Thailand gets Bollywood fever after a biographical film about a sex worker hits a chord Entertainment news

Between Bengaluru, India and An influential adult. Young woman. Famous actress. Popular model. Wearing bold red bindings on their foreheads, they all dressed up as the protagonist of Bollywood superstar Aliya Bhat’s latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts last month.

Excessive respect for actors is common in the Indian film industry. But these fans, many of them public figures, are not Indians: they are from Thailand.

Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, with the exception of countries with large South Asian diasporas such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood is mostly limited to using the idyllic beaches of the Northeast Asian nation as a backdrop for scenes.

Now, as global cinema is trying to make its way back to pre-COVID-19 revenue, Thailand is moving from a peripheral support to a promising partner in the $ 2.3 billion Indian film industry’s quest to expand into new markets. Streaming platforms make it easier for Thai audiences to access Indian films, according to industry experts. And the growing collaboration between actors and directors in both countries is exposing both audiences to each other like never before.

By early June, Gangubai Kathiawadi – the story of a woman forced into prostitution who later became a fierce woman’s rights activist – spent five weeks among the 10 most-watched Netflix films in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most-watched film on Thai Netflix, a position it did not enjoy even in India. And he was not alone: ​​RRR, another Indian film, joined the film in the top 10.

“It’s really exciting,” Cultep Narula, a veteran producer from Bangkok, told Al Jazeera. “We have never seen Indian films receive such a response in Thailand.”

The simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi captures a deeper shift in Thailand’s appetite for the Indian film and entertainment sector, experts said – and it didn’t happen overnight. A number of Thai actresses, including Savika Chayadei, Chacha Patumtip and Ann Michai, have starred in Indian films in recent years. In 2019, Michai, who is also a singer, released an album with Hindi music.

“For Thai actors, this is an opportunity to gain popularity in a giant industry, with much more money on offer,” Anvesha Hazarika, a researcher at Cotton University in the northeastern Indian city of Guwahati, told Al Jazeera. “But there is also a benefit for India – it helps increase the visibility of Indian films in Thailand.”

This “visibility” did not really exist before, Narula said. Although a movie theater in Bangkok screened Indian films, its audience consisted almost exclusively of immigrants from South Asia, he said. Meanwhile, the Indian film industry has also made little effort to reach Thai audiences.

“There was a perception that while Indian audiences liked white actors in their films, they would not be receptive to people from East or Southeast Asia,” he said. The success of Korean dramas everywhere, including in India, has helped break this stereotype, Narula said.

In Thailand, Indian television shows have also grown in popularity in recent years, with one drama, Naagin, in particular, winning a cult name. Arjun Biilani, the lead actor in the show, recalled how his colleagues and he were stunned by the affection they received during a tour of the country in March 2018 at the invitation of a TV channel that broadcasts Indian soaps.

“It was above our wildest expectations,” Bilani told Al Jazeera. The actors were honored at a crowded stadium in Bangkok and rode in a carriage while fans chanted their names.

Bilani attributes the success of Indian shows like Naagin in Thailand to the wider cultural compatibility between the two societies – both sitting at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with common epics like the Ramayana (known as Ramakien in Thailand), which traces the life of a legendary prince from Ayodhya.

“This is a natural market for Indian content that is simply not well researched,” he said.

Gangubai Kathiawadi tells the story of a sex worker of the same name who is believed to have lived in this building in Mumbai [File: Roli Srivastava/Reuters]

If history serves as a cultural link between countries, the present also offers common stories, said Hazarika, the researcher. Like India, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although it is openly practiced in most cities.

“It makes sense that Gangubai, the story of a prostitute who successfully fights against her, will resonate with the audience in Thailand,” she said.

The insatiable consumption of social media in Thailand – the country’s citizens routinely rank among the largest Internet users – has also helped increase Gangubai’s popularity, Narula said.

“After a lot of influential people on social media started talking about the film, everyone wanted to know what it was about,” Narula said.

Other factors are also helping Indian films grow in Thailand, Narula said. The arrival of streaming platforms such as Netflix (in 2016) and Disney + Hotstar (last year) in Thailand opened a hitherto inaccessible library of Indian films to local audiences. Amazon Prime Video also said it plans to launch in Southeast Asia soon.

“People who don’t know Indian films will not go to the theater to watch one,” he said. “But if they’re on Netflix, they’ll check one out, and if they like it, try again.”

But in order for the Indian film industry to build on its recent successes in Thailand, it will need new thinking, Bilani warned.

“Honestly, I was disappointed with how few Indian production companies have done to come up with smart projects targeting markets like Thailand,” he said. “At the moment, this audience continues to be treated as belated.”

As for Thai directors, they have no budget to hire Bollywood stars from A, Narula said.

“We can only work with really good Indian actors of the second level,” he said. “This creates a scenario in which a film can perform well in Thailand, but we are not sure if it will work with an Indian audience.

Narula may find out soon. It is currently part of a production that will tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand in its first part, followed by a sequel in which a Thai couple gets married in India. Actors from both nations are involved, he said.

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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