NEW DELHI :
Driven by the massive global exposure provided to it by video streaming platforms, Indian cinema is now crossing varied shores helping the country wield much soft power.
After dominating the viewing habits of the Indian diaspora in countries like the US and UK and conquering native audiences in China, Bollywood is looking at tapping into more unconventional territories. What has further helped is the fact that the industry is slowly evolving into making more human interest and realistic movies that can resonate with people irrespective of where they belong.
Late last week, Fox Star Studios released its superhit space drama Mission Mangal in Hong Kong with Cantonese subtitles. The Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan-starrer is the second film in recent times to have been taken to Hong Kong, after Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl late last year. Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi has announced a release in Japan while Khurrana’s Bala made it to Saudi Arabia in November.
Film producers and distributors say the opportunity becomes evident when the new-found reach of Indian cinema is taken into account.
Over-the-top video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video which boast of rich libraries of Indian content, are seen in close to 190 countries.
Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings has said that Indian animation series Mighty Little Bheem was watched in 27 million homes outside India. Other Indian originals such as Lust Stories and Sacred Games have also travelled abroad.
“With the evolution of digital platforms, Indian content is finding an audience and resonating far beyond native Indians. Initially we were distributing Indian films for the Indian diaspora but now we are all collectively realising it can go much further. It is really up to us to see which content can fit where because not every film will do well in every market," said Vibha Chopra, head, global syndication and international film distribution, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, the co-producers of Manikarnika.
Dinesh Vijan, founder of Maddock Films, which produced Bala, said the Khurrana-starrer comes with a universal theme, one of accepting and loving yourself, and that helps span cultures.
“With our films changing over the last couple of years where we are really focusing on storytelling rather than any other gimmick, they are able to transcend boundaries. It’s the same way that Hollywood is crossing over to all places and Avengers comes to India and does the kind of business it does. India has such a diverse history and we have so many stories that I feel the world is our oyster and we should go after that," Vijan said. Bala is likely to see a release in China next, he said.
A spokesperson for Balaji Telefilms Ltd, which produced Dream Girl, said that films that strike a balance between emotional connect and humour with a solid message find takers across countries. Also, unconventional overseas territories have an untapped potential that can be explored because of the massive boost in exposure with people’s ability to stream content online. “Thus, we are no more catering to only the diaspora, but also to the non-diaspora audiences," the person said.
Chopra said the biggest challenge for overseas release at present has to do with identifying the market that the content will be suitable for. A costume drama like Manikarnika may work in Japan, while the track record of films such as Baahubali shows they are not lapped up in China, a country saturated with fantasies, mythologicals and spectacles from Hollywood. The reason that a lot of recent Indian films have underperformed in China is the herd mentality of wanting to take every other film to the country.
There are other market-specific obstacles too. “In Japan, for instance, it may take you up to six months to book screens. That’s why films cannot release on the same day and date and sometimes the content becomes dated," Chopra said. The norm in many of these countries is to start small, with perhaps 10 screens and then grow.
Apart from tie-ups with local distributors, strategies that work include visiting the market, asking people what they would relate to, what they find similar to or different enough and then cashing in on social media. For the release of war epic Kesari in Japan, Zee got lead actor Akshay Kumar to speak to people in Japanese. The film ran in the country for 14 weeks.
“Filmmakers, actors and distributors are all seeing a little bit more value in overseas territories now. Initially, overseas was seen as an add-on but now it’s like a collaborative effort that you see from everyone that has helped the segment grow overall," Chopra said.