Films high on nationalism face the Gulf wall

Action drama Fighter has become the latest Indian movie to be denied a release in parts of West Asia. (x/@viacom18studios)
Action drama Fighter has become the latest Indian movie to be denied a release in parts of West Asia. (x/@viacom18studios)

Summary

  • A failure to release in these markets is a big blow to Indian movies, given that they are among the movie industry’s three large overseas territories.

NEW DELHI : Playing on patriotism that served Bollywood well in the past is beginning to hurt when it comes to tapping a key foreign territory: Gulf nations.

Action drama Fighter has become the latest Indian movie to be denied a release in parts of West Asia, following other titles such as Beast, The Kashmir Files and Bellbottom, which too met the same fate. Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films have a vast audience in these countries, which keep out movies perceived to have anti-Muslim overtones, as well as movies with themes like homosexuality.

A failure to release in these markets is a big blow to Indian movies, given that they are among the movie industry’s three large overseas territories. Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan collected over 117 crore in the region.

“The Middle East governments prefer to stay neutral and does not approve bashing of any individual or country (by way of film content). Indian producers have to understand there is a huge opportunity for all languages there and at least at the moment, several overseas territories are even bringing better returns the domestic market," said Yusuf Shaikh, business head, feature films at production and distribution company Percept Pictures. That said, filmmakers also have to stay true to the subject they’ve chosen to take up, making for a double-edged sword, Shaikh pointed out.

Trade experts said Fighter could have made around 50 crore from the Gulf countries, but ultimately, it was screened only in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The action drama starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone revolves around the Indian Air Force, with references to the Pulwama attack, the Balakot air strike and the 2019 India-Pakistan border conflict.

In the Gulf countries, movie tickets are priced higher, fetching handsome returns for producers. But as films increasingly don strong political, religious and nationalistic overtones to cash in on majoritarian sentiments, censors step in.

Over the coming months, several titles such as Article 370, based on the constitutional provision, whose abrogation in 2019 ended Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy, and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, starring Akshay Kumar and Tiger Shroff, will take on subjects centred around the fight against seemingly anti-national forces.

Film producer, trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar agreed the Middle East is one of the top three overseas markets for Indian film business and cannot be overlooked. “No filmmaker wants to lose out on any chunk of the business, so they need to think and plan better. It just doesn’t make business sense," Johar said, adding that while the market is particularly receptive to Hindi films, top southern stars such as Rajinikanth, Mohanlal and Mammootty too have a fan base there.

Despite Fighter making it to the UAE, the jury is still out on whether filmmakers should tone things down when exploring hyper-nationalistic themes, especially when the movie is based on a real-life incident.  

“For producers, every penny counts, especially when talent and VFX costs are skyrocketing," film distributor and exhibitor Sunny Khanna said.

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