Earlier last month, director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s drama Mukti Bhawan completed 100 days of theatrical showcasing in Japan. Released as Ganges Ni Kaeru, the Adil Hussain-starrer that entered its fifteenth week of screening in Japan, is the second film in recent times to garner an audience in the country that is not a traditional market for Indian films.
In January, Akshay Kumar’s Padman had made $56,3337 (over ₹4 crore) in six weeks in Japan. Now, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy—the story of a young man from Indian slums breaking free through street rap—is likely to be released there.
The ball, however, was set rolling by Sridevi’s English Vinglish that minted over a million dollar in the country in 2014.
Mukti Bhawan and Padman have not only just run longer in Japan than most films manage to in India, but also reflects the changing market for Indian films in the country that so far only identified the industry with superstar Rajinikanth’s films: his Muthu (that was first released in 1998 and then last year), Baasha and now 2.0, were all hits in Japan.
“Japan is not a traditional or mainstream overseas market like the US, UK or the Middle East and though Rajinikanth is immensely popular there, it is more open to critically acclaimed Indian films right now," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema.
In the last two years, Indian movies have seen greater success around the globe and the entire world is emerging as a market, especially for real-time stories that can resonate globally, said Utpal Acharya, founder, Indian Film Studios.
A Hindi film can make $5,000-6,000 per week per screen abroad and in case of Tamil and Telugu films, the figure can go up to $8,000-9,000. In the last six months, Indian films have seen releases in countries as disparate as Poland, Russia and Turkey. While showcasing may be modest—Mukti Bhawan was only released in 30 screens initially—the films tend to have really long legs at the box office. “Japan watches a really wide spectrum of film genres, from the larger-than-life, action dramas and thrillers to quiet art house cinema from the UK and France. Anything that is emotionally engaging has a chance of running in Japan, including small films," said Mukti Bhawan producer Sanjay Bhutiani. The latter, as is obvious, is a space Indian films have occupied recently, especially with Japan’s ageing population that took to Bhutiani’s film about a dying man who travels to Varanasi with his son to spend his last few days. Or Padman, about a taboo but sensitive subject like menstrual health.
The average age in Japan is above 50 compared to India’s supremely young population that drives the domestic movie business. Add to that Japan’s vibrant movie culture that may not be as industrialized like Bollywood or Hollywood, but which accords much space for international films in specialty theatres, said Mukti Bhawan director Shubhashish Bhutiani. Ticket prices range around 1,800 yen ( ₹1,153), far higher than Indian ticket rates.
As with any other foreign territory, partnering with a local distributor is important. Bhutiani tied up with Bitters End Corp., a company that specializes in art house cinema. The firm took nine to ten months to research and plan the film’s marketing and promotion in Japan, including sending a team of Japanese journalists to Varanasi to study the locations, accurate translation from Hindi and cutting a unique trailer that would catch on with audiences immediately.
“Japan is not an open blanket market but Asian stories that are high on emotion could work there. You can’t play all kinds of cinema there right now (but there is space for art house cinema). We may not have the best technology but the quality of our content is improving and the world is our market," Acharya said.