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Indian film culture eyes up a revival in Bangkok as distributors set out to regain lost ground

Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaai! The world of 10-minute songs, pot-bellied-and-sari-clad starlets, moustachoied heroes and lovebirds romping around the scenic hills of Bollywood was once a staple of Thai audiences _ then it was washed away by the shifting tide of pop-culture whims, and now, it has come back again in its full glory: Indian movies are playing consistently on the big screens of Bangkok cinemas.

A man in Pahurat, Bangkok’s Little India, looks at posters for Indian films. New releases of Bollywood titles are now a regular fixture at the cineplexes.

No longer a disappearing myth, King Khan and Kareena Kapoor are picking up where Amitabh Bachan and Rajesh Khanna left off years ago in the movie-going excursion of Bangkok viewers.

Thanks to a growing demand from an increasing number of Thai-Indians and expats, distributors have dedicated more screenings of these flicks in order to establish a consistent and reliable place for people to get their Bollywood fix _ with the belief that it's always better to watch the flamboyance and the marvel of subcontinental cinema on the big screen than on DVDs, or on a prowl around Pahurat's stores.

MVP Entertainment, a distributor of Indian movies to Major Cineplex, is the newest addition to the scene, with their movies playing at Central Rama 3, Major Sukhumvit and occasionally, Siam Paragon, for the mega-blockbusters since July last year. For now, the release slot is two new movies a month, with each usually in theatres for two weeks, or three if they are successful. There are four shows in a day all week as opposed to only one to two shows for three days in the past. Arey, we didn't mention the catch yet, did we? Many of the movies showing in Bangkok are released on the very same day as they are in India. Gone are the days where movies come in two weeks after they are released, thanks to the expanding office and more people that can get the process of censoring done faster.

Bollywood in the theatres now are first-run and provide a new channel for audiences to watch their favourite stars, rather than get a fake DVD from the crowded alleys of the Pahurat.

Currently, the films brought in by MVP Entertainment are not dubbed and only play in their original soundtrack with Thai and English subtitles. Films brought in are considered according to their content, but sure-hits or anything starring perennial wonders like Shah Rukh Khan are always picked up.

MVP Entertainment's Distribution Manager Ganesh Salian says: "It depends on the popularity and styles. We also try to be up-to-the-minute and brought in a Yash Raj movie when people wanted to see one, as he just passed away."

Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Yash Chopra's final film, stars ''King Khan'' Shah Rukh Khan and sexy former model Katrina Kaif in an explosive adventure that takes viewers from the streets of India to London. Around 4,000 people went to watch this film, making it the highest watched Bollywood movie in Bangkok to date.

The films are also not cut, despite their long nature. Ganesh explains: ''We don't cut the films because that would be cutting out the essence of the film. Hindi films are becoming shorter, and now only last around two to two-and-a-half. If we cut some parts out, there will be no connectivity. Indians are used to seeing long films.''

The feedback has been encouraging enough that Major Cineplex hopes to carry on with this stable rate, although awareness still needs time to sink through to the crowds.

''We're doing reasonably well and although we're still learning and experimenting, we hope to build up a pattern that people will eventually get used to,'' Jim Patterson, director of business development at Major Cineplex Group, said. Regardless, Ganesh tells us how people are still not aware of Indian movies now showing at the multiplexes.

''There's no awareness at all. Right now we try to do tie-ins with local restaurants, one of them being Bawarchi. I also walk around Pahurat to put posters up and give soundtrack CDs to restaurants so they can play it for customers.''

Marketing is still an obstacle yet to be conquered, with support from sponsors and partners still to be sought. This field is still a fairly new one, but it is one that will surely expand, with future plans to start showing Indian films in Hua Hin and Pattaya.

The only other player in this small field is Goodwill Traders, who have distributed Indian films in original Hindi soundtrack to cinemas since 1995. Today, their films show at SF Cinema Terminal 21. Although Indian movies were a phenomena in Thailand many decades ago, that is no longer the case. Ravinder Thakral, head of Goodwill Traders, gives us his thoughts on their popularity.

''Watching a movie today is not simply for entertainment but it is a media that propagates fashion and lifestyles to which the Hollywood movies relegates the worldwide trends.

''Although Indian movies today are on par with their foreign counterparts in terms of production quality and unique storyline, the difference in culture and fashion will hinder its popularity.''

Thais from yesteryear may relate to the ''family style'' emotional dramas, but today's youths seem to be more influenced by Western culture and Korean series.

As of now, Thais account for less than 5% of the Indian film audience, which could surely be the aftermath of the stereotypes our society has towards them. When ''Bollywood'' is mentioned, a Thai person is likely to think of stars running around trees, curly moustaches, chilling statues of the gods, excessive flashing of gold jewellery and too many red saris. Oh, and songs that last longer than they should.

It's an image that can be hard to move away from, especially if someone has never been exposed to Bollywood, but today the films are very far from their ancestral roots with long-haired heroes and traditional garb on the Kashmir mountains.

Today, Bollywood films depict very modern people with very modern problems, in all continents all around the world. Extravagant dance routines incorporate hundreds of people and on-screen locations sometimes include the most iconic structures of each region, from the Empire State Building or Big Ben to the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Song and dance are no doubt the iconic trademark of Bollywood, but nevertheless can be a turn-off for some who find a 10-minute song they have no idea what people are singing about difficult to sit through. Things have progressed since those early years where subtitles were nonexistent, and sitting through endless singing got obnoxious after the third song came around.

Ironically, it should be the songs that you look forward to most because they illustrate how well the creative direction is shaped and if the myriad of costumes used during the routines and the routines themselves will become iconic enough for people to associate with the movie as a whole.

Of course, songs are not the only thing people can have expectations about.

''The sense of humour in the films recently is quite good and not so slapstick anymore,'' Patterson says.

''They're really funny and the action sequences are also pretty spectacular as a large budget is usually allocated for Bollywood productions. You would be surprised about the quality [of Bollywood movies] these days.''

BOLLYWOOD 101

BOLLYWOOD is a universe of its own, but several Indian movies and actors were once landmarks in Thai viewers' experience, and these include household names like Rajesh Khanna, who starred in films like Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) _ dubbed in Thai as Chang Puen Kaew, a heartbreaking story about an elephant's loyalty to his master, and Amitabh Bachan in Sholay (1975) _ both big hits in this country.

But those names seem like eons ago. Indian cinema today seems remote from most Thai audiences, so here we give the uninitiated a short summary so you at least know how to fake it if the subject ever crops up.

Top three timeless Bollywood kings:

1. Salman Khan

2. Shah Rukh Khan

3. Aamir Khan

Top actresses' names worth throwing around to pretend you're up-to-date with Bollywood:

1. Katrina Kaif

2. Kareena Kapoor

3. Priyanka Chopra

4. Anushka Sharma

5. Sonakshi Shinha

6. Deepika Padukone

Conversation starters regarding Bollywood:

1. How many times you swooned watching King Khan in Jab Tak Hai Jaan?

2. A great loss for Bollywood with Yash Chopra's passing away!

3. If Dabangg 2 is any good compared to its prequel?

WHERE TO GET YOUR FIX

VENUE: Major Sukhumvit, Major Rama 3

PRICE: Mon-Thurs 200 baht, Fri-Sun 350 baht

SHOWS: 4 times a day

COMING UP:

Jan 11 (Still on show)
Matru Ki Bijlee Mandola

A romantic comedy about Harry Mandola, his much-loved daughter Bijlee and the unusual bond they both share with Harry's man-Friday, Matru. When Bijlee is willing to a marry a powerful politician's son much to her father's delight, it brings all sorts of twists and turns to the lives of Mandola, Bijlee and Matru.

Jan 18
Inkaar

Enter the cut-throat corporate world through the eyes of today's youth: as Rahul and Maya start harassing each other _ whether it is personally, politically or sexually _ to get to the top _ despite him being her mentor at the beginning.

Jan 25
Race 2

Set in the lush locales of exotic Europe, this fast-paced thriller continues the back-stabbing, plot-twists and intriguing legacy of Race where Ranveer Singh cons countless people in order to avenge the death of his murdered lover.

Feb 8
ABCD

With the title's acronym standing for Anybody Can Dance, the story follows Vishnu, India's best dancer who gets thrown out of his own music school thanks to a manipulative business partner. Heartbroken, he plans to give up dancing and leave Mumbai forever, until he stumbles upon a raw but talented dance group and decides to take it under his wing and turn them into India's best dance squad.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer