Mumbai: In the normal course of events, French movie The Intouchables, about the friendship between a wheelchair-bound, wealthy, white gent and his perfectly formed, working-class black helper, would have come to India through the film festival route. Or, it would have been shown at an Alliance Française centre. But the 2011 film, one of the biggest money-spinners in the history of French cinema, is clearly meant for bigger stuff.
The Intouchables will open in India on 13 July in a dubbed version titled Intouchables.
Intouchables is the latest release from Greece-based company Tanweer, which brings films to India through Top Entertainment. Top released the French production and Oscar-decorated silent film The Artist in February.
Forthcoming titles include Populaire, starring French heartthrob Romain Duris and The Artist’s Berenice Bejo, Les Lyonnais, a gangster drama, and Potiche, featuring arthouse heavyweights Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve.
“We are taking the long view—if we tap the market in the right way, acceptance for such cinema will only grow,” said Kamayani Punia, director, business affairs, at Top.
French and other foreign films are easily accessible in India at festivals, cultural centres and DVD libraries and on television (not to mention through online piracy). However, world cinema distributors here haven’t been able to convert their followers into ticket buyers. Many foreign movies don’t survive the Central Board of Film Certification’s distaste for open displays of sex, violence and profanity. And when they do, they encounter viewers who cannot adapt to the foreignness of the story or dislike subtitles.
Survival test: A still from the French film The Intouchables, which will be released in India on 13 July in a dubbed version titled Untouchable. French cinema in India has to negotiate many hurdles before being accepted as widely as Hollywood.
Acclaimed movies such as The Secret of the Grain, The Page Turner and Waltz with Bashir have suffered a fate worse than B-grade Hindi films at the box office. The French animated film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant two-part memoir, had some success when it opened in February 2008. Persepolis worked not just because of its charm. It was dubbed into English, as has been The Intouchables. “Forget foreign films—we wouldn’t even watch a Robot in Tamil with English subtitles,” Punia said. “Watching a film with subtitles makes the film even more foreign than it already is.”
Intouchables’ mainstream release in major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune marks some progress in recent efforts by French companies to enter the market. These efforts have been mediated by Unifrance, a French government organization that promotes domestic cinema across the world. In 2008, Unifrance held the first edition of an annual festival of French cinema, titled Rendez-Vous, in Mumbai. In addition to showcasing new French cinema (including hits such as The Science of Sleep, Carlos and Of Gods and Men), Rendez-Vous also hopes to interest local distributors in releasing the films. Vertigo, shown at Rendez-Vous in 2009, was dubbed into English and distributed by Star Entertainment in August the following year, but it disappeared from cinemas. The romantic comedy Heartbreaker fared better—it was dubbed into English and released by Pictureworks in January this year.
“India is a tough but promising market,” Valerie-Anne Christen, who represents Unifrance in Asia, said in an email interview from her Tokyo office. “Tough, because of the huge market share devoted to domestic cinema and promising because of the size of the market and the potential for our films there.”
Unifrance has been getting help on the ground from the French embassy. “It is the strategy of the embassy to support the promotion of French films in India, be it on the commercial circuit or on the cultural circuit,” said Reghu Devaraj, deputy audiovisual attaché at the embassy. “Our support can come in the form of partial aid for dubbing, an invitation of the director or actor to come to India to meet the press and the audience, or through a communication plan via our cultural centres.”
It’s too early to pass around the champagne, however. Christen sees the market as “limited” at the moment but she believes that “if the film is good and the distributor believes in it, the audiences will follow”. She doesn’t place too much faith in English-language versions, however. “Dubbing a French film into local languages is not necessarily the best way to go, as the audiences interested in world cinema seem to prefer to see the film subtitled, and the audiences used to dubbed films may not be ready yet for a different type of cinema,” she pointed out.
A visual metaphor for the ongoing linguistic debate can be found in The Artist. The mostly silent film concludes with two words spoken by the lead character, a silent star who manages to defeat his fear of the talkies. The words “With pleasure” are spoken with a distinctly French accent, giving a whole new spin to the movie and suggesting that the character’s foreignness, rather than his inability to adapt to a new technology, was the problem all along.
So it is with French cinema in India, which has to negotiate many bumps and hurdles before being accepted as widely as Hollywood.