, Oh my God. This is the largest theater in India, the first, and to be part of something like this, I'm sure is going to create history."

The show is impressive. Kuwajerwalla, Irani and Bollywood debutante Gauhar Khan bring a healthy dose of glamour, and the costumes, sets and choreography are up to New York standards. But can it launch Indian theater?

"Sadly, in India, the only medium that people consider people to be actors is the film medium," said Khan, who recently starred opposite Ranbir Kapoor in Shimit Amin's "Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year." "But when [Bollywood] directors and producers actually see me on stage, and see what I do, they are actually taken by surprise."

Stylistically, Zangoora has more in common with the television variety show and India's increasingly elaborate mythological plays than with Broadway or Bollywood. None of the actors do their own singing, of course — lip-syncing is the norm in Indian films. The actors' microphones are tuned loud enough that their echoing voices have no semblance of verisimilitude, and the "big speeches" are pronounced in the booming, stagy tones of televisions mythological epics.

In that respect, Zangoora fits in snugly with the rest of the theme park. Billed as "an incredible Indian experience," the Kingdom of Dreams sales pitch hinges on community and tradition, just as Zangoora's main touchstone is the neighborhood productions of the Ramayana — called Ramlilas — which take place on the holiday of Dussehra. This month, for instance, the park's outdoor stage will feature nightly performances of Gujarati dandiya dances for the nine nights of the Hindu Navratri festival, punctuated with its own lavish Ramlila.

But as the slogan suggests — conjuring memories of the selective photography of the Ministry of Tourism's "Incredible India" ad campaign — the community offered here is an ersatz India that has been cleaned up for the upper middle class. And by all accounts, it's better than the real thing. The consensus: It's beautiful.

"It's a beautiful place," said Neha, a 23-year-old Delhi resident who'd come to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend. "If you can say India has been summed up in just one place, under one roof, I would say that would be it."

Take the Kingdom's version of the Indian street. Culture Gully is an air-conditioned stage set with six themed restaurants, street food stalls, a massage center, an astrology complex, retail stores selling products from India's most iconic regions and — yes, Mahatma — three street bars. A false blue sky overhead ensures that it is always twilight, and there is no evidence of the real bazaar's thickets of dusty electrical wires and crumbling buildings.

Everything is clean and sparkling and colorful. At one end of the street, a houseboat from the backwaters of Kerala lies grounded on a playground's worth of white sand. Mid-way down, you can board a train bound for Mumbai's erstwhile Victoria Terminus (now called Chatrapati Shivaji), then step across the street for a Chennai filter coffee.

It's strangely unreal, and (actually) rather fun. But there's something disturbing, too, about the idea that an Indian street where everything works is such a popular fantasy — and charges about double the daily minimum wage for entry.


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Why Wal-mart struggles in India

Fears of big retail are strangling growth.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 7, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — The timing for Walmart's first buyer-seller summit in India earlier this month couldn't have been better.

As Indian firms keen to tap the retailing giant's global network prepared their pitches, the Indian government gave the first concrete sign that it may be ready to open up its potentially huge retail market to foreign investors — an opportunity that America's largest retailer has been chasing for as many as 20 years.

It's not just big for Walmart, the company argues. "For India, the opening of retail would be a game changer," said Rajan Mittal, vice chairman of the firm's joint venture partner here.

Barred from opening retail stores in India, Walmart had been sourcing millions of dollars worth of textiles and other products here since 2001. Then, finally, after years of waiting for the world's next largest market to open its doors, the Arkansas-based company went around back — forming a joint venture with billionaire Sunil Mittal's Bharti Enterprises, best known as the operator of India's largest telecommunications network, Airtel. That gave Walmart the right to open wholesale stores in India and lay some groundwork through the Indian-owned Bharti Retail chain. But it wasn't exactly a sweetheart deal.

After opening its first retail store in China in 1996, Walmart swiftly ramped up to nearly 300 retail outlets, as well as 180 larger "supercenters." But in India, the company's Bharti-Walmart joint venture has due to restrictions managed only to open three so-called cash-and-carry stores — which sell in bulk to other retailers.

While Walmart's claim to fame is its supply chain, its best suppliers in India could only manage a score of 60 out of 100 by the company's standard, so it has to keep more inventory in India than anywhere else in the world. So, too, India's tiny grassroots retailers — the bread and butter of the retail sector — find that it's not worth their trouble to schlep out to the hyperstore.

Worse, it was barred from selling to the retail outlets of its joint venture partner, Bharti Retail. Until now.
On Sept. 29, India moved to allow foreign-funded wholesalers like Bharti-Walmart to sell as much as 25 percent of their goods directly to consumers through retailers that are part of the same corporate group.

Though Mittal called the job "half-done," it gave Walmart a small opening through which to explore India's retail market. More significantly, the change in regulations provided the strongest hint yet that India's government may finally be ready to talk business on FDI in retail.

"Our intelligence is that there will definitely be some policy relaxation [soon] in terms of allowing multi-brand retailing to come in," said NV Siva Kumar, leader of retail and consumer industries for PricewaterhouseCoopers India. "There will definitely be some conditions attached, but some kind of calibrated opening is what we expect to happen."

There was a gold rush air at Walmart's first pan-India buyer-seller summit, held at New Delhi's Taj Palace hotel on Sept. 30.

A host of Indian agricultural companies — including biggies like ITC Ltd. Kohinoor Foods and Amul — had taken booths to woo Walmart and associated buyers from 13 different countries, including the United States and United Kingdom. Many firms, like South India-based Nani Agro, which recently gained a spot on Walmart's approved list as a supplier of turmeric, were pitching the rest of their product portfolio.

Despite India's position as the world's second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables, the country's total agricultural exports amounted to just $8 billion last year, compared with China's $40 billion. Help from Walmart and its associated firms to meet international standards and make global connections could change that, India's farm and food companies hope.

For retailers like Walmart, as well as French competitor Carrefour and U.K.-based Tesco, the stakes are almost as high, and they are hoping that the first calibration in India's retail FDI policy could come as early as November, when U.S. President Barack Obama is slated to visit. Last month, Francisco Sanchez, U.S. under-secretary of commerce for international trade, told the Financial Times that opening up India's retail market is high on the agenda for Obama's delegation.

And, so far, most signs appear to be positive. The Indian commerce ministry's department of industrial policy and promotion recently issued a discussion paper that outlined the positive effects that FDI in retail could have on India's economy. "We believe that it is an opportunity to multiply jobs," a junior trade minister told Bloomberg.

However, India's Business Standard newspaper, citing unnamed sources in the finance ministry, has reported that no change is likely now.

Opening retail is perhaps the only big ticket item left on India's agenda of economic reforms, and the very idea of India lies at the issue's heart.

For the first six decades of India's independence, tiny cottage industries enjoyed various advantages due to regulations inspired by the philosophies of Mohandas K. Gandhi (better known as Mahatma). Small was good, subsistence was in and scale was out. Opening up retail to bigger-is-better players like Walmart would be a radical departure, and small trader organizations and India's communist parties are fighting it tooth and nail.

Experts from consultancies and economic think tanks, however, argue that opening up retail to FDI would benefit Indian consumers, farmers and workers in several ways. India's retail market is already worth some $400 billion, according to Business Monitor International. But the so-called "unorganized sector" of tiny mom-and-mop stores accounts for perhaps 97 percent of the market. And while outfits like the Confederation of All India Traders say that absorbing those tiny stores into larger, organized chains will result in massive unemployment, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), which was tasked by the government to study the issue, found no evidence to support that claim.

According to the ICRIER study, big retail has little net effect on employment numbers. Moreover, large retail chains pay 25 percent higher prices for produce than farmers are able to get from the traditional market, and farmers selling directly to large retailers earn 60 percent higher profits — a remarkable fact considering that agriculture still employs two-thirds of India's 1.1 billion population.

But foreign funds could have an even larger impact. According to the Retailers Association of India, opening the retail sector to FDI would generate $20 billion in investment over the next five years. Much of that investment would go to improving transport linkages and developing the food processing industry, which could be a large employer and help cut the $12 billion a year's worth of agricultural produce that spoils before it ever reaches the market. According to ICRIER, small and medium sized companies in the textiles and clothing businesses would also get a huge boost.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' Kumar concluded: "It would be a terrific catalyst for trade."


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Has India got game?

An upstart Indian video game company launches its first big title.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 6, 2010

NEW DELHI, India and TOKYO, Japan — A line of patient gamers spiraled around the billowing white pavilion for El Shaddai — the first top-tier video game released by India's UTV Software Communications, which debuted at the Tokyo Game Show last month.

As the queue snaked past video screens playing scenes from the game's back story and display cases containing specially designed Edwin jeans “as worn by" the character Enoch in the game, some gamers scoped the storyboards, while others multitasked with handheld devices. At a game convention, you find game addicts.

The mood was mostly curious. Compared with Halo: Reach or Final Fantasy XIV, El Shaddai, designed by Sawaki Takeyasu for UTV's Ignition Entertainment unit, had virtually no hype going into the show. The animated trailer — a must for today's top-end, or AAA, games — would not be showing on a jumbotron at center court, and more than a few of the people waiting to play the old-school, third-person, punch-and-slash adventure had probably stumbled over because they'd stopped giving out badges at the nearby booth for the PlayStation Move.

But that didn't stop El Shaddai, a Cinderella at the ball, from winning fans. At the award ceremony on the final day of TGS, the 200,000-odd visitors voted El Shaddai "Future Game of the Show 2010" — honoring it among the top 10 favorite games showcased at the convention.

Now, for UTV, who invited me to attend TGS as its guest, the question is whether that recognition will pay off in sales. The Indian company — which has shelled out some serious coin to acquire game design firms in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, as well as India, over the past three years — has a lot riding on its first AAA game's success.

Building on the reputation and financial wherewithal that the company has built producing and distributing Indian movies and TV shows, CEO Ronnie Screwvala hopes to become a significant player in the global video game business.

That means developing games from UTV's own family of studios, pushing new distribution models and attracting independent game designers who need a Harvey Weinstein-type mover to take their titles to the boardrooms of Sony, Capcom and Microsoft. A big splash out of the gate would draw that kind of attention right away — just at the right time.

"It's very important," Ronnie Screwvala, UTV's 54-year-old CEO, told GlobalPost. "We've got a lot riding on El Shaddai."

Though it has potential, the game business in India is worth a tiny $100 million of the $20-plus billion global market. Moreover, virtually all of that comes from games for mobile phones, and Indian animators and game designers are at least a decade behind their counterparts in America and Japan.

That's why Screwvala is striving to build a global gaming company, rather than an Indian one. The idea is to follow the so-called "Pixar model," with which Apple's Steve Jobs built a $7.5-billion company from a base of a measly $10 million by assembling a small, committed team of in-house directors and animators. But that's easier said than done — especially from India, skeptics say.

"Financially, if we sell a million units [of El Shaddai], it's not a big deal," said Screwvala. "But it's more about, 'Where the hell did you guys come from?' That's the reaction we want from the industry."

Acquiring controlling stakes in Mumbai-based Indiagames, U.K.-based Ignition, and U.S.-based True Games in 2007 and 2008, UTV has pumped $75 million into developing its gaming division — adding more than 400 visualizers, game designers and technology experts at studios in London, Tokyo and Shanghai, as well as Austin, Texas and Gainesville, Fla.

Revenue started trickling in too. But the big prize of its acquisition spree — an action sci-fi game called WarDevil designed for Ignition by Digi-Guys that was poised to turn the game world on its ear with ultra high-definition game play — failed to surface in time to put UTV's gaming business on the map.

"If we'd ever come up with a date in public, which we haven't, then the question would be delay. But we set ourselves our own expectations, and our own internal deadlines and we definitely are not on track with those internal deadlines," said Screwvala, who blames the delay on a decision to make the game available on Microsoft's Xbox360, as well as Sony's PS3.

The game that marked UTV's debut instead, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, is a completely different animal. It's a fantasy title, based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch — a text that was excluded from the Bible's Old Testament, which tells the story of the human Enoch's "ascent" to become the angel Metatron.

Naturally, in the game version, Enoch rises to heaven by taking out fallen angels with a flashing scimitar of God-energy (or some such). Where WarDevil is set to jump into the battle for ever more real-looking graphics through three-dimensional, computer-generated animation, El Shaddai has a hand-drawn feel reminiscent of Japanese anime.

Blogging for Wire.com, critic Daniel Feit, for instance, wrote that the game "dazzles with watercolor visuals." Will that made-in-Japan aesthetic play in the States — which accounts for the lion's share of the global game market?

"It has a very Japanese art form to it, but the storyline is very universal," said Screwvala. "So while most people feel that Japanese games, normally, are meant for the Japanese market, we've created a game in a Japanese studio but for a world market."

But, hey, if El Shaddai doesn't make that big a splash, don't expect UTV to roll over and play dead. Screwvala's Hollywood ambitions survived his company's production of M. Night Shyamalan's dismal "The Happening," and as far as he's concerned that flop just gave American show business another reason to recognize his name.

And unlike that lucky, or unlucky, one-off in Hollywood, UTV has a flurry of global game releases on the slate to ensure that even if El Shaddai flops, designers and distributors will take notice of the little video game company from Bollywood.

Targeting around $90 million in revenue and modest earnings, UTV expects to release seven sub-AAA console games this year. A massively multiplayer online fantasy role playing game called Mytheon from its Austin-based Truegames studio is due for release early in 2011. A second AAA console game called Reich — billed as a futuristic first-person shooter — and the much-awaited Wardevil are also scheduled for release. And, according to UTV, all three of its AAA console games have the potential to become movie-and-merchandising franchises like Resident Evil — or at least Streetfighter.

You know what they say: You can take the company out of Bollywood, but you can't take Bollywood out of the company.